Solitude in the sound

8 months ago we booked in three nights of DOC hut accommodation on one of New Zealand’s most popular Great Walks – the Milford Track. We were looking forward to some epic landscapes, scenery and if we were lucky a little bit of solitude where we could appreciate nature.While booking 8 months in advance may seem over zealous to some it has become a necessity due to the increasing numbers of hikers to the Fiordland area. Three of the nine great walks are based in Fiordland National Park and the Milford track alone receives an average of 14000 hikers each year, the bulk of which complete the track during the summer/great walk season from late October to late April.We had bused in early that morning from Queenstown to Te Anau. From the DOC office in Te Anau, a pre booked shuttle transported us to Te Anau Downs wharf where we boarded our boat which was packed with other hikers.
We were joined by a mix of independent hikers staying at DOC huts and guided hikers hosted by Ultimate Hikes who pay a premium ($2000 + NZD) for plush digs, basic equipment and meals. Our boat slowed half way across the lake Te Anau where our Captain pointed out a crude cross planted in a small rocky island, one of Mckinnon’s memorials. Quintin McKinnon with his friend Ernest Mitchell discovered and established routes through Milford, Specifically Mckinnon’s pass which we would be switch backing over on day two. The pass shaped the route of the Milford track to as its now known, providing access corridor from Clinton Valley to Arthur Valley and beyond to Milford Sound.

As our boat boat docked at Glade wharf the weather was predictably Fiordland – patchy cloud with drizzle but for an area that receives an annual rainfall of 6,412 mm it is to be expected. Fiordland National Park is possibly the one place in the world where you can be grateful for the rain as it contributes to the areas hundreds of temporary waterfalls.As we started the walk, hikers politely fought over turns to have themselves photographed with the Milford track sign and the inexperienced wrestled with backpacks and unfamiliar gear. Only 15 minutes in Glade house appeared where the guided hikers tapered off to enjoy a three course meal and hot showers. As independent hikers, we would walk a further 5 Kms to Clinton hut. DOC huts are well placed so independent walkers have a ‘jump’ on guided walkers. We took our time after leaving the glade making friends with the very curious and friendly bush robins.
Most of the DOC huts are really the equivalent of DOC mansions but considering the volume of hikers the great walks receive they need to be. Clinton hut much like the two other huts we encountered on the track has a separate kitchen and dining area with a wood fired stove for heating plus two bunk rooms and separate multiple toilet facility. Although sprawling the hut was still dwarfed by the surrounding mountains of which the best views we found at the rear of the hut near the helipad. This was our first view of waterfalls in the distance which cascaded down sheer walls of rock and granite. At lower levels alpine foliage and silver beech trees were abundant.
Leaving the hut after 9pm we made our first failed attempt at finding the glow worms by mistakenly assuming the over hang with one lonely worm on the wall was ‘it’. We pushed on 5 minutes down the track finding a small path on the left where an overhang was laden with bright blue and shining glow worms. Back at the hut one of our party caused an epically messy red wine incident, not the easiest to clean up as our luxury hut was devoid of paper towels. It was time for bed. But as day 2 dawned it became apparent we picked the wrong bunk room.
At 5:45am it was audibly clear that the first and very overzealous family group was awake and had started their backpack rustling ritual. Unfortunately two teenagers in the family had never received a lesson in closing a door quietly and at one point after a second door slam 4 slumberers including myself in unison grumbled wildly with epic sighs. It was a sharp reminder that hut etiquette is dead. This may be quite surprising for European hikers who are used to some seriously polite alpine hut etiquette. Smart hikers carry ear plugs but for us the world’s loudest family would be avoided for the next 3 days.

While preparing breakfast we were privy to some humourous but dangerous behaviour from an Australian who failed to come to grips with a collapsible aluminum and rubber pot. I’m guessing this was a pre coffee/half asleep inspired moment which resulted in the pot being mistaken for a frying pan which consequently resulted in a mound of melted plastic. Unfortunately the poor lad panicked and tried removing the plastic component while the gas burner was still blazing. I yelled out from the other side of the bench “turn it off…the gas!” luckily while the lad’s hands were full with the remains of an aluminum base, a young American women sprung to the burner to switch it off.As the melted component sizzled in the hut sink the smell of burnt plastic permeated the air. His wife apologised in her thick Australian accent but the smell was enough to send us on our way.
The second day’s walk rambled along the Clinton river where we got our first views of Hirere falls and the adjacent wetlands. Dense silver beech forest opened into a magnificent clearing where Kea flew overhead and could be heard screeching. It was raining solidly and the wet weather contributed to hundreds of waterfalls flowing down the Earl and Wick mountain ranges. After looping around Hidden lake we stopped to lunch at Prairie shelter feeling very grateful that last minute we had purchased insect repellent from Te Anau. Also known as Namu in Te Reo the sand flies on The Milford track are extremely active. Although only the females bite neither gender of Namu is fussy when it comes to drowning in your cup of tea.Leaving the shelter the track crosses over a series of small bridges some of which are named like ‘Helens’ bridge. I later found out that ‘Helens’ bridge was named after Helen Willet a cook and guide who worked for Tourism Hotel Corporation which started running the Milford track as a tourist destination from 1958. Interestingly enough the only reason why the independent hikers have access to the trail today is due to some staunch members of the Otago tramping club. Incensed by having to pay the Tourism Hotel Corporation to access the Milford track, they marched ‘en masse’ in May of 1964 in what is now known as ‘the freedom walk’ hiking the track and camping in Clinton valley. The Fiordland National Parks board were sympathetic to the cause building the DOC huts that stand today for independent hikers to utilise.
A few miles on we would reach Mintaro hut, a two storey hut of the damp and musty variety. Lucky for us the fire had been started by the early risers and politely placed hooks on the front of the hut were available for all 40 pairs of wet boots and smelly socks. The weather had cleared and while we had a brief reprieve of rain decided to take a dip in Mintaro lake. On the muddy walk to the lake we startled a group of paradise ducks who clearly thought very little of our antics and waddled off downstream. The swim wasn’t really a swim but more of a floundering dip in water so pure and crisp it burned. We were certain that those at nearby Mintaro hut could hear our distant yelps.That night our hut warden was Lauren who started her talk with a mihi. I immediately liked her. She told us what we would expect to see the next day and a yarn about the mineral explorers Donald Sutherland and John Mackay. Story has it they would flip a coin to determine naming rights of waterfalls when they heard the sound of rushing water while exploring for gold thus the apately named Sutherland falls and Mackay falls which we would see the next day. Mackay and Sutherland never found gold but Sutherland made Milford his home until his death in 1919. He became known as the ‘Hermit of Milford’ often isolating himself in the deep wild of the Fiord. He eventually married and settled to run one of Milfords first accomodation houses, the chalet, for walkers of the Milford track. He was described as a stout, grizzly man and his cantankerous attitude often became apparent on ferrying walkers from Sandfly Point to the Chalet in Milford Sound. He had strict curfews of 7pm for boat pick ups and would not be kind to those who were tardy leaving them to camp out at Sandfly point with its relentless biting namesakes.

By avoiding the world’s loudest family we had a good night’s sleep. A little too good as by the time we broke from the hut the guided walkers were taking over the hut deck and arriving in droves. I had to gingerly navigate my backpack around several hikers as they clawed at their tiny bags of Ultimate Hikes scroggin. I had seen several empty bags of scroggin in the long drops on day 2. It appeared that the guided walkers would be well fed and hopefully cleaned up after.Once off we were slowly climbing our way up to McKinnon’s pass. Our ascent gave us magnificent views over Mintaro lake. As the alpine scenery changed dramatically with the altitude, silver beech trees fell away into the valley as tussocks and the large leaves of the Mt Cook lily whose flowers bloom from November to February began to appear. With the gain in altitude the sudden drop in temperature with rain and wind chill in the exposed area was evident. After the slog up the switchbacks we were disappointed to not have the stunning views as often advertised. “The toilet with the best view in the world” as described by Lauren was unfortunately a meer toilet with views of nothing but thick cloud sitting in the valley. We could just make out the silhouette of mountains behind McKinnon’s stone memorial.

The wind and rain were fierce and we did not linger, moving on to the Mckinnons shelter also know as pass hut which was an oasis in the rain and cold. The shelter is split for independent and guided walkers and we couldn’t help but imagine what spoils the guided huts were privy to. We warmed up with a hot lunch but it was hard work pushing on through the wet. The scenery that unfolded in the descent made it worth it. Waterfall after waterfall cascaded down the surrounding mountains. Luckily clouds did not cover a beautiful view of Jervois glacier wedged between Mt Wilmur and Mt Elliot which radiated a brilliant white and tinge of blue.We followed the route of several guided walkers who are easily pegged for their Hi vis pack covers down the valley to Anderson’s cascade which ran next to a steeply built staircase. Making our way down and pausing at the cascade lookout we saw Lauren, our hut warden from Mintaro hut. She was making her way out via Dumpling hut for her 4 days off. Each hut warden has an 8 days on 4 days off schedule. For 6 days the wardens are based at the same hut and have a day each side to walk in and out.

On the way to Quintons shelter I convinced myself that I would not walk the extra 1.5 hours to Sutherland falls. Quite frankly I had seen enough waterfalls. Quintin shelter is located right next door to the guided walkers Quinton lodge. As we took a break for a rejuvenating tea and scroggin we watched some of the guided walkers saunter past to their mansion for the night elated that they had made it. Again visions of what we were missing filled my head mostly involving a warm fire and lamb shank dinner. It was then that rather than continue to torture myself I should take a walk to Sutherland falls. That packet pasta was going to taste extra good for it.Backpacks can be left at Quinton shelter and yes viewing the Sutherland Falls is worth the extra effort. The green fern lined and fairly flat walk to the falls leads to a grand three leap waterfall feed by Lake Quill, a crater lake perched at the top of the falls. Returning to the shelter to pick up our backpacks we ascended further to Dumpling hut following the Arthur river the whole way.

Dumpling hut was complete with a clothes drying area mostly smelling of wet merino and stinky socks. There is also a shallow swimming hole nearby but with the persistent rain, swimming was off the agenda. Our no nonsense and extremely humourous hut warden Jo gave us some excellent advice for exiting from the walk. We would be ferried across to Milford sound from Sandfly point from a boat that was a replacement for the Anita Bay which according to Jo had been out of action due to hitting a ‘large object’.. also known as the South Island. She also urged us to check for all belongings before heading off and exclaimed that she did not require any more men’s underpants and her quota was exceeded for the season. I asked how dumpling hut got its name which was in fact inherited from the adjacent 575 meter dumpling hill which apparently resembles a dumpling. Due to the low cloud on the way to the hut we were unable to verify its dumpling like resemblance.
Leaving Dumpling hut the next morning we were sure to turn right as per Jo’s instructions from the night before where she regaled a story of hiker who had managed to walk all the way back to Mckinnon’s pass before realising that perhaps they had gone wayward.Following the Arthur river through Eglinton valley it was the first time on the hike that we experienced some solitude. We had an hour jump on the guided hikers and our early rise had separated us from the pack. The only noise that we had that morning was a helicopter doing supply drop offs to what we assumed was Quinton hut, champagne and caviar no doubt. Riflemen and bush robins followed us along the trail which was easy walking and no rain that allowed us to enjoy the surrounding bush. In a clearing we reached boat shed hut which is now used as a rest stop for the guided hikers. Once upon a time Poseidon hut stood here and from the early 1890’s the site stationed prisoners who worked in the area to improve the Milford track. It was also where row boats would ferry hikers across the Arthur river until a swing bridge was built in 1969.Further along the track we came to Mackay falls and bell rock which requires some crawling into the base of the rock to understand why it was called bell rock. I took my walking partners word for it when they said “it’s not quite worth getting your pack off for”. The weather was getting increasingly fine and hopes of a swim at giant gate shelter were dashed once it was evident that the shelter was located in a very cold and shaded area. Passing giant gate falls we came across two DOC officers placing new track gravel down. The large gravel packs were actually what was being helicoptered in that morning, not the bottles of champagne to Quinton’s hut that we had imagined. Walking towards lake Ada the prisoners track work, particularly their work with dynamite and rock blasting became evident. As moisture dripped from the rock blasted walls above we looked out to the lake for Pateke/brown teal ducks in the distance who were frantically swimming away from the sound of our voices.

The Sheerdown hills with magnificent Mt Ada came into view which had a small dusting of snow. Without a cloud in the sky we made our way past Ada’s rapids before reaching our final destination. Sandfly point came to us far too quickly but the reeking scent of the long drop spurred us immediately onto the hut area and boat ramp. Enjoying our final views of the Milford Track we were able to take pictures of the Milford track sign without fighting anybody over the privilege. Looking back towards the Sheerdown hills we were grateful for the fine weather so we could appreciate unobstructed views. Sandfly points namesakes were all too ready to stop us from getting too emotional about finishing the trail and nipped at us until we were out to the boat ramp.

The small replacement boat, the Ulva which had somehow avoided opportunistic graffiti in the form of an additional ‘v’ put- putted into the small port and a gruff gentlemen gave astute directions telling us to get in and put on life jackets. I couldn’t help but feel this guy was emulating Donald Sutherland’s ‘cantankerous’ streak.The very fast 5 minute boat ride was one of the highlights of the trip. Making our way towards the Milford sound through Deepwater basin, we headed towards Bowen falls with a quick peep past the sound itself where mitre peak was on full display. Landing at deep water basin beach we were bused around to the ferry terminal.We weren’t quite prepared for the onslaught of tourist buses, tourist groups and the circus that is one day package tourist destinations. If we didn’t think that solitude was available to us on the Milford track this was a sudden reminder that it very much indeed was. Cruising back in Queenstown we past Te Anau downs where our boat to Glade Wharf departed 4 days before. We didn’t need to feel like we experienced solitude as we experienced something so much better, an extraordinary sense of achievement and a true adventure.

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