Meeting Ms Milford. . .
Treat yourself to the ‘Finest Walk in the World’ . . . while we have it all to ourselves, advises Justine Tyerman.
She's a star, a celebrity. Her beautiful face adorns billboards the world over. She's capricious and famous for her fits of fury. But she can also be enchanting and beguiling.
Before Covid-19 decimated her foreign fan club, thousands of people from all corners of the globe would seek time in her presence. She was photographed from every angle, in all her multifarious moods. But for now, she's ours.
We approached Ms Milford with trepidation, having heard stories of the legendary storms she has unleashed on her devotees during the 132 years of her life. But we found her in a gentle, sunny mood, welcoming and bewitching us with her extraordinary beauty.
We felt blessed beyond belief to have the rare good fortune to walk the track under clear blue skies. But also nervous that our good luck might end at any moment and see us knee-deep in snow or waist-deep in flood water.
From the time we set off from Glade Wharf my senses were overwhelmed with her astonishing panoramas. There was so much to absorb, I was in perpetual sensory overload. My eyes were unable to process the grandeur of what they were seeing.
The first day was an easy hour and a half meander across the first of many picturesque swing bridges, through moss-draped red and silver beech forest beside the Clinton River with its clear pools reflecting images of the wooded valley walls. Dappled sunshine and the gentlest of inclines lulled us into a tranquil mood, as we fell into a familiar rhythm, accepted the burden on our backs and tingled with anticipation at the adventure ahead.
As the Clinton Valley narrowed to a canyon on the second day, I remembered the words of Englishwoman Blanche Baughan who described the terrain as “truly the region of the perpendicular . . . . you realise you are walking at the bottom of a gigantic furrow of the earth” (London Spectator, 1908).
The editor of the day headlined the article, ‘The Finest Walk in the World', a description which has given the Milford Track 112 years of the kind of publicity that marketing gurus kill for.
Near our idyllic lunch spot at Prairie Lake, where a wispy waterfall tumbled over a mosaic of rock and moss to a mirror pool below, we glimpsed our first view of the formidable Mackinnon Pass, our mission for the following day.
After a six-hour tramp, we sat outside Mintaro Hut with a friendly weka for company. The image of the last rays of sun on the wise old hunk of granite towering over us is still deeply etched in my memory.
Next day, the exhilaration of finally climbing the five zigs and six zags up the steep wall to Mackinnon Pass in perfect conditions completely obliterated any memory of the effort involved. There were rewards for every step as the Clinton Canyon dropped away below and the breathtaking landscape of the alpine pass unfolded above.
At the stone cairn near the top of the track, we paid homage to Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell who discovered the route from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound on October 17, 1888.
The views at the summit were so spectacular, they waged war on my senses. The mountains, gouged and scraped to bedrock by Fiordland's ice-age glaciers, were other-worldly. The pass (1154m) was suspended between the massive rhino horn of Mt Balloon and the broad-shouldered, deeply-weathered bulk of Mt Hart. To the right, Mt Elliott's craggy face was awash with tears falling from the Jervois Glacier.
The deep valleys on either side of the pass vied for attention, along with alpine tarns and brave little mountain lilies.
I apologised to Elsie K. Morton who stood on the summit in 1949 and saw nothing.
“What a grief to be doing it in this fog! We are walking on top of the world amid such company of Mountain Kings as we may never meet again, and not one glimpse of them to gladden our eyes!”
And I felt very sorry for Alys Lowth who walked the track just 10 days after us in 1906 and felt the full wrath of Ms Milford in a seriously bad mood.
“It was bitterly cold . . . and as we climbed higher the snow on the track became deeper and deeper so that we sank into it almost up to our knees . . . we could not see a single peak of the mountains . . .”
But for us the summit was bathed in bright sunshine with the lightest of breezes and playful snow-white puffs of cloud.
I had irrational thoughts about taking up residence in the day hut where we lunched in the company of Elsie's Mountain Kings, and had to be dragged off the pass with reminders the hardest part of the seven-hour tramp was yet to come.
Forewarned was not forearmed — the descent was steeper, rockier and longer than the ascent.
We stopped often to photograph the famous Sutherland Falls in the distance, knowing the sidetrack to New Zealand's highest waterfall (580m), the fifth highest in the world, was closed due to a huge rockfall.
The penalty for many stops was a late arrival at Dumpling Hut and being at the tail end of the bunk-bagsing. We ended up with top bunks in the snoring zone so in the dead of the night, we quietly moved our mattresses into the kitchen.
Day four was an 18km flat walk with a scary deadline — if you failed to meet the mid-afternoon boats at the end of the track, you risked being eaten alive by nasty little blood-suckers at Sandfly Point. So there was little time to marvel at the Mackay Falls, Bell Rock and the Giant Gate Falls, refreshed after overnight drizzle.
A cloud shroud added mystique to the walls of the Arthur Valley, which seemed appropriate for the subdued mood of our last day. It was as if Ms Milford wanted to show us how beautiful she could be, without the illumination of sunshine and blue skies. Dressed in sombre tones, her mountain tops partly hidden behind veils of diaphanous silver-grey, she knew how alluring her face would appear, reflected in the tranquil waters of Lake Ada.
All too soon, we were at track's end, mesmerised and delighted. We had tramped in magnificent alpine terrain before but the Milford was on another planet for spectacularity. She may be world famous but the experience was ultimately an intensely personal one. She worked her magic on us and left an indelible imprint on our hearts and memories. — To be continued
• Justine Tyerman walked independently and stayed in Department of Conservation huts.