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Stepping high in New Zealand.

I had reached the top of the pass. There was no one in sight. The only sound the harsh cry of a kea or mountain parrot. The valley below was shrouded in mist and cloud drifted ghost-grey between the mountains. I had never been anywhere else ... only here.

Here was the middle of the Milford Track in Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand, a 32-mile trail from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound; up Clinton Canyon, over Mackinnon Pass, past the Sutherland Falls - fifth highest in the world - and down to Milford Sound.

The travel brochure had been brief: 'The trail passes through an unspoiled mountain wilderness of dense rain forests, tumbling rivers and cascading waterfalls, all surrounded by the towering glaciated peaks of the Southern Alps. The scenic variety and vast panoramas of this remote mountain landscape have earned the Milford Track the title of "The Finest Walk in the World".'

From Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu we had come by bus to Te Anau where the launch was waiting to take us some forty miles northward to the head of the lake. It was in Te Anau that the scenery changed from open pastoral country to majestic tree-covered slopes, looming darkly in succession on both sides of the lake. The water swelled to our approach, but the launch moved steadily forward, immune to the menacing shadows brooding over the narrow passage. Wind scoured the exposed deck and sudden rain whipped the window glass. Heavy clouds covered the peaks and mountain tops.

At the head of the lake was Glade House wharf and a sign 'Milford Track'. We had already passed Welcome Point and Happy Cove so, in a receptive frame of mind, entered the rain forest and a path over which beech trees formed a glistening roof and moss glittered emerald along the ground. It was a pleasant stroll to Glade House, focal point of a grass-covered clearing bounded by the gently winding Clinton River where, since it was already five o'clock in the evening, we spent the first night, lulled by the racing river and the developing darkness which gradually and surely enclosed the land and put a sharp edge on the cool, clear air.

Since we were a Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand (THC) party, we had a guide from Glade House to Milford Sound. The 32 miles of track are divided into ten miles the first day, nine miles the second and thirteen miles on the third and final day. The objective for tho first day is Pompolona Hut, the second over Mackinnon Pass to Quintin Hut, and the third to Sandfly Point to meet the launch from Milford. We have come in the spring. Winter snows powder the peaks, and trailing silver over black rock marks the passage of waterfalls as torrents of rain pour off the mountains into the lakes and valleys below.

At eight o'clock the next morning we cross the first suspension bridge on our way to Six-Mile Hut. The sky is cloudy, with brief intervals of sunshine. The track is wide and comfortable for walking. The river flows parallel to the track; the water is green and crystal clear. The stones, pebbles and rocks on the riverbed are as visible as the large trout moving calmly in the depths. The walkers spread out, some ahead, others still to come, so that to all the forest becomes their own particular domain, every step and every turn in the trail revealing a lush new beauty.

The music of water is a constant companion. The flowing river, streams bubbling over rocks, the rush of waterfalls. Water dripping into secret pools, tumbling gently over smooth rock, sliding in separate strands to foam over the rock below and create a miniature waterfall before joining the main body of the stream. On both sides of the track tremendous trees support moss-drenched branches. Frozen snow, white on the slopes. On the ground the delicate beauty of massed ferns, their tender fronds as fragile as lace. Grey clouds hover on the mountain tops, like phantoms of a fading night. Giant waterfalls hurl into space. Baby waterfalls trickle pleasantly over rocks. We come to a snow draped cave and rocks scattered like foam in the wake of an avalanche.

Birdsong fills the tree tops, though the birds are not easy to see. An occasional robin, a sudden whirring of wings, the clear, melodic call of the bellbird. The splendour of the rain forest, and the joy of inhaling cool, clean air! The green twilight of the area known as the Black Forest where, as in a tale by the Brothers Grimm, tree trunks rise slim and black against a background of gnarled, twisted branches held out like frozen fingers of despair, some lying in tortured shapes on the ground, the whole draped in lichen and moss. Overhead, an occasional glimpse of sky through clustered foliage.

All too soon we are at Clinton Forks and then Six-Mile Hut between sheer cliffs of silver-streaked rock that block out the sky on both sides of the canyon. After Six-Mile Hut, the track takes us over four miles of loose stone and rock, still in the forest and still accompanied by the Clinton River. A profusion of rocks and boulders strewn on the slopes, and along the pathway, indicates where the land has slipped down the mountainside. In the distance, like a wall in the sky, we see Mackinnon Pass at the head of the river. Most of the streams along this part of the track are dry today, but rocks continue to build as we near the ten-mile mark and Pompolona Hut, between the river and Castle Mount, our 'hotel' for the night.

Day two dawns fine and dry. Everyone knows this will be the toughest day. Three miles of rocky, wet, slippery, muddy, narrow track through the rain forest, followed by two miles of steep, graded zig-zag to the saddle of Mackinnon Pass, with Mount Hart to the west and Mount Balloon to the east, both mountains in the region of 6,000 feet. The upward climb is warm work. An ominous sound breaks the silence. Distant thunder? An airplane crossing the mountains? Nothing to be seen in the sky. The rumbling begins again. Another walker has the answer. 'That's an avalanche.' You stand still. The sound reverberates through the mountains. Impossible to identify direction or distance. You wonder if the rocks above are going to start tumbling on to the path. There is nothing to do but keep moving upward.

Suddenly, we are out of the rain forest, into tussock and rock above the timberline and, straight up, our goal of the Pass. The last mile seems endless as one S-bend succeeds the other, and the saddle recedes and reappears like a frowning mirage. Finally, the top, with the wind blowing unchecked, as white mountain buttercups and daisies bend in greeting. Keas, dark green in colour, paddle across the ground, some flying up, dazzling with the brilliant red of outstretched wings. To the left a cairn erected to the memory of Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell who discovered the Pass in October, 1888. Beyond, a marvellous view of Arthur Valley. Tarns are everywhere and you toy with the idea of dipping your feet in one of them, but a small sign advises it is twenty minutes to the hut, so you follow the winding, desolate track to the right, spurred on by thoughts of the hot drink that awaits. Also awaiting, a tremendous view of the Clinton Canyon which, even on a dull, cloudy day, impresses with its symmetry of mountain and valley.

Fifteen miles of track are now behind us and, for the first time, we are free of sandflies, which lurk below the timberline waiting for us to rejoin them. These little, black flies help keep us moving along the track since their bite raises a small, red lump that requires fierce scratching for about a week. Maori legend names the Goddess of the Underworld, Hine-nui-te-po, as the source of the sandfly, which she placed at Sandfly Point on the shores of Milford Sound in an effort to ensure forever that man would not linger too long in this domain of the gods. The rest of the day is down, and only four miles. The objective now is Quintin, a remote dot from the Pass.

It soon becomes apparent that going down is far harder on the knees than the upward climb. It becomes a steady sledge-hammer pounding as pace drops to about one mile an hour, and your eye gauges the reliability of the next rock or seeks a dry spot through the mud. You leap, you creep, you slip, you stagger, sometimes the weight of your pack throwing you off balance. You skid on frozen snow but, somehow, keep slogging along through streams and over bridges. In fact, bridges, built by track guides, become a velvet walkway compared to the rocky surface, honey-combed with twisted tree roots, that lines the track. About half way down the scenery changes from alpine to bush and you cross Roaring Burn, marvelling at the palisade of waterfalls that descend, almost like a rock staircase, as the river lives up to its name. Look to the northeast ... there is snow-covered Jervois Glacier and Mount Elliott and, in the distance, the top of the Sutherland Falls, which descend in three massive leaps from Lake Quill to the Arthur River. Gone are the keas and mountain buttercups; back are the sandflies. At ten minutes to five Quintin Hut, glimpsed through the trees, marks the end of the descent and serves as an introduction to the Arthur Valley, the next stage of the tramp.

All night long, heavy rain falls on the roof of Quintin, the heaviest of the journey, and in the morning you come out to a world still wet and dripping, soggy underfoot and, again, of startling beauty. The schedule for the day is the longest distance yet, thirteen miles to Milford Sound where, at four o'clock, the launch arrives to take you across the Sound to Milford. There is so much mud and water on the track that there is only one sensible thing to do ... wade through the first stream, after which you can stop worrying about keeping your feet dry!

The track is rough for the first couple of miles descending Gentle Annie Hill and skirting Mount Elliott to enter the Arthur Valley. The thunder of the Arthur River becomes part of the day, as you are again surrounded by forest and fern. You pass Dumpling Hill on the left of the track, with the 'freedom hut' (for individual, or freedom, walkers) to the right. After six miles you reach Boatshed. It seems that the king of the sandflies holds court at Boatshed, the traditional stopping place for lunch, and you waste no time dropping your pack to the ground and sliding through the door.

Leaving Boatshed, the track crosses the Arthur River by way of a suspension bridge. The afternoon becomes filled with invitations to linger, even though you are aware of the miles ahead and the four o'clock deadline. The power and spectacle of the Arthur River, now on your right, is fantastic. It hurls forward, tier after tier, the water a pale grey, cascading in endless cataract over the jutting rocks.

Almost at once you come to the side track which takes you to the Mackay Falls, discovered in 1880 by Donald Sutherland and John Mackay (they flipped a coin and the winner named the falls. Sutherland's moment of glory in naming a waterfall was still to come). The Mackay Falls sweep down the mountainside, a moving curtain of water behind a chiffon of mist, descending gradually over glistening black rock spurs, finally frothing into the river at the foot. The forest is again filled with the melody of birdsong, and the river widens into a magnificent, calm lake. The panorama of snow-capped mountains and forest, lit by sunshine, presents a picture so exquisite it seems more the creation of an artist's brush than reality. This is Lake Ada with Mount Ada and the Sheerdown Hills on the opposite shore and, in the distance, Milford Sound and the white plume of Bowen Falls.

There is more! Crossing another bridge you come to Giant Gate Falls. This is one waterfall you can approach and touch. Here are nature's colours, as water and ground combine to produce delicate shades of blue, green and brown. Because it is so close to the track, Giant Gate becomes your own personal waterfall. You cannot stay too long. It is already past three o'clock. The last miles are dream-like. The track becomes wider and, mercifully, less abrasive. You are drifting in bliss alongside the take, listening to the orchestra in the trees, still enthralled by the grandeur of the forest. The ground is shadow-filled and golden sunlight filters through the trees. You hear the last silvery chime of the bellbird as the rugged track melds into a harmless, sandy path that takes you through grass to the water of Milford Sound.

Them are those who take the Track in their stride. To the experienced walker, it is simply a pleasant walk. The more ambitious hiker may even express scorn at the 'luxuries' of bridges and wire handholds now provided along the track. But all agree that the Milford Sound, between Mitre Peak and the Lion, has to be one of the most memorable sights in the world. The towering peaks that loom over the Sound, the tree-covered slopes, the crenellated mountain-tops frosted with perpetual snow, the penguins peering from colourful green and gold rocks, the sheer granite walls alive with hundreds of waterfalls, the giant shower that is Bowen Falls and the beautiful blue water of the Sound combine to produce a magnificence that is breath-taking. An astonishing sight is a waterfall, seized by a capricious wind and swept back up the mountain.

Returning to Te Anau by bus seems almost an anti-climax. In the hotel a lady asks: 'Do I need to get a hat like yours?' I am still wearing the woollen cap and yellow rain jacket, 'uniform' of the Track. She is wearing a scarf on her head. From the lofty heights of one who has just come off the Milford, I ask: 'Are you going to walk the Track?' She says: 'No, we're taking the bus'. Bus? I might have made the same mistake ... and missed the experience of a lifetime.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gray, Joan
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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