Across the board, the seven of us are feeling the effects of aging bodies, various degrees of pain from different directions of motion. It is somehow comforting to know of our collective experience and not just think “I” am over the “hill”. BUT we DID IT!!! Clearly we were the oldest group of folks on the trail and I was constantly reminded of that by every young guide who passed us asking if we were OK?
Now back at the Milford Lodge, clean bodies and clothes — a layover day with an afternoon boat cruise up the Sound. We are now nine as David and Annie were here to greet us and host an evening dinner and game of hearts in their campervan (for the four of us). We returned to an almost flat tire on our “problem child” van but with luck found a source of compressed air as there are no regular service stations out here. More problematic was a blowout on Mark and Alexa’s rental car which led to two bent rims. Their rental company has been much less than helpful in rectifying the situation and all plans for the day have been altered to insure a smooth continuation of their travels tomorrow.
But back to the track—Wow!! Neither words nor pictures can fully convey the beauty. For years called “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World” by the promotors of New Zealand tourism, it well could be, but then who could possibly know or be the ultimate judge. My impressions is that the Milford must be to a passionate tramper as running the Grand Canyon would be to a devoted river runner.
The third and most difficult day of the walk was intensified by the worst weather we had in the four days. The rain began in the night and was steady through the morning and the 8:30 morning weather report indicated that we may as well get on the trail and up through the pass as soon as possible. So we began the steep uphill slog fully geared to be wet. In the words of the young Czech hikers we befriended, “You’re either wet from the rain or wet from the sweat.” So the next two hours and 1500 foot ascent were warm and damp. My pack didn’t feel that heavy as I was getting used to that appendage of my body. Early in the day and before any cumulative soreness set in I felt strong and on top of my game. I couldn’t help but think of my daughter, Heidi, a few years back hiking the whole Appalachian Trail by herself. She was using the best equipment she could find for a “light” pack, but once she got in shape was typically doing 20-25 miles a day! This short two hours gave me a glimpse into the world of feeling in shape…..but, it was not to last 🙂
Once we reached the top of the pass and the monument built to honor MacKinnon (who discovered the pass), the wind hit and turned all that warm moist interior into a chill that increased with our 20-30 minute exposure to the wind in walking to the hut at the top, before the four mile three thousand foot decent to the next shelter. The hut at the top was a real God send as a place to change clothes and rest. It even had a gas burner for making some soup or tea. Strangely, it had two doors, one which said independent walkers and the other which said guided walkers, which made some of us feel a bit second class. The “guided” side of the hut was heated and had hot tea and coffee already made. Those people were paying $300 a day for all their food and bedding needs in the upper end “huts” with a guide to read the mileage markers and insure their safe arrival at each next destination. No doubt there were other pamperings for that price tag, and, it did create a sense of separation that was noticed, significantly greater than the blend of private and commercial parties on a river trip.
While we wee warned that the downhill section was tougher than the uphill section it didn’t really hit home until the end of the day. The decent, while steep was not dangerous if done deliberately. Once off the top and wind protected the rain diminished and the layers had to come off. A mile or so from the top the trail turned down a very steep narrow canyon that became rather mind boggling as it descended a long, long wooden stairway with platforms occasionally protruding out over the river, an incredible cascade of numerous 10-25 foot drops lined with mossy boulder and ferns! The combined beauty and awesome “trail” just went on and on and on producing such amazement that our growing muscular discomfort was lost in the beauty of those moments.
There was such a deep sense of GRATITUDE….. for the DOC and their incredible efforts to create this trail that enabled this senior set to enjoy an incredible environment in relative safety; for the prompting by Greg to make the hut reservations early in the planning; for the email comments from Mark to brave the uncertain weather for the opportunity to be in a most amazing place that he was traveling 6500 miles to experience; for Kim’s willingness to endure an extra dose of pain and concern about a very weak ankle which had, in fact, given out in the last meters of the climb (the recovery in the warming hut was primarily attributed to the infusion of peanut butter and jelly on crackers in sufficient quantity to render the whining impotent, and thereby derailing the fearful thought forms regarding the approaching decent; and for all the Graces of our lives that enabled us to indulge in these NZ adventures at all.
The third days track eventually took us to a one mile side hike up to Sutherland Falls, tallest in NZ….. something that rivaled Yosemite Falls.
I wasn’t sure I had the energy to make it to the falls and then do the extra hour to Dumpling Hut, our home for that night, but in the end I did, and traipsed into the hut at 7:30 PM, a ten hour day on the trails. It was a day so full that I commented it alone would have made a good three day experience. It was the day, the heart of the hike, that gave it world class status in my mind and that made whatever hardship endured totally worth it for the infusion of such beauty (even on a “bad weather” day).
The young female ranger at the Dumpling Hut had just baked a four pound trout she had caught and set it out for the hut guests. We snacked like royalty (guided walkers)!
Our last day on the track was 18 km of gentle terrain which followed the Arthur River out to the Sound….. relatively speaking, a long but easy day. It was not at all short on beauty and ended in the astounding Milford Sound! Collectively, I think it accurate to say that we limped in to the boat dock to wait for the escape from Sandfly Point (which much to our delight was not the insect ordeal we had prepared for 🙂
Mark conducted a brief ceremony of completion in which he presented us each with a cotton sash with a traditional Maori patterned flax weave patterned which he had purchased seven years before on the North Island. We were spent and full and grateful and because the Milford experience would continue for us on a boat cruise the next day the sense of “it’s over” was only partial. The beauty would continue……..
Also from Mark’s occasional “fortune cookie” grab bag some concluding words of wisdom…………
“When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.” D.H. Lawrence