Saturday, April 14, 2012

Where the Waterfalls Are: Four Days on the Milford Track

            I’m back from four days on the Milford Track and two days in Milford Sound itself.   The trip was amazing, with this year’s unusually dry autumn weather persisting through the entire trip.   Planning for this trip, I was prepared to be soaking wet from the time I got off the boat at the trailhead, to the moment I arrived back in Te Anau.   However, there was only about two hours of rain while we were hiking, plus a few showers in the fjord the day after I finished the hike.   

Boarding the boat at Te Anau Downs

            The Milford Track starts out with a bus ride from the DOC center in Te Anau, followed by a forty-five minute boat trip to the northern end of Lake Te Anau, where we got off with out bags, took pictures standing next to the trailhead sign, and started on our way.   The first day’s hiking, starting as it does at around 3pm, is only about three kilometers – and less for the guided hike walkers.   (They stay in fancier lodges, and don’t have to carry food, cooking gear, or sleeping bags – but the downside is that their hiking days and distances aren’t broken up as logically as the independent walkers staying in the DOC huts.)   We passed the first guided walk lodge (Glade House), sniffed wistfully at the food smells drifting from the kitchen, and continued down the track through mossy forest towards Clinton Hut, and our foil bags of freeze-dried food.   Clinton Hut is perched at the edge of a wetland area, and there is a great view of the surrounding mountains from the helicopter landing pad next to the hut.   I stashed my gear in the bunkhouse, and joined about half of the hikers for a nature walk given by the hut ranger.   One of the things he pointed out was a set of kiwi tracks nosing through the mud near the hut.   This is exciting because kiwi are still quite rare, even in places as remote as Fiordland National Park, due to pressure from introduced predators, like stoats.   The Milford Track, among other places in Fiordland, has an intensive stoat and possum trapping program, designed to keep the populations of these introduced species at a level low enough that the native birds species are still able to raise chicks without invasive mammals eating their eggs.   Pink triangular markers indicate where the traps are; they dot the trail like randomly placed trail blazes.   I asked one of the rangers how many traps there were on the trail, and she lost count somewhere north of 200 - which is already an average of about six per mile.

            That evening in the hut, I made the acquaintance of six Australian women who were hiking the trail, and ended up whole-heartedly adopting me as a dinner companion and hiking buddy.   They were brilliant, and getting to know such fantastic ladies was definitely one of the best parts about the trip. 

            It rained very heavily that night, and we woke up the next morning hastily changing into waterproof layers, and wrestling with pack covers and plastic liners.   Because it’s late in the season, it would be dark when we got up in the morning, and dark when we finished eating dinner.   If you can imagine a bunkroom full of forty hikers, all wearing headlamps, scrambling around trying to pack their gear in the dark, it sort of looks like a wilderness laser light show.   This scene repeated itself morning and evening for the whole trip; it was actually quite entertaining.  

Getting organized at Dumpling Hut

            The second day turned out misty.   The rain the night before had been heavy enough to turn on the waterfalls coming down the sides of the valley, but not heavy enough to flood the trail.   The waterfalls are one of the many celebrated features of walking the Milford Track.   One of the purported benefits to hiking the track in very rainy weather is that the more rain the track gets, the more numerous and spectacular the waterfalls become.   That being said, really heavy rain can also completely flood out the trail, as well as the whole valley, in fairly short order.   Many of the low-lying sections of trail had yellow-topped metal poles set every twenty to thirty feet to show where the trail is during flooding.   According to the Mintaro Hut ranger, walking through thigh-high water in parts of the trail is not uncommon.   Occasionally, the flooding can get so bad that the trail is completely impassable, and in these instances, the DOC will either hold everyone in the hut for an extra day, or use helicopters to ferry hikers past the flooded sections of trail.   This is one of the many huge advantages to hiking one of the Great Walks.   For a modest fee of $50 per night, you not only get a decent mattress, a flush toilet, a gas stove, a friendly ranger, and an up-to-date weather report, but you also get access to helicopter transport should things go terribly wrong.   One reason that New Zealand is so good at running world-class wilderness hiking trails is that they have been doing it for a long time.   New Zealand was the first country in the world to have a Department of Tourism (started somewhere around 1903), which helped to establish and fund guided eco-tourism operations about a century before the rest of the world.    Actually, the Milford Track itself was once hiked exclusively by catered, guided parties.   This changed in the mid sixties, when New Zealand trampers began agitating that they have equal access to their own wilderness areas, without having to pay for the services of a guide.   In what must have been one of the most fun protests in the history of wilderness protest movements, a group of trampers hiked the Milford track independently, carrying their own tents and food, setting up what has become the model for independent walking on DOC-managed hiking trails.

Lake near the trail, in the Clinton Valley

            Contrary to Peter the hut ranger’s expectations, the rain stopped around mid-morning, the clouds burnt off, and we started seeing more of the tops of the surrounding mountains.   Except that calling them mountains might give the wrong impression.   Thousand-foot lengths of sheer vertical cliff face might be a more accurate description.   

            Blanche Edith Broughton was one of the first writers to popularize the Milford Track, after writing an article describing her experiences on the trail in the early 1900s.   She coined the phrase ‘the finest walk in the world’, which, a century later, is still frequently used to describe the Milford Track.   Ms. Broughton also described the surrounding country as a land dominated by the vertical.   The valleys in Fiordland are glacially-carved, and have the classic glacier valley profile – steep sides, with a wider, flatter bottom.   However, what makes Fiordland’s valleys unique is that the rock the glaciers carved through is very, very hard – hard enough that even over thousands of years, very little rock from those steep sides has eroded away.   Basically, this means that the valleys in Fiordland are just as steep as when the glaciers left – the sides aren’t just steep, they’re actually sheer cliffs.   This topographical anomaly is breathtaking enough, but the other defining characteristic of Fiordland’s valleys is the amount of rain they receive – about 8 meters on average in most places.   This sort of terrain creates waterfalls in abundance, most of them only active during or after heavy rain.   Even on days when the waterfalls aren’t going, its easy to see the marks on the cliff faces where they run; vertical stripes of slightly smoothed rock running down the otherwise greenery-covered cliffs.

            The bare places on the cliffs that aren’t waterfalls are usually old landslides.   Because the terrain is so steep, and the soil layer over the bedrock is very thin, landslides are a common form of plant succession.   Most of the trees that are able to grow on the cliffs do so because their roots are intertwined with other trees, which forms a supportive lattice.   However, when the soil layer becomes saturated with water, it can become so heavy that an entire patch of soil slides right off of the mountain, taking all of the intertwined trees tumbling downhill with it like a row of dominoes.

Lake Mintaro, near the second DOC hut

            For most of the second day, we hiked along the Clinton river, following it up to its headwaters below the Mackinnon Pass.   The trail is very forested, green, and enclosed, but it regularly passes through avalanche chutes, where the plantlife has been sufficiently obliterated as to allow great views up and down the valley.   (Avalanche chutes are only a danger in winter, when there is actually snow on the tops of the mountains.   The rest of the year, they are scenic little meadows, inviting one to take out a camera and enjoy the temporary absence of trees.)   However, in Fiordland, due to the steepness of the hills, the avalanches are a little different.   In winter, when snow from the summits avalanches down the mountain, the avalanches will hit the top edge of these vertical cliffs.   At this point, the falling snow can trap air underneath it, almost like a parachute.   When the avalanche hits the valley floor, the weight of the snow crushes into that trapped pocket of air, and the pressure causes the snow to explode outward.  This means that the tree-free areas at the bottom of these chutes can be pretty large, and they show up at very regular intervals.   The DOC has mapped something like 56 known avalanche paths that intersect the Milford Track, which is one reason why the trail more or less shuts down during the winter months.

Avalanche clearing in the Clinton valley.

            Towards the end of the second day of hiking, the track begins winding uphill through a birch forest, ending at Mintaro Hut.   We were up at 6:30 the next morning, ready for the hardest, and most rewarding day of the hike – walking out of the Clinton Valley, over the Mackinnon Pass, and into the Arthur Valley on the other side.   The weather was cold, windy, and misty, with the clouds breaking apart at intervals to give us glimpses of the surrounding mountains.   About twenty minutes out from the hut, the trail began switchbacking up the side of the hill, aiming for a low saddle between two 1800 meter summits – Mount Hart on the left, and the curiously named Mount Balloon on the right.   As we got higher, the wind became more intense, whipping the clouds up and over the pass we were trying to get to.   We stopped shortly before the ridge to put on more layers.    
Cloud approaching the Mackinnon Pass

           A few hours after leaving Mintaro Hut, we reached the saddle, and the large memorial cairn to Quinton Mackinnon.   Mackinnon, along with Donald Sutherland, were the first Europeans to cross the pass, confirming that there was a traversable route between Te Anau and Milford Sound.   At the time, Milford Sound was thought to have the makings of an important commercial port on the West Coast (which, with a half million visitors a year, it is - though perhaps not in the way the original surveyors had intended).   

Mackinnon memorial cairn, on Mackinnon Pass

            From the cairn, the track follows the ridge for another twenty minutes to a shelter at the side of Mount Balloon.   Along the ridge, a thick layer of hoarfrost was covering every blade of grass, almost like snow.   The mist was blowing around so much that the view from the trail seemed to change every few minutes depending on what the clouds were choosing to reveal at any given moment.     We all crammed into the shelter, gobbling snacks and warming up.   From the back of the shelter, it’s possible to look down the length of the Clinton Valley, which we had hiked over the previous two days.   The shelter’s long-drop toilet has bee built to take advantage of this scenery (it’s referred to as the ‘loo with a view’), although today frost had totally obscured the view from the window.

Hoarfrost coating the grass on Mackinnon Pass

            Shortly thereafter, we left the shelter, continuing down the other side of the ridge, and briefly escaping the wind as the trail sidled along below Mount Balloon.   The trail continued along the bottom of the Arthur valley headwall, eventually dropping back below treeline, following Moraine Creek and Roaring Burn further into the Arthur Valley.   

Sidling downhill below Mount Balloon.   The valley floor looks very far away...

            Once we were back below the treeline, the greenery gave the impression that we were close to the valley floor, although the truth of the matter was, we had lost only about half of the vertical height we needed to lose that day.   The trail along Roaring Burn was a mix of rocky trail, and boardwalks and stairs, showing off the Burn’s many small waterfalls.   

            When we finally got to the Quinton shelter (opposite the guided walks’ lodge; the posh accommodation thoughtfully keeps the DOC shelter stocked with tea and coffee) it was later in the day than we had planned, so we quickly slurped some tea, and dropped our packs off at the shelter for a blitzkrieg hike up a side trail to Sutherland Falls.   

            According to the hut rangers, Sutherland Falls is one of the main reasons why tramping on the Milford Track ever became a tourist activity in the first place.   (And the Milford track is still mainly a tourist activity – out of our group of forty, we had only one New Zealand resident.)   When Sutherland and Mackay first discovered the falls, they estimated its height at something around 4,000 feet, which would easily make it the highest waterfall anywhere in the world.   This staggeringly high waterfall was one of the reasons why people were first interested in hiking into the Arthur valley in the first place.   Unfortunately, Sutherland and company got their maths woefully wrong; the waterfall is only 580 meters (1500 or so feet), making it the world’s fifth-highest waterfall.   Despite this downgrading of its height status, people were still interested in coming out on the track, even before the Milford road had been built, meaning that the once you got to Milford, you had to turn around and hike back to Te Anau.

Approaching Sutherland Falls

            As we got closer, the trail approaches the falls in such as way that as we rounded the last bend, the view ahead sort of framed the falls, so that it looked like we were walking directly into a category 5 storm.   With the wind and the water, the falls had a significant spray zone.   We had been warned to bring rain jackets, and we had passed some dripping wet hikers who had walked behind the falls, or tried to.   (The DOC does not officially encourage hikers to do this.   The hut rangers seem to be of the opinion that since some hikers will try anyway, they might as well tell us the safest way to get back there.)   The Aussie ladies and I took some photos, and then hurried back down to Quintin shelter, to pick up our backpacks, and tackle the last four kilometers of trail to our third and final hut.

Wet and wild: with the Aussie ladies at Sutherland Falls

            Dumpling Hut is named for the adjacent Dumpling Hill, which bears very little resemblance to a dumpling; whoever named it had probably been out in the bush long enough that they were seriously fantasizing about food.   The final day of the track was long but flat, following the Arthur River towards Lake Ada, and Milford Sound.   The trail also passed a few interesting features – MacKay falls, which would probably have looked more impressive had we not seen Sutherland Falls the day before, and Bell Rock.   Bell Rock is a large, hollowed out boulder that in a previous life had been situated underneath the waterfall, before a rockfall jostled it out of the falls, and tipped it upside down .   It’s possible to duck under the lip of the rock and peer upwards with a head torch at the large pyramid-shaped hollow that the water gouged out.   

            A few kilometers past Bell Rock, we passed a section of rock cutting, where a 300 meter section of trail was carved out from the cliff face over a two-year period starting in 1896.   Prior to this, hikers had to be transported over part of Lake Ada by boat.   We were told that some of the rock cutting work crew had carved their names into the cliff, but after a century, the names must be pretty weathered; none of us spotted any carvings.    

Swingbridge in the Arthur Valley

            From there, we continued down the Arthur River, ending up at Sandfly Point shortly before the boat arrived to take us across the sound to Milford itself.   The trail marker at the end of the track is decorated by pairs of worn-out hiking boots –I noticed the sole of one of the boots was attached to its leathers with zip-ties.   We boarded the boat, chugged across Deepwater Basin to Milford Sound, and arrived at the Milford ferry terminal.   We disembarked, wet and smelly, amidst the crowds of day-tripping tourists  up from Queenstown, most of whom seemed to be in Milford only long enough to move from their scenic coach tours to their scenic boat tours and back again.   I said goodbye to my Australian hiking buddies, who were heading back to Te Anau that night, and walked another 1.5 kilometers from the boat terminal to the Milford Lodge hostel, where I stayed for the next two nights.   

Checking out the boots at the end of the Milford Track

            The next day, I joined a 7am sea kayak tour heading out to explore Milford Sound.   The weather was misty and intermittently raining, and the wind picked up as we worked out way further to the mouth of the sound.   Our guide Mark explained that although these trips are billed as paddling the length of Milford Sound out to the Tasman Sea, the trips have about a 50% chance of actually getting there, mostly due to winds picking up at the mouth of the sound.   This was the case on this trip as well, and after fighting our way into a headwind for a few kilometers, we pulled up on a handy beach, took a snack break and enjoyed the view.   As a bonus, a pair of dolphins swam by the beach shortly after we pulled up, giving us brief glimpses of their little curlicued dorsal fins.   

            As we left the beach, Mark decided to cross over to the other side of the sound, and work our way back towards the harbor until it was time for our water taxi to pick us up.   Crossing the sound in a twenty-knot wind was a little hairy – the waves weren’t huge, but there were plenty of whitecaps.   Fortunately, we were in Necky Amaruks, which are kind of like the Chevy Suburbans of tandem sea kayaks.   They’re huge, heavy, and it takes a lot of gas to get them going, but they are also big and sturdy enough to plow through many potential hazards with impunity.   Unfortunately, they’re built to be touring kayaks – they’re meant to be paddled with a load of gear in the hatches.   On day trips, the kayaks are so lightly loaded that the boat will be sitting much higher in the water than it was designed to be, and can catch the wind a lot more.   As was the case on this trip.  (On windy days, I’ve been known to put rocks in the hatches of my clients’ boats to try and get them to balance correctly.)   Once we got to the far side of the fiord, we had the wind at our backs, which made for a much easier time.   Overall, I got the impression that the sea kayak guides in Milford had a slightly more accepting view of the possibility of capsizes than the guides in Alaska, which probably has something to do with their much warmer water temperatures.    

            Back at Milford Lodge that night, I got a couple of unexpected birthday presents.   My Australian friends called the hostel to wish me a happy birthday, and the hostel manager in turn gave me a free glass of wine.   Plus, a friend from the Iceberg Lodge emailed me pictures from our snow-shoveling crew’s recent visit out to the lagoon.   The site seems to be weathering the winter just fine, although most of our buildings are buried in snow up to the rafters.  

            The next day, I caught a bus back to Te Anau, where I am currently resting and giving lots of TLC to my left knee, which decided to go on strike after hiking for four days and then being shoved into a kayak cockpit for six hours.   Unfortunately, this means I’ve had to alter my plans for hiking the Kepler Track – I will still be hiking it, but only a very small section.   Frankly, its not worth it to carry weight for several days with an injury, even if it’s a comparatively minor one, as I don’t want to risk doing anything that would jeopardize my ability to work this coming summer.   I am really looking forward to getting back to Alaska, and to the Lodge, but I also know that the beginning of the season – with all of the gear carrying, safety training, boat cleaning, show shoveling, trail maintaining, cabin cleaning, staff reunioning, and bonfire partying  - is going to bring with it a whole new set of bumps and bruises, as it does every year.

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