NZ Post #17: Milford Track - Day 4

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Day 4: 12 miles (19.5 km) from Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point on Milford Sound

Exhausted and in pain, we both needed to get some sound sleep before setting out on the last leg of our trek. But as The Rolling Stones say: You can't always get what you want.

Neither of us had the pleasure of a comfortable night. I could hear Katie tossing and turning below me and she could hear me shuffling above. Maybe it was the wind thrashing against the cabin? Maybe it was the torrential downpour punching at the walls?

Maybe it was our cramped muscles on thin foam mattresses? Or maybe it was the Australian man-bear snoring on the bunk next to me?! It could’ve been one or all of these things, but either way the result was the same: No sleep! Well, I shouldn’t say no sleep. I’m sure both of us dozed every now and then. But rested we were not, and my body was still aching considerably from the previous day’s efforts.

At the crack of dawn people were up and tottering about. We followed suit, seeing as we couldn’t sleep anyway and the hut warden had told us he’d have information regarding the condition of the track at 7 A.M.

[Let me take a moment here to comment on the smell. Take forty people, have them hike three days in a row wearing the same clothes day after day, subtract showering and add dense protein-filled foods, and what you have is a recipe for a massive funktified stank. Yeah, it was gnarly. I won’t claim innocence here. I’m not going to pretend that the laws of nature didn’t apply to Katie or myself. They did. But once you’re in the trenches with the other soldiers you tend to forget your own contribution.]

Ready For The Day!

Ready For The Day!

So, up and at them we were, smelling as fresh as daisies. The hut warden told us there was overnight flooding and we couldn’t leave until 8 A.M. Don’t leave before then! At this point a helicopter trip still wasn’t out of the question, but we had to wait to see what direction the weather was going to take and if the flooding would recede.

This mandate gave us plenty of time to clean up after breakfast, stuff our sleeping bags, pack our backpacks, etc., etc. Cut to 8 A.M. and most everyone was ready. He gave them the go ahead but said not to go beyond Boatshed Shelter, everyone must wait for him there. We were almost ready to go, running slightly behind because we’d taken time to prepare our feet for the longest leg of the track. Moleskin was applied to hotspots and Blister Shield powdered our socks.

The Death March

The Death March

[Let me take a moment here to comment on strategy. We knew going into this that wading through water (potentially up to our waists) was a very real possibility. And we definitely knew that rain was going to happen at some point on the track. Knowing this, we had our waterproof hiking boots (naturally) and we each had a pair of water sandals. Our plan: If we needed to wade through water we’d stop, put on our sandals, and trudge through with shorts or rain pants. This would allow our boots to stay nice and dry. So far, none of this had come to pass, but today could very well be the day! Now, you may be wondering why put on the moleskin and Blister Shield if we’re going to wade through water? Firstly, at this point we weren’t 100% sure we were going to wade through water. We had to get to Boatshed Shelter before finding out if the flooding was too deep to pass. Secondly, if we did need to get wet we didn’t know how far into the 12 mile hike this would occur. We may as well be prepared with dry, pampered feet for as long as possible. At least, that was our strategy…]

At 8:10 the hut warden started pacing about. It became obvious he needed us all to leave before he could, and he was anxious to get to Boatshed Shelter. Katie and I were ready, we just needed to hit the bathroom first. Five minutes later we were slinging on our backpacks when he commented that he should’ve told everyone to be ready at 7:45 so that they’d all be ready by 8.

Interesting… I recall him stating: "Don’t leave any earlier than 8 A.M." That statement does not equal: “Be ready at 8 A.M. because we all need to leave at the same time.” I was a bit annoyed, but I shook it off. What I couldn’t shake off a moment later, however, was the hut warden himself!

Our Korean friends were also “lagging behind” (at least according to his logic), and were literally a step ahead of us as we all departed Dumpling Hut. Then came me, and finally Katie. We were dead last. And who should be right behind us but the eager hut warden, of course! He was breathing down our necks!

Where's The Helicopter?

Where's The Helicopter?

[Let me take a moment here to comment on strides. Katie and I are both about 5 feet tall – probably the shortest of the forty people hiking Milford Track with us. When you take into account our height you can easily deduce that our strides are shorter than the rest of the group. That means more steps per mile, which equals higher amounts of impact on bones and joints. This may or may not result in more pain (my research on the topic is only cursory), but it definitely results in a slower pace. Take, for instance, when you have a tall, fit hut warden on the heels of a five foot tall woman. You can’t very well expect her to maintain the same kind of pace as he. It just isn’t scientifically possible. But being the accommodating people we are, we damn well gave it a shot!]

I was sweating like crazy. Yes, it was cold. Yes, it was raining. And even though I was wearing a fleece and raincoat, I was initially worried that my hands were going to be cold because I had no pockets to put them in. My worrying was all for naught. My hands were steaming and I was on fire! And why was I on fire, you ask? Because I was practically running through the woods!

Thus began what Katie and I lovingly call “The Death March.” The hut warden couldn’t have been more effective if he’d been whipping at our backs! We were both walking our absolute fastest and it wasn’t putting any distance between us and our new chaperone. Meanwhile the Koreans in front of me were flying! They must’ve drank rocket fuel for breakfast! Their walking sticks were pumping like pistons as they sailed on ahead. I’m telling you, if I’d been walking any faster I would’ve been jogging, and yet I could barely keep up with them! And forget what a hike is normally about – looking around, taking in the view – there was no time for views! I barely lifted my eyes off the ground for fear I’d twist an ankle! Well, that’s not entirely true. I was able to quickly pry my gaze away to glance up and see the raging Arthur River beside us. Raging is an understatement. It was a gargantuan ton of turbulence! One fall into that river and you’d be dead, no joke. But that’s all I had time to see before looking back at my feet to avoid slipping and falling…potentially into the Arthur River, in fact.

Besting The Waters

Besting The Waters

Now, remember the “strategy” I’d mentioned before? Well, about half a mile in we met up with ankle deep water rushing over the trail. And what do you think happened with Mr. Fussy Britches pressing up against our backs? That’s right: Plop, plop, splash! Just like that our boots were wet, inside and out. Any comfort I felt from the bottom of my socks still being dry disappeared when, moments later, another current of rushing water crossed our path. Plop, plop, ker-plunk! Complete submersion. “Well, that’s just wonderful,” I thought, “I only have eleven miles to go!” Yes, from that point on I knew without question that I’d be trudging upon sodden feet. Yet, for some unfathomable reason (habit? wishful thinking?) I kept right on tip-toeing across the rocks to stay above water. Why??!! My feet were already soaking wet!! But there I was, dancing over creeks to save them from…what? Getting wetter? I had to stop lying to myself, it was just slowing me down. Katie told me to just embrace it, so that’s exactly what I did.

Flooded Valley

Flooded Valley

Believe it or not, there was a silver lining to “The Death March.” Two-fold, in fact. One: We hiked three miles in our fastest time ever. Two: we were so preoccupied with our wet feet and the hut warden that we felt no pain. I was worried when I awoke that morning that the stabbing pain in my knees would affect my hiking ability. Not so! He effectively had me far more concerned with not breaking my ankles as I jogged through flooded creeks.

At some point “The Death March” ended. We made it to Boatshed with everyone milling about in anticipation of his arrival. He consulted his walkie-talkie and quickly told us to sit tight for half an hour. Oh, thank God we rushed! Now we could all rest comfortably within a massive swarm of sandflies! Do you remember Pig Pen from Charlie Brown? Now imagine forty Pig Pens sitting around but the "dust" is really sandflies. You catching my drift? Yes, the rain was letting up and waterfalls were flowing down mountains, but when you have sandflies in your eyes it’s hard to enjoy the view. And in case you weren’t aware, these things bite and leave itching bumps, like mosquitoes. They are not fun.

With all this bitching and moaning you probably think I was miserable. You probably think I wanted to beam myself straight to Honolulu or something, but you’d be wrong. This was all part of the adventure. After a brief depression, I accepted the saturated state of my boots. I’d put on insect repellent that morning, so I told the sandflies to go to hell. At that moment I could’ve be sitting in a dark room staring at a computer screen, but I wasn’t. I was outside in the cool, clean air hiking Milford Track. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

Half an hour later we were told the hike was a go! No helicopter would be swooping in to rescue us. We were in for the long haul. Back on went our packs and ponchos as we marched en masse with our “fearless leader” at the forefront. (Thank God he wasn’t behind us anymore). Everyone’s boots were completely soaked by then, I have no doubt. Those little ankle huggers some people wore looked like a joke as we passed through rushing streams. The constant pouring rain dropping on our heads just added to the spirit of the thing!

Marching Through The Pain

Marching Through The Pain

We did manage to all stop at a waterfall where we got to examine Bell Rock up close. It's a naturally hollowed-out rock that people can crawl under and stand up inside of. Under normal circumstances I would’ve been all about going inside, but knowing the hut warden would be tapping his watch at any moment gave me pause. I chose a quick peek and moved along.

It continued to rain and we continued to march until finally we met up with some serious flooding. I didn’t have time to consider it, I just dove right in. Knee deep and very cold. We pushed through. It wasn’t a long stretch of flooding by any means, and we got to higher ground quickly. We traversed some wooden walkways and crossed some suspension bridges before coming upon more flooding…and then more flooding, and more, and more, and more. For whatever reason I'd imagined only one section of trail was going to be submerged. It hadn’t occurred to me that such long stretches of ankle to thigh deep waters would be on our path. But it was no matter. I had long since accepted my drenched state and was enjoying it at this point. Katie too!

There were times when I set my foot down not knowing the depth of the water or whether the ground was flat. Who knew what awaited me under that murky surface? An unexpected drop? A branch? A log? I cared not. I just jumped in feet first and plodded along with child-like glee.

While splashing through the flood, clouds suddenly broke overhead and the sun splintered the sky. Within minutes the gray wetness of that morning gave way to humid heat. Steam rose from the forest, giving it a tropical feel. Katie and I pulled over to strip off our ponchos and raincoats while other hikers passed by. It was worth it. The mugginess was heavy, and we needed to feel as light as possible with so many miles ahead.

At some point our constant companion, the lovable hut warden, abandoned us. "You've made it through the worst of it," he said, before flashing a smile and turning back to meet up with the next group of hikers. Now that he was gone we were free to walk at our own pace. We could snap as many pictures as we wanted, stop to admire the view, or even rest and have a bite to eat.

A Private Moment

A Private Moment

[Let me take a moment here to comment on schedules – as in the schedule we had to keep in order to be on the 2:00 P.M. boat ride back to civilization. Maybe I should explain… When planning Milford Track you don’t just book one night at each hut, you also have to book 2 bus rides and 2 boat rides. One of those boats was waiting for us at the end of the trail at Sandfly Point. We actually were scheduled to leave on the 3:15 boat, but our optimistic hut warden had told everyone the night before that if we all kept up a steady pace we should have no problem making it on the first boat at 2:00. Perhaps if our feet were dry we would’ve stuck to our original schedule and taken our time on the last day. But considering the state of our bodies – from achy heads to moistened heels – we were pretty keen on making that first departure. It meant getting our feet dry and our tummies filled that much faster.]

We'd slowed down considerably during the flooded portion of the track and were once again dead last, but when we saw the next mile marker and looked at our watches we realized we had to pick up our pace in order to make the first boat. So much for enjoying the scenery!

The cicadas came alive once the sun bloomed; their shrill noise was deafening as we made our way up and along dripping overhangs and through flooded creeks. That engorged river I mentioned before fed into the valley, and we could see its affect as the water spread wide like the Amazon River. Moisture continued to rise from the forest floor and we felt like we were in a jungle.

The 28th mile was probably the hardest. Our muscles cried bitter tears knowing there were over four miles left. It felt too daunting to worry about, so we didn’t. We just kept on walking. Our drenched shoes squished with every step. In time, we reached a resting place with shelter, toilets, and picnic tables. We saw some of our fellow travelers making use of the amenities. We then read a sign stating that Sandfly Point was 1 hr. 45 min. away. Our boat was set to depart in exactly 1 hr. and 45 min.!! No way could we stop for a snack – we had to move, move, move!

We Are The Champions!

We Are The Champions!

We timed ourselves during that first mile to ensure we were going fast enough to make the boat launch. Never mind natural beauty, each mile marker was what I longed to see!

Our mission was underway, and that first mile went by fast. The hike was 33 miles total and now we only had two miles left! Two miles was nothing! A cake walk. Less than my walk to work. No problemo. (These are the type of mental games you play for motivation.)

Our soggy stumps clomped along with surprising speed. We felt no pain because our whole bodies hurt. Being one giant cramp was our state of being and had no bearing on whether or not we’d finish the hike – we were going to finish. Not because we had to, but because we wanted to. Nothing was going to stop us!

A pleasant tree-lined walkway stretched out before us and we tore it up one step at a time. The hunt was on for the 33 mile marker. We knew it would appear soon, very soon. Finally, I saw it! I called out to Katie and she thanked God before bending her stiff knees and kissing the post. (I still can’t believe she was able to stand back up!)

And we marched, and we marched, and we marched... OK, so the hike isn’t 33 miles exactly, but we knew it wasn’t 34! We weren’t sure how far beyond 33 miles we had to go to reach Sandfly Point. Katie was a woman possessed. She trudged on with fire in her eyes. We both moved swiftly knowing the end was within our grasp – not just an end to the hike but an end to the constant movement, to the damp feet, to the pain. Then I heard a very low rumble in the distance. It was barely audible. “Do you hear that? It sounds like an engine.” Just then we rounded a bend and saw buildings. We both cheered with joy. We’d made it! We’d made it to Sandfly Point with time to spare!

We pulled off our boots in haste and slipped on dry sandals. They felt like heaven. Those dreaded sandflies made an immediate appearance, but even they couldn’t dampen our spirits. We’d succeeded! We won! We took pictures holding our soggy boots like trophies. Victory was ours!

The view of Milford Sound was breathtaking. Even in that exhausted state I could appreciate it. In fact, once we were our on the water, I found myself energized once again. The mountains were gorgeous under the brilliant light of day and the blue water twinkled below. We all snapped pictures and grinned at each other as the New Zealand flag flapped in the wind. We’d made it.

End Of The Road

End Of The Road

Epilogue:

Everyone got off the boat and splintered apart. Some were staying on for a Milford Sound cruise, others went off to eat or hit the bar, while others were jumping on a bus to drive back to Te Anau. We were part of the latter group.

We said some goodbyes before grabbing spots on an early bus. The bus driver didn’t seem particularly “with it.” When he allowed everyone to board he found our names on a list but wasn’t checking them off or counting us. No matter, we were aboard and we were on our way home to Freestone Backpackers where showers, food, and sleep awaited us – in that order.

Asleep At Last

Asleep At Last

The bus pulled away with a load full of exhausted and quiet travelers. A nap would’ve been very nice at that moment, but unfortunately I soon realized that this was quite possibly the most beautiful drive I’d ever been on. Not the best time to enjoy it, obviously, but I had to keep my eyes open. I craned my neck to look in every direction. Gigantic mountains, waterfalls, the longest tunnel I’d ever driven through. I swear, when you’re in New Zealand you don’t have time to rest – there’s too much to see! Katie was slightly less enthusiastic about our surroundings and opted to close her eyes after a time. I couldn’t blame her.

Our absent minded bus driver pulled over to pick up more travelers. They were on his list but now there weren’t enough seats on the bus. Uh-oh. He kept telling the woman “You’re on my list; you’re on this bus” and she kept telling him, “Yes, but there aren’t any seats left.” Over and over this conversation occurred while he left the bus, reentered, tottered about, then left the bus again. It was strangely complicated for him. He finally figured out he was only short by one seat, so he had a gentleman sit on the bus steps next to the door. Not legal, I’m sure, but I certainly didn’t care and was happy to be moving again.

Katie and I kept trying to move our tense muscles while sitting on the cramped bus. She joked that this was our final torture: immediately after a 33.5 mile hike enduring 2 hours on a bus. Multiple stops later, we finally reached our starting point, Te Anau. Our bus driver, whom we’d nicknamed Brooks (if you’ve ever seen The Shawshank Redemption you’ll know who I'm talking about) pulled our bags out of the back of the bus. Just when he was driving away he slammed on the breaks. Apparently he’d pulled a random passenger’s bag out and was about to leave it on the side of the road with the owner still on the bus! Oh, Brooks…

We limped our way to the car and drove 20km back to Manapouri. We hit the showers, feasted on leftovers (Katie could barely lift her fork!), and finally fell into a soft warm bed.

We slept 12 hours that night.