Monday, February 7, 2011

Milford Track, Day Four: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point (18km)

I have survived the Milford Track! Fifty-three-point-five kilometers later, I can proudly borrow Sir Edmund Hillary’s famous proclamation that “We knocked the bastard off”. I can also now add my name to the list of nearly 14 000 people who complete the great walk every year.

This morning I woke up at 6:30am as everyone started to pack up to get an early start; amazingly, when I stepped outside to run up to the kitchen/dining hall hut, it wasn’t raining! The rain had stopped at some point in the night, and the sensation was very strange as it had been raining continuously for over thirty hours by the time we went to bed. At 7am Ranger Ian gave us the clear to go ahead, saying the weather forecast only included light showers for the afternoon. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to hear a forecast that called for “only” light showers.

The dining hall component of Dumpling Hut

The bunkhouses at Dumpling Hut

Nothing quite equals the sensation of putting on wet clothes; despite hanging my shirt, leggings, fleece, and swimsuit up indoors, everything was still wet when I put it on. To add to the unpleasant dampness was an unpleasant musty smell, caused (I think) by the finish on the wooden bunkbed ladder rungs transferring to my clothes, as I hung them there to dry. I apologized to my feet as I slipped them back into wet socks and damp shoes, reminding them that I had re-bandaged them last night, so I wasn’t being entirely sadistic toward them.

All decked out it wet clothing, and ready
for another day of hiking!

Brian, Dan, and I set out at 7:56am, with 18km to cover before 2:00pm, when the boat left Sandfly Point. Unlike yesterday, the track was mainly flat, and downhill, but still required considerable effort to pick our way carefully across rocky and muddy sections. I constantly had to drag my mind back from its daydreaming and focus on the track ahead of me, lest I slip and do a faceplant like I did yesterday. The distinct lack of rain, however, made for very pleasant walking, and I didn’t feel half as guilty about taking my camera out to capture the awe-inspiring landscapes around us. My camera, however, has not completely forgiven me for what I put it through yesterday, and I don’t think it ever will; the display no longer displays the active image when taking pictures. That is, the settings and controls all appear on the screen, but there is no live image of what is being captured through the lens (although, inexplicably, there is when shooting in movie mode; they must be on a different circuit and I managed to fry the other one). Thank goodness my camera has a viewfinder! As such, I now have a digital camera that will shoot movies and play back photos just fine, but acts like a film camera when it comes to actually taking images. Oh, well. After the constant rain it was exposed to yesterday, it’s a miracle it still works at all.

The path of an old tree avalanche

Upstream of the old tree avalanche

The Boatshed

We continued following the Arthur River downstream, flanked by majestic, towering cliffs ribboned with slender waterfalls, like icing dribbling down the sides of a cake. The vistas were incredible; I kept thinking of the views we would have had yesterday up on the pass had it not been so cloudy and miserable. Still, as we walked along, the sun poked itself out from between the clouds, and the day became increasingly warmer, and I came to the conclusion that I would settle for one miserable day lacking in views in exchange for another day of hiking free of rain, which was what we ended up getting.

The Arthur River as seen from one of its
more serene crossings on a swing bridge

Crossing a swing bridge over Mackay Creek, we came to Mackay Falls, where James Mackay and Donald Sutherland flipped a coin to determine who got to name the waterfall (Sutherland wasn’t too disappointed in the end, as he got to name the next falls they came across!).

Brian preparing to cross Mackay Creek

Mackay Creek

Mackay Falls

Located across from the falls was a curiosity entitled “Bell Rock”: it’s a giant boulder that had its interior carved out by the scouring action of water and stones, and then flipped over in a rock fall, forming a mini sort of cave. One has to crawl through about a two-foot gap to get under, but once inside, I could stand up, jump around, and clamber up on other boulders, all without touching the top of the interior of the rock. (However roomy it was, though, I still can’t see how they managed to get twenty-two Japanese tourists inside there as Ranger Ian said happened... they were either all very small, or standing on each other’s shoulders!)

The ceiling underneath Bell Rock

Inside Bell Rock. Somewhat squishy!

At the 28-mile (45km) post we crossed over two suspension bridges at Poseidon Creek, which unnerved Matt’s girlfriend, as she kept saying Poseidon was the name of a ship that capsized, drowning its passengers. My reminder that the name originally evokes the Greek god of the ocean didn’t seem to comfort her any! We kept our spirits up by making fun of the accents of the family from Georgia (“I’m so glad to know you Canadians make fun of them the same way we Aussies do!”) and singing the riff from the Duck Sauce song “Barbra Streisand” (whoo-ooo-ooo-oo...).

The look of fear at the base of the swing bridge

Poseidon Creek

Heading toward Lake Ada

Delicate waterfalls, and a hint of sunlight!

Across the creeks, the trail once again followed the Arthur River, flowing into Lake Ada, which was formed when a rock slip partially blocked the river, forming a large reservoir. Here the banks are so steep that the trail was actually blasted out of the rock face by prison gangs and contracted work crews in the late 19th century. As we walked up the roughly hewn path, my eagle eyes were able to spot the graffiti Ranger Ian had told us to look out for: the names of two workers, chiseled into the cliff face, along with the date “May 1898”. It is surreal to think that the path I was walking on was carved out almost 113 years ago.

The track cut right out of the rock cliff

Graffiti nearly 113 years old. Amazing.

The Arthur River as seen from the hewn-out track

We're almost there!

Near the 30-mile (48km) post was the Giant Gate Falls Shelter, where we stopped briefly for water and a snack, but Brian and Dan were wanting to press on and reach Sandfly Point, which was 5km away. I wished we could have stayed longer, as my feet were starting to get very sore; had I not known the water to be insanely cold, and the air temperature not quite warm enough, I would have wanted to go swimming in the river, which was calm in the pool just down from the lake, and a very inviting clear green colour. As it was, we pressed onward, “farther up and further in”, and in just under an hour and twenty minutes we finally reached Sandfly Hut, 33.5 miles (53.9km) from the start of the track.

A perfect swimming hole, if it weren't so beastly cold!

Giant Gate Falls

We made it!

The lawns at Sandfly Point

An old chimney; I'm not sure from what.

Oh, it was glorious to take off my shoes and socks and lay my wet clothing out to dry in the sun! (My leggings and swimsuit underneath were actually completely dry, thanks to my body heat whilst walking). However, it didn’t take long for us to discover how Sandfly Point got its name; thankfully, the shelter where we waited for the boat to arrive was screened, so relatively few of the nasty insects were able to feast upon our blood. (That being said, I still have feet that are covered with bug bites.)

Milepost on track leading down to the wharf

Old, worn-out boots discarded by their owners

The boat (operated by Anita Bay, part of the Real Journeys network) arrived around 1:35pm, and we all eagerly loaded on, only to spend twenty minutes cursing and slapping at sandflies. The family from Georgia stayed behind; they were kayaking their way out, and just as we were pulling away the Kayaking tour boat showed up. There are actually two boats that pick up trampers from Sandfly Point, and I was supposed to be on the later one at 3:15pm, but there was enough room on the 2:00pm sailing, and the operators don’t care which one you catch.

Waiting in the shelter was a welcome respite (they don't
call it "Sandfly Point" for nothing!).

It was a short but beautiful boat trip down the final stretch of the Arthur River, and out into the waters of Milford Sound; and while it had clouded over, and wasn’t nearly as beautiful a day as the first time I visited the Sound, it was still breathtaking. I felt kind of odd, as a Canadian, pointing things out to Brian and Dan, Kiwis, who had never been to Milford Sound before! When we arrived at the dock and disembarked, all grubby and bedraggled, I heard the oh-so-clean tourists waiting to board a Milford Sound cruise boat comment to one another that we “look[ed] very wet”. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that was the driest we had been in 48 hours...

Pulling away from Sandfly Point

Exhausted but cheerful conversation on the boat

Farewell, Milford Track!

I was able to catch the 2:30pm bus back to Te Anau (I was booked on the 5pm), and once again traversed the spectacular highway and through the Homer Tunnel (something else Dan hadn’t seen before). We were a mostly silent bunch, exhausted from so much tramping, and I dozed a little bit between the Homer Tunnel and Te Anau Downs.

At 4:30pm we arrived in Te Anau, and I bid goodbye to Dan and Brian and (and Matt and his girlfriend, whose name I never found out!), promising to e-mail Dan a bunch of the photos I took. They all headed off to Queenstown, and I walked back up the road to Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers. So here I am now, after a shower, collecting my luggage in storage, and a wholly unsatisfying (but at least decently nutritious) dinner of rice, soy sauce, and tuna, washed down with a cup of tea. I’m exhausted, and sorry as always to have made new friends only to leave them behind again, but very glad to be warm and dry and sleeping in a bed tonight.

Tomorrow I have an eleven-hour bus ride from Te Anau to Christchurch that leaves at 8am, so I had best get to bed, seeing as it’s just after 11pm here now. I have a feeling I am going to dream of the Milford Track tonight... step, after step, after step. Despite my aching shoulders and knees, the bruises on my hipbones, and the angry-looking appearance of the blister on my right baby toe that is threatening to engulf its entire underside, I know it was worth it. Night!


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