Stepping High in New Zealand

By Gray, Joan | Contemporary Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Stepping High in New Zealand

Gray, Joan, Contemporary Review

I had reached the top of the pass. There was no one in sight. The only sound the harsh cry of a kea or mountain parrot. The valley below was shrouded in mist and cloud drifted ghost-grey between the mountains. I had never been anywhere else ... only here.

Here was the middle of the Milford Track in Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand, a 32-mile trail from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound; up Clinton Canyon, over Mackinnon Pass, past the Sutherland Falls - fifth highest in the world - and down to Milford Sound.

The travel brochure had been brief: 'The trail passes through an unspoiled mountain wilderness of dense rain forests, tumbling rivers and cascading waterfalls, all surrounded by the towering glaciated peaks of the Southern Alps. The scenic variety and vast panoramas of this remote mountain landscape have earned the Milford Track the title of "The Finest Walk in the World".'

From Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu we had come by bus to Te Anau where the launch was waiting to take us some forty miles northward to the head of the lake. It was in Te Anau that the scenery changed from open pastoral country to majestic tree-covered slopes, looming darkly in succession on both sides of the lake. The water swelled to our approach, but the launch moved steadily forward, immune to the menacing shadows brooding over the narrow passage. Wind scoured the exposed deck and sudden rain whipped the window glass. Heavy clouds covered the peaks and mountain tops.

At the head of the lake was Glade House wharf and a sign 'Milford Track'. We had already passed Welcome Point and Happy Cove so, in a receptive frame of mind, entered the rain forest and a path over which beech trees formed a glistening roof and moss glittered emerald along the ground. It was a pleasant stroll to Glade House, focal point of a grass-covered clearing bounded by the gently winding Clinton River where, since it was already five o'clock in the evening, we spent the first night, lulled by the racing river and the developing darkness which gradually and surely enclosed the land and put a sharp edge on the cool, clear air.

Since we were a Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand (THC) party, we had a guide from Glade House to Milford Sound. The 32 miles of track are divided into ten miles the first day, nine miles the second and thirteen miles on the third and final day. The objective for tho first day is Pompolona Hut, the second over Mackinnon Pass to Quintin Hut, and the third to Sandfly Point to meet the launch from Milford. We have come in the spring. Winter snows powder the peaks, and trailing silver over black rock marks the passage of waterfalls as torrents of rain pour off the mountains into the lakes and valleys below.

At eight o'clock the next morning we cross the first suspension bridge on our way to Six-Mile Hut. The sky is cloudy, with brief intervals of sunshine. The track is wide and comfortable for walking. The river flows parallel to the track; the water is green and crystal clear. The stones, pebbles and rocks on the riverbed are as visible as the large trout moving calmly in the depths. The walkers spread out, some ahead, others still to come, so that to all the forest becomes their own particular domain, every step and every turn in the trail revealing a lush new beauty.

The music of water is a constant companion. The flowing river, streams bubbling over rocks, the rush of waterfalls. Water dripping into secret pools, tumbling gently over smooth rock, sliding in separate strands to foam over the rock below and create a miniature waterfall before joining the main body of the stream. On both sides of the track tremendous trees support moss-drenched branches. Frozen snow, white on the slopes. On the ground the delicate beauty of massed ferns, their tender fronds as fragile as lace. Grey clouds hover on the mountain tops, like phantoms of a fading night. Giant waterfalls hurl into space. Baby waterfalls trickle pleasantly over rocks. …

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