Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Milford Track

A Severe Weather Warning was issued – we were surprised, of course, but should not have been. Later it transpired these were to be common during our time in New Zealand.

Four days on the Milford Track, New Zealand

This aside, it was a sunny afternoon when we collected our tickets and caught the afternoon bus to the ferry. With our 40 other independent walkers – albeit less three New Zealanders – we set caught the ferry to Glade Wharf aside Lake Te Anau to commence the four day hike. The first day was only an hour and a half – if that – but this walk is strictly managed and we could walk no further. Three New Zealanders had left their lodgings near the ferry wharf to wander down to the ferry in a timely manner, only to see the ferry disappearing over the horizon. Tickets on the Milford Track at this time of year were hard to come by, we had booked early, and had met many travellers during our stay in NZ who had missed out. Tickets and accommodation all booked, it seemed a waste to leave it at that, so they called in a helicopter to fly them to Glade Wharf. Expensive, maybe, but a credit card charge the father hoped to conceal from his wife who was back in Nelson. I hope he budgeted for the bribe money he would need to hand over to keep his two children on this walk quiet about the whole matter.

The first hut – Clinton Hut, was nicely sited. An attempted swim in the river was thwarted by the icy temperature, so I returned to the hut to sit outside and read awhile prior to dinner. Many of the indie walkers had joined the Hut Warden for a nearby nature walk – but not all had. So why was no-one else partaking in a pleasant seat outside prior to dinner? A Texan couple we had met and my travelling companion had all retreated inside. It took just a few moments of being still, the problem became all too clear. Sandflies, and lots of them, had come to check out their lone prey. They say much of the reason why the Fiordland remained untamed can be attributed to these little – but rather pesky – sandflies. The Abel Tasman Track had them in plague proportions, that we had been expecting, but this here we were not. On just one leg, my bite count had increased from the 42 bites from the Abel Tasman Track to the 87 by the third day on the Milford Track.

The evening was calm and warm, which just made the following day’s weather forecast even harder to comprehend. Rain, and a deluge of it. Rain overnight, followed by 30ml of rain per hour, sustained for six to eight hours. Some quick maths, yep, 180ml plus in one day, this on top of the 170ml that had fallen on the track the day before we had started out on it. This 350ml of rain, more than half of our hometown Adelaide’s annual rainfall. The track would be closed, almost certainly, so the following morning we awaited the updated 8.30am weather forecast. We weren’t permitted to leave the hut and proceed to day two’s hut until the report had been issued. As it was, it didn’t sound any better. In the end, it fell just short of us having to hold hands and skip down the track together. All 40 of us were led by the hut warden to the next hut along the track. Of course, this was meant to be an indie walk, no guides. But with the prospect of wet walking, no, swimming, we were guided for eight kilometres up the track. First through ankle deep water crossings, then through waist deep water. Some of it still, some of it a raging river torrent as the river broke it’s bank to make the river and track one. Halfway to the next hut he called it quits, no good, already waist deep we would be chest deep very soon. This would pose a challenge to the kids and the shorter members of our group.

So waiting in a large clearing created by a rockslide some years previously, and surrounded by a wall of waterfalls coming down almost every mountain fac, we waited for the heli evacuation. Soon the guided walkers arrived, but their premium fees to walk this track got them on the heli’s no quicker. I’m not quite sure why the need for the heli evacuation, we could have simply turned around and walked back to Glade Wharf and the ferry, but we were to be heli’d to the next hut. Does money talk? Facing losses of up to $90K per day, the $20K cost of the heli’s was nothing to keep the track open. $90K you ask? Well, we paid only $45 per night, but the guided walkers with their motel style accommodation paid $2,000 for the trip. Of course this is my cynical side talking, maybe the heli solution was just meant to ensure no-one would miss out. But strangely the offer was not forthcoming on any of the other smaller (and less income earning) tracks.

Our third day we were free to walk again as the track was crossing over the top of the two valleys, indeed an alpine crossing. The alpine heights offered us limited views as the wind and rain set in. Thankful for the emergency hut, we were not to see the famed views down the Clinton and Arthur Valleys.

Nearing the third hut, we could see much trampled grass. According to the flood indicator markers, this areas had been under two metres of water recently. After what can only be described as a bone chilling swim, I again attempted a reading experience on the hut verandah. I sprayed insect repellent on one leg but not the other – my controlled experiment – but it made no difference, indeed, I think the sandflies preferred the repellent sprayed leg.

The final day saw us walk out out of the Arthur Valley to another ferry, to take us across Milford Sound, to a bus which would take us back to Te Anau.

On the whole the guided walkers were more poorly equipped. On the ferry across Milford Sound, I sat beside one wearing her down jacket to keep warm and dry. Down jackets – as you may know – can be very warm, but will be neither nor dry if it gets wet. Of the indie walkers, only two were perhaps a little under equipped – two Zimbabweans dressed in rain jackets, but boardies and runners. The shoes were no less waterproof than our Goretex boots which are of no benefit at all beyond ankle deep water. Indeed, perhaps they are worse, as they do not let the water back out. The two Zimbabweans should be admired though, for in Sutherland Falls they went for a swim. I could not even get close to the base of the falls, such was the rain storm released by their recent water deluge.

Our bus ride back to Te Anau was filled with gruesome detail as the third night’s hut warden, having finished her eight day shift, was discussing with the bus driver the finer points of capturing, skinning and preparing a wild possum to eat.

The above map data does not come from my GPS unit, I accidentally deleted all files from my GPS unit losing this map. This is someone else's file.

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