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Milford Track (NZ) Day 3, Nov 2010

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Pompolona Lodge – Mackinnon Pass – Quintin Lodge + Sutherland Falls

Crossing Mackinnon Pass is definitely the most spectacular day of the Milford Track… and the day that I (and probably everyone else) was most worried about surviving in reasonable shape!

milford copy 2

It’s this little bump in the path that was occupying everyone’s mind (see Day 2 for full track profile) 

From Pompolona Lodge we would walk to the end of the valley, up over the pass, and down the other side to Quintin Lodge. Officially an 11 mile (17-18km) day, but again our GPS reading was a little different at 15km – there was, however, a good reason for the discrepancy (more about that later).

Day 3 looking up to Mackinnon Pass & Mt Balloon

Mackinnon Pass from Pompolona Lodge, early in the morning. Mt Balloon is on the right of the pass.

Such is the apprehension felt by most prospective hikers when contemplating this section of the track that Ultimate Hikes has a devoted a whole page to what to expect on this day. As it turned out it wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d feared.

Because it is expected to be a long, tough day, we we woken by the lights coming on even earlier that morning – 6:15am! – and we were to be on the track between 7:30-8:00am. Stephen and I had intended to be ready by 7:30am, but didn’t manage to get underway until 7:45am. We started out at a good pace, determined to make up a bit of time.

Day 3 getting into wetter forest

A wet forest

I was hoping to encounter snow/ice patches as we crossed the Pass. Even if we weren’t to be that lucky we knew it would very likely be cold up there, despite the fine start to the morning, as weather in alpine environments is notorious for changing extremely quickly. With those thoughts in mind we added long thermals underneath the shorts and t-shirts ensemble we wore yesterday – quite a fashion statement, I know, but not only does it work in keeping you warm, but out on the track no one cares what you look like (too much). Our jackets were also handy at the tops of our packs.

Day 3 bright morning

Looking back down Clinton Valley on another beautiful morning

Day 3 lightened view of valley in morning

Stunning, hey?

It wasn’t far to the next DOC hut where we stopped for morning tea, but we didn’t linger. It took a while to get to the start of the proper climb up and the 11 switchbacks.

Day 3 morning tea at DOC hut 2

Brief morning tea stop at Mintaro Hut – the second DOC hut for independent walkers

Day 3 before the climb starts getting too steep

Almost at the switchback section – Stephen’s impatient to keep moving

I’m afraid I don’t have photos of what it was like on the switchbacks to share with you, incredible as that sounds. In our minds this was the challenge of the trip – the part that everyone talks about – the huge climb up to Mackinnon Pass. The part of the track that can turn into a waterfall when it rains heavily.

When it came to it, it wasn’t too hard… I think the start of Mt Warning (northern NSW, Australia) with all the steps is harder. Still, it was eyes down (due to the uneven surface) and legs moving as we kept up a steady pace (you might say a quick march!) and so caught up and passed a number of others (all labouring whilst trying to use their walking sticks in loose rocks!). I find keeping a steady pace is the key… too much stopping and starting is more wearying than staying in your rhythm and pushing on. Everyone’s different though – and the guides do stress that it is not a race.

DAy 3 most of the way to McKinnon Pass

Out of the forest, into the alpine section near the top of the pass

We weren’t far from the top when we caught up with the second guide who walked with us to the top. There were a couple of patches of snow before the top, but nothing much. Still, for a Queenslander, snow is snow! My wish had been granted. Stephen had his gaiters on, but I didn’t bother with mine, wanting maximum ventilation instead!

Day 3 Nicholas cirque & guide

Looking back to Nicholas Cirque at the head of the valley and one of our guides

Day 3 Crosing snow almost at pass

Woohoo! Snow! A wee bit, anyway. Mt Balloon rising up in the background.

There were a maybe half a dozen people there at Mackinnon’s monument before us. Claude (senior guide) pointed out the 12 second drop on the other side of the pass – the short (and terminal!) way down – from where we could also see our hut for the night (Quintin Lodge) and the old grass runway. Now that everything’s chopper’d in I don’t think it’s used anymore.

Day 3 - S at MacKinnon's memorial

Stephen in front of Quintin Mackinnon’s Memorial with Mt Hart in the background

Day 3 DA at McK memmorial

Standing next to Quintin Mackinnon’s Memorial with Nicholas Cirque in the background

Day 3 view frm McK pass of Quintin Hut

Standing at the 12 second drop, looking down the other side of Mackinnon Pass to Quintin Lodge – this was taken with my standard (non-interchangeable) camera lens, not a fisheye or anything fancy. The airstrip points the way to Milford Sound.

DAy 3 the way down from McKinnon pass

Looking to the right from the 12sec drop, the track passes below Mt Balloon and down the gully (if you can call it that) between the mountains.

Pass Hut was still a short walk away, over a small hill that marks the highest point of the track. The weather was starting to close in from the west, but the view back down the valley were magnificent. They say the toilet there has the best view in the world, and I can vouch that, on a good day, they’re not far wrong!

Day 3 Mt Balloon

Continuing on to the highest point of the pass. Mt Balloon rises before us.

Day 3 It's a long way up when you're ...

Looking back to the Memorial and 12 sec drop lookout. Mt Hart to the left.

Day 3 It's a long way up when you're looking down

The landscape is BIG and can dwarf everything we do and achieve just by existing.

By the time we’d reached the sign marking the highest point of the pass – and the Milford Track – the weather was definitely changing

Day 3 highest point of Mackinnon pass

Altitude here is 1154m

Day 3 Made it!!

We made it!! Looking back down the Clinton Valley – the way we’d come.

Pass Hut is designed just provide shelter from the weather during your lunch stop, not for camping in. It’s a long rectangular building divided in two: one side for independent walkers to use, the other side for the Ultimate Hikes group. Our side had a small kitchenette so that the guides can offer us a hot cup of soup or hot chocolate when we walked in. I don’t believe the other side had such luxuries. There are benches around the walls for everyone to park their rears – packs (and walking sticks) get dumped in the middle of the room.

Day 3 Inside UH side of Pass Hut with DOC workers

Inside the hut; benches along the sides, and double entrance to keep out the weather. And two very nice DOC workers seeking a hot cuppa.

Despite the numerous steaming bodies at lunch quickly fogging up the windows, once we stopped walking it didn’t take too long to start feeling how cold it actually was.

After a big lunch, we shouldered our packs again and headed off. Stopping for just a few more quick photos…

Day 3 coral-like plant

Tutahuna / Common Vegetable Sheep (no, that’s not a typo – click here Raoulia eximia for an explanation)

Day 3 coral-like plant close up

Close-up of Tutahuna. Looks a little bit like coral to me.

Day 3 Mt Cook Lilly

Kopukapuka / Mt Cook Lilly (which is actually a member of the buttercup family)

DAy 3 pandanii

This plant looks exactly like Pandani (Richea pandanifolia) which we are familiar with from around Cradle Mountain NP, but that species is found only in Tasmania (Australia). This is a Dracophyllum sp., possibly Dracophyllum fiordense, a related genus. (Ref)

Day 3 alpine flower

Fiordland Mountain Daisy

We weren’t far from the hut when a chopper carrying a load at the end of a cable came up the valley in front of us and almost right over our heads! Seeing that load swinging pretty low in our direction was a bit frightening. It was possibly not as close as it felt, but we’d have been in trouble had the cable broken. It was bringing supplies packed in barrels to the two DOC workers who were working at the hut. The hut is brand new and they were finishing off the paths and garden area around the hut.

Chopper dropping off supplies to Pass Hut

Chopper dropping off supplies for workers at Pass Hut

We continued on and down – a long way down. From the pass it’s 900m down to Quintin Lodge. If you ever have walked down the stairs of a high-rise building during a fire drill and thought that was a long walk and a bit hard on the knees, try multiplying it by however many times to get to 900m, take out the handrails, add in rain, backpacks and slippery stones and you’re nearly there. But the view on the track is infinitely better!

Day 3 crossing snow after lunch

Another small bit of ice after lunch

Day 3 looking bck to pass across ice

Looking back to Mt Hart

A section near the top of the main track was closed due to avalanche danger from a nearby glacier, so we had to take the Emergency Track which leaves the main track after the 16 Mile post and meets up with it again before the 18 Mile post. Stephen managed to take a photo of every mile post on the way except for number 17, and the last one at the 33.5 mile mark at Sandfly Point which had a professional photographer there.

Day 3 wheelbarrow track closed

Main Track closed – instead of continuing across the hill, the Emergency Track heads pretty much straight down for a bit. Great use of a wheelbarrow.

Day 3 steep and rough going down

The Emergency Track is steep and rough compared to the Main Track. Reminds me of a few tracks around Cradle Mountain.

Day 3 Creative location for arrow

Creative location for track indicator – but hey, it works!

Day 3 looking back up to Mackinnon Pass

Looking back up to Mackinnon Pass – probably about half way down in altitude but definitely not in kilometres (miles) to the lodge.

The descent wasn’t too hard, though I concede by the end even I was starting to feel my knees and hips – just a little. We didn’t dwadle, but took the time to be careful all the same. It had clouded over, and there were intermittent showers – we were lucky there wasn’t heavier rain. There were a couple of sections of boardwalk with plastic or chickenwire attached for grip – the guides had warned us that these sections can still be slippery and most accidents happen there because people subconsciously relax when walking on boards.

Day 3 first waterfall

The first large waterfall we passed on the way down

Day 3 mossy forest

I’m not sure why there were so few leaves on the the trees at the top of the forest. There was plenty of moss and ferns.

Day 3 Bridge crossing

Crossed a few suspension bridges. Mt Hart in the background.

Day 3 Lindsay Falls

Lindsay Falls – possibly the lovliest we saw that day.

We were about half way or so down when we came to pass an older couple of independent walkers, who kindly moved to the side for us. I made a little slip just as we passed – I didn’t fall or anything – and made a comment that it doesn’t pay to be complacent. Just as we passed, the lady who was in front, demonstrated exactly why walking sticks can be hazardous. Seeing her next step could be tricky, she put her sticks on the smooth rock, took a step, the sticks slipped, and she was on her backside. Stephen helped her up and she was ok. It could have been worse – fortunately wasn’t – but walking sticks with metal points aren’t made for rocks. I wonder how many people in our group found that out in the same way.

DAy 3 fern arch

An arching branch of ferns

DAy 3 tree ferns

Ferns on a tree

Day 3 lichens

Lichen? on a tree

The track and bush around the last few km’s or so of the walk to the lodge felt very similar to Lamington National Park (Gold Coast hinterlands, Australia) – a well graded track of dirt and rocks with lush forest on either side.  It was there that we heard the chopper flying in low again, and hurried over the last bridge to find ourselves at the end of the path and Quintin Lodge – finally! We were in time to get a few pics and see it fly off again. We were excited; I’m sure the staff were wondering what on earth for – hadn’t we seen helicopters before? Keep in mind they get flown to work in one – they really are a fly-in, fly-out work force!

Day 3 Chopper at Quintin Lodge

A very busy helicopter!

The buildings that make up the Quintin Lodge complex are arranged in a square. Our room was again very nice, with a view overlooking the yard between the buildings with the mountains rising behind.

Day 3 Quinton Lodge complex

The view from our room at Quintin Lodge

Because today’s walk wasn’t nearly as long or hard as expected, we decided to do the optional side trip to Sutherland Falls which are the highest falls in New Zealand. The guides said that anyone who wanted to go should leave Quintin Lodge no later than 4.30pm as the walk takes ~1.5hrs (return). We had aimed to be at the lodge by 3pm, so would be back by the cut off time to start walking. We ran in (our entrance would have been at a more seemly pace if not for the chopper – although this isn’t our only walk that has ended at a run) to Quintin Lodge just after 2:30pm, which I guess means we more than made up for leaving 15min later than hoped that morning.

We dumped our packs and took only cameras, hats, and a water bottle and set off for the falls at about 2.45pm. We had been told to take rain coats/jackets too, but it had turned into a nice sunny afternoon and it didn’t look like it was going to rain. I figured it we got a bit of spray we’d dry out alright.

Donald Sutherland, who the falls are named after, was an explorer like Mackinnon but made his home where the Milford township now stands. He discovered the falls in 1880 while prospecting (unsuccessfully) for asbestos and brownite with John McKay (more about McKay in my next post; Milford Track Day 4). Later that decade the government paid him to cut an access track to Sutherland Falls; his track met up with Mackinnon’s track and together they make the Milford Track as we know it today. (Read more about Donald Sutherland here.)

Day 3 sign to Sutherland Falls

Heading off to Sutherland Falls

At the start of the path the sign on the left says ‘Sutherland Falls 580m’ and the sign on the right says to allow 1hr 30min return. We thought “580m? No worries! We’ll be back in no time” and charged off at a good speed (now that we weren’t weighted down with packs). I couldn’t for the life of me think how 580m would take 45min…

We passed a few independents on their way back from the falls (they had a head start on our group this morning, but the DOC hut where they would stay the night was still a good few km’s further down the main track still); we were too focused on getting there to say more than ‘Hi’ as we passed – they probably wondered what the hell we were running from! We started to wonder… how long could 580m be?

Day 3 sutherland falls track where fairies play

It’s a lovely path – this is a little stream we crossed

We had slowed our pace from a jog to a brisk walk and were joking that maybe we had to climb 580m in elevation to get there when we came to an avalanche warning sign that said no stopping for 360m – we crossed that in minutes and by then it was rather obvious that 580m wasn’t how long the path was to the falls. A few minutes on we saw one of our party coming back along the track and he said we have about as far to go as the falls are high – and then we saw the sign saying exactly that; we were now 580m from the base of the falls – the same distance that they are high!! Important lesson that one – when you’re tired, you don’t think straight. We weren’t in any danger of getting lost on such a clear track and with a number of people around, but I see how easy it can be to get into trouble.

day 3 sutherland falls track

Human-sized fairy pathways through the forest

Day 3 ground bird

A Weka

Stephen spotted a Weka! Our second for the day – there was one up on Mackinnon Pass, too. They can fly but are predominantly terrestrial.

Day 3 southerland falls first glimpse

Approaching Sutherland Falls

The falls are very impressive, and the wind that the falling water creates at the base clearly explains the need for a raincoat. Despite a lot of spray we managed to take a few photos then turned back to return to the lodge.

Day 3 bottom of sutherland falls

Not a big pool, but the wind created by the falling water was quite strong

Day 3 southerland falls, 3 tiers with dayns

Sutherland Falls

Day 3 Southerland falls wide shot

Wide shot of Sutherland Falls

Damn it was good to finally take our boots off that night! Most people got to the lodge in time to take the walk to the falls. A few didn’t. One lady who was not a strong walker (around the hut she was fine, but as soon as she was on the track – sticks in hand – she walked like an invalid; very, very slowly and carefully, thinking about each step she took) didn’t get in until about 7pm – almost 12hours on the track. Just after lunch she’d fallen into a hole in the ice and had to wait 15min before the last guide came along to help her out! But she made it eventually. They do keep saying it’s not a race… On a previous trip a whole group didn’t make it to Quintin Lodge until 10.30pm! They were all flown to Mitre Peak Lodge the next day, since I guess they were all knackered and a group can’t stay more than one night in each hut – there’s up to another 50 guests a day behind ready to crash!

While that lady was probably in the worst shape of all of our group, she wasn’t the only one feeling relived today was over. Despite hiking boots being on the list of essential items, there was a couple on their honeymoon who were only wearing sneakers – and their feet were definitely talking to them! Most of the group were complaining about sore knees/legs/ankles. It really does pay to have good (broken-in) gear and to do some preparation before any hike of some length.

Our nightly powerpoint presentation reminded us that although Mackinnon Pass has been conquered, there was still a lot still to see (and walk!) on Day 4 on our way to Sandfly Point (the end of the Milford Track) and on to Mitre Peak Lodge.

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Milford Track (NZ) Day 2 – Nov 2010

Glade House – Pompolona Lodge

The generator fired up and the lights came on at Glade House; our first full day of walking the Milford Track had arrived!

Day 2 morning sunrays into the valley

Morning light coming into Clinton Valley near Glade House.

For all that this may be ‘glamping’ (the queen-sized bed & ensuite option, hot showers, prepared meals, small pack size) our guides weren’t shy about mustering everyone out of their rooms to be back on the track for an 8:30-9:00am start. Slave drivers! Had they no pity for us poor guests who’d walked a whole 1 mile (officially) of the track yesterday? (I think the 3hr bus ride was more exhausting than the short walk at the end.)

milford copy 3

Milford Track Profile – there’s a very gradual incline over 9 miles for our walk on Day 2

Officially we had 10 miles (16km) to walk today (at the end our GPS recorded 14.5km (~9 miles), mostly following the river up the valley. We could knock that off in a few hours – surely they could have let us have half an hour more to get our stuff together?

But we didn’t grumble out loud (that I can remember). And if we did we weren’t the only ones. And we certainly were not (quite) the last ones to leave Glade House. Even so, there were a lot of eager people ready to go at 8.30am! We saw them – an impatient group – as we were heading back from breakfast to finish packing.

It wasn’t long before we were under way, an there was certainly a lot of scenery to appreciate.

Day 2 mirror surface of Clinton river

The Clinton River was mirror-like on this beautiful morning as we waved good-bye to Glade House. A perfect day for a hike!

Day 2 cool green morning

The Clinton River near Glade House

Day 2 tall silver beeches(?)

Silver beech trees provide a dappled light on the path

We passed Sentinel Peak then followed the river up the Clinton Valley which is to the west of the peak. The mountains and the clear blue/green water were what drew our attention the most.

Day 2 Mountain & river

Sentinel Peak

Day 2 Mountains & river

The beautiful crystal-clear Clinton River

Swampy section

This was an unusual swampy section (off-shoot to the main track) – very reminiscent of vegetation we’ve seen around the highlands in Tasmania

Since it was such a large group, we didn’t spread out much for a while. When Claude, the head guide who was up the front, stopped to point something out only the people right up the front near her could hear. The other guides who were spaced out among the guests could have a guess what she was saying if it was a ‘usual’ stop, but sometimes had as little idea about what she was saying as we did. It was a bit frustrating because it wasn’t supposed to be a stop-start group walk, but that was the result of having been hurried out the door so we wouldn’t be left behind. It wasn’t until after the first stop for morning tea that we all spread out a bit more.

Day 2 morning tea stop 

Day 2 Inside a DOC hut Day 2 DOC hut dining hall

Morning tea at Clinton Hut – the first of four DOC huts on the Track for independent hikers. Pretty good compared with some public huts we’ve seen, but much more spartan than Glade House!

Day 2 calm section with rocks

I could stare at this all day – and wish I was there to jump in!

Day 2 Clear river of melted snow

This is as close as I got to a dip in the Clinton River

Day 2 low shot of rocks in stream with sunlight

The increased number of sandflies by the river keep your artistic shots to a minimum.

Day 2 easy walking path

The Track isn’t hard to follow.

Day 2 close up of plants on log w DA in background

Some of the mosses and ferns that grow at ground level.

There was a perfect spot to go for a swim at lunch, but as there were a couple of clouds around then it wasn’t warm enough to tempt me that much! Well, it was more the hassle of getting dry again afterwards and the prospect of walking in damp clothes. Someone was brave enough to try it, but I gather he wasn’t in for very long!

Day 2 clear green pool

I was temped again by a clear green pool… no salt or chlorine here! Or leaches!

We didn’t want to stop too long for lunch to avoid stiffening up, but it seemed most people were happy to sit around, and (in contrast to that morning) the guides didn’t seem to think it necessary to get people moving again. We were visited by a Kea who didn’t mind being the centre of attention, and we got some good close-up photos whilst keeping an eye out for our packs incase more Kea’s were sneaking up to attack them while our attention was diverted!

Day 2 Kea4

Kea’s are an inquisitive, alpine native parrot – check out the length of the top bill.

Day 2 Kea2 Day 2 Kea3

They are beautifully coloured birds, with an orangey-red rump and blue on the wings seen best when in flight

Day 2 Kea wanting lunch

“Hey lady, wanna share your lunch?”

Interestingly, you can’t get insurance for Kea damage to your car. One guy there said that he was stopped at the Hommer Tunnel once, and in the time it took him to visit the loo, they’d pulled off the rubber around his windscreen and it had fallen out! Cheeky Kea’s!!

The track doesn’t keep to the bank of the Clinton River the whole way up the valley. The beech forests are cool and green. Through here the track is pretty easy walking, but remember – it wasn’t always that way. Qunintin Mackinnon would have found the way very difficult – just look at the forest on the side of the path.

Day 2 Dayna in a mossy section

A mossy section of forest

The track is very well maintained. Until 1954 it was the only way to get to Milford Sound; these days 14,000 people walk the track each season! (Milford Track History) There are still a few relics left from the days when this was the ‘main road’, such as this telegraph wire insulator in the tree trunk:

Day 2 Telegraph hook in a trunk

An old telegraph wire insulator

An iconic native New Zealand tree that is often passed along the Clinton Valley is the Lancewood. The adult tree looks like any ‘regular’ tree, but saplings look like a stick with long tough brown spiky-edged leaves dropping from it, with no top. Until the sapling reaches to 2.5m or so, it doesn’t begin to grow adult foliage. The theory is that this is an evolutionary trait to avoid being grazed on by Moa, extinct flightless birds of the same family as kiwis, emus and ostriches. We knew of these trees (but not their story) before this walk because Icebreaker uses the immature tree as a design print for one of their t-shirts Icebreaker Tech T – Lancewood.

Day 2 Young lancewoods

Immature Lancewood trees

Day 2 Lancewood starting to mature

A Lancewood transforming into a mature tree

The track also passes through avalanche danger zones. These areas are generally characterised by a lack of mature trees. The Department of Conservation (DOC) put up signs along the track saying not to stop until you get past the next sign saying it’s okay to do so. When big avalanches come down, the preceding winds can get up to 200-300km/hr, which is what flattens so much of the vegetation.

Day 2 Danger Sign - avalance risk

Warning sign saying not to stop in high risk avalanche area – there will be another sign further on to indicate when you can stop again.

Day 2 Crossing an old avalanche section

Recent regrowth after avalanche

Day 2 lots of scarring from landslides

Scars on the hillside from previous landslides

Day 2 crossing rockslide

Rockslide

Day 2 bridges are used over rockslide sections too

No stopping along here (these were very quickly taken photos)

The further up the valley we walked, the narrower the valley became. As you cross the more open and exposed sections, you can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be in this part of the valley during an avalanche – it’s so steep and close it would surely act as a funnel. A person would be smashed to pieces.

And that is one very good reason why there is an open and closed season, and why DOC do so much to try to trigger avalanches before the walkers are allowed in! All hail DOC!!

The other thing DOC (in conjunction with Ultimate Hikes?) does is fly in temporary bridges. We wouldn’t want to get wet feet, after all….

Day 2 tempr bridgeDay 2 anotehr river crossing

Examples of bridges that DOC fly in for the walking season. These are removed over winter. 

No, it’s not so we can keep our feet dry. The reasons for the bridges are so that we’re not damaging the banks of the river and because (as I have mentioned previously) they get 7-9 metres of rain per year! That is a hell of a lot of water by anyone’s standard’s, but when you think about it all running down the sides of those mountains, one pretty good shower is going to raise the level of the creek pretty damn fast. The bridges are so people CAN cross the lovely little streams that you see in our photos.

When I took the photo below there wasn’t much water in sight and, to tell the truth, it was a little stinky to the right, a bit like a swamp. But we had seen a video of people wading through brown water up to their thighs along this section. It didn’t look like they could see the path – just the very tops of the guide posts. Thank goodness the path is built so well it doesn’t wash away!

Day 2 raised path & guide poles for when it floods

Guide posts along a raised path

Day 2 looking down valley & stream

Looking back down the valley on a nice, sunny day.

Even when it hasn’t rained for a few days (that is like a drought to this region – the ecosystem here is adapted to coping with a lot of water, not the lack of it), there are still a multitude of ribbon waterfalls cascading down from the icy tops of the mountains, feeding the streams that become the Clinton River.

Day 2 snow melt contributing to creekDay 2 Ice melt - so pure you can drink it unfiltered

The melting ice from the tops of every mountain continually feed the river. It’s so pure you can drink it unfiltered.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the turn-off to our second night’s accommodation. We were glad to get there, and pleasantly surprised to be greeted with orange quarters which were very refreshing.

Day 2 Pompolona

We arrive at Pompolona Lodge

The name ‘Pompolona’ came from a type of scone that Mackinnon made for his guests. He didn’t have butter, so he used the fat from wallabies (a feral pest in New Zealand). He called the scones pompolona’s.

Our room had a really good view of the end of the valley and Mackinnon Pass that we’d cross the next day.

Day 2 view from room at pompolona

Looking forward to Mackinnon Pass, some 700m above Pompolona Lodge

Each lodge has a laundry and drying facilities – although you’ve got to be quick to avoid a long queue and get first pick at where to hang your clothes. It was while we were waiting to wash some of our clothes we saw a rather large* avalanche! I’m glad it wasn’t any bigger, because it was on the mountain almost directly behind the hut!

(*It was quite a long way up. It was hard to tell exactly how big it was. Big enough!)

Day 2 ice falling off the mountain

Not THE avalanche, but some snow falling off the side of the mountain not long after.

With our first proper walking day done, it was time to relax and psych ourselves up for the challenge of crossing over Mackinnon Pass tomorrow!

Day 2 evening mea at pompolona

Lounge and dining room at Pompolona Lodge

Day 3: We tackle Mackinnon Pass on the way to Quintin Lodge

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Milford Track (NZ) Day 1, Nov 2010

Queenstown – Te Anau – Glade House

The first day of every adventure is exciting. Day 1 of our turn to walk the world famous Milford Track had arrived and we were ready!

After a quick breakfast  headed down to the Ultimate Hikes office with our backpacks and an extra bag each of clothes and gear that would be sent  ahead to Mitre Peak Lodge for us. Browns very kindly allowed us to leave our luggage that we weren’t taking on the walk with them.

The maximum number of guests that Ultimate Hikes can accommodate in one group is 50, which makes for a lot of excited people milling around on the footpath waiting for the bus. We were going very early in the season and I think there were only about 38 guests in our group.

Day 1 waiting at the station

Ready for adventure! You can see the broad spectrum of hikers this walk attracts.

I’m sure we weren’t the only ones checking out the size of other people’s packs. I do remember there was one guest – a lady, mind you – who fit all her gear in a 25L pack! We’d both chosen to bring our own 80L  packs instead of borrowing a smaller one (40L) from Ultimate Hikes; mine weighed about 10-12kg and Stephen’s… well, let’s just say it was heavier.

The bus trip to Te Anau was about 2.5 hours. It’s not the most scenic drive in New Zealand – correction: the drive along Lake Wakatipu between Queenstown and Kingston is beautiful, but the rest is fairly unremarkable compared to the rest of what’s on offer in region. Sorry guys. All the same, I managed to take one classic New Zealand photo before the weather clouded over:

Day 1 passing NZ sheep

Sheep! In New Zealand! Who’d have thought?

 We had one stop at Mossburn for a comfort break and… icecream! There isn’t much to see or do there apart from those two things. It was overcast and not particularly warm, but just about everyone enjoyed a Tip Top icecream anyway. After all, why let the weather stop you?

Day 1 Ultimate Hikes bus, stopped at Mossburn

The Ultimate Hikes bus. 

Lunch at Te Anau was very nice – Ultimate Hikes has an office attached to a hotel on the waterfront. If you’re looking for somewhere to holiday that’s like Queenstown but quieter, Te Anau could be just the place for you. Lake Te Anau is New Zealand’s second largest fresh water lake by surface area, and Australasia’s largest freshwater lake by volume. It even has three of it’s own fiords feeding into it! How’s that for impressive!

On the side of the bus you’ll notice the quote ‘The Finest Walk in the World”, and you may think that it’s a fairly bold claim that a marketing company sold to them. Well, not quite. Just over 100 years ago, a journalist was invited to walk the track and it was the title of their review of the walk when they got back to England that lead to the world-wide fascination with Milford Sound. Of course, since the astounding Homer Tunnel was completed in 1954 thus enabling people to drive to Milford Sound, it’s certainly been faster and more convenient for the masses to get to the fiord without getting their feet dirty.

From Te Anau it was a short bus ride to the boat at Te Anau Downs for the 1hr trip to the north end of the lake and the start of the Milford Track.

Day 1 Unloading the bus at Te Anau downs

Unloading the bus at Te Anau Downs.

Day 1 Te Anau Downs, gettng on the boat

Our group plus a couple of independent walkers boarding the boat to the start of the Milford Track.

Day 1 on board the boat

Naturally everyone wanted to be on the top deck since the weather was nice and sunny again!

Lake Te Anau, land slip

The scar on the side of the mountain on the left is due to a landslide. There isn’t much soil on the sides of the mountains; the trees roots entangle around each other for support as they grow. Thus it only take a few to come loose to take out a whole lot.

Day 1 Cross on island

Memorial cross for Quintin McPherson Mackinnon

Quintin Mackinnon was the explorer who found the overland route to Milford Sound that we now know as the Milford Track. Several land marks along the way are named in his honour, including Mackinnon Pass (the highest point of the track) where there is also a memorial cairn, Quintin Lodge (night 3 with Ultimate Hikes), and Lake McKinnon. I believe it was Mackinnon who invited the journalist mentioned above  – he was keen to take guests along the track. He is greatly revered by the Ultimate Hikes guides and you learn a lot about him and what what conditions were like back then over the course of the hike, and get a really good appreciation for how much easier it is for us to do now!

The cross on that rock on that wee island in the middle of Lake Te Anau marks the place that Quintin Mackinnon’s (sometimes spelt “Quenton” and “McKinnon”) boat was found, wrecked after a storm in the last months of 1892. His body was never found so it is assumed that he drowned (apparently drowned people sink in fresh water). Given the lake extremely deep (the deepest point is 417m), a search – let alone recovery – was impracticable.

A summary of his life can be found here at TeAra.govt.nz – Quintin McKinnon

Day 1 snow capped mountains from boat

Anticipation grows – we’d be walking amongst these giants very soon.

Day 1 Clinton (?) Valley

The Clinton River entering Lake Te Anau; there is a jetty just to the right of frame.

Within minutes of landing at the official start of the Milford Track, we realised that we hadn’t put on insect repellent yet!! So instead of waiting to get our photograph taken with the sign marking the start of the track, we headed off – if you keep walking the sandflies don’t bother you (of course, it helps if you’re not all standing around in a big group, too).

Day 1 We're walking - gps works

GPS is working – we’re good to go!

Day 1 Milford Track start sign

The start of the Milford Track. We didn’t hang around to pose for a similar photo.

There were a few independent walkers on the boat who disembarked and headed off before us – they had about 1.5-2hrs to walk to the first DOC (Dept of Conservation) hut, named Clinton Hut as it is in Clinton Valley. A maximum of 40 independent walkers can start the track on any given day.

Ultimate Hikes is the only company that owns private accomodation along the Milford Track. Our accommodation that night would be at Glade House, a whole 20min walk away. That would be our official 1 mile (1.6km) first day section of the track completed!

A note on measuring the track in miles: From what I remember our guides telling us, Quintin Mackinnon was paid by the mile to blaze the trail to Milford Sound. He used a Chain (an actual one made of metal links that was ‘one chain’ in length) to measure out the miles. At each mile he’d send back to town for payment, which I think came back in the form of provisions. There is a post marking each mile of the track, that also shows the kilometre equivalent on the other side.

Day 1 The first of 32 mile markers

The first of thirty-two mile markers

After an easy 1.2km to Glade House (ok, not quite 1 mile on the first day), we dumped our bags and were almost late for the group photo! (which I’m sure I’ve got a copy of somewhere…) With the clear green Clinton River flowing in front of the house, Sentinel Peak rising beyond, and Dore Pass behind us, the view was pretty good!

Day 1 Glade House, arriving

Arriving at Glade House. Dore Pass is the grey part at the top right of the photo.

Day 1 Sentinel Peak

The location of our group photo with the Clinton River behind and Sentinel Peak in the background

We then split into two groups for a nature walk – the guides gave us a brief overview of the plants and animals in the area. It was very interesting. We learnt that along with Possums the biggest feral animal threat in fiorland are ferrets who are indiscriminate killers. New Zealand has NO native terrestrial mammals (except for a few bats, and counting seals as marine mammals). Other feral mammals include 3 species of rats, cats, stoats, weasels, goats, various species of deer, wallabies, horses, hedgehogs! No wonder the native birds like the kiwi and kakapo (a flightless parrot) are under such pressure!

On the upside, they don’t have ticks and leeches! Don’t know how that came to be, but it’s fantastic! The abundant sandflies almost make up for their absence though.

Day 1 introductory walk

Learning about plants we’re likely to see along the track and about New Zealand’s ecology

Day 1 intro walk

As short as this walk was, it gave some guests a much needed opportunity to get to grips with the walking sticks they’d encumbered themselves with.

Day 1 on bridge looking back to glade house

The Clinton River flowing past Glade House

After everyone had made it back from the walk and wandered around a bit, it was time to gather in the lounge room for afternoon tea, a ‘getting to know everyone’ session which wasn’t too bad, and the evening power point presentation of what to expect the next day.

Day 1 Glade House Lounge & dining area

The Lounge area at Glade Hut. The dining area is towards the back of the room.

It turns out about ¾ of the group were Australian (mostly from Melbourne/Vic and Brisbane/Qld); of the rest there were 4 Japanese, 2 Indian ( a couple on their honeymoon), 2 American, 5 Kiwi’s (one who has lived in Perth for years but still thinks of himself as Kiwi, and the 4 guides) and one girl from Norway(?).

Day 1 Glade House museum

Some of the museum pieces at Glade House celebrating the story of the Milford Track

Each night we had a choice of two main meals – they’d pass around a list the day before (or at our lunch stop back in Te Anau on the first day) for you to indicate your preference so they can call ahead to let the lodge staff know how much to cook. It took the surprise away, but I guess it’s efficient for them and possibly reduces complaints from fussy eaters. The portions were a little on the small side, especially after a long day’s walk (certainly not the case on the first day), but there was salad and plain rice provided that you could help yourself to. Still, a 3 course meal of real food (more than freeze dried veges and noodles) that you didn’t have to cook yourself is not to be sneezed at, and we polished it off!

Day 2 menu options

A map to show you how far you’d come (or how far there was to go) and menu options.

Our room that night had no view – I was happy enough that it was out of the way and people weren’t walking by our window!

Day 1 Glade House guest rooms

The rooms at the front are the multi-share bunk style rooms. Our room was at the back of these.

The generator gets switched off at 10pm; they recommend that you leave your light switched on, so when the generator is turned on of a morning the lights coming back on act as your alarm clock. Not a bad idea! Being able to recharge my camera battery was appreciated, but until it went off the noise of the generator spoiled the serenity somewhat.

I don’t know how eco-friendly or green the houses/lodges are. I guess they don’t have to worry about water since they get 7-9 metres of rain per year, but flushing loo’s, no time limit on showers, fresh linen each day (I assume they must either wash and dry it all on site or fly it out), big kitchens, a big generator, regular helicopters transporting stuff in and out – it’s very commercial and a bit wasteful, in a way. At the same time, I recognise that it’s only way they can provide a consistent, quality experience for each person in each group that arrives each day. So many people want to come and see this place – I don’t know how they would operate it differently and still make the track available to so many people of different abilities.

Day 2: We walk from Glade House up the Clinton Valley to Pompolona Lodge.

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