There are two ways to go - guided or independent. Guided huts are nicer than the independent huts, and you don't have to carry your food or cook. There are 40 people per day on the independent circuit and 20 on the guided circuit, but the guided huts are geographically staggered from the independent huts. This means you don't really see too much of the opposite party. You also don't see ANY of the people from the previous or next day. Because it is a one-way trail, by the third day, it seems like there are only sixty people in the entire world.
It is actually a really nice feature that you have to get to the next hut every day; it means that you spend four days with the same forty people and really have a chance to get to know them. I am still in touch with OJ [German, Pysch prof in California], and Hala and I have been invited to go on a tour of NW Australia with Josephina [Aussie, artist], her husband Allan, and daughter Anya in 1996.
I also met Charles [Brit, cabinet maker] and ?, David [Brit, self-employed marketing] and Kelly [economic publishing, American living in London], a South African man [chemical engineer] and his two teen-age sons (who were EXTREMELY nice/helpful and generous, perhaps cognizant of the bad reputation S.A. enjoys internationally), a whole bunch of Germans, including Christopher [between med school and practice], a family of red-headed Kiwis, and several more.
We took a bus to a ferry, which got us to the start of the track at about 3PM. The guided people got to stop at Glade Hut, very close to the start of the track . We, however, had to go about five kilometers in POURING rain. For some reason OJ only had his Birkenstocks on his feet, and so he went splashing through the rain getting wet wet wet. I had on my rain pants and raincoat but discovered that the word "waterproof" has a WILDLY different meaning in California than in New Zealand. I covered myself in a big garbage bag, but even so, by the time I got to Clinton Forks Hut, I was soaked clear through. I also had no dry long-sleeved shirts, so I shivered in my down vest while the rest of my clothes tried to dry.
(My garbage bag said BIODEGRADABLE on it in big letters; this became my nickname on the trip!)
I should note that some people didn't believe in leaving ANY of the comforts of home behind; there were three Spaniards + a Kiwi (living in Barcelona) who brought kitchen-type pots&pans, fresh tomatoes, garlic, pasta, broccoli, you name it, and would whip up these gourmet meals from scratch! What is even more impressive than four people carrying all this gear in is that the Kiwi had a bad back, and she didn't carry anything!
Photo by Hala Fauzi
The second day it rained again, though the sun was visible for perhaps a two thirds of the time. The hike took us along the Clinton River, which was quite pleasant.
Photo by Hala Fauzi
In this area, because the topsoil is so thin and the hillsides so steep, there are a fair number of "tree avalanches" where one tree goes and takes out a whole bunch below... but this one was rocks. It was pretty impressive. For reference, I am *in* this photo. I'm the yellow (reduced to white after so many scans and translations) dot a little left of center, lined up with the "2" in "12".
We did see lots of avian life; at our lunch stop at the Hiere Falls Hut, we had to keep shooing off not only sandflies but also keas - basically the avian equivalent of raccoons when it comes to mischievousness!
That night we stayed at Mintaro Hut, which was one giant hut (instead of two buildings as the night before). There were a few rooms of about eight bunks downstairs, and upstairs was one giant dormitory with about 20 mattresses in two rows, all laid out side-by-side.
In the middle of the night, I woke up, badly needing to use the facilities. Note that there is no electricity in the huts, and the Coleman lantern had long since been snuffed. However, thanks (?) to my having such awful eyesight for so long, I was able to find my way downstairs and to the outhouse. (Finding my shoes was the hardest part.) But it turned out to be well worth the effort: the sky had cleared some and stars were blazing magnificently.
OJ claims that it did not rain at all on the third day. I seem to
recall it raining some, maybe he was just so far ahead of me that he had different weather! We
did have nice weather as we passed this weird dead forest - possibly
killed by flood and then re-exposed later - and the remains of a huge
Photo by Hala Fauzi
It was good that we had nice weather, as this was the day that we went up and over a pass. We went up about 1000 ft and down 2000 ft. (Neat trick, huh?) The downhill was actually a lot harder than the uphill for me, because it took balance and coordination to keep from slipping on the loose, wet, slimy rocks. I never knew how many muscles there were below the knee, but boy I could count them all after that! The trail was also very very rough and rocky coming down; the "old" trail had been blocked off because of avalanche danger. (Never mind that a ranger who had brought his family along took all of THEM down that way!)
We were encouraged to leave our packs on the other side of the pass at Quill Hut (another guided-tour hut) and go on a 1-hr side trip to see Sutherland Falls. I was tired enough from going up and over that I passed on the opportunity. We passed along the Arthur River, crossing some fun suspension bridges along the way.
The fourth day, it rained. And rained. And rained. And
rained. About the only good thing that I can say for the rain is that
it made MacKay Falls really spectacular. It was here, under Bell
Rock, that I saw my first native mobile land forms: two spiders, way
at the top of a cavity under the rock.
Halfway through the day, I found that it was a lot faster and no less wet to just go straight THROUGH the puddles. There were also four or five streams that had to be forded, including several that were large enough that the rangers had strung ropes alongside to help keep you from falling. I have never been so wet for SO long! When I got to the boat pick-up at Sandfly Point [VERY aptly named], my fingers were so numb that I had trouble opening my backpack to get out my boat ticket.
Hala, ever the gung-ho go-get'em lunatic, had signed up to kayak back from Sandfly Point to Milford. When I saw her get on the boat, I said, "I thought you were going to kayak!" "WHAT?", she said, "Are you CRAZY?!?!?" That's how cold and wet we were!
Avshi and Temi, two friends of OJ's, indebted him to them forever by meeting him at Sandfly point with dry clothes. That evening, Hala, OJ, Avshi, Temi, the Australians, and I went to a pub. Some fierce games of ping-pong er table tennis went on while the others talked about life in NZ, the Middle East, Australia, etc etc etc. It was a really nice evening, despite my shoes&feet still being wet.
We spent the night at a backpackers' in Milford, where OJ and the Australians were also staying. We all made a beeline for meat and vegetables at the snack bar!
Roscoe, a local who ran the kayaking, was just astonished that Hala
would not kayak on the grounds that it was wet, but because he had
been way late with the kayaks he gave Hala and Christopher credit for
kayaking the next day. They went off and had a marvelous time,
paddling very close to some seals, and getting hailed from a distance
by OJ and the Australians, who were on a boat cruise around
Milford Sound. They also got royally chewed upon by sandflies; they
weren't moving fast enough to get away, and were soaked enough that
repellent would not have helped.
Me, I'd stayed back at the hostel, determined to spend all day by the fireplace getting warm and writing postcards, but my resolve wavered a little bit when the sun came out. I had the front desk call a helicopter place and put my name on a list. "They need a minimum of three, so if they get two more, I'll come tell you and they'll come pick you up." While I was waiting by the fire, sitting in my down mummy bag, the Australians wandered in, back from the cruise. Despite they and OJ running away from Hala and I every time we showed up on the trail, they were quite chatty and we talked for a while. I said that I was going to go on the copter ride..... and after several looks at each other and "gosh, that would be fun", they all signed up too!
Choppers are also a heck of a lot more maneuverable than planes, duh. The pilot took us up and down some waterfalls, practically literally. When we'd head down, we would be FACING down. We'd also pull a little free-fall from time to time. It was by far the best roller-coaster ride I have ever been on. (Hala, who gets motion sick, was not too upset to have missed it.)
The pilot took us up to Quill Lake, that feeds Sutherland Falls, which I now didn't mind having missed on Day 3. (I got a much better view than I would have from the ground!) Then we went up to a second lake that was up so high that it was mostly frozen. I thought for a bit that he was going to land us on the lake, but no, he landed on the bank of the lower lake and let us go out and look around.
Photo by Hala Fauzi
I guess I should mention at this point that the whole area was breathtakingly beautiful. (It is hard for me to describe beauty and images without sounding trite, so I frequently forget to bother.) But the area is all glacial valleys and fjords, so there are very steep mountains that go crashing down to lush valleys. And because it rains 7 meters (YES, SEVEN meters!) per year, there are lots of waterfalls, creeks, and rivers. The water was exceptionally clear; we could see sunken forests and rocks on the bottoms of the rivers from the helicopter.
That afternoon we took a bus back to Te Anau, ran down to the backpackers' and picked up the gear we'd stored (I almost left our sleeping rolls there!), and then caught another bus to Queenstown.
Skip to other pages: Christchurch, The Bike Tour, Nelson, Christchurch (again), and The North Island.
Copyright, 1994, Kaitlin Duck Sherwood