On the path of a meaningful life

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5 November 2016

Disappointments on the Milford Track

Three very touristy days of hike in the Fiordland valleys to reach Milford Sound.
Milford Track in Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand © Claire Blumenfeld
DISPATCH

After three weeks of work at Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park, as a housekeeper, I am entitled to four consecutive days of rest. Not a second of hesitation, I take this opportunity to make another Great Walks (best long hikes in the country). It remains to choose which one. After my hike on the Kepler Track, I still have the Milford Track or the Routeburn Track to do in the area. I opt for the Milford Track, the supposedly most beautiful hike in New Zealand. The hike is done in three days and mostly stroll in the bottom of the valleys. I prefer the summits, so it slows me down a bit. But it is soon the opening of the summer season, which begins on October 25 and lasts until the end of April. During this period access to the Great Walks trail is chargeable and limited, huts must be booked in advance and it is full of people. Really not what I like. Being on rest day, Saturday 22, Sunday 23 and Monday October 24, this is the occasion or never to do it.

Reaching the start of the hiking trail is not at all easy unlike the Kepler Track. One hour by bus to Te Anau Downs then boat for forty five minutes to reach the north end of Lake Te Anau. All of this must be paid to one of the three local transport companies: Tracknet, Trips & Tramps and Fiordland Water Taxi. The total price is $190! Fortunately, I work at Lakeview Holiday Park which owns the transport company Tracknet, thus allowing me a reduction on the prices! Without it I probably wouldn’t have do the hike. One day before departure, I confirm the shuttle for the next day and do my shopping with Jiri. Jiri is a young Czech who has just arrived at Holiday Park to work too. As he has just arrived in New Zealand, he does not yet have an Inland Revenue Department number (IRD number), a tax identification number that each person must obtain in order to be able to work. He can’t start working yet. So meanwhile he decided to accompany me on the hike.

Saturday morning, I wake up early under a beautiful sun. The bus leaves at 8a.m. About fifteen people, also loaded with more or less large backpacks, await boarding. The bus driver gathers us and delivers us a most frightening speech on the dangerousness of the hike. According to him, the Milford Track is one of the most isolated hikes in the world and dangerous (do not stray from the path, do not cross the rivers in flood, it will be very difficult to come to your rescue if you get injured on the way, a person died on the trail a few years ago swept away by a flooded river, certain areas are dangerous, especially when crossing the pass in case of strong wind combined with rain, it is possible to become very dehydrated quickly even see dying, etc.). An it is essential to have a beacon locator so that the emergency services can locate us in the event of a problem. Number of people present with a beacon: only one person out of the fifteen. Oops. The driver therefore invites the irresponsible that we are to stay as close as possible to the person with the beacon. “Be prepare to earn your life to this guy”.

On these alarming words (far too alarmist and really far from reality), we finally leave the Holiday Park to stop five minutes later at the DOC center located just next to the campsite. The DOC employees (managing the national parks and the Great Walks) are supposed to repeat the same speech to us. Fifteen minutes go by without any speech being delivered to us. It looks more like a sponsored stop in order to make us buy the products sold by the DOC (souvenirs, hiking maps, hiking products). We finally leave for good. An hour later we arrive at Te Anau Downs where the bus drops us off. We embark on a small boat driven by Clint. The owner of Lakeview Holiday Park that I met a month ago when I visited Doubtful Sound. It is a pleasure to see him again. The crossing of Lake Te Anau is superb. Despite the cold wind that shears us a little, Jiri shows a large smile. And me too.

We finally dock and start the hike. The weather is nice but being a little chilled after the crossing, we walk quickly to try to warm up. And in order to try to put some space between us and the rest of the group. The first hut on the trail quickly appears on the edge of the pretty Clinton River with fantastic green waters. After cleaning, as requested, the soles of our shoes to prevent the spread of Didymo, an invasive algae that is beginning to pollute the rivers of Fiordland, we continue through the Clinton Valley alternating meadows of yellow herbs and New Zealand beech forest. The trail climbs very slightly. The few passages in the open air allow us to appreciate the harshness of the mountains surrounding us. Jiri and I discuss cultural differences. As he does not speak English very well, the discussion is sometimes complicated. We very often come across signs reminding us that we are in a possible avalanche zone and that it is dangerous to stop. “Beware. Avalanche risks. No stopping for the next 1km ”.

Shortened lunch break due to a synchronized attack by Sandflies (half-fly monster, half-mosquito, blood sucker). Small snack break under an emergency shelter where we meet a Weka, a large New Zealand bird unable to fly. It turns around us in search of leftovers to peck and it does not seem at all worried by our presence. Passage of several dry riverbeds and quiet and a little long last kilometers to the refuge. The weather is fine and we have at times a beautiful view of Mackinnon Pass and the impressive wall that forms the pass. Strong cries and laughter greet us upon arrival at the hut. After a day of walking, having a whole group of Americans partying in the house makes me a little angry. Jiri and I put our things in the common dormitory full of people and go downstairs to prepare our meal. Noisy dinner with other French people. Several Wekas ​​roam the outside of the refuge. We go to bed early, our minds tired by so much noise.

Same thing the next morning. Barely awake that the Americans flood the entire refuge with their laughter and discussions. We have breakfast quickly and resume the trail. Passage to Lake Mintaro which does not show its pretty blue-green colors. Two hours of ascent to reach the pass in slightly cloudy weather. We are chased by the Americans who shout all the way up. Help. At least, we finally have a nice view of the valley that we surveyed yesterday and realize its embedding. The peaks are still covered with snow. Towards the end of the climb, the morning mist coming from the fjord crosses the pass and disperses in the valley below us. The pass is around 1000m above sea level. A small plateau covered with yellow herbs with small lakes and a memorial to the explorer Quintin McKinnon await us. The valley on the other side is revealed at times through the wind-swept mist. The group of Americans arrives and the tranquility of the place disappears. They have fun taking pictures in turn above the void or diving into the largest of the small lakes. Jiri and I flee the stupidity. Arriving at the emergency shelter at 1154m, the highest point of the pass, we take a short break looking at the increasingly cloudy weather.

We leave under a light rain. The path descends strongly through the forest. A Weka awaits us by the side of the road. The Milford Track seems to be filled with these big birds. We play hide and seek for a while and then it sinks into the grass. We cross several waterfalls in an increasingly heavy rain. In the early afternoon we arrive at the Quintin emergency shelter, located right next to the Quintin lodge, a large complex with accommodation and restaurant for hikers on the Milford Track during the summer. For now, the lodge is still closed, with the “official” season opening in only two days. The size of the facility seems a little ridiculous to me. Farewell adventure, hello tourism. After having lunch, Jiri and I make a small detour to go and see the Sutherland waterfall, 580 meters high pouring its waters into Quill Lake. On the way we admire a strange hole in the mountain in front of us. The waterfall is impressive but difficult to stay at its feet as the water which pours with a deafening noise, splashes the surroundings.

We arrive at the Dumpling refuge around 5pm and take the last available beds! Six people arrive after us and are therefore forced to sleep on the ground! In the common room, it is the fiesta again but luckily the two areas of the lounge are separated by a small wall. Dinner again with the French in a relatively quiet corner. Back to our dormitory with the idea of ​​going to bed early and getting up at 6am the next day. But part of the group of Americans do yoga right in the middle of the room. Oh well. Jiri and I then go for a little walk in the falling night, along the Roaring Burn river in order to appreciate the calm. Back at the dorm, the group left. We go to bed quickly. The night is noisy and one of the Americans is speaking in his sleep. The whole situation feels so ridiculous that it becomes laughable.

Wake up and quick breakfast and we leave early to try to have a last quiet day. It is gray and raining. We walk along the banks of the Arthur river, mainly in the forest with a tired mind. The landscape does not vary much. The Mackay waterfall is revealed to us to offer a few variations. The blue color of its waters is magnificent. We pass the few people who left before us (a grandpa from New Zealand and a group of Austrians). The last three kilometers are done on a wide path covered with gravel which was built by prisoners between 1890 and 1892. Sandfly Point, the end of the hike is revealed at noon. We have two hours to wait before the boat arrives and takes us across an arm of Milford Sound where the bus stop is located to return to Te Anau. We have lunch enjoying the tranquility of the place, quickly interrupted by the rest of the hikers arriving. An impressive stick insect basks on one of the water tanks. It is almost ten centimeters long! Despite the bad weather, the view of the start of the fiord in the distance remains magnificent, the mist adding a mysterious atmosphere. I feel like the power of the nature around me is vibrating in the air.

A small canoe arrives around two o’clock to load a dozen backpacks. Quickly followed by a small boat that can only carry eight passengers at a time! A first group embarks. Jiri and I decide to take the second shuttle. Thirty minutes later, it is our turn. Verification of our names, deposit of our bags in the canoe and then boarding the boat. We go slowly on the river, speed being limited by the shallow waters. I enjoy the view of mountains around me, ghostly giants full of mysteries. The crossing is supposed to take us through Milford Sound but the boat drops us off on a small peninsula at the mouth of the river before entering the fjord! Having already seen the fjord, it is not a big disappointment for me but for Jiri and the rest of the hikers the disappointment is huge. It is Allan, Julie’s dad, (the lady I’ve been working with for two months on a dairy farm) who comes to pick us up. I ask him why the point of arrival is not the same and he replies that it is due to the fact that the usual boat, a larger shuttle, sank the previous season! Apparently the boat struck a rock in the shallow waters of the river and is still not repaired. The company therefore uses a small shuttle, requiring a lot of round trips to transport all hikers and it is not possible to make the long journey to the fjord, due to limited time schedule.

We get on the bus and wait for the rest of the hikers. The last latecomers finally arrive and we leave in the direction of Te Anau. Bad weather, fatigue and disappointment overwhelm conversations and most passengers fall asleep. Stop at The Divide, to drop off a Scotsman who continues on the Routeburn Track. Allan drops Jiri and me around 7p.m. at the Holiday Park, exhausted and with only one wish in mind: to take a good hot shower. Milford Track was a nice discovery, but the large number of people on the trail and the bad weather left me with an aftertaste of disappointment.

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