At around 12:15pm, I walked over to the Te Anau DOC center and pickup point to be taken to the beginning of the track, first stopping by the Mobil station to drop off the keys to my car which I had already parked out back. The bus was due at 1pm and I was nervous to miss it, so I got there WAY early.
Outside the center I met Bill, a Californian with short grey hair and whiskers. A wiry and fit-looking man probably in his late forties, early fifties? He was walking the track with his friend Sam, who was more or less the same build and age. Very friendly guys, I asked them to keep an eye out for me at the huts each night since I was walking alone.
A one-hour bus ride got us to the boat on Lake Te Anau.
Leaving the dock:
Excited independent tramper looking off to the distance:
Each day 40 independent trampers, or Freedom Walkers, can be booked on the track. We share bunkhouses in huts along the way. There is a communal kitchen with little gas stoves, sinks, and toilets with sinks at each hut. The bunkhouses were broken up into different sized rooms. Each bunk has a simple sleeping pad on a wooden frame. We pay $135NZD for three nights in huts, or $45NZD per night. Pretty pricey considering I pay around $15-20 to camp at campsites and usually in the neighborhood of $27/night to stay in hostel dorm rooms. But it is well worth the money and I am glad to give it to them to support all the work that needs to be done in the park.
Each day 50 guided walkers are also booked on the track. They stay at different huts, which are more like little villages. Private rooms, hot showers, electricity, laundry, even a piano at one. Their food is brought in for them and I believe is cooked for them as well. They also have an extra day and night out there. I heard they each pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000NZD per person. Yikes! Quite a stark class difference on the Milford Track. Apparently for most of the history of this trek, you could only do it with the guided tours. The Freedom Walker movement is relatively recent. I am very grateful for the Kiwis that had the energy and organization to make this tramp possible for more people, like me.
The first days walk is very short. From the drop-off point at Glade Wharf it is 5km (3 miles) to our first night’s sleep at Clinton Hut. Bill and Sam were off ahead of me and out of sight almost immediately. It was about 3pm and the walk was supposedly only and hour and a half. I was determined to take my time. Absolutely determined to sit and put my heavy pack down whenever I wanted!
The first part of the walk is through beech forest, coming out to an opening with golden hay-like fields.
View just past the first hut for the Milford Track Royalty:
Our first, and longest, of nine suspension bridges:
View from bridge back towards the guided walkers first night accomodation, Glade House:
Get used to this sort of mountain-framed-by-trees deal:
A beached beech tree on the Clinton River:
These rocks are under water! I am not kidding!
Close to the first stop for the night is a short side-path into wetlands. A raised boardwalk has been built I really loved the colors of the sphagnum: bright yellow-greens, reddish-oranges.
(Side note: annoying young Irish guys have arrived at the hostel and are reading out (really) loud sexist, dumb and obvious “jokes” from a book. You know, like about leaving the toilet seat up and how women love shopping and spending your money. And they are laughing. Its making it hard to concentrate, and to hold onto this love of humanity I thought I had acquired…)
Sphagnum, or peat moss:
Bog pine, I believe:
Looking back towards the direction I walked into the wetlands from:
Self-portrait in the sphagnum:
I was probably one of the last people to arrive at the huts, and as I did I saw a large group of them walking off. It looked like something organized and I was interested. But after I found a bunk and was about to try to catch up to them, one of the other trampers asked me about my camera. We got talking and it turns out he worked on TV crews. From what I can tell he was an all-around tech sort of guy – from England – and would go out on news crews all over the world. With people like Tom Brokaw and the BBC. He helped me figure out a setting on my camera that helped a lot with trying to take photos in the forest, which were not turning out well due to the bright light shining through making them far too contrasty.
When I walked back outside the tour group was passing by and I joined them. Sam said I hadn’t missed too much – just talk of earthquakes and volcanoes out on the helicopter pad. The hut ranger, Peter, was pointing out plants along the path when I joined. Manuka, or Tea Tree, was one of the firsts. It’s leaves have medicinal, antiseptic qualities. I have a little tin of Arataki Honey with Manuka. It is fairly solid and you scoop it out with a spoon. So yummy, I will definitely miss it when I get back to the States. Peter had sandy reddish hair and beard and seemed to know everything about the local plants. Even despite his drawstring sweatpants and teva-like sandals with socks, I developed an instant crush on him. You know, the non-sexual kind you can get on old guys who know a lot about plants. Maybe that’s just me. And his talk was not only fascinating but part stand-up comedy as well. Highly entertaining. An unexpected treat. Some of the tidbits I remember: there are 150 varieties of ferns in New Zealand, 75 of which can be found in Fiordland. There is a little tree with heart shaped leaves called the Weeping Rata. A tree called the Lance Tree that has sharp, pointy lance-like leaves when it is very young and close to the ground. As an adult, it looks so different from its juvenile self that early botanists classified them as separate species! It is thought that its early incarnation was an evolution to survive the grazing Moa. Once it is beyond the reach of a Moa’s mouth, it transforms into its adult version. The peat moss which I heard him call “stegnum” but is in fact called sphagnum. The leaves hold 25 times their weight in water! Super spongy to the touch, as you would imagine. Below them is an ever-expanding layer of peat – the nutrient-rich earthy remains of older layers of sphagnum. One of the leaves of a plant he showed us are so poisnous they regularly kill sheep and cattle. The poison is a neuro-toxin and stops your heart. He had us smell the leaves of stinkweed, with a joke about how an Australian company had come to extract its essence for perfume but couldn’t think of a suitable name for it…I thought it smelled like pumpkin. Most people seemed to think of dirty socks. We then ate the leaves of a pepper tree, which are very spicy just like black pepper. Looked at the tree that the Maori liked to carve their wakas (canoes) from. Can’t remember the name for that tree, but one of its features is that the insides often rot out, making the canoe carving much easier. There was a celery tree whose leaves supposedly looked like and tasted like celery leaves, though Peter imparted this information with a dubious air.
At some point in the trip we heard the bird I had been imitating. It is a Korimako/Bellbird. With its chirps and clucks mixed in, it sometimes sounds like R2D2. It’s call is similar to the Tui. Later on the track I got to see one up close and watch the song emit from its beak. Here is a video of one:
I had my dinner alone on the helicopter pad as the sun was setting. I was a little surprised no one else was out there. But very happy to be alone.
Peter’s hut talk at 8pm was also entertaining, though quite long. The rangers give these talks at each hut, giving pertinent information about the hut and the next section of the track we would be tackling the next day. Peter went on an extended rant about stoats, the weasel-like non-native predator that is devastating bird populations. At one point he dramatically pulled a stuffed stoat from his front shirt pocket. The numbered pink triangles tacked to trees along the way don’t connote membership in an alternative club, says Peter, but mark where traps are set.
Later that evening we went on a short walk to a nearby glowworm village. We walked by the light of the moon, Peter had to keep telling people to turn off their torches. Turning off the track into the darkness, we each put our hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us as Peter lead the conga line. It was quite a magnificent colony. We stood for a while just gazing at them, as Peter gave the explanation I am now pretty familiar with.
Then back to the hut and out onto the helicopter pad to look at the night sky. So many stars! I got there towards the end of the pack and everyone was standing, craning their heads up and circling in place. I walked past the crowd and laid down on my back at the corner, thinking other people might follow. No one did, which made me feel slightly like the eccentric guest at the party, but who cares. I had the best view. When Peter finally arrived he instructed everyone to do the same. Then with a very powerful laser pointer he began to point out stars. He showed us how to find the south celestial pole using the Southern Cross and the two pointer stars. One of those pointer stars is Alpha Centauri. He also pointed out Canopus, Sirius and Betelgeuse. Telling us how far away each one was, which I can’t remember exactly. Though Alpha Centauri was the closest. We saw a very long shooting star, very close and with orange trails. Most likely space junk. While laying there a bird call shut Peter up. He said, listen….it shrieked a bit and then he announced we had just heard a Tokoeka…..or brown Kiwi. Amazing.