NEW ZEALAND – 2 – 6 February 2020
To wear over pants to keep my legs dry or not? And when was the last time I wore my Gortex jacket, seemed a bit tight … do they shrink (lol)? There was an undercurrent of excitement mixed with a little apprehension as we prepared our lunch and then had breakfast (Eggs Benedict – wow!). I know I was pretty pumped – aside from the too-tight Gortex that is.
This part of the walk is supposed to be the most challenging day and they say “walk at your own pace”. We were to walk up the valley and then climb up to MacKinnon Pass in a series of zig zags. At the top “we would be rewarded with spectacular panoramic views” and a rest at the MacKinnon Memorial before descending into the Arthur Valley, a steep and rocky path.
Given the weather, and knowing what was ahead, the guides stressed the importance of us being “grouped together” rather than spreading out on the track (as we did the previous 2 days).
Initially I tried to keep up with the fast walkers, but eventually the group split into three, fast, not so fast and those who struggle on hills and raging torrents (usually me). but miraculously, I managed to keep up with the middle group on this occasion.
Louise, David and I opted for no over-pants. The start of the walk was pretty cruisy, and at this stage it wasn’t raining too much.
There had been considerable rain overnight so the track was a bit soggy.
But our first hint that the rain had been a bit more than “considerable” was as we approached a river crossing.
And seeing all the waterfalls, no wonder the river was high. I am sure if we had crossed this the day before it would have been dry as a bone.
From the bridge.
One of the many creek crossings we’d encounter.
Another creek and bridge.
Another creek crossing. The guides were always there helping us across, even though Marcia, David, Lou and I didn’t need help because we were used to swift water in canyons, for the vast majority of the group, this was a totally new experience.
More creek crossing.
And then we hit a flat part of the track. Marcia had dry socks up until this point but there was no way you could walk through this without getting wet feet. I wore my runners for the whole trip so I had wet feet as soon as I walked out the door this morning!
The waterfalls were amazing. I would hazard a guess that if we had walked through this section yesterday we wouldn’t have seen any waterfalls.
This bridge was a little scary, the water was lapping the bottom.
Half way up the climb – note the patch of snow in amongst all the creeks, and check out the colour, that’s from the fires back in Australia.
Half way up the climb, but still in the tree line, Louise found this Mopoke Owl, I don’t know how she found it, it was very well camouflaged.
Louise and Marcia reached the top before David and me (they were with the fast group!). Marcia is in front of the MacKinnon Memorial.
David in front of the Memorial. Quite frankly, it was windy, cold and I was wet, I wasn’t at all interested in having my photo taken, plus you couldn’t see a thing. One of the guides was waiting there for us with hot drinks, but I couldn’t even be bothered having a drink, I just wanted to get out of the wind.
David with the obligatory shot – the itinerary says that at the top you will be rewarded with panoramic views, not for us today, I’m sure the views would have been awesome!
This is Pass Hut where we stopped for lunch, and these are the views we would have seen if we hadn’t been in thick cloud. Might have to go back.
20 minutes later and we’re all back together again at Pass Hut, where we could change into something warmer, have our lunch and enjoy a hot drink from the guides. There was even a heater on the wall, the only problem was getting back into your coat to go outside to the toilet! We’re all still smiling though so the trip up couldn’t have been that bad!
We left Pass Hut in three groups again, with David and me in the middle group. It would be roughly 2 1/2 hours for us to get to our hut for the night.
Lots of waterfalls to cross. First we had to zig zag down from the Pass eventually getting back into the tree line.
And the waterfalls seem to have more water than this morning.
And a raging torrent to cross.
And then the track turned into a raging torrent.
We’re in the tree line now and we came to a thundering gorge.
There are lots of photos of this because there was just SO MUCH WATER!
Fortunately DOCs has built a nice set of steps (slippery) and some good lookouts for the gorge, I’m sure though that not many people get to see this much water in it.
Lots of photos of the gorge (lol).
Sort of made me want to come back and abseil it (with not so much water), if only I didn’t have to carry gear and ropes!
Looking downstream. David reckoned that he could smell the granite rocks smashing against each other, I have no doubt that there’d be boulders thundering through this gorge.
Almost at the end of the gorge now and then it turned into a raging river. We walked along the banks of it for a while before getting back into the forest.
Before long we were at the swing bridge, then it was just 100m or so to the lodge.
Because Louise arrived back in the first group, she and another walker decided to visit Sutherland Falls – they were the only ones that did on this day.
No photos of the lodge at this point, I felt like a drowned rat at this stage, so just walked to my room, stripped off all the wet gear and stood under the hot shower until I felt human again. Then took all the wet gear down to the drying rooms and headed into the lounge for tea and muffins.
Part of the first group who must have arrived around 3pm. Our group arrived around 4pm and then others straggled in until 7pm. The rivulets and creek crossings were very challenging for most people.
After much wine and nibbles, we were called into dinner, and the guides dressed up in some “fancy” dress for the entertainment.
Poor Faith didn’t even have time to change out of her uniform, she arrived at the lodge at 7pm with the last walkers and got straight into her fancy dress and was serving, what a trouper!
At the briefing after dinner, we were told to be ready to be at 7.30am the next morning. I honestly can’t remember what additional information we were given, but I seem to recall much mention was made of landslips on the Milford Road. In actual fact, the information over the next few days seemed to merge into each other.
Day 4 – (3/2/2020) Quinton Lodge
This was the day that we were supposed to walk to Mitre Peak Lodge, so we congregated in the dining room, made our lunches, had breakfast and were all ready to go by 7.30am. The guides then advised us that we wouldn’t be leaving today as there were landslides on the Milford Road (which is the road we’d be taken back to Queenstown on), the road was closed indefinitely and so we’d be airlifted out the next day (the day that we would have had our cruise on Milford Sound). Whilst it was disappointing not to do the last section of the walk, the prospect of a helicopter ride the next day was very attractive. So, we settled in, and after our rooms were made up we could go back to the rooms to freshen up.
We weren’t allowed to go outside, but it was raining anyway so that wasn’t very enticing. David had a book to read.
We all watched the endless rain at some point (and the waterfalls that were all over the hills).
Some of us learned the “banana game”, have no idea what it’s called but it’s like scrabble without a board and when you use up your tiles you call out “peel” and everyone has to take another tile. I would like to find out what it’s called cause it was fun.
Just off the cuff, when we were at the Queenstown supermarket, Louise suggested we get some playing cards, which was fortuitous as I taught a number of people how to play May I? – and everyone loved it and no-one complained that I was constantly making up new rules! Some of us pretty much played May I? for the next 24 hours.
The chef prepared the same menu for the second night, and most of us changed our option, so we could try something different. There was endless wine, what more could we ask for.
Day 5 – (4/2/2020) Quinton Lodge
We were briefed the night before to be ready to be airlifted out in the morning, no one was sure what time, but we needed to be ready. After we had breakfast we had another briefing, and it was at this time that we were told that there’d been over 1,000ml of rain in the area, and the whole of Fiordland had been declared a state of emergency. Roads were flooded, washed away and all the Ultimate Hikes walkers (130 of us) were stranded in Pompolona, Mitre Peak and Quinton Lodge, so the logistics were considerable. And, remember that stanchion that I mentioned back in Part #1 of the Milford Track, well the flood water was lapping at the top of the stanchion!
It was uncertain when the helicopters would arrive. Just before lunch, we were notified that we’d be staying another night at Quinton Lodge, and that arrangements would be made for those of us who had accommodation booked. We all trooped back to our respective rooms (which had been serviced, more clean towels).
We’re all getting a serious case of cabin fever by now, but were told that after lunch, if all went according to plan, we’d be able to do the side trip to Sutherland Falls (the world’s 5th highest waterfall at 580m). This seemed to brighten us all up, back to May I?
Around 2pm half of the guests gathered together and started the walk to Sutherland Falls. As you can see, the water is still quite high.
And some of the bridges would have been under water the day before. There were a few sections of the track that had been scoured out, which indicated that the height of the river was about 1m higher than it was on today’s walk, impressive.
Our first glimpse of Sutherland Falls (this taken just before a swing bridge).
Taken from on the swing bridge.
And 10 minutes later, the track to the Falls.
This is as close as we could get, the wind and spray from the Falls was just too strong to go any further. You can see leaves on the ground, these have been stripped off the trees (probably the previous day) by the force of the wind the waterfall generated.
So, back to the lodge for a warm shower (we were all soaked), and the drying room to dry all our clothes. We all regrouped back in the lounge for more May I?, freshly baked muffins and tea, followed by nibbles and wine, and dinner. The Chef tried to change the menu (he was probably sick of making up the same dinner menu 3 days in a row for the same people).
At our briefing for the next day, we were informed that the weather was clearing and we’d definitely be airlifted out, along with all the other Milford Track walkers PLUS those walkers on the Routeburn Track that had also suffered a similar fate to us. We were to be ready in the lounge for a 10.30am departure, so we could relax over breakfast. We were also informed that the road from Te Anau to Queenstown had been flood damaged (everyone in Te Anau was stranded), so we’d be taken to Glenorchy instead.
Our booking for today’s accommodation had already been cancelled. But a 10.30am departure, and then a drive to Queenstown meant that David, Louise and I would probably miss our 3.20pm flight, Marcia’s flight was an hour later so she’d probably be ok. So, the Lodge Manager got on the phone to reschedule our flights, then Louise was able to secure us accommodation for the night.
Day 5 – (5/2/2020) Quinton Lodge > Glenorchy > Queenstown
We got up at the usual time, and headed down to breakfast, we teased David that he needed to have a shave and as we were all heading back to our rooms, the guides started knocking on doors alerting us to the fact that the helicopters would be arriving in 5 minutes! It was panic stations, a good thing that David wasn’t in the shower when the alert came around as he wouldn’t have heard the alert. We didn’t know how many helicopters would be arriving … 1 or multiple so we had to hustle to be ready.
The first helicopter – Louise was in the first group to go and got to sit in a front seat!
Everyone milling around waiting for the next helio.
Bloody Milford weather, it was a stunning day, pity we couldn’t enjoy it.
Photo taken by Louise … David, Marcia and me looking like prisoners in the lodge.
Marcia heading out for the next flight (she got the cool helicopter).
The lodge, and the river, showing the extent of the flooding.
The mountains up close, taken from my helicopter (the fifth group), no wonder the water just flows off them, little or no soil up there to hold it.
Another shot of the mountains up close and personal, and note there’s a little snow up on top.
Fabulous photo taken by Louise, all the mountains had a dusting of snow, and while it was bucketing down at our elevation, it was snowing on top. Great view of the mountains surrounding the valleys that we’d walked in.
Marcia and Maria enjoying the flight!
The approach into Glenorchy over the lake.
We landed at Glenorchy and then waited around for the final helicopters to land, in all 8 trips made by 2 helicopters. Whilst the number of helicopters around made the area look like a real state of emergency (as it was), the beautiful weather took the drama out of the scene (does that make sense?).
We were then bustled onto the bus and headed to Queenstown, a mere 45 minutes away. Marcia collected her luggage and headed out to the airport and David, Louise and I wandered around town – it was weird being amongst so many people.
That night we headed out to dinner with some of the friends we had made.
(l – r) Louise, Maria, David, Sue, Matty, Helen, me and Matts. It’s surprising that you can be with people for 6 days, and still learn new things about them!
Some news pics from the Milford Road – what 1m of rain in 60 hours can do to a road.
This rain event was the first RED Warning that the Met department had ever set in place.
Another news shot.
David, Louise and me as we depart to the airport – another great adventure over.
A big thanks to Marcia, David and Louise for joining me on this trip, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much if I didn’t have you guys with me.
Ultimate Hikes were amazing. I cannot praise them enough for their handling of the situation, the guides were well informed (and a delight to travel with prior to the rain event), and managed the situation really well, we were well and truly in safe hands. I’d definitely recommend doing the Milford with Ultimate … given the fact that you can pretty much guarantee getting wet (although not this wet), it was luxurious to arrive at a lodge/hut and have fresh scones waiting for you, plus a hot shower. I’d definitely do this trip again!
Banner: helicopters at Glenorchy, looked a bit like a state of emergency (lol)
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