Adventure 2017: Bryna Sisk — Flooded out on New Zealand’s Milford Track
March 29, 2017
My friend Dr. Eric Meyer once said, "I never pack anything I can't run through an airport with." That's solid advice. But it won't serve you when your gear is in Sydney, Australia, and your body is in Queenstown, New Zealand, departing for a five-day trek on the famous Milford Track.
Since Donald Sutherland discovered Sutherland Falls (the world's fifth highest) in 1880 and Quintin Mackinnon pioneered the route in 1888, the Milford Track takes trekkers through Fiordland National Park, before ending with a cruise on Milford Sound. It's been described as the "finest walk in the world." Or perhaps, I should say, "wade."
Tackling it with my 73-year-old father-in-law, Dr. Jerry Sisk, we gathered at New Zealand's Ultimate Hike offices in downtown Queenstown for our briefing — an opportunity to meet fellow travelers and learn about the trek and gear we needed. A winter resort known half the year for The Remarkables mountain range and as a playground for climbers, paddlers, trekkers, paragliders and mountain bikers during the summer, Queenstown is a lot like Steamboat, offering something for every outdoor junkie under the sun.
Replacing my lost gear with one outfit to hike in and one to sleep in — a minimalist approach that gave me a sense of accomplishment — I borrowed a backpack, trekking poles and extra large rain jacket (it's all they had) from the outfitter, and we set off early the next morning.
Ultimate Hikes has the only contract to run guided tours on the Milford Track. (Limited permits are available for trekkers wishing to go solo and stay in bunkhouses.) They offer transportation to and from Queenstown, including the short boat ride across Lake Te Anau to the trailhead. En route we'd overnight in lodges with hot showers and indoor plumbing, dine on fine local fare and even enjoy alcoholic spirits in the evenings.
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Each day, hikers plunge deeper into Fiordland National Park, the cornerstone of the Te Wahipounamu Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, among daily sightings of such birdlife as Robins, Kea, Weka, Fantail, Parakeet, Bellbirds and Kiwi's, whose songs ring throughout the day.
Alongside an international array of fellow trekkers, we passed gorgeous deep mountain lakes, silent fiords, thick lush forests and sheer granite canyons. Days one and two were bluebird, perfect for the six-hour hike from one lodge to the next. On day three, we climbed Mackinnon Pass from Pampolona Lodge — the most demanding day with a long, steep climb up Clinton Valley followed by a rocky descent into the Arthur Valley and finally Quintin Lodge. That's when the rains came.
The deluge began 60 minutes into our trek. First, light and fun drops that were no bother, but within two hours, angry torrents cascaded all around. The mountainsides came alive with the water's thunderous roar. Soaked to the bone, we made our way up and over the pass and then down the other side in awe of Mother Nature's might.
Safe and dry at Quintin Lodge, we watched as the rain continued. Over the day, the valley floor became swollen and flooded. And impassable. We managed to make our way in the knee-deep stream up the trail to get a glimpse of Sutherland Falls, but the rain was so hard we could barely look up to see it. On our return, knee-deep had turned to thigh-deep; we were glad to be safe again at the lodge.
The next morning the call came that the entire track would be evacuated via helicopter, cutting short our last day, a 13-mile hike to Mitre Peak Lodge. In all, hundreds of people were evacuated. Once safe at Mitre Peak Lodge, we sailed out on Milford Sound to see the dolphins and fur seals the area is known for but scarcely saw a thing for all the rain.
There is a silver lining to all the clouds. Jerry and I decided we'd have to return — technically, we haven't finished the track. Maybe this time we'll opt for the "The Classic," which combines Milford and equally famous Routeburn tracks on an eight-day, 60-miler. Hopefully, my umbrella will make it on the flight. Info: http://www.ultimatehikes.co.nz