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Endangered species . . . on the Milford Track

Justine Tyerman meets a collection of rare, hermit-like creatures who inhabit the Department of Conservation rangers’ huts on New Zealand’s Great Walks . .

On the Milford Track, the Conservation Rangers are an all-star cast with a captive audience of around 14,000 trampers a year — in the pre-Covid era. They are a breed apart, hugely knowledgeable, resourceful, capable . . . and funny.

On our first night we met Peter Jackson, the red-bearded Conservation Ranger at Clinton Hut. Peter greeted us in green shorts over a pair of baggy long johns, protection against the sandflies, he said. Fresh from our first day's tramp we eagerly joined his nature walk which covered everything from wetlands, trees, plants, birds, animals and insects to glaciation, geology, astronomy . . . and reproduction in sandflies, a “protected species” within the national park. Only the female attacks human beings, using our blood to aid in reproduction. Judging from the collection of purple scars on my lower legs where my skin was most exposed, I alone must have fostered the birth of at least several thousand ankle-biters.

During his equally informative talk that evening, ‘Encyclopeter,' as I decided to call him, quietly rattled off botanical and Maori names for everything seen and unseen. He produced a stoat (I think it was dead) from his pocket to illustrate the terrible danger such predators pose to our native birds and the importance of the war being waged against them. He also showed us the devices used to trap stoats, rats and possums in national parks.

After dinner, Peter took us for a walk in the pitch dark to view a colony of glow worms and learn about their life cycle. They turn into cannibals if they get too close to each other so tend to stay tucked up in their own glowcaves. Later that evening, we lay on our backs on the helipad under a wondrous canopy of stars and listened to Peter talk about the planets, stars and galaxies which he identified with an impressive laser pointer. There seemed to be no end to his knowledge. An unforgettable experience, and one of only 10 or 12 nights a year with such clear, moonless conditions.

When I chatted to him later, Peter said he was trying to “slow people down so they could walk more gently upon this fragile and hugely-suffering (thanks to human impact) planet.

“The night sky walk is a wonderful opportunity to awaken people to the sheer scale of the universe and how insignificant we are in relation to it all. The idea that even with modern space technology it would take an estimated 70,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, our second closest star after the Sun, should give us all a wake-up call as to why we really do need to start learning how to tread very gently upon this precious planet. There isn't anywhere else to go once life on this planet is destroyed — which is happening at an ever-accelerating rate.

“But unfortunately, as the environment keeps reminding us, business and political leaders — too enmeshed in the present dinosaur economic system — are leaving it too late to heed the call.

“If I can sow a few seeds to open visitors' minds and senses to the preciousness of this environment, it is all worth the effort — maybe a few, given suitable conditions, will germinate.”

Unusual bonds among trampers

At Mintaro Hut, we were entertained by Ranger Ed Waite, a high-energy chap who did a sort of solo line dance while he conducted a quiz, complete with props, about the flora and fauna Peter had told us about the previous night. Ed had us in fits of laughter before taking us for a dusk stroll to Lake Mintaro in search of the rare blue duck or whio. It was another glorious, warm starry evening but the whio was nowhere to be seen. The ubiquitous sandflies, however, were out in force.

Ed said he loved his job because “it enables me to hang out in these special places every day, not just at the weekends. Also I get a huge amount of satisfaction out of contributing to the management and protection of our special places, and helping other people get the most out of their time there.”

I later discovered Ed is a passionate ornithologist with three degrees — a BSc in ecology, MSc in zoology, and a PhD in ecology, specialising in habitat-use by birds in urban areas.

We were all so exhausted after the seven-hour ascent and descent of Mackinnon Pass, Ranger Shelley at Dumpling Hut would have got off lightly in her duties had it not been Census Day. She had to distribute forms to 40 trampers from near and far, ensure they were all properly filled out and collect them up ready to be picked up by helicopter. We took great glee in recording our location that evening, the coolest place we are ever likely to be on a Census night.

Conservation Rangers are, by definition, pretty fired up about threats to our endangered wildlife. But my fear is that one day the rangers themselves will become an endangered or even extinct species.

I am a huge fan of these unique men and women who maintain the tracks and huts, look after our precious wildlife, share their wealth of knowledge, rescue stranded trampers, and make life and death judgement calls on the safety of the tracks in flood, snow, avalanche and rockfall conditions.

I fear one day we will walk into a DOC hut to be greeted by a recorded message and the all-important weather forecast will flash up on a solar-powered screen. Our rangers will be just a treasured memory . . . like so many other species which have ceased to be.

Sharing communal sleeping, cooking and ablution facilities at the huts leads to unusual bonds among fellow trampers. A horrific set of blisters would be an odd base for a friendship in the outside world but seemed perfectly normal on the track. Katie, a young accountant from the UK and her doctor friend, Laura, from Germany borrowed my medical kit to patch up Katie's feet after which we took a ghoulish interest in the daily inspection of her blisters. How she managed to finish the track with toes and heels rubbed raw still astounds me. No one in our group dared even whimper after seeing Katie's blisters and witnessing her fortitude.

Vicky, another Brit, became a new friend too after she threatened to turn back on the first night, freaking out about being blown off Mackinnon Pass, drowned by floodwaters, swept away by an avalanche or buried under a rockslide. The stories and photos on the walls of the huts document some terrifying tales involving the potential for all of the above . . . and more!

DoC HQ in Te Anau caught wind of her fears and sent a card and block of chocolate to Clinton Hut to urge her on. We joined in a chorus of encouragement and Vicky completed the tramp, well ahead of us at every stage. We've kept in touch with Vicky, her husband Paul and friend John, all from the UK, and John came to stay with us when he was last in New Zealand.

The Milford Track has been called ‘The Finest Walk in the World'. Until I have hiked them all, I suppose I'm not really qualified to say . . . but I can't imagine anything finer.

• See Justine's Milford Track story in the Weekender July 25 here.

SHEER BEAUTY: The day shelter on the top of Mackinnon Pass (1154m), the highest point on the Milford Track. Picture supplied
Conservation Ranger Peter Jackson outside Clinton Hut. Picture by Justine Tyerman
Peter Jackson on one of his nature walks. Picture by Justine Tyerman
Conservation Ranger Dr Ed Waite at Lake Mintaro, in search of whio. Picture by Justine Tyerman
Chris and Justine Tyerman on the Milford Track.
Trees draped in moss on the Milford Track
Our team arriving at Clinton Hut at the end of day 1 of the tramp.
Our team preparing dinner in the communal kitchen/dining area at Clinton Hut.
Katie's blistered feet, bandaged by Laura.
Vicky with the card and block of chocolate.
The commemorative plaque on the cairn in recognition of Mackinnon's discovery.
Getting ready to leave Mintaro Hut.
Justine saying goodbye to Dr Ed at Mintaro Hut.