In Part Five of our Where's Kyle? series, backpacker Kyle makes his way to magnificent Milford Sound on New Zealand's South Island after conquering the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. Where will he go next? Check back next week for more, and check out his previous travels in parts two and three.
"Two options," Dallas yells through the wind and rain. "Follow the river for a crossing spot or head back to the emergency track." Oh crap. What have I gotten myself into now? I don't even see the track. I'm standing on avalanche debris.
Working together with our guides ("The Kiwi Krew"), we cross the raging river. I grip Martin's hand as Mike reaches out his trek pole. I feel the river taking me down while these two guys pull me to safety.
It's day one, and we're at the start of the trail after an hour boat cruise on sunny Lake Te Anau to the flooded Glade Wharf. We worked together to make our way to the Clinton River, crossing a swing bridge through the beech forest. After the river, the trail is relatively flat.
The Kiwi Krew identifies bird calls and spots massive trout fish along the way. We are pleased with the views along the river, but I am blown away as we enter the open Clinton Valley avalanche zone. I can't believe my eyes. The gravel trail snakes along the river on our right and large sheets of rock standing hundreds of meters above us on both sides. This landscape really makes me feel minuscule.
When the group takes a tea break, I push on, enjoying this world of beauty by myself. All is well and good until I turn a corner to see a tree completely blocking the staircase to a bridge that has been destroyed by avalanches. I climb over the railing and carefully climb down to the rocky territory. Every step is detrimental. I put my weight down on a spot that looks pretty compact, but disappears under my foot. I have a heavy scare as rocks almost trapped my left leg. This terrain is no joke - even on a sunny day. I come to a river that appears just too big to cross. I step carefully on stable rocks making it safely across. Day one finishes with rain as I climb a relatively steep hill to the Mintaro Backpacker Hut. The evening consists of struggling to get a fire started, noodles, and cards under candlelight.
Day two starts at 10 am. No one is excited about the rainy weather, but everyone is prepared. Water trickles towards my feet as the seven of us walk in a straight line up the mountain. No one says anything, but we're battling this together. We reach the Quinton MacKinnon monument and shelter at the ruthless MacKinnon Pass, which stands at 1,154 meters (3,800 feet). The monument is interesting, built in 1888 by its namesake and a man named Ernest Mitchell, who were employed by the government to cut a track up the river to Milford Sound. Because of the rugged and unforgiving terrain, MacKinnon failed once before successfully completing the track.
We look out to see pure white created by the falling rain. Out there somewhere are big beautiful mountains and one of the best views New Zealand has to offer. It's upsetting the view isn't more clear, but I can't control the weather. We break for tea, but don't see much sense in staying up top. As we descend, the skies open a little and distant mountains become a bit more clear. The wind lets up a little, but still blows heavily. The rain continues pouring. We continue downhill passing a flipped over sign: Emergency Track This Way.
I am standing on a stable rock waiting on others to cross the river. I look up to see hundreds of waterfalls pouring down. This is the most dangerous situation I've ever been in. Fortunately no one gets taken down by the river and we all make it through the questionable glacier debris. "It's not everyday you cross a river in New Zealand and walk on avalanche debris," Mike says to me.
Thankfully, we find the trail. Though scary, we made it! The trail turns to steps and rides the river through a narrow gap, dropping dramatically against a big rock drenching our whole crew. We are all smiles witnessing this rare environment. We laugh and continue to the day shelter to have lunch. Just as my socks are beginning to dry up a bit, I step thigh-deep through a creek, gripping onto Dallas for balance. My thirty pound pack is weighing me down, but we get through yet another body of water. Pushing further down trail, we see a sign for Sutherland Falls. It's heavily recommended, so we take the side trip. It requires forty minutes of weaving up and down through the bush until crossing a swing bridge. I catch my first glimpse of the biggest waterfall in New Zealand. The closer I get, the bigger my smile gets as I am fully engulfed by all 580 meters. "Whew! Now that was worth it!" I exclaim to my Milford mates.
We close out day two at Dumpling Backpacker Hut for an early night, but I search for glowworms on bridges and kiwi birds on the trail. They're nocturnal. I come up short, but get my own personal bunk for a very peaceful sleep.
On day three, it continues raining heavily and is much colder. There's snow up on the mountains we crossed yesterday - that's insane! Charging through the bush, we come to short clearings displaying waterfalls in every direction. It truly is spectacular to see. We push on, but must stop at McKay Falls Lookout. With all the rain we've gotten, this waterfall is attacking the rocks and splashing in every direction. "Lay on your back under that rock and turn on your headlamp," Martin advises me. I do and find that it's completely carved out and there's enough room to stand up. Over time water formed its shape and an earthquake flipped it over.
Back on trail, we stop dramatically to see that the trail is flooded so bad it's up to our knees. "It is what it is. Everything will dry," I tell myself. We set a good pace, but I'm stopped dead in my tracks when I see Giant Gate Falls. Maybe not as impressive as Sutherland, but possibly more beautiful. Having to make a boat at 2pm, I pull myself away. We stop for the last sandwich of the trip. There is one final piece of history visible on track. Walking along a wide river, I bend under the low rock as water drips onto my head and pack. It's almost like a tunnel. This section is famous because it was formed by prisoners in the late 1800's. Four prisoners escaped so miners with dynamite experience were brought in to finish the job. I see the names 'Steinhouse' and 'Mahon' carved in the rock alongside the year 1898. Neat.
Suddenly I can't believe my eyes - the sun comes out and the clouds and rain clear up. The waterfalls are still flowing like crazy. "Oh my goodness, it's a kaka bird!" The Kiwi Krew stare like children watching cartoons. "It is very rare, even for a New Zealander, to see a kaka in the wild," Mike explains. "That is really special!"
We finally reach Sandfly Point and disperse our packs, taking pictures at the 33.5 mile marker sign. Sandflies are everywhere, hence the name. We stare at these two beautiful mountains waiting for our inexperienced boat driver to bring us into Milford Sound. I made it!
My travel style:
- Travel light when possible
- Stay with the group
- Spend some time alone
Want more New Zealand travel tips or to contact Kyle with comments, suggestions, or feedback? Send him an email.
Guest post and photos by Kyle Krasney