Then watch as Milford Track websites miraculously appear like seagulls at lunchtime. Of all of New Zealand's nine Great Walks, this one is the undisputed King of the Hill. For the high season (now) available Hut spaces disappear at Warp Speed. This is truly a "You snooze, you lose" proposition.
The creation of the Track was all about tourism. The Kiwi Government offered up a carrot to anyone brave or really in need of the money to hack a route connecting the Clinton and Arthur Valleys. Quinton McKinnon rose to the occasion. He even named the pass after himself and became the track's first guide. Private huts were built and trampers were soon paying big bucks to be coddled through the 33.5 miles. It wasn't until 1965 when "Freedom Walkers" (unguided hikers) began to appear. The Government accommodated them. Build huts and they will come. And they are still coming despite the $246 price tag including bus and boat rides. Guided hikers staying in upscale lodges pay ten times that amount. Who says hiking is an inexpensive pastime?
So...on the day I began my hike, the atmospheric conditions in Te Anua weren't the "I can't wait to get going" kind. It was more like, "I wanna go back to sleep and wait for summer to arrive" kind. On the nearby passes and ridges the unmistakable look of fresh White Death appeared. OY! I went through the motions and packed up for my three night, four day hike. I piled my bag with plenty of warm clothes. Everything went into thick black plastic garbage bags to ward off the elements.
I boarded the early boat across Lake Te Anua to begin the walk.The closer our vessel got to the trailhead, the harder the rain fell. The trampers all scurried to don waterproofs.
Later, I asked the Captain if snow on the ridges was normal for this time of the year. "Achh!" was all he said as he turned away. I took this gesture to mean an emphatic "Hell! NO!"
At landfall, I hit the trail virtually running. It was only a three mile jaunt. I was determined to minimize my exposure time to this latest rinse cycle.
I was the first guest in the hut. I spent the rest of the day, drinking hot tea, drying clothes by the fire and reading relic issues of National Geographic magazines. My soggy hut mates tumbled in as the day wore on. We were an international band of brothers and sisters. There were: a gaggle of Aussies, a bevy of Belgiums, a foursome of French, a herd of Israelis, a clutch of Canadians (Eh!), a crew of Kiwis, a couple of Californians and a newlywed pair from Malaysia. As usual, I was the sole Wandering, Wondering Jew. (I'll admit this being single in a couples world is getting a bit old.)
Day Two dawned with the promise of rain. I was the first one out of the hut. My Kiwi hiking scheme is to make the kilometers between moist moments. The dry was temporary. I donned and doffed rain gear for the next 10 miles. At least it wasn't windy.
The trail headed up the Clinton Valley through another of New Zealand's ever present temperate rain forests. Once in awhile there was a gap in the green and an occasional view was scored. There's bucket loads of waterfalls along the Milford Track. That's pretty cool. However this forest type evokes Edgar Allen Poe feelings of dread and gloom. The trees are stunted, bent, bowed and limp. It's as if they surrendered to the oppressive weight of all the water pouring down on them. (Sixteen feet of rain per year on the Clinton valley side). Lichen, moss and ZZ Top beards of gray strands tug down on these poor trees as well. Another striking forest feature is the saddening silence. There's a reason for this.
A Wondering, Wandering Jew ecological lesson: Before White Folks appeared on this Island Nation, the forest were filthy rich with avian wildlife. The forest was a cacophony of squawks, chirps, cackles and Tweets (not the kind President 150 Word Vocabulary constantly bombards the public with).
Two-legged mammals introduced the Fearsome Foursome of Mammalian Mayhem: the rat, the stoat, the ferret and the weasel. The first to perish were the flightless victims-poor Kiwi birds. Songbirds soon followed. It was a Feathered Creature Holocaust.
The Department of Conservation has now declared an all out war to rein in the little terrorists. Traps and poisoned baits along the trail corridors are as prevalent as pigeons in Central Park. The DOC's motto: A good stoat is a dead stoat. I concur.
Moral of the story? Don't mess with Mother Nature.
Day Three dawned the same as day two. A shame because this was the literal high point of the Milford Track. An ascent to Mackinnon Pass (3,808') and the divide between the Clinton and Arthur Valleys. Fog and cool clouds brushed by me and my backpack. Visibility was reduced to 100's of feet. It was like walking through a misty dream. I passed a stone monument bearing a Cross (what? No Star of David!) and continued on toward the Mackinnon Pass Shelter number Five. (The first four had been blown away) Inside, I was still producing fog on each exhalation. Brrr. I fired up the Jetboil and guzzled a cuppa hot instant soup. Once in awhile the clouds parted and I was teased by what might have been on a clear day. Waterfalls are numerous on the downhill stretch, including the Fifth highest in the World-Sutherland Falls. (The Arthur Valley scores 33' of water per year. That's a three story building!)
Day Four was something new and completely different. It was sunny. I could see the physical evidence of what I missed on the pass. This wasn't a gently rolling terrain, it was straight up and at ya. Deep and green V-Shaped Valleys practically leaped up from the waterway. Amazing stuff.
However is the Milford Track the Finest Walk in the World? It might have been if I could have seen something on the Pass! But, I'll give the Kiwis the benefit of a doubt and sign up again for permits in a few years. I'm a curious guy.
However, I believe Finest in the World might be a wee bit of the blarney.
From sunny and warm Wanaka!