Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Mountains Come Alive (when it rains)

The Mountains Come Alive <when it rains>: 
Welcome to the Milford Trek

Obligatory photo at the start
With organized group treks starting in the late 1800’s, the Milford track has long been popular. Indeed, in 1908 the London Spectator titled an article describing the trek: “the finest walk in the world”. Today over 14,000 independent and guided trampers walk the route each year, making it one of the most popular walks in NZ. It also one of the most regulated tracks. The number of hikers each day is capped at 90, all hikers must also complete the track travelling north and no camping is permitted.

The online booking system opens months before the trekking season begins. And it was on this first day that Charles booked a reservation for us to complete the Milford Track.

On January 11th, Charles and I joined 40 or so other independent hikers to embark on this legendary walk. I was interested to see if this ‘great walk’ could live up to all its fame…

Day 1: Te Anau to Clinton Hut
Distance: 5k
Time: 1.5 hours

It seemed our luck had changed (at least weather-wise for the first day) as we experienced glorious sunshine and blue skies for the first day of our trek.

Here is what the weather looked like a week before when we did a day walk with my dad, Kim and Morgan...
Still beautiful, but not exactly blue skies
Try number two: Day one of the our trek:
Doesn't get much better than this!

Yeah blue skies!

Enjoying the ride
One thing we noticed was that the water level had risen significantly. Whereas during a day trip here a week earlier with my Dad, Kim and Morgan, we stepped out onto a dry dock, on our starting day we had to walk through ankle deep water on the dock. (Hint, remember this for what is to come…)

We enjoyed a short leisurely walk to the hut and then took off for a scenic lunch on some rocks by the river.
Pretty nice spot for a break
Each evening the ranger gives a talk, typically giving some background on the hut/area, reviewing the weather forecast, reinforcing hut etiquette, and describing what to expect on the next day’s hike. These talks typically take place around 7:30p (when most people have finished dinner) and range from straight and to the point to drawn out and every once and a while downright entertaining (think heckling other countries – Australia, always the Aussies and the Kiwis - and making fun of the guided hikes paying 6x the amount for the same walk).

A good portion of our group missed the talk the first evening. It seems a group of at least 12 Japanese tourists had not only finished dinner but were also in bed by the time the talk commenced.

We discussed the weather report.
Not looking like our luck will prevail

It actually didn't look as bad as it was. With water levels already incredibly high, the extra rain meant we might not be able to hike. What happens if you can’t hike you might ask? No worries, they just send the helicopters in to transport you to the next hut. SERIOUS? Yes, actually super serious. But we would have to wait til our morning meeting at 8a to check the water levels to decide from there.

Day 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
Distance: 16.5k
Time: 5 hours

Fast forward to 5AM.

There is a great deal of noise in the hut as the group of 12 Japanese tourists are rising for an early (read still pitch black outside) start on the day. Did they speak English? No one really knew. So our hut guide had taken extreme precautions.
This was blocking the start of the trail
It seems one of the Japanese hikers spoke (or read) some English though Charles also tried to explain the whole “no walking” idea to them (against our best efforts we could not sleep through this noise). They waited. What they did for the next 3 hours we have no idea, but I only wish I could say it dissuaded them from such early starts the remainder of the days.

Meet Ross for our 8a (which turned to 8:30a briefing).
Yep, admire that outfit
Editor’s note: It turns out Ross was the first rugby coach for the current New Zealand All Black’s rugby captain, which is akin to being God’s father in a rugby crazy country like this.

We have the green light to hike! Although there is serious debate over whether this is a win or a loss given the possible helicopter ride. Regardless, we must hike as a group and another ranger has joined to lead up the back of the pack. (Editor’s note: This is a serious loss. When else would you get a free helicopter ride through some of the most amazing fiords in the world on the dime of a country? Never. I was hoping for the heli ride.)

It is raining. At the start I try to avoid getting my shoes in too high of water. They are waterproof, but they are also trail runners so they only rise to my ankles. I quickly learn this is for naught.
Yep, realized the shoes are getting wet, really wet

This is what Kiwi's call adventure, right?

Still looking like I am having fun (that doesn't last too much longer:)).
 Not sure why Charles thinks lifting his pants up is going to make a difference given the situation?
No getting around this water which goes on FOREVER
Editor’s note: When we say we are “wading through thigh deep water” on the trail, what we actually mean is that we are “wading through thigh deep water for several hundred meters at a time, very many times.” All told we think we waded through water for almost a full KM. At one point, I looked over and there was a log floating in the river next to me. Turns out, we were just walking through a river. 

But, the benefit is that, as the locals have told us, the “mountains come alive when it rains”. I personally thought this sounded pretty overrated. But, turns out they were right.
Thankful that the flooding has some redeeming factors...

Never, ever could I imagine seeing so many waterfalls at once
Through the worst of it, putting a happy face back on
And true to NZ weather, towards the end of our journey, some blue skies peaked though.

Well hello blue skies, yes, we have missed you
A much better way to end the hike
That said, we were still plenty happy to make it to our destination for the night, Mintaro Hut.

Our long awaited home for the night
And even more excited when our newfound Canadian friends on the trail snagged a downstairs room that only slept 8 (just need two more people to not get woken up at 5a).

Our friendship was further solidified when two of our four new friends changed into dry Trampled by Turtles tshirts. Thus it seemed only obvious they would be our companions for the remainder of the hike.

One note from the hut talk this evening: the group who had been there the night before was helicoptered out!! If only we were one day earlier…

Day 3: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut
Distance: 14k + 1.5 hour sidetrip
Time: 8 hours

With no impending threat of crazy rains we enjoyed starting on our own time on Day 3 and headed out with our new friends around 9am. We found the weather to be quite nice. No, it was not sunny. But it was also not rainy, and thus by comparison seemingly good. We even caught some blue sky during our ascent.

Compared to yesterday, this was pretty nice

Oh wait, is it clearing as we near the summit?
McKinnon Pass:
We reached the summit!
The clouds move in quickly, but still stunning

Taking a break with our new friends
The weather quickly did another turn…yep, snow. Luckily clearing as we made our way down towards Sutherland Falls.
For real, this is snow and this is the peak of summer in NZ at only 3000ft
Looking better as we descend
We decided to do the 1.5 hour side trip to Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in NZ. We got drenched but it was worth it.
Sutherland falls, from afar
Sara getting up close and really drenched by the falls
After 8 hours hiking with a few breaks we were pretty excited to see Dumpling Hut. We weren't quite as excited to see the forecast.

No?! More rain, come on weather gods!
Although we weren't psyched about what Dan shared regarding the weather, he did share something else especially curious. When asked the nationality of most hikers of the trek, the answer was:

1. Australians
2. Americans
3. Americans from Colorado


Editor’s Note: At this point, we've met surprisingly few Americans while abroad over the past 9 months. What is even more surprising is that 4 out of 5 times they are from Colorado. For a state that has a population the size of New Zealand, I’d say Coloradians are punching above their weight in terms of travel. Nicely done, Sunshine State!

Day 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point
Distance: 18k
Time: 5 hours

Lucky for us the forecast was largely wrong! Despite a few clouds in the morning, we had great weather for the long walk out.
A few clouds in the morning
Clouds have cleared for a beautiful day
Such amazing and lush vegetation along the trail (is that what all the rain does?)
And to the end!
Pretty happy to be done (with a shower and non freeze dried food soon to come!)
One final pic of these amazing views
But first a quick boat ride to catch our bus to start our long journey back to Queenstown. And what a brilliant day for a boat ride.
We 'have' to take a boat to get back to civilization. Not a bad deal today.
Thankful for some great views in the Milford Sound
Did the mountains come alive? Did the Milford live up to its hype? Let's just thank Charles for documenting with all the photos, I think the answer is pretty clear myself.

No comments:

Post a Comment