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Milford Track (NZ) Day 5, Nov 2010

Mitre Peak Lodge – Milford Sound Cruise – Queenstown

Ok – here’s the bad news straight up. There’s no hiking on the 5th day. Well, I say ‘bad’ news, but by this stage a lot of the group think it’s actually a wonderful thing! On the up side, here’s the view you could wake up to:

P1040195 Early morning Milford Sound

Mitre Peak from our room at Mitre Peak Lodge

The reason Ultimate Hikes make this a 5 day experience is because once you’ve walked all the way to Milford Sound, who’s NOT going to want to go for a cruise out on Milford Sound before going home? The bone of contention is when people realise the advertised 5 day / 4 night guided walk includes only 3 full days of actual hiking in the wilderness. But damn it’s worth it!

P1060663 Slightly later morning from room

The clouds that float around the mountains are fantastic. The many moods of Mitre Peak – we were lucky to see it in such spectacular form.

Everyone had packed an extra change of clothes in an overnight bag that Ultimate Hikes had sent on ahead from Queenstown on Day 1. Not having to wear the same hiking gear for the 5th day in a row – on the last day when we weren’t even hiking – was very nice.

Of course, you do have to do a wee bit of walking today – from your room to the bus, from the bus to the ferry, around the ferry while taking photos… you get the picture.

P1040275 Our boat

Our boat

Local Maori tribes used to visit Milford Sound, that they called Piopiotahi (after a now-extinct bird) to collect pounamou (greenstone) to make into tools and jewellery. They walked the same route through the mountains as we did, over what is now known as Mackinnon’s Pass. Read more here.

P1040218 Falls near pier 

The Lady Bowen Falls, a modest 162m

No matter who you travel with, there are a few things every boat operator on the Milford Sound will do. One of them is going right up to a waterfall cascading down the side of a cliff… one might even say under it!

P1060681 Shot of falls from further back on deck

Approaching the waterfall

P1060680 Under falls

Having a shower, Milford Sound style

P1060685 Shot of falls while exiting

Leaving the waterfall we were just under

The point of this ‘stunt’ is to prove that the cliffs continue down below sea level just as steeply as they appear above it. Milford Sound, and I believe all the other ‘sounds’ in the region, is actually a fiord (thus why the region is called ‘Fiordland’), which means it was (Ages ago) a valley carved by a glacier, not a true sound which is a ‘drowned river valley’. Because the fiord is extremely deep, even very large cruise ships can approach the cliffs without fear of running aground.

P1060689 Steep green valleys & rockey beach

Steep green thickly-forested mountain sides. One of the few stony beaches near the mouth of the fiord.

P1060695 Kayakers

Another way to see the sights – if you have time!

P1060690 Looking back down the Sound

Looking back down Milford Sound from the mouth

P1060698 Seals on a rock

Seals!

There used to be a sealing colony along the coast that was set up in the 1790’s. A sailor on good ole Capt’n Cook’s ship came back because he remembered there were so many seals here when they called by. It ran for 30 years until they ran out of seals to slaughter. So they turned it into a whaling station and repeated the story.

P1060699 Seals in clear water

These guys just have to watch out for the occasional orca pod (aka killer whales)!

Not only did we see seals (that’s almost guaranteed), but we were lucky enough to see a small pod of bottlenose dolphins and two rare New Zealand Crested Penguins!

P1060700 Penguins

New Zealand Crested Penguins

P1060714 dolphins

The dolphins were interested in feeding, not playing, so weren’t interested in interacting with us.

I was keeping my eyes peeled for whales – orca or otherwise – which are not common, but not unheard of visitors, but no luck this time.

P1040268 Falls re shot on water

Another waterfall shower

P1060702 Waterfall hitting water

The wind created by the falling water and the impact of the water itself create a  shattered glass effect on the fiord.

P1060706 Aquarium & mountains

Underwater observatory (bottom left) in Harrison Cove, with a view behind of Pembroke Glacier

We didn’t have time to stop at the underwater observatory today, but I have been before and it’s definitely a worthwhile stop.

Although I enjoyed the cruise, one thing I noted was an absence of commentary from the captain/crew/someone about what we were seeing. A few years prior I had booked the cruise through Real Journeys (we were also on a Real Journeys boat on this trip), and the commentary along the way was very informative.

After the cruise we were back on the bus for the long ride back to Queenstown.

P1060722 Road up to Homer Tunnel

The road from Milford Sound up to the Homer Tunnel

I was pleased that Stephen would get to see the Homer Tunnel – I’d been mentioning it quite a lot in the lead up to the trip. It’s about 1km long, straight through a mountain – a great engineering feat in my opinion. Done mostly by hand and dynamite, it took a while to complete as work was interrupted by WWII. They dug it from both sides at the same time and met in the middle – and were out by less than a foot! Can you imagine trying to work that out? It’s a phenomenal achievement!

P1060718 Cirque on Milford side

The cirque at the head of the valley on the Milford side of the Darran Mountain range

P1060724 Entering the Homer Tunnel

Entering the Homer Tunnel, Milford Sound side.

P1060729 Homer Tunnel so small in the mountain side

Looking back the Homer Tunnel exit, so small in the mountain side.

You can appreciate why avalanches and landslips close this road so often. The mountains here are just so steep and massive.

P1060731 The valley on the other side of Milford

Driving down the valley; it looks harsher than the Clinton Valley.

P1060735 Waterfall we didn't stop for

A waterfall we passed right on the side of the road – you can pull over here if you’re in a car and heading towards Milford Sound.

P1060736 River of snowmelt

I just can’t get over the water. It calls to me.

Despite the scenery, we were too tired to stay awake for the whole trip back. If you’re ever in the area and you have a chance to drive the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound – do it!! It’s a beautiful drive, and there are a few very worthwhile stops along the way that you just don’t get to do with a group. Definitely a case of enjoying the journey, not just the destination.

Oh, but remember – if you have to stop at the Homer Tunnel entrance, don’t leave your car unguarded to possible Kea attack!

We arrived back in Queenstown just before 4pm. We had a list of contacts (names & email addresses) for people in our group if we wanted to keep in touch… but we haven’t. Quite unlike our last infamous multi day hike, there wasn’t the same sense of group bonding on this trip. Not with the guides, not with the other guests. It’s hard when it’s a large group, when you’re not necessarily sharing a table with the same people each night, when you’re all wearing name tags and making more of an effort to find solitude and serenity on the walk than the opposite…

Don’t let me give you the impression that I have any regrets though! I don’t think we would do this as independent hikers, so Ultimate Hikes has allowed us – and so many others – to see a real jewel in New Zealand’s crown. I would recommend it to anyone who’s up for it!

We didn’t have a dinner reservation that night, but ended up at Wai on the waterfront. Top notch.

P1060746 View from Wai

Dinner on the pier at Wai, Queenstown. The TS Ernslaw is setting off for it’s evening cruise.

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Milford Track (NZ) Day 4, Nov 2010

Quintin Lodge – Sandfly Point – Mitre Peak Lodge

Another early start for our last day of walking! Today we had a long (13 miles; 21 km), if relatively flat, way to go to get to the ferry at Sandfly Point.

milford copy

Pretty flat compared to Day 3! Piece of cake…right?

Just like yesterday the lights came on at 6.15am. The first ferry would leave at 3.15pm, the second at 4.00pm. If there were still straglers, the boat would do an extra trip at 4.45pm. Sounded easy enough – 3km/hr would get you to there in time for the first ferry which also allowed for 45min of stops along the way… even so it felt like we had to walk at a pace just as fast as the previous day.

P1060496 Quintin Lodge lounge

Signing the guest register in the Lounge area at Quintin Lodge

P1060497 Quitin Lodge - making lunch

Making lunch at breakfast – Quintin Lodge

Thus it was with a few minor aches in our hips (thanks to the steep Emergency Track yesterday) that we set off, but as Stephen said, they either fixed themselves or got too numb to feel after a while!

Our packs weren’t feeling any lighter by this stage, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, as we’d chosen to bring our own larger packs we hadn’t felt so constrained about what we brought along – or rather, what we would have to leave behind to make necessities fit in. Not only was Stephen carrying a full shaving kit (not recommended), but also his iPad (definitely not on the kit list) and rechargers. I wasn’t carrying too much extra than my own phone and camera recharger. There’s no reception along the track, of course, but since the rooms were powered our plan was to take as many photos as we wanted each day, then load them onto the iPad of an evening and clear the camera’s memory card for the next day. Since we were carrying all our valuables with us (and the iPad, not long on the market at this stage, definitely fell into this category) it made sense to use it instead of having it purely as dead weight. It was nice to lie in bed and look at our photo’s each night on a decent screen, too. We didn’t ask if we were the first to bring an iPad along, but I’d wager we probably were…

P1040077 Started out dry

Ready for our last walking day – still dry here, but not for long!

Although we’d had wonderful weather so far, today was a more typical day in Fiordland; it was wet. The rain was falling steadily – more than a light rain, but not a downpour (which is not uncommon) – which continued until about mid afternoon when we finished walking.

P1060506 Photographer stephen

Photographer Stephen

P1060507 Sutherland falls, looking back

Looking back to Sutherland Falls

It was a hard day on our cameras. Despite being in a soft case in a pocket with a water tight zip, my camera got pretty wet. In the period when the rain slacked off a bit I’d carry it in my hand to help it dry out! Stephen’s wasn’t fairing much better, as the few splotches on some of our photos will attest. While the views were not as stunning as the previous two days, the clouds hiding and revealing the mountains and waterfalls, and the lush forest bordering the track were sights to savour none the less. We pushed ourselves again today; we weren’t the first out the door (we were hoping not the be the last ones actually!) so had ground to make up if we wanted to catch the first ferry.

P1060509 creek across track before bridge

Even a little bit of rain means a lot of water flowing across paths and into creeks

P1060510 rainforest track

Pretty easy walking to start the day

P1060517 DOC hut - dumpling hut

In this weather a comfort stop requires a bit more effort. Here we’re at the third DOC Hut – Dumpling Hut – and fortunately under cover.

P1060518 tree by track

Lovely big mossy trees and lots of ferns.

P1040100 Getting wetter

Pretty damp by now.

My water resistant (not water proof) pants were soaked after the first hour or so, and although I was wearing gaiters, the water eventually crept down into my boots, making the last half of the day’s walk rather damp (didn’t get squelchy, though if we’d had to wade many streams they would have).

It was 8.8km from Quintin Lodge to our morning tea stop at the Boatshed – which felt like it should have been a lunch stop. Lunch was still a further 7.2km down the track yet.

P1060529 Boatshed, morning tea

The Boatshed

The thing I remember most about this stop was the number of sandflies around the entrance. There were so many sandflies  today – whether they were out in increased numbers due to the rain, or maybe there are always more along the river in this valley – they are bloody annoying!

The shed doesn’t look like much on the outside but it’s not there to be glamorous. The inside is clean and a chance to take a seat and have a hot drink is most welcome at this point. There were fewer sandflies inside, fortunately, but the only way to keep them off is to keep on walking.

P1040105 D crossing Sus bridge

The rain wasn’t clearing any time soon

P1060535 S on sus bridge over clear river

Stephen crossing the Arthur River. I just love the colour of the water! It’s so clear!

P1060536 elevated boardwalk

This raised section must indicate the water can get pretty high through here.

Before lunch we came to the other notable waterfall of the Milford Track – McKay Falls

P1040115 S&D at McKay Falls

McKay Falls

When Donald Sutherland and John McKay were prospecting in the area, back around the 1880’s, they came across this beautiful waterfall. I think the story that the guides told us went that McKay was keen to have these most beautiful falls named after him, and Sutherland acquiesced. Not too long afterwards, they were astounded by the giant falls which, they thought must be the highest in the world! Taking turns, as is only fair, were duly named after Sutherland. Later they were measured and found to be the 5th tallest in the world at 580m.

P1060547 McKay falls, next to

The stream leading away from McKay Falls

P1060551 Track grassy further along

Passing through an open grassy section 

P1060552 waterfalls very close to path

Looking up at one of the many waterfalls fiordland is famous for. They get an annual average of 9m of rain on this side of the pass.

P1060568 ferns & rough path

The track starts getting increasingly uneven and rocky.

P1060569 Waterfall reflected in river

Oh look, another waterfall. That’s a surprise.

P1060576 Hand-hewn track from cliff

Steep and just a bit slippery; it wasn’t a just short section either.

This section of track, completed in 1898, was carved out of the rocky cliff with pick axe and dynamite. It wasn’t a short section; I’m not sure now how long it took, but it would have been back-breaking work.

Despite the relatively easy grade of the track overall, the distance and the increased risk of slipping due to the rain had me wondering from the start if the lady who came in last the previous night would make the final ferry. We were taking the above cut-out section carefully when we saw the helicopter from yesterday fly low up the valley; not carrying anything on a cable this time. When it came back again a short time later my first thought was that it had been called in to chopper that lady out. When I suggested this to Stephen he wondered if it was only her who was flown out…

We guessed that if a walker doesn’t reach a certain point by a cut off time, the guides know they aren’t going to make it and call in the chopper (it’s not something they like to mention). That’s why you don’t walk without travel insurance! I don’t know how much it would cost you if you didn’t have it… hundreds at least. The guides were pushing the option of a helicopter ride back to Queenstown instead of going by coach after the cruise on the last day. Sounded good, but you need to have at least 4 people willing to go for $500+ EACH (I think it was closer to $600pp). At first we thought they meant the total cost was ~$500 – when we realised it was per person – ah no, thank you. Spectacular as the flight must be, we’re not independently wealthy.

P1060578 Stoat trap with egg

A stoat trap baited with a chicken’s egg

I mentioned in an earlier post that feral animals are a huge problem in New Zealand. Their native vertebrate wildlife consists mainly of birds who have diversified to exploit all the niches that mammals would usually occupy. A number of these species are extinct thanks to humans; the introduction of european and Australian feral species has also had a devastating impact on native animal populations. Trapping of feral predator species, such as ferrets and stoats, in fiordland is done to help endangered populations of native species such as the Whio, among others. This trap is probably good for a smallish possum, too; another major feral pest.

P1060593 Rocky path & creek

Beautiful as it is, we were just looking forward to getting to our lunch stop.

P1060603 Giants Gate lunch stop

Our lunch stop at Giant’s Gate. Raining again. Unfortunately still 1h 45m from Sandfly Point.

P1060609 Giants Gate river

It’s a lovely stop that I think we would have enjoyed more on a sunny day and if we weren’t being ceaselessly attacked by sandflies.

P1060605 Giants gate Weka

The best photo I managed to get of a Weka.

Weka are often mistaken by excited tourists for Kiwi, however unless you go to a birdpark where kiwi are kept, you are extremely unlikely to stumble upon one in the wild. For starters, Kiwi are nocturnal and notoriously shy. Weka are also not as cheeky or destructive as Kea are! This Weka was happy to ignore us as it went about its business while we ate lunch, coming to within 1m or so of the tables.

P1040132 Waterfall

Giants Gate Falls

The last 5.6km seemed the longest, but we got to Sandfly Point at about 3pm. I couldn’t wait to strip off my wet clothes; fortunately the DOC hut was empty so I used that to change into dry clothing for the ferry ride to the Milford Sound wharf. Again the difference between the DOC and Ultimate Hikes facilities were noticeable. No screens to help keep out sandflies on the DOC huts, for instance. I was changed in just enough before we had to leave to get to the ferry.

There was a photographer from Magic Moments at the 33.5 mile finish sign to take a photo of everyone who made it. Photo packs were available for purchase later that afternoon – which include a CD of photos of the track incase you didn’t come away with any good ones of your own, possibly, due to weather or choice. Can you tell we prefer to take our own?

33.5 mile post

Our official Magic Moment photo at the end of the Milford Track, and my name tag.

The final sign post is large and decorated with discarded boots. One girl had bought an old, comfortable pair of boots – she had worn them at home to test them, and they were fine… until the first or second day of the track. By the end her soles were only barely held on with tape and spare shoe laces. I don’t think she left them on the sign because they were all she had!

It was a short  if somewhat unexpected walk to the ferry, and a pleasant if cold 20 or so minute ride to the wharf. At that point I was extra glad I changed out of wet clothes! Stephen was frozen.

P1040151 Getting on boat

Changed into dry clothes and feeling good!

P1040176 Long white cloud

New Zealand is also known as the Land of the Long White Cloud – here’s one looking like cotton wool.

P1040177 Waterfall near Milford Sound

Approaching Milford Sound – those small buildings to the right of the falls. That small white boat there is actually quite  large one.

Mitre Peak Lodge currently operates mainly for Ultimate Hikes groups, although there are a few rooms for other people. It’s a nice place – Stephen says it feels like a nice kind of 60’s-70’s style university science facility. Doesn’t mean much to you? Plain but comfortable and nice. And you certainly can’t say the view isn’t any good. Mitre Peak rising out of the water straight out the front, either mysterious in the mist and clouds drifting like smoke, or standing proud and magnificent in the clear skies. Amazing.

P1040276 Mitre Peak Lodge

Arriving at Mitre Peak Lodge – about a 2 min bus ride from the Milford Sound pier.

P1040206 Mitre Peak Lodge stairs

Inside the entrance of Mitre Peak lodge. Rooms above, drying room and gift shop below.

P1060638 Mitre Peak Lodge lounge

Lounge and bar area of Mitre Peak Lodge. The fireplace is made of greenstone – pounamou. These days (assuming you even had access to some) that would cost an absolute fortune!

P1060641 Mitre Peak Lodge dining room

Dining room in Mitre Peak Lodge

There was just one person who beat us there – the lady who was flown out. I felt sorry for her in a way – she had seen most of it and given it a go, but was it by choice that she was flown out? Should Ultimate Hikes be more strict about who they let start the walk? Again, I guess that’s what travel insurance is for. You set yourself a challenge and give it your best. And find out if you’re really prepared as what you hope you are!

Once everyone had had the chance to hang up wet clothes and relax in the lounge with drinks, bread and dips, we were presented with certificates to say we’d completed the Milford Track.

P1060636 Mitre Peak - mysterious

View of Mitre Peak from our room

Just a quick note if you’re planning to walk the Milford Track, there is a really informative booklet that you can buy that has notes about points of interest, shown on a progressive map where you flip over each page as you walk along the whole length of the track. We purchased our copy after we completed the walk. It’s more-or-less pocket-sized.

Kiwi footpaths

Fantastic guide to the Milford Track by Kiwi footpaths

We had finished walking the Milford Track, but the Ultimate Hikes Milford Track experience doesn’t end there: read Milford Track Day 5 to see photos from our cruise of Milford Sound.

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