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The Milford Trek

Now without wheels, we took the bus to Te Anau, a couple of hours from Quenstown in Fiordland. We spent the night in a simple backpackers place, before taking the boat across the big lake to Glade Wharf. From there it was an easy two hour walk to the first DOC hut. We had full packs as the huts, though expensive, served no food and had no bedding. Each of the three are spaced a day's hike apart and sleep 40 in bunk beds. Everyone of the hikers walk in the same direction, and so by the second night we all got to know each other.

Starting out, the weather was perfect. It seemed auspicious, in this ,the wettest part of New Zealand. The trek often sees over 200 days of rain and the lush vegetation in the valley reflected this.

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The next day was overcast, but the rain held off. This time it was 4 or 5 hour walk to the next hut.

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The terrain is rugged with huge rock walls forming the edges of the valley. Snow could be seen higher up. Once again, the hiking itself was relatively easy.

Small streams cascading down the sides of the mountains
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In some places the path was rocky
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The next day marked the crux of the hike. It was by far the longest day, 6-to 8 hours, and involved considerable climbing up to the top of Mackinnon Pass and even more vert on the way down. The weather was not looking promising and we discussed what it was going to be like with our fellow hikers and the ranger. In the morning, the skies were leaden, and it was already starting to rain as we ate our breakfast. The ranger indicated that a major storm was brewing, and there was some discussion of holding us over in the hut for another day. In the end, the decision was made that it was a go, most likely because the trek was fully booked and another group was waiting to get into the Mintoro Hut that evening.
Little did we know what was in store for us. The rain was not too terrible as we started out, somewhat later than usual because we had to wait for the ranger's decision. As we continued toward the pass it got steadily heavier, until it became a continuous sheet of monsoon moisture. The many streams crossing the trail began to fill up with all the water, and became difficult to cross because of how swiftly they were flowing down mountain. When we got to the top of the pass after a few hours, the wind was blowing close to hurricane strength and the rain was now ice and sleet blowing sideways. It was difficult to stand, especially when gusts blew up the sides. We eventually made it to the emergency shelter where a number of other hikers were already holed up. It was steamy inside with all the wet bodies. By now both Bill and I were soaked despite our fancy assed rain gear that cost a fortune. And, my pack cover had blown off in the wind so at least some of my spare clothing was also wet. I was shivering, but managed to put on a few dry items and my jacket, which luckily was synthetic, as down would have been completely useless.

After resting up for 20 minutes or so, we continued on our way, barely able to open the door in the shelter because of the wind. Luckily, we had crossed the worse part of the pass and were soon heading down. Gradually the wind let up a bit, but the rain did not. If anything it came down harder. Visibility was nil, the rocks were incredibly slippery, but the worst part was the more or less continual stream crossings which were now raging rivers, some over thigh deep. One slip in the stream, and you'd fly down the mountain without any chance of rescue. Our poles were life savers. Bill and I stuck together, but the 40 or so other hikers were strung out over various parts of the trail each going at their own pace. At one point, we cane to a particularly difficult crossing. In front of us were a younger couple ,and after the guy managed to cross over, jumping part of the way, his girlfriend followed. In the middle of the stream she slipped, almost fell in, which would likely have been fatal, but he reached back just in time to grab her arm and pull her to the other side. It was a very close call, and probably only one of many that we did not see. After hours in the drenching rain, we came to a sign which said trail closed and pointed to a nearby shelter. We had no idea what was going on, but found that about half of the hikers were already inside. It was cold, but there were a few hot drinks to be had. As the day wore on, more hikers arrived, some of whom were practically hyperthermic. The saving grace was that the temps were not colder than they were. Once off the pass, my guess would be the high 50's. Ten degrees colder would have been a very serious situation. While we waited in the shelter there was discussion about a couple of hikers who were at the head of the line and walked past the shelter. Apparently they got there just before the sign went up, warning us to go no further. Continuing on, they got to a river that was impossible to cross, but when they tried to retrace their steps the water had risen even higher on a different stream and so they were effectively trapped. While we waited inside for hours, they were forced to hunker down in the rain and wait for rescue. Luckily they didn't panic, and realized that trying to get out on their own without knowing the way might prove suicidal. Eventually, rangers did manage to get to them and brought them back to the shelter. We were all very happy they made it. Another close call.

One of the few pics I managed to take that day
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Although we had some blankets and a few meager snacks and drinks, we noticed that there was a fancy hut about fifty yards in front of us. This hut and a few others like it, were for guided hikers who paid big bucks for the priviledge of staying in fancy digs with all meals provided. You'd think they would have invited us inside since it was warm and they had plenty of food, but the powers that be seemed to have no interest. Eventually a few of our own more intrepid crew snuck over and pretended to be reporters as they peered in the window taking pictures of the lavish spread and wine. That seemed to do the trick and eventually we were all invited in. By then of course, dinner was over and so the riff raff could be contained. The chopper arrived shortly thereafter, which they probably knew, and we were ferried, a few at a time to the next hut.

Helicopter dropping us off by the hut. Of course, by then the rain had practically stopped
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On arrival, the grumpy hut master told us that over a foot of rain had fallen in 11 hours, something that hadn't been seen in many years. Of course we were all relieved to have made it, but really they should have kept us back in the previous hut. Anyone of us could have been seriously injured or worse.

The next down was sunny and clear, but they had to send for another helicopter to fly us over a huge landslide that obscured the trail and was impossible to cross. They didn't bring us all the way back, but simply dropped us on the other side of the slide where we could hike for another few hours to Sand Fly Point.

Inside the copter
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Second drop off point
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We had to hightail it back to make it on time for the boat to take us back over Milford Sound and the bus to Queenstown. The waterfalls were still flowing forcefully but we didn't have to cross any.

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View of landing spot in Milford Sound
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The Milford Trek proved to be far more of an adventure than anyone of us had bargained for. Perhaps it was a fitting end to our time in New Zealand. It was on to Melbourne, and then the final two weeks in Tasmania.

Posted by jonshapiro 16:39 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes mountains backpacking

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Comments

Now that was an adventure. Would have been exciting for me when I was 25 years old. Now, not so much. Your stamina is good for your age. Great exploration.

by Alan Tallman

We just had our one-year-anniversary of this trip. I still have mixed feelings when I think about it. Hope you and Bill are well!

by Myriam Schorn

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