A 53.5km track in Southland's Fiordland National Park, the Milford Track is often regarded as one of the great walks and even has the title of "The Finest Walk In The World" to live up to, so it was no surprise that as we boarded the bus from Te Anau to our ferry, which would mark the start of our four-day hike, we were itching with anticipation.
The track must be booked, often weeks in advance, with accommodation along the way limited to modest but well-maintained Department of Conservation huts. Each day a myriad of jaw-dropping terrain can be taken in, from rainforest, to wetlands, to sheer kilometer-high rock faces carved by glaciers that frame the alpine pass. The sort of stunning scenery that brings millions of international visitors to this wonderful country each year.
Louisa and I travelled with my friend David, over from the UK and equally keen to get good use out of the walking boots which had so far done a good job of taking up space in his suitcase (and caused him no end of trouble at customs who were unimpressed by the level of UK soil that accompanied them!). The weather report was mixed, but nothing to alarm us; sunshine and showers. Fjordland being the wettest part of the country, some rain should be expected.
As we disembarked the ferry the sun was shining and after a brief walk we were greeted with our first stunning view as the track crossed the Clinton River on a large swing bridge. The water was crystal clear, like no river I have ever seen, just like glass, as brown trout swum nonchalantly below, moving in and out of the faster water to take food as it passed by on nature's conveyor belt. There was an air of both awe and disbelief in what we were experiencing, that brought out laughter and anticipation of what were about to see as the days progressed.
The next morning we woke to glorious sunshine. Louisa and I are not people to wait on invitation, so after glugging down a quick cup of tea and some toast we headed off, at pace. Striding it out felt very counter-intuitive but was typical of us two as a couple - going hard or going home! David, a perennial student at heart, must've wondered what he'd let himself in for.
It wasn't long before we slowed down as the path led us in to the open and the dry riverbed. The vast cliff faces on either side creating a strange vacuum of space with the only sound in the ravine, the trickling of water from temporary waterfalls. Gaining any sense of perspective was difficult. We journeyed on after 6 hours made it to the second hut; Mintaro just as the clouds overhead started to gather. Perfect timing!
As we sat down to our freshly-made hot chocolate, other trampers started arriving at the hut, each slightly wetter than the previous and by early evening the sound of the rain on the roof was growing extremely loud, causing us to raise our voices to be heard. We joked about the track being muddy tomorrow and what a shame it would be if we didn't get to see the pass in the best light. Little did we know.
The rain continued through the night and while we were aware it had been constant, we hadn't fully grasped how heavy it had been. We waited for our DOC worker Catie (a Department of Conservation worker is based at each hut) to brief us on the condition of the track - something we thought would be a formality - but as time passed we realised this might not be the case. More and more people were venturing outside onto the veranda outside and as we stepped out we were stunned by what we saw. As far as we could see from left to right, was a huge dark - almost black - rock face that towered high into the sky. And pouring down its craggy façade were hundreds upon hundreds of waterfalls, carrying gallons upon gallons of rain water.
Each waterfall was in it's own right absolutely spectacular; monstrous. Framed in lesser surroundings each would draw a huge crowd but the total number of these waterfalls painted a truly stunning backdrop. We felt very small indeed. People stood and watched, in almost disbelief. Others tried to take photos, but it was impossible to do this justice.
After some time, Catie arrived and wrote on the board: SEVERE WEATHER WARNING. Heavy rain and severe gale force winds. 140km/hr in periods. Since 9pm last night we have had 8.2" of rain. Sit tight!
We climbed quickly, quicker than I had anticipated and my stomach was in my mouth as the crosswinds forced us hard to the right towards the opposite cliffs.
The day passed and the heavy rain continued. The hut we were in, while warm and offering sanctuary, was nested at the base of a cliff face, much like the one opposite. The area is susceptible to slips, flooding and tree-avalanches and beyond the entrance to the hut, the track was deep under water. We checked our rations and made plans. Some dry noodles were found and shared out.
Another night of thunder and lightening and the next day things had gotten worse. Another 9" of rain over night had killed any hope of us walking out of the Milford Track any time soon. It wasn't until lunchtime that we were given the news to ready ourselves for an emergency evacuation. Helicopter-rescue had been called in and we were to be flown off the track. The whole operation suddenly kicked into gear. Catie, who had so far spoilt us with cake and humorous anecdotes, became pan-faced as she delivered the regimented briefing. We were to pack our gear up and be ready to make our way out the hut by 12:30 and down to the point where the helicopter could land, 500 meters from where we were located.
Ruck sacks were packed into a sling and it was our time to board the chopper. We were the last group and as we boarded the craft, there was a definite disciplined focus from all involved. The pilot was stern and as we took off I could see why. We climbed quickly, quicker than I had anticipated and my stomach was in my mouth as the crosswinds forced us hard to the right towards the opposite cliffs. Louisa and I looked at each other, strangely at ease, yet uncomfortably aware that this wasn't good. The pilot grappled to regain control and meters from the waterfalls we'd been admiring the previous day, we banked back to the left and completed a 180-degree turn down river and back towards the start of the track. We were later told that these were the best pilots in the world. Thank God.
As I regained my composure, I looked down. The crystal clear streams which we had seen in the days previous were raging rivers, carrying whole trees with them like a giant game of 'pooh sticks', vast banks of the cliff faces were left bare from tree avalanches and the dry rocky river beds and track couldn't be seen for the murky, muddy water pushing over them like a train. Each of us pointing out the next scene of devastation and minutes later we were recognising the swing bridge we had seen three days previous. The helicopter gracefully swung into position before touching down where the rest of the group waited.
Despite all of this, 2km down the track a ferry waited for us in calmer waters to take us back to our coach and on to our hostels. The Milford Track hadn't been what we had anticipated, but it had provided us with a fantastic story and a great experience.