The flashing lights of an ambulance approach from the far end of the road. The flashing lights are never an ambulance. There are two pilot vehicles flagging the traffic down. Someone is moving house, literally. Moving their entire two lane wide house to somewhere else on the back of a flatbed truck. A patchwork quilt of grey and white clouds drapes over the Fiordland ranges. Back again. I thought catching the bus from the Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park, where the journey begins, would be easier than walking across the road to the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre. I’d have gained half an hour this morning if I’d taken 5 minutes to walk over. Not that I really needed the extra time today. I was already convinced I’d forgotten something and I had. Deliberately so. The last three adventures have included my tent, sleeping pad, stove and gas. Today I have none of them but I’m sure there’s something else. Hopefully I don’t find out what it is. The huge tour bus is for five passengers. I expected more. Kate, the driver, tells me I could have driven to Te Anau Downs, caught the boat and got dropped off back at my van on the way out. Nobody bothered to mention this to me before I booked the full transport package. I’d have had to leave at the same time anyway and at least this way I get to enjoy the luxury of being a passenger. The bus leaves town. The high winds catch the side like a sail. Kate wobbles just once. The Kepler range bursts out of Lake Te Anau. High grey clouds sits above Mount Luxmore. The Murchison range looks much the same. Thick green carpet climbs up to the tussock brown tussock. At the far ahead of the lake, flakes of white snow rest on high black peaks. Kate explains the reason the bus is so big is that once she’s dropped us off she carries on up the Milford Road to Milford Sound to pick up those who finish walking the Milford Track today, then she stops at the Divide to pick up people finishing the Routeburn. By the time she gets back to Te Anau Downs she might have a full bus. The bus drops its small load at Te Anau Downs where we transfer to the Fiordland Express. A boat only slightly smaller than the bus, with only a handful more passengers. I grab a cup of tea and a seat at the back of the boat. The crossing promises to be bumpy but doesn’t compare to the swell on the way to Stewart Island. The windows are awash with fresh lake water blown up by the prow of the boat. No rain, not yet.
The crossing takes an hour. I’m now two hours closer to Clinton Hut with not much further to go. I take photos for one family at the opening sign on three different cameras. One of them has to be good. The first section of the Milford Track is as a wide as a one lane bridge. The Great Walk super highway. I notice some passengers loading their packs on to the back of a golf buggy. The first guided walk lodge is only 20 minutes away. The windows of the rooms at Glade House have curtains. The made up beds have towels folded at the foot. Glam. I’m sure it’s nice but I’ve come to learn half the fun for me is the struggle, the suffering. I cross the first swing bridge. The forest is quiet. No birds. Only the wind crashing through the canopy like breaking waves. The green comes as standard. Tall beech with a covering of moss and a lichen crust. There is yellow tape along the Clinton River marking the closed sections of old track. Things were different before the third one in 50 year storm washed the riverbanks away last February. The river flows fast, deep and green. I wonder if the electric blue I’ve become accustomed to is a reflection of a blue sky, or if perhaps the Clinton River is a rain catchment, missing the minerals of the glacier fed rivers. Despite the half-full crowd from the boat we walkers have spread out quickly. I feel alone. Only occasional glimpses of backpacks ahead of me between the trunks. One big group is already spread out on the picnic tables on the deck of Clinton Hut when I arrive them. “Is it cool if I join you guys? Are you cool enough for me to want to join you guys?” I ask as I pull out my lunch and start asking the usual questions. “Where are you from?” “Dunedin.” “How do you know each other?” “We work together.” “What other hikes have you done?” “The Humpridge, have you done that one?” Another one gets away.
Rain does begin to fall, spits at first before the Fiordland rain arrives with a roar. Pellets of water bounce off the plastic courrgated roof of Clinton Hut. Raindrops explode on the wooden handrail around the deck. We wait for the rest of the hut to fill with the arrival of the second boat. All bets are off concerning their condition. They’re coming in wet. The cold hut begins to warm as more and more people file in. My once lonely table picks up two new sitters. They bring a cereal bag with a puzzle in. “Did you carry that in?” I ask. “No, it was here in the hut.” I’m not encouraged. There’s no way all the pieces are going to be there. Watching the pieces sorted into edges, colours I find myself drawn in to the simple process. Rob takes on the mountain. Katie sticks with the edges. I take the little mountain village. We are stuck in. Others join in periodically, slotting a piece in to place. These things should be calming but the conviction pieces are missing is stressful. It takes a long time for us to see any progress. I move my village over to connect up with Rob’s mountain. Neither of us trust Katie’s edge. None of us want to keep going with the flat green of grass, the empty blue of sky. I see the other puzzles available when I pack away. All similar scenes, blue skies, green trees. No wonder pieces have gotten lost, pieces from other puzzles ended up in other bags. The edges all wrong. Someone comes in to declare the cloud has lifted. The surrounding peaks and their torrent of rain fed waterfalls cascade down the valley. We all walk out to the helipad to watch the golden light chase down the retreating clouds. Hut Warden Ross comes in to give the hut talk. He’s a giant, wiry man. He looks like the BFG without the ears. His legs could carry him down to the boat ramp in 5, maybe 6 steps. He goes over the basics. Don’t set the hut on fire. Clean up after yourselves. He dives a little deeper in to the birds. He talks about the blue ducks on the river. The Whio. “They’re a bit like us you see. The male whistles and the female growls. Now that’s a fact.” he laughs while the women in the room groan.
On the Milford Track there is no option, walking is in one direction. Each of the huts must be booked. You form a team of 40. In these big huts, with these sorts of crowds get up and get gone is the best policy. Beat the kitchen rush. Pretend at least for a while you’re the only one out there, you have the track to yourself. Beads of water hang off branches, off moss, like diamonds on a chandelier. The spider silk waterfalls hang down from the highest terraces, dropping all the way to the river below. Beyond the tweet of birds, the chirp of crickets, the roar of falling water is the loudest sound in the valley. Even on a day when some of the bridges cross dry streams. I slow down along the fast flowing sections of the river, hoping I’ll get lucky. The Whio remains on my list of birds to see in the wild. I’m starting to feel like I’ve walked all of Disneyland. I’ve got everyone’s autograph but Goofy, only Goofy is a blue duck and won’t be signing anything. This might be my last chance for a while. A final foray into the mountain waterways. I pick up speed easily on the wide, flat track. The bush is glorious in the morning. Dew dripping through the leaves, sun dazzling on the water. Calm and quiet. This is all there is, the only thing that is real. All that matters. I find myself reflecting on my time outdoors. The backcountry of New Zealand is so easy to access. People can connect with nature, foster a desire to look after what they still have, nurture the wild spaces. Make sure it’s still here tomorrow. The Milford Track remains easy, flat. Wandering with the river. Traffic cone peaks rise straight up out of the valley floor. The old giants of the forest are dwarfed by the ancient behemoths of stone. I catch up with a couple of farmers from the Wairarapa. “We’re dawdling,” the woman tells me. I suspect I am as well. They head on while I stop at Hidden Lake to watch the water drop from the high cliff walls. Back on the main track I spot them again not far ahead. The woman beckons me over. They’re looking at something up in the trees. A Kaka pulls apart a branch before disappearing deep into the bush. Bird watching is like that here. Right place, right time.
Leaving early is good, but when I have a fixed distance to walk I start to think about what I’m going to do with the rest of my day. Finish another book? Wait for someone to arrive with entertainment. Instead I slow down even more. I try to get Piwakawaka to land on my poles, holding them out straight until my arms get tired. One floats around the pole, settling instead on a secure branch. When the Toutouwai approach, I stop dead still and see how close they’re willing to get. None step up onto my boots. I don’t see a single Whio. I stop at another clearing. There’s something moving on the far bank. Dark in colour, duck in shape. The white headed partner of the Paradise Duck dashes my hopes. I don’t hear the Whio whistle or growl. Someone will later tell me they saw 5. I’m not mad. Ok, I’m a little mad. 5 is greedy, save some for the rest of us! But I know how it is. As with the Kaka, you’ve got to be where they are, when they’re there. There are mile markers along the track. A nod to New Zealand’s past, when they used measurements that don’t make sense. They don’t matter to me I don’t know how big a mile is, or how many miles away Mintaro Hut is. The kilometres on the other side are more of a problem. I start doing the calculations in my head. Not far to go now. Last night’s rain has already washed through. The Clinton River running clear. There are still relentless waterfalls. There are also endless strips of clean rock, glistening in the sun where other falls might have been running earlier in the day. Out of the bush the valley walls climb straight up. The classic U shape of a glacier carved valley has the depth of a test tube. There is nothing for scale. Massive walls of bare faced granite. More impossibly big country. My brain has shuffled. Finding space for the kilometre high mountains. Electric blue rivers are normalised. I am accustom the surroundings. Almost home. Certainly where I want to be. A dry riverbed has a flood warning sign advising to wait in the Bus Stop shelter if the water level is high. I wonder what the longest anyone has stopped to wait here for a bus that will never come? In the riverbed the track deteriorates. Finally becoming something more than a footpath. I know I’m getting close to the end as I hit the incline. Slowing down again, without ever hitting my highest gears. No point. No need. Behind me Rob and Katie speed through. I don’t remember seeing them before I left this morning. Speed merchants. Done by lunchtime.
Mintaro Hut is cold. There’s a drying room tacked on the end of the communal area. Us early arrivals pull chairs beneath the corrugated plastic ceiling in the light, soaking up what little warmth we can. We need the others to get here, to bring their body heat, to keep the stoves burning. I spend more time with my business friends, who I learn are out with their CEO. No thank you. I drift a bit. The Wairarapa Couple the most likely to have hot tips but they’re mountain bikers. They tell us about the ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff. I offer Katie and Rob some ginger nuts to dunk in their tea. For some reason, they take an age to make a brew. “What are you doing to that tea?” Rob tells, “We’re sharing a teabag so it takes longer.” “Guys. This is not acceptable. You might be ok with it but I’m not having it. I’ve got heaps of teabags. Next time, you’re having a tea bag each.” My new friends disappear for the afternoon. Heading up Mackinnon Pass while the weather is good. You never know what tomorrow might bring. I don’t want to spoil the surprise. I want to get up there tomorrow with no idea of what to expect. The weather will be what the weather will be. The late risers and slow walkers crawl in. The hut reaching capacity. Our family of 40 all here. Hut Warden Simone comes in to give us the latest on hut etiquette. Don’t set the hut on fire. Clean up after yourselves. She tells us a little bit more about the perks of the job. “Don’t put wet wipes down the toilet, the block the system and I have to unclog it when the helicopter comes in to take away the waste.” There are signs in almost all of the hut toilets advising this. “There’s only one thing worse than unblocking the toilets.” There’s a story. The alpine drop toilets up near Aoraki/Mount Cook used to have the same vents as the drop toilets you’ll find all over the country. A ball of shiny metal spinning in the wind. This became a problem because it was an instant hit with the local Kea. They’d happily spend a few minutes each day peeling one of the metal pieces off. Soon enough, instead of a vent you have a hole. One unfortunate Kea ended up in the pipe, unable to unfold his wings. The parrot slid all the way down the pipe, into the honeypot of human waste at the bottom. Poor Kea. Somebody survived to tell this story. What do you think happened next? Someone needed to use that toilet. Someone had no idea something alive was in the abyss below. Lifting the lid on a drop toilet is bad enough on the best of days. I cannot imagine lifting the lid to find a shit soaked parrot bursting into the tiny plastic cubicle in a bid for freedom. The Kea we are told, is fine. There is no news on the unsuspecting, traumatised tourist.
Koramikos chime, a distant Kea laughs, and then finally the Weka explodes. If you’re not awake by now you never will be. I repack my bag. I seemed to have worked out the weight ration with a tent but a half empty pack is giving me trouble. I hit the Mackinnon Pass early. The Great Walk standard track slowly winds up the hill, carrying me quickly with switches left then right. Steadily up and up. Clouds sit over the head of the Clinton Valley. There is the thunderclap of rockfall just before the do not stop rock fall area sign. I don’t see any movement. Maybe the shift happened somewhere else. I keep climbing. The snow sitting off the shoulder of Mount Elliot appears over the pass. The old “oh wow” escapes and I begin to laugh. I had my doubts but the view from Mackinnon Pass blew my mind. This country still isn’t finished with me. For 15 minutes I have Mackinnon Pass to myself. Standing on the edge of a diving board but the bottom of the pool is a kilometer away and there’s no water, only cold hard granite. The view of the Arthur Valley is big, joining valleys separated by massive straight walled peaks. Katie and Rob lead the rest of the pack on to the plateau. Fingers go first, then nose. The cold Southerly wind races out of the Clinton Valley, flying up the pass. I can’t stop any longer. I move towards the shelter. The fifth put up. Only a matter of time before the wind claims this one as well. The stove in the shelter is out of gas. Resupply has been delayed due to the bad weather of recent weeks. I’m in luck. Good trail mates Katie and Rob have carried their stove in, just in case. They put the water on to boil, I provide the teabags. A lot of us stop to either admire, or use the toilet that has supposedly the best view in New Zealand. Were it facing the Arthur Valley it might be true. The Clinton Valley lies beneath heavy cloud, dark and dreary. Then we’re off again, heading down. I adjust my poles and drop. The descent is long and in worse condition than the way up. Or I really don’t like going down. Into another valley alongside a roaring blue stream. Through the bush a set of stairs appear. I hate going down stairs more than simply going down. My knees start screaming. One screams a little louder. A warning. I take bigger, lunge like steps which seems to help. Resistance really is the problem. I stop. I have to. I’m dying for a wee. I take a few steps into the bush. I’m pretty confident there’s enough distance between me and whoever is next. I clip back in to my pack, turn the next corner to find the day shelter with complimentary tea and coffee and a flush toilet. Sometimes you just can’t wait.
The shelter marks the turn off to Sutherland Falls. New Zealand’s highest water fall. I drop my pack and fly along. The 580 meters of falling water drops like concrete. Behind a sign the waterfall creates it’s own weather pattern. High winds, rain without clouds. I’m soaked in seconds. The final hour to Dumpling Hut takes 45 minutes. A few bunks are full. I take the safe room with only a few remaining bunks. Less chance of the snorers sneaking in here. Then I seek out of the cold cleansing waters of the Arthur River. The Wairarapa Couple give me instructions to a good swimming hole. Cross the stream, turn left and you’ll see three rocks. Deep enough there. To my right, on a log minding it’s own business taking no notice of me is a Whio. Brilliant. I tick it off the list. I plunge into the current. A life changing swim. I air dry in the sun. Watching the green waters race over white pebbles. One of the five in a year sunny days in Fiordland. I go back to the Dumpling Hut. “You didn’t tell me there was a Whio down there as well!” I said to the Wairarapa Couple. “There wasn’t,” the woman says to me. She grabs her camera and heads back down. The hut slowly fills. I watch a man boil water in a bowl, then add rice. I’ve seen this before. Ultralight packing. He can’t pick the bowl up off the stove because it’s too hot and doesn’t have a handle. “I guess you might find a pan useful at this point,” I suggest. He laughs. “It’s my mug as well.” “How do you enjoy a cup of tea in that?” “You can’t really enjoy a cup of tea on the trail can you? It’s either black, or with milk powder and neither are good.” Nick has out-Englished me with his no tea is better than bad tea view. I set to making my own dinner. Boiling water to rehydrate a thai green curry. I find myself in a spot of bother. My weight saving regime involves only ever bringing a spoon. The curry came with noodles. “I guess you might find a fork useful at this point,” suggests Nick. Got met again. Another girl takes pity on my struggles and lends me her fork. Next time, either bring a fork, or never bring noodles. Hut Warden Ian comes in to give us advise on how to behave. Don’t set the hut on fire. Clean up after yourselves. He tells us a lot more about the track and some of it’s history. “Used to be as it was a hand rail up on the Mackinnon Pass. As you can imagine people unlike yourselves would lead on it. Nothing between them and the big open than a wobbling metal rail.” This is the fist instance of a hand rail removed for safety reasons I’ve ever heard of. He tells us about some of the oldest piece of track on our way tomorrow. “There’s talk they might put a hand rail in on the rock cutting even though nobody’s ever fallen off.” Health and safety gone mad.
Almost everyone is on for an early start. Nobody wants to miss their boat, their bus except for me. I’m supposed to be on a late boat and even later bus. With my routine and walking pace I know I’m going to be out at Sandlfy Point before the first boat is due to leave. The late risers are all surprised to see me. Still here? Haven’t left yet? It’s only 7:30. Few more things to get done first. I haven’t put my boots on. I haven’t cleaned my teeth. Some of them have their boots on and are walking out before me. “See you soon,” I wave them off. Someone else asks if I’m giving them a head start like any of this is deliberate. People are on my time. We bunch at the Boatshed. I was expecting to find a shed with boat in it’s name on the water, but it’s some distance away. More impressive is that in high flood the Boatshed is often in the water. Across the swing bridge in the increasingly hot sun we bunch again at Bell Rock and Mackay Falls. Bell Rock used to be up the other way, beneath the falls. The inside was carved out. Now it’s upside down and you can crawl inside. It doesn’t feel very big with three of us in there but the supposed record is somewhere in the mid-20s. We spread out again as the sun touches down in the valley floor. Cicadas burst into song, competing with the dwindling waterfalls for the loudest sound in the valley. The walk out is easy, almost flat the entire way. A few steady climbs. The stench of drying mud and stagnant water. Rain hasn’t fallen in one of the wettest places on earth for almost two days. So many waterfalls, creeks and streams are dry. Damp rock glistens but doesn’t flow. I’m thankful for the shade in the bush. I fall in with the Wairarapa Couple. They’ve calculated an hour and a half wait at Sandfly Point at this pace. It isn’t called Sandfly Point for nothing. Nobody wants to spend more time than necessary there. They start taking photos. I start eating snacks. Another group catches up. I let them pass to drop in at their slower pace for a while. I can’t do it. My legs want to stretch, to reach out and gobble up track. I leave them at Giant’s Gate Falls. One of the coolest waterfalls around. A torrent leaps out of a crack in what looks like solid rock. The flood damage here is obvious. Boulder fields are littered with tree debris. Huge areas flattened by relentless rain. The creeks cut dry beds in massive flood channels. Valleys within valleys within valleys. The last mile post appears and I’ve still got too much time on my hands. I reach the shelter. I talk with those earlier arrivals about other tracks. We’re in luck, there’s an even earlier boat with room to spare. I check to see if I’m allowed on and I’m on the list so it’s good. I find Kate is the bus driver back, she’s got room for me on the earlier bus which still doesn’t leave for another hour. I eat a pie and drink a pint in the cafe. We get on the bus, burst out of the Fiordland mountains. One of our party is dropped off at the Divide to head straight on to the Routeburn Track. No matter how hard you think you’re going, someone is always going harder. I fall asleep on the bus. Head lolling in the aisle. And that’s it. I’m finished. I’ve completed the South Island Great Walks and some. I head out in Te Anau to celebrate on a Friday night, expecting a crowd. I’m the only one in the Olive Tree Cafe. The lack of tourism hits me now like it hasn’t before. There are places, like this cafe, like Te Anau in general, that exist almost entirely on international tourism. Their demand has gone. Their supply surplus to requirements. They got through one winter without. Will they survive another?