I start this blog post as I cruise down the Doubtful Sound on a beautiful sunny day. It is one day after I have finished the Milford Track, something I booked way back in July, and it’s hard to believe that I have completed it after many months of thinking/dreading/dreaming about it.
I was really nervous about my ability to complete it. Since I’ve been in New Zealand, my skin hugging skinny jeans now require a belt, yet I’m not in any better shape than pre-New Zealand. In fact, I’ve just lost most of my muscle weight from stopping the strength training I’d been doing in Chicago. The only workout I’ve really had is stuffing my cheeks with beautiful New Zealand pies. Just two weeks prior, I was unable to keep any food down after coming down with a horrible stomach flu. And this would also be my first real hike. Well, ever. And it was 33.5 miles that included an avalanche trail and an alpine trail. Things just weren’t looking too good for me.
It certainly was a physical feat–today I’ve been groaning each and every step I have to climb or descend, and my right ankle is purple and bulbous–but I have just seen and experienced something profoundly remarkable. Please note that the pictures and notes will in no way be able to do it justice.
Prior to the Milford Track:
I booked in July. The popular Great Walks of New Zealand sell out within a couple of hours of going on sale when they open on the New Zealand Department of Conservation website. Luckily, Amy, another Fulbrighter, was on to this fact and let the whole Fulbright New Zealand teaching crew that we had to book now!
I’ve never ever properly hiked, or tramped, as they say here. So, I had to rent all of the gear. Luckily, Bev’s Tramping Hire was there to the rescue. Bev got me outfitted with the right pack, sleeping bag, cooking ware, and clothing. I even got to try walking with a walking stick, which I’d later use as a cane to hobble around like an old woman when my legs got sore.
I packed a lot of food. Amy took one look at it and told me to put some of it away. “Too heavy,” she explained. She also looked at my freeze dried meals and said I wouldn’t like them. Luckily, if there is one thing I know about myself is that this girl can eat. And I mean, eat. As in, I ran out of all of this food on day three.
Objective: take a bus from our hotel in Te Anau to Te Anau Downs. Then, take a boat to Glade Wharf, start of the track. From the track, walk an easy 3 miles to the first hut, Clinton hut.
1) I successfully carried my first pack! It was a little heavy with all of the food that I brought (although Amy told me not to).
2) I walked over the second swing bridge of my life. It was quite scary, and I bobbled all over from side to side like a staggering zombie. I would eventually get better, which is good because I would cross about 17 more during the next three days.
3) The weather! I mean, this is a temperate rainforest and Fiordland is known for its rain. It rains 200 days out of the year and parts of the Milford Track floods. Just two and a half weeks ago it snowed here. Just under two weeks ago, it flooded so badly that the trampers had to be helicoptered out. And yet, for the next four days, it was to be sunny and beautiful, a rarity here. In fact, as I type this in on my cruise, it is day 6 of no rain. (Nine days here is considered a drought to put things in perspective).
Some people would say that this is bad because the “real” Milford happens when it rains, as there are hundreds and hundreds of waterfalls down the mountains (the mountains are granite, so there is nothing to soak up the water). But I’ll swap slippery slopes and being soaked to the bone for sunshine and seeing everything clearly anyday.
4) Next to our huts were several little glow worm caves. It was fun to wait until the sky started to raven to see the blue-green lights glowing along the trail path.
5) In an effort to stay hydrated, I drank a lot of water before bed. That meant that in the wee hours of the night, I had to sneak out of my hut in search of the toilet. When I got outside, I threw my hands up in stark fright. This gesture was so rigid I almost flung up my flashlight like confetti at a surprise party. It wasn’t because I had come face to face with an animal–the best thing about camping in New Zealand is that there isn’t anything deadly lurking in the woods–but because I was so shocked to see how blazing and bright the stars were.
I. have. never. seen. anything. like. it.
I could see everything: the galaxies, the Southern Cross, the twinkling planets: the stars seemed as close as the glow worms I had seen a few hours before. Spilled down the middle was the Milky Way. Never have I ever felt so happy to have nature call as on this night.
6) It was really lovely to see the immediate community build up. From the first night, people shared food and stories. I became friends with a couple from Boston, Kendra and Neal, a couple from Poland, Gregory and Dorota, and a family of three: Robin, Michael, and their ten year old son Ethan. I met the Polish couple as we were searching for eels in the nearby stream. Look as we tried, we had no luck. Amy and I gave up, headed back to camp, and tried out the huge hula hoops (we had a lot of time to kill).
Soon, Gregory came running up the path, exclaiming that he had found eels. However, by the time we ran back down the trail, they were already gone. But the sweetness of the couple’s gesture stayed with me for the rest of the journey. Later that night, we would all play cards until we couldn’t see anymore.
1) Because the hike was so short, there really wasn’t anything to do when we got back. I couldn’t sit outside and enjoy the late afternoon sun because I was too delicious of a snack for sandflies. Sandflies are very similar to mosquitoes in that they suck your blood; however, unlike mosquitoes, if you kill one, it will send out a toxin that will send more its way (unless that is a total myth told to me by my Doubtful Sound tour guide just now). So we were pretty limited on what we could do.
2) In this first hut, there are two bunkrooms. We got into a room with the door slammers. Meaning, it seemed as if every person leaving the hut, no matter what time of night, had gotten into a serious argument with their mom and dad. I jolted awake too many times from these door slamming nincompoops, and I made a mental note to avoid them at all costs at the next hut.
Pictures from Day 1:
Video clip from day one:
Objective: Walk 11+ miles to the next hut, Mintaro hut, which is as the base of the Mackinnon Pass.
1) Oh what beauty! We finally got out of the New Zealand beech trees (which are nice, but after a couple of hours it was nice to have a change in greenery) and into the valley. And it was jaw dropping.
We had lunch at the edge of an avalanche zone (Amy’s idea, not mine!) with views of the river, waterfalls, and mountains all around. A flightless, native New Zealand bird casually strolled by us. I felt a little–okay a lot–like I was in the first forty minutes of a Jurassic Park sequel. In general, I felt very, very much like I was in Middle Earth, and I felt very, very lucky.
2) When we finally dragged ourselves to the Mintaro hut, there were about fifteen people outside enjoying the sunshine. No sandflies here, whoo hoo! They all kinda stared at us as we tried to figure out where the bunkhouses were. Finally, someone spoke up and said that they were all attached, that there were two rooms behind the kitchen and then some rooms upstairs. “The ones downstairs might all be taken though,” the man explained, looking off into the beautiful distance.
Well, Amy and I were exhausted, and we just wanted to get the packs off our backs, which felt loaded down with jars of pennies. We decided to look into the downstairs rooms anyway, but no luck. All were taken. We saw the exit sign, went out, and saw, to our dismay, that the way up to the second floor was a flimsy metal ladder that lead to a small hole. “No way,” I said, backing up from the ladder, “Nope. I’m not doing it.”
“We have to Jessie!” Amy exclaimed, “This is the way.”
I didn’t want to believe her, and I started to panic. “What if I have to go to the bathroom again? I will fall down this hole in the middle of the night! It is way too scary. I am sleeping in the kitchen!” I was trying really, really hard to keep it together, but I was exhausted, wanted to lie down in a bed, but also was not willing to climb up this little ladder to a second story with my huge pack on.
Amy said, “well, I’m going up there. We have to do this. We are almost there,” and she began to climb. Only her pack wouldn’t fit through the hole. She finally gave up, came back down, took off her pack, handed it and her camera to me, and said to hand them up to her when she got up there. I kept exclaiming, “I’m not doing it, I’m not doing it” as she had to half jump from the ladder to the section near the door. She asked me to hand her her camera first so she could go claim some bunks for us. Thinking she’d only be a second, I lifted her pack above my head, ready to try to hand up to her. After a bit, my arms started shaking from the weight of her bag and I cried out, “Amy?” in a pathetic, weak voice. I was quite startled when I noticed that Amy had come up behind me. “What’s wrong?” I asked, looking back up at the ladder, confused.
“That was the fire escape,” she said, taking her bag from my arms sheepishly, “there are normal stairs.” I laughed so hard I cried and had to choke back near hysteria. And the best news? That was the only time I cried the whole trip.
1) This day was the hardest for me, which is funny because Day Three was by far the most physically demanding day. But it just felt long. This is partially because the walk was much longer than I calculated, so when I found out it was longer, I felt like all of my energy rushed out of me like a deflating balloon. In fact, I felt very much like I made that balloon deflating sound the whole last mile of the day.
2)Avalanches! We came towards the end of avalanche season, which meant that we’d see signs that stated when a zone would begin, and instruct us that we could not stop until we were out of the zone. The only problem was that the avalanche zones happened to be the most beautiful, magical, and photo-worthy sections of the trail! Amy finally said as we came up to yet another avalanche zone, “Get your camera out, what this really is warning us of is that there is a beautiful area ahead!” It was sad that I couldn’t have my jaw dropped by these areas because I was too busy hustling due to imagining a large boulder squishing my head.
2) I liked the layout of this hut the best. There were little coves that held four bunks each. Amy and I shared ours with a beautiful couple from Israel that looked like they are often on covers of magazines (although I will say that I caught the woman putting on mascara and under eye concealer, so that totally is an unfair advantage in the wilderness). Amy and I knew our bladders well enough to know that we should stay on the bottom bunks. So the beautiful woman stayed above me.
In the middle of the night, she started banging on the wall and screaming bloody murder. My first instinct was that a murderer was in the hut, slashing throats, and that I would surely be next. Soon, Amy, pragmatic as always, turned on her light and asked her if she was okay. After some more moaning and calling out for “ma-me,” her husband woke her up from the terrible dream.
I tried to shake off the fear by going for a little walk to see the stars, but when I got out into the cool, night sky, I discovered that the Milky Way and its beautiful conterparts were blocked by the mountains. All and all, a disappointing hour in the night.
Pictures from Day Two:
Video from Day Two:
Objective: walk up a plethora of switchbacks to the MacKinnon Pass, an alpine hike 1,154 meters high. Because it was avalanche season, we had to take the emergency track instead of hiking between Mount Balloon and the Jervois Glacier. Then, after about five miles, we could take a side trip to see Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in New Zealand, which was an hour and a half return. Then it was another hour’s walk to Dumpling Hut.
1) Ironically, even though this was by far the most difficult day, it was my favorite by far. This was the day that I had to say affirmations to myself in the mirror. I can do it. I can do it. It’s amazing what the human body can do. I hiked up an alpine pass and down very, very difficult terrain. We’re not talking that I hiked zigzagging an easy path back down the mountain. It was a path of rocks.
So it was a very slow, arduous descent as you had to hobble over, find your footing, and make sure that your walking stick was stuck in places that was easy to balance you. But the views were so breathtaking that I didn’t mind that I was wheezing and my knees, hips, and feet were aching for breaks. I was tough, I shouted corny things like, “I am woman” over and over in my head. I sang some key Whitney Houston songs inside my brain. And somehow it was worth it and I smiled the whole way. Plus, I gave myself one bite of chocolate bar when I hit each key marker, which when one is away from her usual choices of sweet temptations, was a great carrot indeed.
2) I loved the side trip to Sutherland Falls. At first, I thought there was no way I would want to add on another hour and a half to my trip. However, I pretty high on adrenaline from making it through the alpine section that I knew I didn’t want to miss out on the falls. The nice thing was there was a hut we could stop at, courtesy of the Guilded Walks tour (esentially, you can pay lots of money to have sweet cabins, hot showers, great cooked meals, cold beer, and then only walk with a small backpack of clothes on your back. We did not like Guided Walk people. They did not like us (we smelled).
In there was tea and coffee. Tea and coffee! Amy and I sat there for a while and relaxed with the hot drink that even had powdered milk and sugar in it (I don’t usually take coffee with sugar, but the sweet tooth monster within me was starving). Amy shared her nuts because I was running low on food. It was divine. We were able to leave our packs in this hut and walk with our backs feeling free and unburdened in the beautiful summer day.
Once we reached the base of the falls, Amy and I didn’t have to discuss–we would definitely linger here a while. Not only was the power and the force of the falls beautiful, but it let off this gorgeous spray of mist that felt so good after hours of sweating in the hot sun. It was the closest thing we had to a shower, and I felt like a warrior princess as I stood in front of this powerful creation of Mother Earth.
2) Amy. I really realized this day that there is no way that I could have done this experience without Amy. Not only was it nice to have a friend with me to have someone to talk to (and sometimes commiserate), but also because she just quite simply got me through it. It’s like she metaphorically slung me on her back and dragged me along with her. I just trailed along behind her the whole way, sometimes a few feet, and sometimes a few hundred feet. But she would always yell back to make sure I was okay, and would shout if we met an important milestone or if there was something really tricky ahead. Thank you Amy!
3) The weather. Did I mention it was sunny and beautiful the WHOLE TIME. I mean, get out of here. This is Fiordland! I was especially grateful when we were descending the steep emergency track. There were tricky sections that had streams/waterfalls running through them, and they were quite slippery. I cannot even begin to believe how much harder the trip would be if the rocks had been slippery the whole way down. So thank you, Mother Nature, for shining down on me.
4) After we arrived back in the hut after nine hours of hiking, Dorota told us some good news. There were beautiful swimming holes in the nearby creek. I stripped down to my skivvies and went for a swim/wash. It felt good to wash off some of the grim of the day and calm my screaming muscles… that is until the sandflies attacked.
At dinner, someone asked me about my favorite tramp. “This one,” I replied, taking a bite of my freeze dried meal, which looked far too much like dog food for my liking. “Why?” he asked. “Because it’s the only one.” The whole table gasped. They could not believe that this was my first every real hike. “Go big or go home, I guess” one man exclaimed. Another guy said, “You’ll never want to hike again. Everything will seem downhill from here. This is a pretty spectacular hike.” I felt honored that everyone just assumed I knew what I was doing, and I felt proud for trusting in myself that I could do it.
5) All in all, this was one of my favorite days of my whole trip to New Zealand.
1) There really aren’t any this day. The only really low point is that I kept falling down on the emergency track, and during one fall, I rolled my right ankle. It didn’t hurt too badly, so I kept going, but the distance between Amy and me grew as I slowed my pace. Finally, I wanted to tell her I wanted to stop for lunch because my stomach was scolding me, but she couldn’t hear my shouts over one of the many waterfalls.
I came up to a sweet couple enjoying their lunch next to said beautiful waterfall, and asked them if they had seen Amy. “She left this point a bit ago,” the man said. My face dropped, and I told them of my ankle in slight panic. “Here, let me give you a cookie,” the man replied in broken English.
This is pretty much the best phrase he could have said to me. That cookie was amazing, and I walked the whole rest of the way not thinking about my ankle. I didn’t think about it the next day when I noticed that I couldn’t get into to my right hiking boot, but I did notice it when I finally showered in my hotel the next day when I saw that my ankle was completely swollen. Apparently, cookies are the best medicine for me.
Pictures from Day Three:
Video Clip from Day Three:
Objective: hike 11 miles to Sandfly point. We had to leave early today because we had to make the 2 p.m. boat that would take us through Milford Sound and back to civilization.
1) Today, like the second day, was a bit mentally trying because there wasn’t as much to distract us from our aching shoulders. But I loved some of the little nuggets of beauty along the way, like Giant’s Falls and the Bell Rock. Bell Rock was awesome because it is a rock that is just like its name: it’s a bell. Meaning, you can crawl under it and fit about 11 other people standing in it. I wish I could have had a Bell Rock dance party!
2) I did a lot of reflecting this day. Before we left, we heard a lot about the early Māori that carved this path, and I loved thinking about the fact that I was walking in ancient footsteps. I imagined the lives of those who walked before me and felt like I was part of one big, glorious footprint on this beautiful planet. I was reminded of this when I walked by the graffitti of someone’s name and the year carved into the rock, May 1848. Here I am, 150 years later, adding to the echoing story of this beautiful trek.
3) After we finished the trek (hooray!) we took a boat through the beautiful Milford Sound. It was such an amazing end to our experience. And even better, when we got to the dock, there was Amy’s husband Ian waiting with a big smile on his face. He was there to pick us up and take us back the two hours to our hotel. It was so nice to see the couple reunited, and the sweet Ian had thought to pack a picnic lunch for us–how he knew we would be starving, I have no idea–and we ate the first fresh food in days while overlooking the Milford Sound. Happiness.
4) I stayed in the most hysterical hotel that was outfitted in a wild, wild west theme, and I ate the most delicious burger of my life.
1) I was trying to do anything to distract myself from the long walk in front of me and the pain creeping into my back, and I may also have been delirious. Because I only had one walking stick, I decided that it would be fun to pretend that I was a drum majorette in a marching band and swing the pole while I did a half march in time. I held my chin up to the sky like I was wearing a big hat with a plume on the top.
I got a little too ambitous and decided to see if I could twirl my stick like it was a baton, but once I got going, I lost my balance, toppled over to the side, tripped over a rock and then slammed into a giant hill of moss. Because I had my heavy pack on, it smooshed me further into this pile of moss. Unlucky for me, Amy wasn’t too far ahead of me, and she turned around to see me sprawled out, starfish style, on the side of the path. “What happened?” she inquired.
“I’ll tell you later,” I replied, too embarrassed to tell her that I had just been leading an invisible marching band…of doom.
3) We got to the 33rd mile marker. I was so incredibly happy! According to our map, we only had 400 meters to go. We were also told that Sandfly Point was aptly named, that there are hundreds of sandflies waiting to make you their midday snack. We were told to time it right so you arrived on time for the boat. We decided, therefore, to wait at mile 33 for a half hour to keep away from the bloodsuckers.
Others joined us once they figured out what were were doing, and we had a good chat and laugh about the experience together. Amy and I took off early, knowing we kept a slower pace than the others, and after ten minutes of walking, we knew something wasn’t right. Suddenly, the same man who gave me the cookie went running by. “It’s way more than 400 meters. I have to warn the others, or they won’t make it.”
Amy and I panicked, picking up the pace. I felt especially horrible since I was the one who told the group that they had plenty of time to make it. Some had buses that they had to make. Luckily, everyone made it in time, but it still made for a far more stressful ending than I would have liked.
Pictures from Day Four:
So there you have it. It was an amazing experience living with the land, dipping our water bottles into the streams and drinking fresh water, eating freeze dried food, climbing an alpine mountain pass, witnessing waterfall after waterfall. It was a highlight of my life, but I won’t be signing up for this particular hike again.
Although I did catch myself looking up great hikes to do in the United States earlier today. It would be nice to go on a tramp with some certain Stovall siblings I know… Lee? Dan?