Milford Sound – waterfalls, snowfalls, treefalls, and television?

November 8, 2006 8 Comments »

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

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I’m starting over again – I’ve moved on from my current backpacker friends and headed for Fiordland Park and the Milford Sound on my own. The drive to Te Anau (pronounced tee-anow) was beautiful – a crisp, sunny day brought all of the powerful colors out on the countryside. Blue sky, green grass, yellow spring flowers, and white sheep was on the canvas – I just loved it! I went on a full day kayak trip on the Milford Sound the next day. The first thing we learned on the van ride to the Sound was that even though it’s called Milford Sound – it’s really a Fiord. A Sound is carved out by a river, a Fiord is carved out by a glacier. Milford was carved out by a glacier which is characterized by it’s U-shaped valleys. I must have missed all of this in 7th grade geography…but now is as good of time as ever to learn it. So – long story short – Milford Sound is named incorrectly…don’t worry though…it’s still beautiful!

I was paired up in a 2 person sea kayak with Matt from Santa Monica. We took off paddling and I immediately struck up a conversation with my new partner as I was going to be sharing a kayak with him for the next 5 hours. Within a few minutes I realized he was a big bore – or simply wasn’t the talking type – so I backed off on my social-ness and just paddled. This could be a long day. Throughout the day we saw waterfalls, had dolphins swim past our kayak, and paddled through big waves and pelting rain – but Matt was quiet through it all. Oh well – to each his own.

The next day I started my Milford Track/Hike.
Let me back up about 6 months ago when my friend Jean Spinner (world traveler extraordinaire) told me that if I was going to go to New Zealand that I HAD to do the Milford Track as it was beautiful. However she warned me that I needed to book early as they only allow a limited number of people on the Track each day and it fills up very quickly. So I googled it and found a place that offered the hikes as a package and I booked it. I even changed my dates in order to take advantage of the special half price offer. It seemed rather reasonable, it covered meals, huts, and transportation…standard stuff. I got my reservation confirmation in the mail over the next week, I filed it away in my travel pile, and forgot about it for the next 5 months. The day or so before I was supposed to report in for the hike – I dug the info out of my suitcase again and determined that I needed to do some shopping as I didn’t have the long underwear, fleece hat, and gloves that they required us to take. Damn…why did I send all of that home with Cyndi after Kili??? Anyway – I went out shopping and outfitted myself in Queenstown. So – the basic point of this paragraph is to let you all know that I knew very little about what I was getting into except that it lasted 5 days and I would be fed and have lodging – and apparently it was cold on the hike.

I met up with my fellow hikers in Te Anau – there were about 24 people total and 4 guides – hopefully they weren’t like Matt the kayaking bore. The Milford Track (Kiwi’s call hikes, tracks – I have no idea why) is called the most beautiful hike in the world. We found out that it got this accreditation when an English journalist walked it and wrote about her journey titling it “Milford Track, Possibly the Most Beautiful Walk in the World”. Her editor looked at it and crossed out the word “Possibly”. After that Frommers, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides as well as many marketing brochures has used the quote to describe it. So I had to see this for myself. When I met the other hikers I had a short debrief about the hike…we were covering 33.5 miles over 3 days of hiking – upon learning this, I regretted not staying in better shape the last 2 months!

Te Anau to Glade House – .8 miles
first hut
From Te Anau we took a bus to a ferry on Lake Te Anau. We rode the Ferry for about an hour to a little wooden dock where we got off and walked for about 10 minutes to the Glade House (our lodging for the night). I can’t really call this day a hiking day – it was more of a journey to the beginning. On the journey – I met some of my fellow hikers – they were all very friendly, mostly married, all ages and very outgoing. When we got off the ferry there was a little basin of water that we were required to step our boots into. These Kiwi’s really protect their parks – I’ve never seen anything like it. As I arrived at Glade House I quickly realized this was no normal hiking trip – this was luxury hiking. This place was dorm living – but much nicer than the hostels I had been in previously. We had thick bedding, towels, real toilets, hot showers with shampoo AND conditioner, tea & biscuits – and a hair dryer. I really was floored by all of this – I guess I should have read the brochure. I went into the lounge where there was a bar (yeah!) and had a drink and marveled that they called this trekking. It hit me at that time – Kilimanjaro changed me more than I knew. I honestly felt that I was cheating here – this was too comfortable in a way.

We sat down for dinner and was served Kilimanjaro memories of peeing on rocks, freezing in our tent, sleeping on rocky ground, long drop toilets, carrying toilet paper around in our pockets, and wiping off with ‘shower wipes’ for 7 days came rushing back to me – and I missed it. I’m not going to even admit in type where my mind went to next – I’ll wait and see if I get the feeling again before I put it in black and white. I had to marvel that on my trekking trip – this was the best accommodations and food I’ve had so far in New Zealand! No more carrying a loaf of bread and PB&J, no more Kraft Mac&Cheese! For the next 3 days I was going to eat well!

After our sophisticated dinner we all had to get up and introduce ourselves and then we had a slide show of what we were to expect on the trail the next day. I thought about Douglas from Kili trying to explain what new torturous trail we would encounter the next day at our ‘evening talks’. Maybe he would have gotten his point across better with a slide projector – I’ll have to let him know. My new guides were young Kiwi’s (Ash, Tim, and Ant) and 1 Aussie (Rosco). Up to this point I forgot to mention the film crew too. You are probably all aware of my secret desire to be on TV – preferably Globe Trekker – well strangely enough my wish came true – sort of. For this trek (trekking group #3 of the trekking season) included in our group was a Korean film crew. They were filming this trek as a documentary of New Zealand hiking for Korean Public Television (KBS). I will be seen across the whole nation of Korea…how freakin’ exciting! The camera guy/producer, Jay, and the narrator, Hoon, sat at my table that night and I was fascinated talking to them about their project, jobs and travels…really cool guys.

After dinner when we did our formal introductions we also had to sing a song from our country. The Americans chose to sing American Pie – there were many of us – so I could schlep along out of tune without being noticed – phew. However – Jay was the only person from Korea – so he had to sing by himself. I kind of felt sorry for him – until he grabbed a guitar in the corner, sat down and literally belted out “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” with an American accent – I was floored. We all had tea before retiring to our rooms. The lights went out (generator was turned off) at 10 PM in order to rest up for our big day tomorrow.

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Glade House to Pompolona Lodge – 10 miles
tree hole
We woke up when the generator started at 6:45AM. We made our lunch sandwiches from a huge spread of choices – I was a bit overwhelmed. We then sat down for a breakfast feast! I ate oatmeal for the 1st time in 2 months – I didn’t realize how much I missed oatmeal! We took off on the trek and I quickly realized that this was less of a hike and more of a walk. We had to cover 10 miles today – but we were walking in the Clinton Valley and the trail was impeccably groomed – much like the impeccable lodges, and the impeccable food. I kept thinking about what Cyndi and Heather’s reaction to this impeccable trek would be. That hard reboot that Kilimanjaro provided me was more ingrained in me than I thought – I was really surprised to my reaction to the whole thing. The views were beautiful though and it was nice that you didn’t have to watch your footing on the trail and could look around you – and there was plenty of oxygen! It was a good day for photography – the rain forest was very green and there was no rain! This was the land of waterfalls – I have never seen anything like it – the snow melt was heavy and the typical rain fall created these long water falls all the way down the steep, rocky cliffs to the valley floor. Since day 1 was a cruisy day, I talked to my fellow walkers to find out where they were from, what they did for a living, find out how many kids they had, etc. There are only 45 guided walkers allowed on the track each day and about 45 ‘Freedom Walkers’. Freedom walkers are the people that don’t use guides – you can consider their origin to be kind of hippieish. Back when only guided walkers were allowed on the trail – a group of crazy hippies barged onto the trail and walked it. There were so many of them that they couldn’t stop them. Since then, they changed the rules and they built ‘primitive huts’ for the Freedom Walkers (which are nicer than most camping accommodations I’ve ever seen – but no showers or wetbar).

We arrived at our guided walker lodge – Pompolona Lodge – and were greeted by a hostess with orange juice and orange slices. She led me to my bunk room and I hopped in the shower and was ready for tea time…I loved this new life! They had fresh scones with cream and jam. I think this will be the only 33 mile hiking trip that I will gain weight on! After tea many people washed their hiking clothes and put them in the drying room. I kept thinking about the 7 days Cyndi, Heather and I went without a shower wearing the same clothes…what a different experience! Dinner was another feast followed by ice cream and chocolate sauce and a slide show of the next day. The next day was supposed to be more grueling as we had to go over the Mackinnon Pass….lights out at 10PM!

Pompolona Lodge to Quintin Lodge – 9 miles
day 2
This was the ‘hard’ day where we reached the highest point in the trek – 3,300 ft. We woke up to rain – so I suited up in all of my rain gear (which consisted of a rain jacket) and took off. The first 3.5 hours today were made up of climbing up to the pass among a series of rugged switch backs – now this was trekking! When I stopped for a bathroom break in one of the nicely furnished outhouses, I was leaving and I heard a noise that sounded like thunder and realized that it wasn’t thunder. It was an avalanche! I looked up in the distance and there were big chunks of snow falling off the mountain. I stood there in awe and watched it – definitely a first for me. I started up the switchbacks and was getting pelted with rain. The rock beds that formed our path turned into flowing river beds with all of the rain so I had to walk through quite a bit of water on my way up. I was wearing quick dry hiking pants – unfortunately quick dry material can’t dry if it doesn’t stop raining ever. Therefore my pants were soaked and sticking to my legs. This wasn’t a big deal – but I remembered the guides saying that when we get above the tree line it would be very windy and cold – I was going to freeze when my tree shelter was gone! I calmed myself by thinking of positive things such as – as least my feet are dry. For the next hour as I climbed up the pass slowly I was marveling in my satisfaction of my dry gortex Vasque boots. I thought back 6 years ago when David Henshaw told me to buy Vasque boots and they’ve been wonderful, blister-free boots – what good advice David! As I went above the tree line the wind picked up, the fog settled into the surrounding mountains, the rain was now blowing sideways – I was wet, cold, and ready to be at the top.
at the top
One of our guides, Ant, was near the top and gave me a cup of warm soup. That was enough to help me make it through the next twenty minutes to the top! It wasn’t the hardest climb I’ve done – but definitely challenging especially among the elements. We warmed up and dried off in the Pass Hut at the top. I put my boots under a heat lamp and tried to find all of the dry layers that I put in my pack that I could change into. I’m not sure why I went to all of this effort to try to get dry when there was no chance that the rain was going to let up – but I changed clothes in vain, ate my sandwich, put all of my wet clothes in a plastic sack in my pack, had a cuppa Milo and took off again down the pass.

I’m not real sure why I didn’t wait to go with someone in the group – I guess I was feeling independent – or just stupid. Before I descended I went to the ‘lieu with the most beautiful view’ hanging off the side of the pass looking over the valley and surrounding mountains. Unfortunately the view was fog today…you couldn’t see a thing…but at least there was toilet paper! I pointed myself downhill and took off. I figured that I would make the descent pretty quickly. The rain was still pelting down sideways and all of a sudden my nice little immaculate, groomed trail turned into a very disorienting riverbed full of water. washed out
I wasn’t real sure if that’s where I was supposed to follow – but it was really the only option that I could see. The little river bed was flowing with water from the heavy rain which made it hard to navigate through the wet, slippery rocks and deep mud and water. Pretty soon I noticed this squish, squish sensation in my boots. My socks were soaked inside my boots! David Henshaw was no longer my idol…in fact I think I was cursing him mentally every squishy step. I stopped and looked around me to see if anyone was near but no one was in site. My mind started wandering off David and onto “I wonder if I’m on the right rail – it’s weird that I haven’t seen anyone.” I decided to take my mind off of it by whistling. The whistling turned to humming, then to singing – I must have really been nervous as I NEVER sing. However – no one was around so it seemed safe enough to sing a few tunes to keep myself company.

I got to a part of the riverbed that branched off in three different directions. I stood there dumb founded wondering where I should go. This normally would not be a big issue except all of the flowing rain exacerbated the situation and they all looked the same. I looked behind me in hopes that I would see someone…no luck. so I picked a route and started following it – the water was getting deeper and I still didn’t have any sign of a trail. I looked behind me once more hoping to see someone. I thought about turning around and trying to go back up to the start of my confusion and wait for other people to come – yet I wasn’t even really sure how to retrace my steps back up. All of a sudden I panicked, thinking – so this is how people get lost in the woods – and people can’t find them for days and they survived off of tree bark for food. I always thougt those people were idiots for getting lost in the woods – yet who’s the idiot now?! I kept following the water in a panicky state – kicking myself for walking alone, cursing the rain, cursing David and my wet boots, and hoping that I had picked the right trail. I was starting to worry that this water was going to lead me to a giant uncontrollable water fall and I would walk right over the edge to my imminent death.

Then I saw a clearing on the right that resembled a trail. I went over there and looked down the trail and debated on what to do, I figured muddy trail was better than waterfall to death so I opted for the muddy trail. As I walked the trail, my anxiety built. What if this wasn’t the trail, no one knows where I”m at. I looked around again – still no one. As a little girl – I quit being a girl scout after 1 year when I found out that I had to camp to get a badge – I was scared of bugs…therefore that was the end of my scouting. In hind site – that might not have been the smartest idea. As I panicked I did a mental list of what I had in my pack in case I had to camp out on my own because I was lost on the mountain pass. All of my clothes were wet, however I did have some snacks to live off of and a pair of flip flops – it seemed as if I might be able to survive a night if I had to. I could use my hiking pole and rain coat to build a shelter put on my bug spray to stay safe and eat granola bars until someone found me. Plus – I had an emergency whistle that I could use! Yet it wouldn’t have been heard above the roaring waterfall so I guess it would’ve just been entertaining for me. I could whistle some songs to keep me occupied through the night.

Then I saw a muddy footprint on the trail pointing downhill…hallelujah!!! I was on the right trail! The rest of the rainy descent I cursed myself for being so stupid to hike alone! I also entertained myself by taking rainy pictures of the beautiful surroundings with a piece of me in the photo – it was kind of a weird way to embrace my solo hiking. After 2 and 1/2 hours of descending down waterfall like trails and bridges – I finally came across someone else – a freedom walker – it was so comforting to see people again! I blew past him like I owned the mountain (since I had confirmation I was on the right mountain now!) – plus I really had to pee! About 5 minutes later I reached the entrance to Quinton Lodge! I had never been so happy to be greeted by our lodge host with hot tea and orange slices! Maybe this luxury hiking thing wasn’t so bad!

I dried off a bit and then dropped my heavy, wet pack and took off for a short 45 minute trek to Sutherland Falls. This was supposed to be the whole reason why the Milford Track was in existence. When Donald Sutherland discovered the waterfall – he first named it, and then had to figure out a way for the everyday non-explorer people could come see his namesake waterfall. The waterfall is the 5th highest in the world at 1,900 feet! I took off with Charles and Chris (a couple from our group) as I didn’t want a repeat of the descent alone again – so I decided to stick with others this time! We got to the base of the waterfall and it was so powerful you could hardly stand up!
sutherland falls
Photo” Charles at the base of the falls – braving the elements!

The wind and spray from the fall was mighty. We went back to the lodge, I got a hot shower, tea, and put all of my wet items in the drying room and sat down for dinner. Much better than granola under a raincoat, lost on the mountain. The day had turned out ok after all!

Quintin Lodge to Mitre Peak Lodge – 13 miles
We took off the next morning to a nice sunny day and many waterfalls gushing down the mountains. The scenery was lush in the valley again and it was simply nice to be dry again! 13 miles today seemed like a long day – especially with a 25 pound pack on – but it went pretty fast. I felt really good and strong and I just kept thinking of every mile in NYC blocks. We went through some massive tree avalanches. Apparently the root system of the trees here are very fragile due to the fact that they grow on steep, rocky cliffs and are exposed to excessive rain. The roots don’t go deep, instead they just intertwine with each other only a few feet deep. So when one tree goes tumbling down the cliff they take all the rest with them. It creates this massive tree/mud/rock slide. Luckily…we didn’t experience any of those! We stopped at a waterfall for lunch and then finished the walk in time to grab a fresh scone and catch the 3:15 ferry to Milford Sound and the Mitre Peak Lodge.
Photo: Sunset on Mitre Peak

That night at the Mitre Peak Lodge we all had our own rooms with bathrooms (I was living large!!). We had our final celebration dinner finished with warm chocolate cake…I love luxury hiking!

Milford Sound to Queenstown
The next morning we were up early for our last nice, warm breakfast and then we had to catch a boat on the Sound the go tour the Milford Sound. We toured around the cliffs (the same area I paddled through a few days before!) and had a clear day to see Mitre Peak – rising vertically over one mile from the water line…very impressive. It was a wonderful day for pictures – despite the chilly wind. We caught our tour bus back to Te Anau and went through the famous Homer Tunnel. It was a tunnel that was blasted through one of these huge mountains – very primitive- and climbed about 1,500 feet inside the tunnel. Apparently they have a running race through the tunnel in April that only allows you to wear 2 pieces of clothing…running shoes and a head lamp as it’s pitch dark in there. I think the tunnel is about 3 km – so a good little run uphill, in the dark, naked…you gotta love these Kiwi’s – maybe I’ll come back in April! For all of you runners out there – you should consider this…it sounds like Bay to Breakers Kiwi style!
We arrived back in Queenstown in the afternoon and bid everyone farewell.

On the bus ride back to Queenstown I struck up a conversation with Jay the Korean producer/camera man and we talked a ton about travels. I ended up going out that night with Hoon and Jay for Chinese food…I had been craving Asian food for quite some time now…so I wasn’t going to pass that up!
We chatted the whole night about travel, food, adventure, jobs, tv – it was very fun. I couldn’t help but thinking that I was out with the (Korean) Globetrekker hosts! At the end of the night we had a bottle of wine, they tried to teach me Korean (they promised me that if I worked at it that I would be able to read Korean within 24 hours…yeah right) – so I took a little pamphlet to practice with. We finished with dessert – a Korean delicacy that they had brought along – myeong-ran-jot – basically fish eggs. I have to admit – it was really tasty! So – I may have to now add Korea to my list of travels…after all – I will be a star in Korea after their show airs!! The show is supposed to air in January…so for all of you in Korea…check it out – it’s on KBS! Apparently it will also be on their website too – so I will keep an eye on that and let you all know if/when that happens!

Overall – the trek was great – in a very unexpected way! It went to show me that I don’t have to know everything about an adventure before I go – it’s more fun to just experience it and live in the moment. Oh yeah – I also learned to not hike alone in the woods…I knew I never should have quit the Girl Scouts!!

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