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Playing the Waiting Game on the Milford Track

Welcome to New Zealand! Finally. Seriously, we’ve been talking about coming here for at least 15 years, and considering hiking the Milford Track for nearly as long. Our very first big trip, back in 2000, originally started as a round-the-world trip during which the stunning landscapes and tremendous hiking of New Zealand were set to feature prominently.

However, due to time, money and logistical considerations that trip was eventually whittled down to the much cheaper, much warmer, much easier to pack for, islands and beaches of Southeast Asia. Over the many years since, NZ has often reached our trip planning shortlist only to come up dejected bridesmaid to other international destinations we had ultimately determined to be more urgent – some were more exotic, most were more affordable, many have more manageable weather, and unlike New Zealand (or Canada, for that matter) far too many seem hell-bent on overusing, damaging and eventually destroying the very attractions drawing tourists in the first place making it seem potentially urgent to visit before it was too late.

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Most importantly, though, there are so many other countries with tiny people that allow me to enjoy feeling deceptively tall. However, here we are, finally, long overdue, enthusiastic and giddily motivated to get active in all sorts of ways.

Our starting point was Queenstown, the bungy jumping capital of the world and burgeoning tourist hub, located among spectacular hills and lakes down in the southern half of the South Island. As with any booming tourist centre some will say it has become overrun and is ruined compared with its former quaint self. Others, like us, will consider it a nice, comfortable mix of facilities, infrastructure, scenery, terrific hiking and accessible outdoor activities, while still others will continue to bemoan the lack of Howard Johnsons or ability to drive rented golf carts around the streets like their own personal version of the Truman Show.

Lake Wakatipu

We really enjoyed the area and all the accessible hiking and scenic drives. Since we had a rental car we were able to stay in a hotel about 10 minutes outside town (the Shotover Lodge), featuring a quiet, panoramic location and an immense communal kitchen industrially outfitted such as to put to shame the kitchen of most busy restaurants, or the Sears appliance department for that matter.

A friend of ours from Camino de Santiago, Melinda, was living in nearby Arrowtown, a cutesy little historic town, so we enjoyed a fun reunion over beers and pulled pork our first night in town, then she escorted us on the Queenstown Hill hike the next day, the most popular trail in Queenstown, before flying out herself to start a roundabout journey back to Europe for tour guiding season.

Then we spent our final day in Queenstown shopping, planning, laundering underwear and coming up with the most efficient way to pack both dried bags of food and tubes of high-test insect repellent, interspersed with a few hours of scenic driving, taking in small hikes, eating pizza on breathtaking overlooks and following rough little dirt roads up into Peter Jackson’s spectacular valley of Isengard.

All the preparations were in advance of our Monday morning project – hiking the famous Milford Track. A four-day “tramp” through the majestic Clinton Valley of Fiordland, traversing the incredible Mackinnon Pass and culminating in magnificent Milford Sound, the track is officially one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”, one of many outstanding things to do in Te Anau, and is routinely found on lists of the best hikes the planet has to offer, occasionally even touted as “The World’s Greatest Walk”. You know, modest adjectives.

Warm-up trudge

So, with those types of descriptions swimming through our eager minds, it was always going to be difficult for the trail to meet expectations and, I must say, day one did not help matters. Due to the overwhelming popularity of the trail (huts need to be booked at least 6 months in advance) and the generally laudable Kiwi park systems of organization and regulation, all trampers are required to spend their first night in Clinton Hut, just a 1-hour boat ride in followed by a little over a 1-hour hike through the trees. A somewhat anticlimactic start to a much-anticipated adventure.

I suppose this is good in that it makes it very hard to miss your boat, or allows people to come in from longer distances on the day their hike starts, but the downside was arriving at the hut in the early afternoon leaving us with 7 hours to kill, and none of the usual mitigating factors of exhaustion, satisfaction, hunger, sweat or pain that make those hours desirable through sheer comfort and inactivity. In this case it really just meant 40 hikers (another 40 per day do a guided version of the trek and stay in their own more lavish accommodations) excited to get back on the trail restlessly shuffling back and forth between the bunk house and the kitchen eating, reading brewing up way too much tea, playing cards or staring aimlessly. It did provide ample time for meeting and greeting many of the fellow hikers we’d be sharing many parts of the next 4 days with.

Milford trail

In general, the hike is on a nicely-maintained path through tropical forest teeming with damp greenery, furry moss, lush ferns and, if I wasn’t mistaken, the occasional magic pixie. It follows along a valley next to beautiful clean, clear and (very) cold river. You cross lots of little bridges, waterfalls and small lakes, with the trees occasionally opening up to reveal brief glimpses of the picturesque surrounding peaks.

But it is really only for a couple hours on Day 3, struggling up the arduous switchbacks to Mackinnon Pass and its remarkable postcard views in every direction, followed by the inevitably painful 1,000 metre descent mostly down a rough, rocky and occasionally slippery mountain path, that the scenery truly lives up to the lofty expectations generated by all the glowing hyperbole surrounding this track. And if, by reasonably common chance, the notoriously fickle Fiordland weather chooses not to cater to your specific schedule and, say, treats you to an entire morning of thick fog, cold drizzle and sporadically piercing winds, it is entirely possible your brief window of opportunity could end up being disappointingly underwhelming.

Which is what almost happened to us, climbing in thick fog, arriving at the pass engulfed in heavy clouds and buffeted by howling winds, huddling in what shelter we could muster at the Mackinnon Memorial before capitulating and moving on to the Mackinnon Shelter about 20 minutes farther along the ridge, where we loitered inside among an ever-increasing number of fellow frustrated hikers, warm and snack-filled, but increasingly impatient and edgy, for nearly 2 hours, restlessly peering out the windows, vainly hoping that each new peek would bring a sudden break in the clouds, glowing blue skies and jovial group rejoicing.

But as time passed and improvement seemed less and less likely, more and more dejected trampers wandered off, slowly giving up, glancing back repeatedly as they embarked on the long downhill climb, always hoping to see something in the sky that might convince them to give it 5 more minutes. Eventually the group shrunk to about 20 or so of the 80 on this section of the trail, most of us finally starting to pack up and call an end to our vigil, and soon we actually set out, even making it about 5 minutes down the trail before being fortuitously struck by a sudden, tiny parting of clouds affording us a hazy, rather mediocre glimpse of a nearby peak, albeit the first we had seen in over 5 hours of hoping, and more than sufficient to renew our altogether unrealistic level of enthusiasm.

Certainly it was enough to stop us in our tracks and convince us to spend a few minutes soaking in this meagre consolation prize before getting started on the hard part. Slowly the clouds swirled, alternately parting and thickening, mixing partial views in with hopeless darkness, until suddenly another peak emerged directly behind us, soaring straight up to loom at least 500 metres above us,  literally within a hundred metres of where we were sitting completely oblivious to it up to that point. Another 10 minutes of oohing, aahing and mediocre photos later it started to seem as though our small opening was starting to spread, yet most of the others continued on regardless, usually stopping only long enough for a quick photo before trudging on, seemingly placing an illogically high importance on a mere 15 more minutes out of their lives when balanced against the possibility of hitting the scenic jackpot on one of the world’s most celebrated viewpoints. And sure enough, a few minutes later the transformation was complete – a stark rocky ridge dotted with placid, glistening ponds virtually glowing in the bright sunshine of a crystal-clear sky, the stunningly blue sky pierced by sharp, snow-covered peaks all around us, steep sheer cliffs falling over a kilometre down to lush green river valleys winding away in both directions.

Of our original erstwhile hiking crowd, all that remained was one couple perched high up on a rocky outcropping soaking in the suddenly awe-inspiring surroundings in silence and reverence, and our group of 6 (a couple of indefinitely travelling Americans and young Dutch couple working on the last of 7 consecutive Great Walks), practically giddy as we shuffled from viewpoint to viewpoint with an urgency driven by thoughts that it could all disappear just as fast as it had arrived.

An hour later, finally having exhausted our repertoire of photographic angles, scenery framing and pithy poses, and most certainly having used up a huge amount of energy that may have been better saved for the 4 hour climb down to the next hut, we finally wandered off, continuing to look back wistfully every few moments until we were finally engulfed by the thick trees and copious waterways of the valley. Needless to say, we feel rather fortunate. Oh yeah, and it was Laynni’s birthday. Don’t say I never get her anything (even though I don’t, technically).

View #2 from the pass

So thanks in varying parts to good timing, good luck and some rather uncharacteristic patience on our part, the Milford delivered one of the more memorable afternoons of our hiking careers. However, five minutes difference here or there, and maybe a heavier dose of the rain this track is so well-known for, and suddenly it becomes nothing more than a decent but muddy four-day slog with one tough day and some unusually impressive backcountry huts. That’s a lot of hiking, planning and money (the huts alone cost more than many hotels, never mind the monopolized transportation options to and from the trail) for maybe a 25% shot at a couple incredible hours. Gamble at your own discretion. Especially when it is so easy to take a great Milford Sound tour out of Queenstown.

View #7: Pensive, and smug

Some more notes regarding the Milford Track:

One of the best parts about the Milford Track, though, is the fact it finishes among gorgeous fjords. This is one of the nicer areas in New Zealand and hiking is just one of the many things to do in Milford Sound.

With a severely limited (and theoretically conscientious) human presence and complete lack of agriculture all the water sources in the area were potable without being boiled, treated or filtered. Being able to refill our bottles at any river, creek, pond or waterfall (or tap in the huts) along the way meant not having to carry large, bulky amounts of water from place to place, like we we do on many other trails, or when walking home after a jumbo bucket of extra-salty Roxy Theatre popcorn.

Hidden Lake

Sandflies are all the rage in this area, swarming mercilessly whenever you even start thinking about lounging on a nice grassy patch near a lake, or on a warm rock jutting into the river, or spending a few extra minutes soaking up the ambience of the surprisingly flushable hut toilet. Wearing as many clothes as possible and slathering any exposed areas with special sandfly repellant regularly will make your stops bearable, but they still swarm and irritate, and don’t bother you at all when walking, which usually just means enough incentive to cut your breaks short and keep on trucking. Not ideal, or particularly relaxing, but better than no alternative at all, or mustard.

There is a local species of parrot called a “kea” that congregates near the huts. Reputedly they are the smartest parrot in the world (evidently even edging out the one that walked Blackbeard through treatment of his unfortunate bout of chlamydia in the West Indies) and will use their powerful razor-sharp beaks to destroy anything left out, including jackets, socks and expensive leather hiking footwear. Adorable.

More waterfalls...

We got a little bit of rain, but nothing too serious, and nothing our jackets couldn’t handle without aid of our special plastic pants. People that have endured torrential downpours on the Milford in the past are always quick to assure everyone it was actually a wonderful thing, as it “really brought the waterfalls out in their full glory”. Maybe, but we still saw dozens of waterfalls and didn’t have to ring out our underwear at the end of each day, so I’m going to go ahead and call that an acceptable outcome.

Back to dorm living, at least for a few days:

Dorm life

It’s always a little nostalgic (the nice way to put it) whenever we go back to sharing our sleeping quarters with a bunch of strangers, a couple of whom are always guaranteed to snore, a couple of unusual smells to deal with, occasional headlamps glaring to and fro in the darkness, and always plenty of creaking mattresses and mysterious bag crinkling both late and early. A new one on us this time was the male half of an Indian couple who fought back against the lack of shower, washing or even hot water facilities by dousing himself in copious amounts of cologne 2 or 3 times a day. Overwhelming, sometimes even gag-worthy, yet always a new and surprising wrinkle when discovered lingering incongruously in a room full of filthy hikers.

I can fly!!! No, not really.

The Department of Conservation huts were impressive to say the least (at least it’s easy to see where much of our $108/night was going), with spacious bunk rooms, flush toilets (as opposed to pit or drop toilets like in most backcountry huts around the world), large eating areas with plenty of tables, cozy fireplaces, clothes-drying racks, special helicopter pads (for emergency evacs and running in circles pretending to be a plane) and a shocking number of sinks and gas-powered burners. With 10-15 trampers all cooking and cleaning at the same time it often looked like a big, albeit rustic, Masterchef kitchen. We were all also abnormally interested in each other’s meals, what with 80% of them being some version of the dehydrated packages sold in outdoor shops and grocery stores in and around Queenstown and Te Anau. Everyone was completely fascinated with what the others were eating, whether it was any good, how much water they used, how gassy it made them, etc. Should we have chosen “Moroccan Lamb” over “Beef and Pasta Hotpot”? Was the “Venison Risotto” as good as it sounds, or did we make the right choice sticking with the safer “Cottage Pie”? These are the questions haunted us…

In addition, though, we also had mac and cheese one night, plenty of snacks of nuts, M & Ms and beef jerky, Snickers, naturally, and, of course, started every day off with a disgusting tin-full of mushy, re-hydrated oatmeal. I mean, thanks for breakfast, Layne. All in all, the very (well, reasonable) minimum we thought we could manage on as we had to carry 4 days’ worth. We also had to pack out all our trash, so Laynni went to great lengths to not only plan small, light meals but to pare down all the packaging to better fit into our packs both before and after consumption. Some of the others who didn’t bother with this vital step found that by the last day they were hauling out big, admittedly light, but hugely unwieldy bags of trash that looked less like the remnants of a theoretically minimal backcountry excursion and more like the aftermath of retro Cheech & Chong marathon party.

Other than the aforementioned fog and cloud issues, we were very fortunate when it came to weather, hiking through a couple brief spells of light rain, realistically nothing in a place justly famous for its changeable weather and sudden downpours. Nights were pretty cold but in addition to sounds and smells, dorms are also great for sharing warmth (from a safe distance, if all goes well), which meant our super-light down sleeping “quilts” proved sufficient, and my ingeniously innovative split-toed socks (custom-designed and trademarked by Bev Johnston, 2015) meant that after a long day of hiking I could wander about luxuriating in the comfort of my flip flops (or “jandals”, as they call them here) without exposing my beaten-up lower digits to the frigid Fiordland air, ravenous sandflies or the aesthetic judgement of my fellow hikers.

Split-toed socks circa Bev Johnston 2015

Finally, we were duly impressed with our group of fellow hikers, about half of whom were Kiwis, along with about 8 or 9 Americans, no other Canadians, and 10 or so who for purposes of this blog I will simply categorize as “Other” (i.e. China, England). One group of 3 American guys seemed to be almost willfully nerdy, possibly still trying to capitalize on the popularity of Big Bang Theory, featuring the awkwardly friendly hut mother trying and failing to grow a beard, the shy Asian with the high voice, and the regrettably odd-looking white guy who parted his hair sharply down the middle, kept his zip-off hiking pants pulled up well past his navel and preferred to relax in his Mr. Spock shirt. And I don’t mean an ironic t-shirt with a photo of the recently deceased Leonard Nimoy, I mean a blue starship Enterprise jersey with the little arrow symbol and funky wrist patterns. They also spent their nights playing Magic: The Gathering and, presumably, arguing about string theory.

Anyway, Milford Track successfully completed, picked up by Lyle and Nadine after a brief but scenic boat trip across picturesque Milford Sound, enjoyed a pleasant drive back to Te Anau, celebrated with a couple very large beer, and the standard victory meal of pork ribs and chicken schnitzel. Then a long, thorough shower.

Other useful articles you may want to check out:

The Best Long-Distance Hikes in Europe

Universal Packing List

Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth

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