Friday, February 4, 2011

Milford Track, Day One: Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut (5km)

Despite being theoretically able to sleep in this morning, as my bus for Te Anau Downs didn’t leave until 9:45am, I was wide awake at 6:30am to the sound of my roommates packing and crinkling plastic bags (one packs everything in plastic bags here in Fiordland; with the amount of rainfall, you’d be foolish not to). I tried to send an e-mail home, but the cell phone service is so poor out here my vodafone stick couldn’t manage a connection; I ended up calling and leaving a message on the home answering machine instead.

After leaving the rest of my belongings in storage ($5 at the backpackers, yahoo!), I shouldered my pack and walked down to the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre to catch the TrackNet bus to Te Anau Downs. Forty-five minutes later, I was boarding the Fiordland Express 10:30 sailing to Glade Wharf with some of my fellow Milford Track hikers (the rest of them came on another sailing later in the day). The ferry was also full of Japanese day hikers, leading the skipper to play the safety speech CD in both English and Japanese.

The Fiordland Express

Beautiful Lake Te Anau in the morning

To reach the start of the Milford Track we sailed for just over an hour up to the head of Lake Te Anau to reach Glade Wharf. Seeing as this is Fiordland, the lake was formed when a U-shaped valley carved out by a glacier filled with water. A lot of water; Lake Te Anau is the second-biggest lake in New Zealand by area (only Lake Taupo is bigger), but the biggest on the South Island, and the biggest by water volume in Australasia (it is up to 417m deep!). The cool, greyish-blue waters and tree-lined mountains reminded me strongly of British Columbia, particularly Lake Cowichan.

Can you see the U-shaped valley?

About halfway into our sailing we slowed down to 5 knots (from our cruising speed of 20) for the skipper to point out a wooden cross, which marks the spot where Quintin Mackinnon’s wrecked boat was found in 1892. Mackinnon was the pioneer explorer and surveyor who discovered the pass that now bears his name, allowing the Milford Track to cross the Southern Alps. As the first Milford Track guide, he took patrons up Lake Te Anau in his boat, Juliet, and then guided them up over the pass to Lake Ada. His body was never found; as is often the case in fresh water, it is presumed to have sunk, and he rests somewhere at the bottom of the lake, at rest surrounded by the landscape he loved so much.

Another feature of the lake pointed out to us was “The Island” (as it is so creatively named), where Māori travellers used to shelter in overhangs of rock along its coastline to escape bad weather. This interesting archaeological fact was unknown until the 20th century, when European fisherman on the lake were forced to do the same thing during a storm, and discovered all sorts of artefacts within the overhangs.

A sheltering overhang on The Island

At 11:36am we docked at Glade Wharf, the official start to the Milford Track; we allowed the daywalkers to disembark first, so they could make the most of their limited time on the track. Before we could step off the dock and onto (semi) dry land, we all had to step through a bucket of disinfectant to clean our shoes of any potential biological pathogens, especially “rock snot”, or didymo, a particularly nasty algae that the Department of Conservation is working hard to keep out of the waterways surrounding the Milford Track.

Approaching Glade Wharf

Welcome to the start of the Milford Track!

And then... we were off! The Milford Track is what links Fiordland to the rest of Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island), and was once one of two main trails used by the Māori to collect pounamu (greenstone); in particular, the bowenite form of pounamu, called koko-takiwai, which is too soft for toolmaking but perfect for decorative carving, and was found near the entrance of Piopiotahi (Milford Sound). The pounamu was carried in backpacks over Omanui (Mackinnon Pass), down the Waitawai (Clinton River) to the head of Lake Te Ana-au, and taken by waka (canoe) to the Waiau River and beyond.

Dan poses at the start of the track.

The path was muddy, but not unbearable; I’m hiking in my runners, as I have no desire to repeat what the Heaphy Track and hiking boots did to my feet. About five minutes into hiking I picked up a ball cap that someone had dropped; a few minutes later, I caught up to its owner, a man named Brian, who was hiking the track with his 31-year-old son, Dan. I ended up walking the rest of the day with them. Brian is a Pome (sometimes spelt pomme, or pommie, it means Prisoner of Mother England; a cheeky Kiwi way of designating British people in New Zealand), who moved here as a young man, and Dan is in marketing, holding a BSc. in Pharmacology, and currently working on his MBA.

About 1km from Glade Wharf we came across Glade House in the grassy - er - glade, where the guided walkers who are part of the Ultimate Hikes tour spend their first night. It was pretty flash accommodation, particularly for tramping: apparently they have a bar and everything! Then again, they did pay $2000 a head, so I guess for that kind of money there had better be a bar. (And hot showers, and fluffy pillows, and freshly-baked scones, and someone to make all your meals and carry your pack...)

Glade House

The first of several swing bridges.

An inquisitive New Zealand robin

We walked by a sign proclaiming the area to be the “Site of Mackinnon’s Two Mile Hut, 1889”, although nothing in the area gave any evidence as to having once featured a cabin. Also visible a little farther on was Dore Pass, which the first freedom trampers hiked over in the 1960s to protest the Milford Track being accessible to guided hiking parties only. It is due in part to their perseverance that hikers like myself are now able to enjoy the Milford Track for free (well, not for free, as one must pay for boat transportation to and from the track, and accommodation in the huts, but still, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than the $2000 forked over by the guided hikers!).

Another deviation from the track took us on a wetland walk; I’m used to thinking of wetlands as located beside rivers or lakes, like at the BCFDC... however, this one was in the middle of a valley! Stunted shrub brush and moss is all that can grow in the area, due to a iron pan below the soil that blocks drainage of the water. However, the beech trees are slowly encroaching, and will eventually convert the entire wetland to dry (a relative term in this case) forest.

The path leading to the wetland

Decidedly stunted shrub brush and moss

We arrived at Clinton Hut, elevation 225m, at 1pm, and had lunch sitting out on the picnic tables on the deck, swatting at sandflies. We then chose our bunks; each bunk is numbered, and to sign in one writes one’s name on a piece of paper on the line corresponding to one’s bunk number, and drops one’s hut booking ticket stub in a little cup for the hut Ranger to collect in the evening. It’s quite an efficient system, and works well. I went straight for #7, an upper bunk, with Dan and Brian opposite me on lower bunks.

Welcome to Clinton Hut...

... Please choose your bunks!

After lunch the three of us went down to the Clinton River for a swim, which was VERY COLD. It reminded me of Englishman River Falls, in that the water was so cold my fingers and toes actually hurt, and putting my head under resulted in an ice cream headache. Not one to let the reputation of Canadians being able to tolerate the cold slip, I dove under four times, and spent a good 15 minutes in the water, and as a result came out completely numb and barely able to pick up my towel. Oh, well, at least the sandflies can’t bite you when you’re underwater!

The beautiful (but very cold!) Clinton River

The swimming hole

Back at the hut, Dan and I dried off by sitting out on the helicopter landing pad (used to drop supplies and provide emergency services if necessary), and talking to a couple from Israel and a man from Vancouver (who had the gay lisp, but speaks German and has a German boyfriend, which I found rather interesting. I wonder if he speaks German with a gay lisp, too?).

The view from the helicopter pad. Notice the timber
line visible on the mountain.

Scars from tree avalanches on the side of the mountain

At 5:30pm our ranger, Peter Jackson (yes, another Peter Jackson, not that Peter Jackson), came out and took those of us who were willing on a nature tour of the area. Boy, does that man like to talk! Bruce, a man from Australia, figures he must get lonely waiting all day for people to show up, and tries to fit a day’s worth of conversation into ninety minutes. He also had the most wonderful dry, sardonic sense of humour, which took a while for the group to start responding to (I was snickering the whole way... my kind of humour!). He told us far too many things to even attempt to repeat them here, but these are some of the highlights:

  • Horopito, the New Zealand pepper tree, whose leaves when chewed give off a strong, spicy, burning flavour (we got to try them) 
  • Horoeka, or lance wood tree, whose two distinct forms (juvenile and adult) caused early botanists to class the two as different species. The juvenile form has a single stalk with long, thin leaves, whereas the adult tree is branched and has shorter, wider leaves. One possible explanation for this is due to the number of understory-browsing animals who occupied New Zealand for much of its history, an evolutionary survival mechanism for a plant would be to have such small leaves as to make it not worth an animal’s time (and energy expenditure) to pick off little leaves, and to then develop larger, wider leaves once the plant was taller and out of reach of most browsing animals. 
  • Tutu, which is a poisonous shrub, and responsible for cases of cattle and sheep poisoning throughout New Zealand. Ranger Peter remarked we might want to note that plant for those of us with “murderous or suicidal intentions”. I took note, just in case a few snorers in the communal bunkrooms become unbearable... 

By 7pm, I was starving, and my freeze-dried dinner of spaghetti actually tasted pretty good as a result. I also learned an evaporated milk trick: when you have to buy skim milk powder because the store was all out of regular milk powder, just mix up twice as much powder to the water ratio than the package says to use; it tastes pretty close. After dinner I headed back to the sleeping hut and started making notes in my journal; meanwhile, Dan lay down on his bunk and continued reading his copy of Dune. Yes, we are reading the same book! And we are almost at the exact same spot in the book, too... creepy.

Dinnertime in Clinton Hut

At 8:30pm Ranger Peter gave a safety talk on staying in the huts (i.e. what to do if there’s a fire), and our weather forecast for tomorrow: he advised getting away fairly early in the morning, as showers are supposed to start tomorrow afternoon, and turn into heavy rain for the evening. Things are supposed to get, to use Peter’s euphemism, “exciting”. Oh, yes, that’s reassuring... He also gave us something of a sermon on how due to the presence of humans (and all the wonderful environmental blunders we make, like releasing stoats and possums and such into a country once dominated by birds and reptiles unaccustomed to the presence of mammalian predators), Fiordland is “but a skeleton” of its former biodiverse glory. Boy, that’s sure not the image New Zealand’s tourism industry machine promotes.

At 10:15pm tonight Ranger Peter invited us out for a stargazing talk; we went out to the helicopter pad, lay down on our backs, and were enthralled as Peter, armed with a laser pointer, became our guide to the night sky. I finally had the Southern Cross pointed out to me for the first time, the star Sirius, and the panhandle constellation (part of the constellation Orion, but of course all the stars are upside down here, so they form different shapes). I also learned that I will never see an upside-down Big Dipper here, as it is in the part of the sky invisible to the Southern Hemisphere, just like I can't see the Southern Cross at home. We also saw a five-second shooting star! It was incredible. I still think the stars were better that night Howard and I went out to get my laundry in Hope, but the experience of lying out at night, in the middle of the Clinton River valley, miles away from any city or electric lights... it was magical.

Tomorrow brings another 16.5km of walking, so I had best be off. Night!


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