Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Milford Tramp

Vicki's Boots Being Baptized (to prevent spread of didymo ("rock snot") microorganism)

The Clinton Valley

A Standard Milford View

At Mackinnon Pass

A Glacier Above Arthur Valley

The Milford Tramp is billed as “the finest walk in the world.” It is certainly the most highly-regulated. Camping is not permitted. Only 40 trampers are allowed per day, and they must stay in the three huts, the Clinton Hut, the Mintaro Hut, and the Dumpling Hut, in order. Travel is one way only, south to north across Mackinnon Pass. The start is at the top end of Lake Te Anau, which you get to via boat, and the end is at Sandfly Point, from which you catch another boat to Milford Sound, on the fiord. Unless you have made other arrangements, there are also two bus rides involved, from Te Anau to the lake boat at Te Anau Downs (30 minutes) and from Milford Sound back to Te Anau (two hours). There is also a guided walk program, nicer accommodations, food, transportation, provided, etc., for a smaller number of “trampers,” at about 800US$ per person. The guided walkers we saw were mostly Japanese.

The tramp takes you up Clinton valley, 16 miles, to Mackinnon Pass, then down Arthur Valley, 17 miles, to Sandfly Point. Except for the upper reaches of the pass, you are in an ancient beech forest all the way, low ferns and other plants, too. The two valleys—canyons, really—are deep glacial trenches with high walls on either side and at their heads. Above the 2,000-3,000 foot walls are the largely unseen mountains with their snowfields and glaciers. If you like waterfalls, this is the hike for you. There are hundreds, thousands, all different, most enormous, culminating in the 1,900 foot Sunderland Falls, one of the world's highest. Although rain was forecast for our tramp, all four days, we saw only a bit of drizzle two afternoons and actual rain only the third evening. But even a little additional moisture here creates new waterfalls, and part of the interest is seeing a “new” waterfall appear where there was none only a moment before. With all this water and the constant cleansing and washing of everything, the creeks, and then the rivers, the Clinton and the Arthur, are the clearest flowing bodies of water we have ever seen, deep and wide and powerful, too.

On the Milford, you're with the same group of 40 for the entire tramp. Our group was about half Kiwi—several families tramping together—a Canadian, Michel, the 3 amigos from Colorado, a couple from Alaska, us from Montana, couples from Poland, Israel, and others from Germany, Denmark, and elsewhere. Vicki and I were the oldest and slowest, but then we generally are. People bond, more or less, on these tramps, and we had a good group with whom to bond, especially our fellow Americanskis. Interestingly, all of us are spending considerable time in New Zealand and loving every minute of it.

The crux of the tramp, it would appear, is the third day, with its ascent of Mackinnon Pass, about 2,000 feet up and more down. We reached it without much exertion. The pass itself was a hurricane, as most passes are. We had a hiker's lunch at the pass hut, the fifth hut on the premises: the previous four had blown away. The walk down was not as bad as expected. DOC has installed a number of wooden staircases at the steepest and washed-away points. And before arriving at the Mintaro hut, one can enjoy the side trip to the base of 580 meter Sunderland Falls.

The crux of the tramp for us was the fourth and final day, 12 miles from the hut to the boat. Our tickets were for the 3:15 boat, the last of the day, we were given to understand. The night before, heavy rains were predicted, up to 200mm (6-8 inches), and we were told not to begin the hike before the 7 AM weather report. The track often floods out, the hut warden said, and in such circumstances, it was not unusual for hut occupants to be flown out by DOC helicopters. So we went to bed hoping for a helicopter rescue!

There was no rain that night, nor the next day (it all passed south), and so we departed the hut at 7:05, trudging the last 12 miles to Sandfly Point. The last day is largely level ground, scenic nonetheless, and we were greatly relieved to arrive at the Point early, at 2:45. The boat captain informed us that, oh yes, there is a 4:00 boat, and later boats, until everyone is accounted for. No one has ever been left over-night at the aptly-named Sandfly Point. Vicki vowed to protest to the DOC. But as we rounded the Point, the fiord came into view, with Mitre Peak, other mountains, glaciers, and more waterfalls, and the anticipated grand view was both reward and relief.

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