Sunday, February 6, 2011

Milford Track, Day Three: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut (14km)

Happy Treaty of Waitangi Day! On February 6th, 1840, representatives of British Parliament and Māori Chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, giving New Zealand a British Governor, (supposedly) acknowledging Māori ownership over the land, and (supposedly) giving Māoris all the rights of British subjects. It also started a tangle of confusion about land rights and claims that continues to this day.

The much-prophesied rain failed to materialize last night; Ranger Keri came in to wake us all just after 7am, warning us instead of high winds over Mackinnon Pass. Our decided course of action was to pack up and be ready to leave as a group in one hour, and Keri would guide us all up to the shelter at the top of Mackinnon Pass.

Getting ready to leave Mintaro Hut as a group

True to form, everyone had left the hut as of 8:00am; before she left, Keri gave me a note to give to Ian, the Ranger at Dumping Hut, and a marine radio (which, ironically, wasn’t waterproof; she gave it to me in a ziploc bag), and showed me how to call her on Channel 6 (“Keri, Keri, Carolyn calling"). I called her once I was leaving the hut, as the 34th and final person, so she had some idea of how spread out we were along the trail.

Incidentally, although the huge downpour did not materialize, it still rained steadily all night, and the rain continued to fall as we set out; I love how constant steady rain is not considered to be “real rain” in this part of the world. I guess it’s similar to how California beach bums would freak out at 10ºC, whereas Canadians would be running around in shorts and a t-shirt. After my horrible day (and night) of wetness on the Heaphy Track, however, I had learned a thing or two about being outside in constant rain: my belongings were all safely stowed within my pack inside a thick plastic pack liner, and I was dressed in my bathing suit, leggings, a quick-dry shirt, and my raincoat. My feet were bandaged and clad in socks inside my runners, but I knew my feet would likely be soaking by the end of the day.

The start of the zig-zags up to Mackinnon Pass, featuring
the never-ending rain. The sign is rather comforting, no?

The first part of the track this morning took us past Lake Mintaro, over a swing bridge, and then headed up a series of zig-zags (switch-backs), climbing steadily up toward Mackinnon Pass. Supposedly today we were to be treated to spectacular views of Clinton Canyon and Lake Mintaro, but in reality all we could see was a bunch of grey and mist. I tried to take photos of the shadowy waterfalls and mountain outlines, but my camera protested, producing either entirely blurry or focused-on-the-raindrops images... it’s not waterproof, either, so I tried to take it out as little as possible from its ziploc bag.

Swing bridge over the Clinton River

One of many beautiful waterfalls

Being on the radio at the back of the group ended up severely testing my patience, owing to a certain family from Georgia, USA (a grown brother and sister, and the sister’s son and his girlfriend). They dilly-daddled and lagged behind (particularly the man), and went so slowly that my muscles were just itching to motor past them. When Keri called me on the radio to ask if we were past the 15-mile point, I answered in the affirmative and she said the rest of the group would wait for us on zig-zag #6. I made a subtle suggestion to the Georgia family (as we were stopped), saying, “They’re all waiting for us just a little bit up the track,” and the man whipped around to me, saying, “Well, we paid good money for this trip, and we’re going to go at our own pace. And if you point your stick at me and tell me to ‘Go’ again, young lady, I’m gonna sit down and not move, because I’ve put more miles on my feet than you have in a car.” And Americans wonder why we think they’re all self-centered egotists. I simply smiled thinly at him and kept my mouth shut; I figured he wouldn’t react well to having Spock’s dying words quoted to him (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”).

The one thing the Georgians were good for: entertainment value. Their accents were so drawling, and so stereotypically Southern, that in listening to them talk it took all of my decorum to keep from laughing. (“Look at that them there waterfalls fallin’ down th’ side of that mountain! Don’t that just remind y’all of the cake moms made for my birthday last year? Y’know, the chocolaty one with all that dribbly white icin’?”)

Clinton Canyon. "Look at them there waterfalls!"

We caught up with Keri at the sixth zig-zag, and she told me she was going to continue up to the memorial at the top of the pass, where we’d stop once more to regroup, then continue on to the shelter. She also commented on how I wasn’t even breaking a sweat; seeing as the Georgians were in earshot, I simply remarked how I would normally motor up the hill (she told me she was going about half her normal speed, too).

Making our way up the zig-zags as a group

The second half of the zig-zags was definitely more unpleasant for me than the first; whereas on a bright sunny day we would have been treated to spectacular views once we got above the treeline, today we were simply greeted with lashing rain blown directly into our skin by the fierce winds. My hands were rapidly going numb, and my soaked rainjacket clung to my arms, providing no insulation against the chill of the wind. When we finally reached the memorial to Quintin Mackinnon erected at the top of of the pass, there was no time to appreciate the 12-second drop view (not that there was any view today, anyway); Keri simply wanted to get us all up to the shelter at the top of the pass another twenty-five minutes away before the wind blew us all off the top.

Emerging out above the treeline; Mackinnon Pass is
visible in the top right of the photo.

Memorial to Quintin Mackinnon, erected
by the Gaelic Society of New Zealand

Twelve second drop's view of... fog.

By this point I was getting so fed up with the Georgians I wanted to scream, but I figured it would be a waste of precious energy my body could put toward making body heat. They stopped repeatedly for breaks and to take pictures of the Mackinnon Pass peak sign (1073m above sea level), and my fingers were going numb and then blue from the cold. My hat was also soaked through, and the sides kept flopping down and blown into my eyes by the wind, cutting off my depth perception, and making choosing my steps very tricky (and dangerous).

Near the summit, heading to the Mackinnon Pass Day
 Shelter. The lake to the left forms as a result of high rainfall.

The highest point of the Milford Track

At last, nearly 2 1/2 hours after leaving Mintaro Hut, the last of us stumbled into the Mackinnon Pass Day Shelter; I was shivering uncontrollably, and could barely make my fingers work to take off my backpack and soaking wet coat. Inside the shelter steam could be seen rising from everyone’s backs, and water pooled on the floor, dripping from our coats, boots, pants, and packs. Outside, the wind howled fiercely; apparently, previous shelters built on the top of the pass have been blown away entirely.

The Shelter was equipped with a gas range, and some of the Israelis (who, being at the front of the group, had arrived considerably earlier I did) had made tea, which they kindly shared with me. I also wrung out my socks, and put on my fleece and wool gloves, which warmed me up somewhat. I gave Keri back her radio, and she warned us that while we were now free to cross down the other side of the mountain at our own pace, she wanted us to leave sooner rather than later, as the forecast still called for heavy rain to begin around 2pm.

Inside the Mackinnon Pass Day Shelter. Note all the water
on the floor and moisture in the air!

I was once again one of the last to leave and begin the descent over to Fiordland; a steady downhill of 8km, dropping 970m. Upon rounding the Shelter, I was nearly blown over by the wind; it reminded me of the hike I went on in the Ruahine Ranges where I met Sally. The trail was rocky, unstable, and now an impromptu creek bed; I very quickly gave up any pretense of trying to keep my feet dry, and settled for choosing the safest footings, be they underwater or not. “Broken back, wet feet, broken back, wet feet.... I’ll take the wet feet, please!”

The trail / impromptu creek

Picking our way down the side of the mountain

I can only imagine how spectacular the view must be on a clear day over this part of the trail; as it was, the towering cliffs laden with thin ribbons of waterfalls were majestic and awe-inspiring, particularly as the trail often ran right beside or through them. Once I had dropped fifty metres or so, the wind abruptly stopped howling and became far less severe; now that I could stand up without fear of toppling over, I tried to take regular breaks to save my knees and ankles from total destruction on the rocky, unforgiving descent (they’re still not too happy with me).

Dozens of waterfalls. When rain falls here, it as nowhere to
go but down the sheer rock faces of the Southern Alps.

Walking underneath waterfalls

After passing several of my fellow hikers (including the Georgians, yea!), I followed the trail passing under the (invisible in the mist) Jervious Glacier and crossed over the Moraine Creek Bridge. Following Moraine Creek, I came to my first water crossing where I had no choice but to step directly into the flowing water; it was too far to jump, and there were no strategically-placed stones to use as lilypads. Sploosh! My runners were now thoroughly soaked. Just past the 18-mile (29km) post, the trail led onto a wooden platform, and then down a series of staircases beside Rosemary Burn, featuring a great number of visually impressive and loud waterfalls. Waterfalls are definitely not an endangered species along the Milford Track! It was especially surreal to be surrounded by so much water all day long, and then read Dune at night, Frank Herbert's epic science fiction masterpiece about life on a desert planet.

Dudleigh Falls

Slippery? With all this rain? You don't say...

The roar of this waterfall was particularly deafening.

Eventually, after passing several more trampers, including Bruce and Claire, I caught up with Dan and Brian. The trail became never-ending down, down, down, walking in the never-ending rain, rain, rain. However, thanks to the miracle of wool and fleece, even though my clothes were sodden, I was comfortably warm.

This photo especially reminds me of British Columbia.

Around 1pm we finally reached the Quintin Lodge Day Shelter, located beside the much flashier Quintin Lodge, where the guided hikers spend their third night. The advantage to the shelter being located beside the “palace”, so to speak, was the inclusion of a hot water cistern, and complimentary tea, coffee, milk, and sugar provided by the Lodge for our benefit. Dan and Brian decided to just stop for a cuppa and then continue on to Dumpling Hut, but I, after gulping down a cup of tea and chewing my way through a bagel, decided I felt rejuvenated (or crazy) enough to take the side trip to Sutherland Falls, whose track listed a 1:45 return time. Feeling energized, I left my pack in the Day Shelter, and set off down the track at a light jog.

Quintin Lodge in the pouring rain

The Sutherland Falls track required me to literally wade (or in my case, splash) through four creeks. I was past the point of caring about my sopping runners, however, and I continued on at my blistering pace, passing the two girls from Thailand, an American couple, and a girl from Portland, Oregon. After about twenty minutes I made it to a sign that said “Sutherland Falls 580m. The distance from this point to the base of the falls is equivalent to the height of the falls”. As I walked the remaining distance (over half a kilometre!) the sign had its intended effect, and I marveled at how tall these falls really are. When I reached the base (or about as close to the base as I was willing to get), I was nearly blown down by the wind, and drenched with the spray (as if I wasn’t drenched enough already). I tried to take a few pictures from a bit farther back, but even so, my camera was not at all happy with me.

These trees reminded me of arbutus trees back home

The falls are named for Donald Sutherland (1843-1919), who was an explorer and prospector, and earned the title of the “Hermit of Milford”. He was one of the first European settlers in the Milford Sound area, and would host early visitors on the Milford Track (albeit somewhat selectively; if he didn’t like the look of you, you weren’t coming with him). Sutherland found the falls with John Mackay on the 10th of November, 1880. The falls have three leaps, and upon finding them Sutherland and Mackay were so impressed and excited they rather grandly overestimated their height to be 4000-5000ft (1200 - 1500m). The falls became a catalyst for the development of the Milford Track, and Fiordland’s fledgling tourism industry.

Sutherland Falls

In 1888, Charles Adams, chief Surveyor of Otago, established the height of the falls to be 1904ft (580m), with leaps of 815ft, 751ft, and 338ft, respectively, significantly less than Mackay and Sutherland’s initial estimates. Tourists, however, didn’t seem to care, and continued to flock to the area. On Sunday, March 9th, 1890, William Quill became the first to ascend to the top of the falls, a trip which took him only two and a half hours. He left a calico flag at the top, marked with his name and the date in hematite. At the top, Quill discovered a lake about 1.6km across, fed by a glacier on Mt Mackenzie, which was later named Quill Lake in his honour.

Perhaps the best (or at least the most romantic) description of the falls is this one by Blanche Baughan, dating from 1908:

From an unseen, glacier-fed lakelet between Mt Daniells and Mt Hart, the escaping current hurls itself straight down the sheer grey mountain-wall, a long, slender, ever-recurring meteor of eager white, received, amid the spray-glittering forest, into an enchanted pool... never quite seen, always mysterious behind its veering veils, elusive ineludible, of fugitive rainbows, and whirling evanishing diamonds. There is no such fall, it is said, and no such setting, anywhere else in the world. It is hard to believe. 
But it is not the power that distinguishes these Falls... the Sutherland has a quality forbidden its compeers by their very mass. It is ethereal, delicate, spiritual almost. Slender, lofty, it comes as if sent down straight out of the sky. 

Despite such a splendid description, I’m sorry to say I couldn’t rhapsodize about the Sutherland Falls nearly as much. On this cloudy, rainy, cold day, I found them to be grey, hidden from sight, and very powerful and noisy; certainly not graceful or delicate.

Retracing my steps (again at a jog), I made it back to the Quintin Lodge Day Shelter in just under 25 minutes, meaning my return trip took about 45 minutes, half the time suggested on the sign. The Georgian family had just made it to the Shelter, so I quickly shouldered my pack and was off for the one-hour hike to Dumpling Hut.

The track now followed the Arthur River downstream in the Arthur Valley (yes, Art, it appears everything in this country is named after you). The rain was falling more steadily now, and the river level was starting to rise noticeably, so I walked as quickly as I could. A little too quickly, it turns out; my right foot caught a rock sticking out of the path, and before I could stop myself, I tripped and went headfirst into the gravel, WHAM! The heavy pack on my back provided extra momentum, kindly slamming my head into the rocks as well. Interestingly, my first thought when I went to pick myself up was not “Am I bleeding?” but “Did I rip my leggings?” The answer to both questions was thankfully no, but I do have nice bruises developing on both knees, and just above my forehead in my hairline.

But all’s well that ends well: I made it to Dumpling Hut before the river levels rose over the path! Dan had kindly saved me the bunk above his, so I busied myself with wringing out and then hanging up my socks, gloves, leggings, jacket, and fleece, and then changing into dry pants and another fleece top; it felt very strange to be dry after spending seven hours soaking wet. I headed up to the kitchen/dining hut for a cup of tea and socialising, and then a dinner of freeze-dried lamb fettuccine (surprisingly good). I delivered Keri’s note to Ranger Ian, and at the hut meeting he thanked us for all getting up and over the pass without breaking any bones or twisting any ankles, and told us amusing stories about people getting drunk and falling asleep on the track, or wandering past the hut entirely (it made me wonder why people bother packing alcohol on the track; bottles are heavy!).

After dinner I played several rounds of Freecell with Dan’s cards while Hugh and Matt watched in amusement, and then we all sat and talked with the girl from Portland, Oregon (I am so bad at finding out people’s names). I decided to turn in early, as I was yawning like crazy; I think my sprints to and from Sutherland Falls might have had something to do with that. The rain is really starting to fall now, pounding on the metal roof above my head; thankfully, we are past the worst of the flooding zones, but I’m not very optimistic about staying dry tomorrow. Besides, in all likelihood I’ll be putting on wet clothes in the morning anyway, so getting wet is pretty much guaranteed.

Time to go curl up in my nice warm sleeping bag and listen to some more Goldfrapp to drown out the snorers. Or maybe some B*Witched... :-) Goodnight!


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