Day Three, October 29
Today the real test: Mackinnon Pass, named for its founder, 1,154 meters, more than 550 meters in elevation up from Mintaro. Two miles by the twisting path.
Heavy downpour in the gloomy morning. Ranger tells us to expect same all day. Let's go climb a mountain.
In the night the naughty keas have apparently stolen a pair of rain pants left hanging to dry on the covered porch. Someone's in for a miserable day.
We set off, once again Lisa, myself and Kathrin, up through the jungle. Watch as the trees perceptibly get smaller and doughtier and then disappear altogether. Soon nothing but grasses and hardscrabble bushes: snow tussock, sprigs of pineapple scrub, the occasional blossom of mountain daisy or Mount Cook buttercup.
Hard wind, and the rain turns to snow. We reach the pass. Wind here not as bad as we were led to expect: it has been known to blow hikers down, or over the side. This is merely barely tolerable. Exposed skin quickly numbed. My hands, clutching the cork handles of the trekking poles, are numb and wet, a dull throbbing pain reaching up my wrists.
We stop at the memorial to Mackinnon, who discovered this pass in 1888.
Soaked to the bone after the ascent. Grandeur of the saddle, with views for miles even in the fog and wet snow, and the imagination makes up for the rest. One misstep and a long screaming slippery drop to certain doom. We eat a hurried lunch in the frigid Pass Hut as the others straggle in, steaming water vapor, shaking off the rain and cold.
Strange how the strangers have become friends in such a short time. The brotherhood of struggle.
Flock of cawing keas like vultures watching from a rocky crag some distance away.
Down the other side: a much steeper walk: more than 900 meters, often precipitous, occasionally dangerous. Fellow tramper: "Now the hard part begins." The snow turns back to rain, rain slackens and stops. But water runs everywhere and the stones are slick.
Treacherous, slow going. After just half an hour we're detoured to the "Emergency Track" by avalanche danger, and this is even steeper, tiny switchbacks gushing with water. Every step a hazard.
Descending is harder on the knees, and the feet, than climbing. Going up tests the lungs and the leg muscles – exhilarating next to the tortured, measured progress of descent.
Water uses the rocky trail, the quickest route, to run down the mountain. We've never hiked waterfalls before.
Back into the jungle we step down into the "Enchanted Forest." Green, green everywhere. Green on green. Spanish moss again, reaching for our heads. Terre-verte green and lime green and olive green. An indescribably vast array of verdure. And water, swirling, seeping, rushing, roaring, spraying. Freshets and streamlets and rivers of it. Frequent pauses to rest aching knees and take in the awesome sweep of this tucked-away corner of nature.
At the bottom an hour's walk through gently undulating hills. At Dumpling Hut, the final overnight stay, I look around to locate the vile stench and realize it's me. Sweating is one thing: sweating when you're encased in rain gear, a layer of plastic, creates a sharp piercing foulness I have no way of describing. We all must get used to it.
Above in the twilight the ridges sleep in the mist.
Some general anxiety if the weather will cooperate on our final day. Last night the ranger, Ross, offered sympathy: "If you want the weather report, look for Dumpling Hill in the morning. If you see it, it's going to rain. If not, it's already raining."
Milford is in fact one of the wettest places on earth. Annually the region receives between seven and nine meters of rain: last year was a "dry" year with only six. (Six meters is 19.685 feet.) Recently in one seven-day period Milford got 39 inches of rain – 30 inches in 36 hours. So really, Ross says, we've been lucky. When that kind of rain occurs the only way out is by helicopter.
Ross is tall, whitehaired, angular, laconic like so many Kiwis. On my way to Dumpling I pass him heading the other way, axe in one hand, shovel in the other: the shovel to create small ditches off the trail to direct the water, which he does with one fluid flick of the wrist – the soil being loosened by so much rain; the axe to remove a fallen tree. Such are the happy duties of a Milford ranger. The chief concern for rangers these days involves the Fiordland stoat management program. Stoats, small weasels introduced by overzealous farmers in the 19th century, have flourished and over the years ravaged the native bird population – especially kiwis, flightless and defenseless, and blue ducks, or whio, an extremely rare species.
Whio are now being reintroduced and Ross and other rangers have high hopes for the struggling bird. They've had success with stoat traps in side canyons and valleys using a method called pre-baiting: the boxes – small, oblong, wooden, with caged ends – are baited but the trap mechanisms are not set, encouraging stoats to become accustomed to the availability of the new food source. Ross re-baits a trap as many as two or three times before setting it. "We get 90 percent of the stoat population this way," he says. "It really works."
Ross, wearing what I take to be a customary half-smile, is pleased to drawl the news to the drowsy diners this morning: Expect sun, he says, all day long. What the working folk of Milford like to call "becoming fine."
Finally. "Today a rare sun of spring." Donleavy, the born-again Irishman, would approve of this climate. Just as in Washington state, where we lived for a year, the rare and unexpected day of sun is more appreciated after days and weeks of enduring gloom.
So we dally, sore and not needing to reach the finish until well into the afternoon to catch our ferry to the town of Milford, where further transport will be arranged. We see more this way. Wekas, rooster-sized forest floor-denizens with curious bobbing heads, foraging trailside. Twin horns of the great Mount Ada cirque glaring in the sunlight, unencumbered by fog. Roaring Mackay Falls, where I valiantly recover Lisa's sun hat that had blown off her head to the lip of the swirling torrent. Okay, it wasn't that dramatic. The strangely hollow Bell Rock. Tomtits fluttering in the slender branches.
Sense of birdlife emerging, awakening after the inundation. Fecundity exposed. Wrens and yellowheads and rifleman flitting among the beech trees. New life after the flood.
We amble down through the marshland abutting the lazy green Arthur River. As much as our packs are light (no tent) and made lighter by eating they feel heavy now as fatigue sets in. Cactus Ed Abbey would have eschewed all this gear: just some vittles and a greasy fartsack, he'd say, are all you need. But we're victims of our times. Can't go anywhere these days without rain gear, cookware, water filter, mummy bag, headlamp, first aid kit, all manner of other doodads and gadgets. And I wouldn't want to. They make life a little easier but the weight adds up.
The final leg takes us past the Arthur to chilly blue Lake Ada, past Giant's Gate, a thunderous waterfall exploding out of a rocky enclosure into a tree-penned pool. Down a flat lane to well-named Sandfly Point. Where we patiently await the last boat of the day.
We chat with the other stragglers, a trio of greybeard academics – a chemist, statistician and high school teacher, friends since college. In their sixties and still filled with glee at the world's marvels. All the way the assortment of wonders never lets up. Thirty-three-point-five miles, and a wonder for every inch.
Blistered feet, big smiles. And a serene boat ride beneath the daunting horn of Mitre Peak – one of the world's most vertiginous eminences, we are told – and the snowy glare of Mount Pembroke.
Deep black waters of Milford Sound, where Quintin Mackinnon took a breath, turned around and started for home. Back the way he came.