01/31/11 - Milford Track
Day 2: 10 miles / 16 km from Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
Despite the good fortune of having snore-free bunkmates, I couldn’t get myself to sleep. It was very frustrating. Whether it was pointless brain activity, having to go to the bathroom, or being too hot or too cold, I just couldn’t fall asleep! Who knows how much I actually slept by the time the sun rose, but I was rested enough to function in the morning, so at least there was that.
The day opened clear and sunny. This brought smiles to all of our faces since none of us were keen on hiking under an onslaught of rain. But the night’s storm had left its mark. Due to the downpour (which I could hear drumming the rooftop into the wee hours), we were advised by the hut warden not to leave until after 8 A.M. since it had caused some flooding. By then the flooding would be clear, giving us safe passage.
By the time breakfast was over we were OK’d to be on our way. We noticed right away that the river had indeed risen. It rushed to the right of us, and was now at least five feet higher. Our trail was thankfully on higher ground, so we stayed dry while it roared past white and frothy.
The thick forest of green we’d experienced the day before continued onward. More birds crossed our path, and more attempts to have them to land on my finger failed dismally. Katie commented that this was the most magical forest she’d ever walked through. I agreed. There was a sense of birth and decay working in tandem, revealing a new level of peace with every step we took. For these brief days we were lucky to be a part of it.
The trees eventually thinned and fanned away, revealing our first view of the valley ahead. Mountains wreathed the gorge and waterfalls poured from their precipices. The rain had fed them well throughout the night. When it came to waterfalls, at least on this day, Milford Track blew Doubtful Sound away. They were everywhere. Thin, thick, short, and impossibly long – they ran and rushed, sending crashing echoes off the cliffs surrounding us.
Slowly, we made our way across the valley floor taking a couple breaks along the way, including a short detour to sit at the base of a waterfall. No one passed by. Long had the other hikers made their way ahead or lagged far behind us. We felt alone and secluded. It was paradise. Once back on the trail we saw Mackinnon Pass looming in the distance. It looked so far away, but we knew we'd be sleeping at its feet that very night. Tomorrow we would be crossing over.
The day’s hike ended with an hour and a half ascent to Mintaro Hut. After hours of flat ground we finally started our slow incline upward. It wasn’t steep, but it was steady, and after hours of walking it wasn’t the most welcome part of the trail. We traversed bridges and hopped over creeks; the water flowing below us was pristine. Crystal clear. Just looking at it made me thirsty. In fact, the hut warden said the water used in the huts came directly from the river and didn’t need filtering – it’s safe to drink as-is. What’s more, the bus driver who took us to Te Anau Downs said the lake and river water supplied the entire city without any filtering! The rain, glaciers, and moss covered forests were apparently all that was needed to get clean healthy drinking water. And it tasted great! I should know, because I sampled some straight off the trail. Very refreshing!
We spotted a brown Weka halfway through our ascent. I was so excited that I couldn’t get the camera out fast enough to take a picture. It sauntered into the bush while I bungled (just to spite me, I think), but I was a happy tramper because I’d finally seen one of the rarer birds of New Zealand.
From higher up the trail we were able to look back on the entire valley below. It extended far outward in green splendor. We’d just hiked through that! Looking at the view and seeing the distance we’d traveled filled us both with a sense of accomplishment. We were doing it! We were hiking Milford Track! Good on us!
It was around this time, though, that our bodies began to disagree. Eventually, they started grumbling about what we were putting them through. Walking ten miles carrying an overnight pack on uneven rocks tends to put a strain on your ankles, feet, legs, etc. Our waists and shoulders were also aching from the weight, but we trudged on. That last half hour was torture. Knowing that the hut could be just around the corner at any moment was like watching the second hand tick by at the end of a long work day. It seemed to last forever. I kept urging Katie to look at the vistas and forget the pain, but she was having none of it. She’d maximized her beauty intake. Besides, we were back in tree cover at this point, so the views weren’t there to distract us. It became easier to concentrate on the goal of getting there so that we could, you know, stop.
Needless to say, we made it. The pain increased once I removed my pack and my shoes. It was as though the weight and movement were keeping my body from telling the truth. I was grateful it had waited until the end to complain in earnest.
The view from the hut… Well, what can I say? It was absolutely stunning. Sheer rock face stretched upward before us. I felt comforted in its shadow. I could’ve sat and admired it longer but a chill blew in. Also, the sandflies were closing in. Katie and I both quickly donned some warmer clothes and curled up in our sleeping bags to get warm and take a short nap.
Dinner wasn’t anything special – some pre-cooked tortellini in a bag (it would’ve been better with bread). After filling our stomachs, we sat by the wood burning stove to warm ourselves. Unlike the previous hut, this hut was huge, and the stove was not doing its job properly. The wood was damp, which didn’t help. It barely burned despite the flames. We kept close to fire throughout the evening and went to bed early and warm.
We both needed a good night’s sleep so that our bodies could recover before a day of difficult journeying. Ahead of us stood an 1,800 foot ascent (550 meters) followed by an immediate 3,380 foot descent (1030 meters). 10.5 miles total, including a side trip to see the Sutherland Falls – the tallest waterfall in all of New Zealand. The hut warden said that tomorrow, no matter what state we were in by the end of our long descent, we should all make the trek out to see Sutherland Falls. It shouldn’t be missed! My mind agreed. When were we ever going to have this opportunity again? My body, however, told my mind to stuff it.