Updated: Dec 29, 2022
My visa was running out so I tried to leave New Zealand for Australia. Instead I got stuck in a lockdown, lived in a tent in a rain storm and accidentally ended up destroying my passport. Somehow during this "Auckland Debacle" I happened to browse DOC's website and their Great Walks. A series of top notch multi-day hikes with ticketed huts and basic amenities. Milford Track is considered the gem of the lot and is usually booked out a year in advance so I thought I'd look at the booking page for a laugh...
Naturally there was one single, unexplained free slot staring back at me!? OK New Zealand I get the message. I'll stop trying to leave for Aus and go do the Milford Track!?
I deliberately went on my own as a big #sayyesmore moment. At this point my extended time here had already seen me through my first solo day hike, learning to use hiking poles and my first solo overnighter up Earnslaw Burn. This would be my first multi-day hike and first solo sharing of huts with randoms. Safe to say I was pretty nervous but the opportunity was too good to pass up!
Day 1 of 4
Getting to the start of track itself really sets you up for the adventure. A shuttle pickup from Queenstown airport to the Te Anau DOC Centre to collect your tickets. A second bus to load you and 70+ hikers on to a boat which takes you across Te Anau. Just before we left the Captain spoke up. "Is there a Tom Napper on board?" Oh god, what have I done now!? Had I somehow ended up on the wrong boat even though there was only one? Had I left my bags at DOC? Anything was possible after the month I'd had. "Yo! That's me. What's up?" … "Oh nothing, we were just making sure you were on board". "Oh… err.. Well yeah, I'm here". Nothing like a public naming in front of everyone to keep you on your toes!
The boat felt a little awkward being on my own but contrary to my usual tactic of dealing with anxiety - befriend everyone ASAP - I had decided I would keep myself to myself on this trip just to see what it felt like. To sit with the discomfort and see what happens. It was interesting because as best as I tried, people naturally seem to talk to solo travellers and by the time we were dropped in the heart of Fiordland I'd met a whole family.
The first hut of the trip is only a short walk into the forest as most of the first day is spent travelling. I found dinner pretty intimidating as 34 people bustled around the loud steamy kitchen. Wherever I chose to sit I would have met a whole bunch of people at once so I opted for getting some peace and quiet outside. In the process accidentally making another really lovely friend who was doing the same :) We finished the day with a nature walk and learnt the difference between tasty berries, some that would kill you immediately and others that literally tasted like farts. I'm not sure which is worse!
Day 2 of 4
Being a Great Walk, the track itself is designed to be super accessible i.e very polite gravel and only six hours of hiking each day. I'd been lucky enough to do some pretty epic hikes by this point so figured I should spice things up. I challenged myself to speed hike between key locations and attempt three, hour long paintings a day. This seemed possible with the spare hours of sunlight in the day and would be a lot more interesting than getting to the huts too early each day. I'd hopefully have nine done by the end of the trip and still be able to walk!
The second day isn't too demanding. With a gentle climb all day that you barely even notice. I'd quizzed the hut warden on prime locations for paintings so with map in hand, I wandered deeper up the Clinton valley in search of the best views. I quite quickly realised choosing my spots to paint would be a gamble because I could either hold off and wait for the ones I'd been recommended or go with my gut. Only a mile or so in I came across an amazing view down the Northern branch of the Clinton River. I just had to stop. An hour later, the entire party of hikers had walked past me sat in the middle of the track. Questions were asked. Photos were taken. Names were swapped. So much for keeping to myself :)
The second spot was a slightly baffling experience. I found a really obvious side track that led all of three metres to a river bank. It was the first really dramatic view of the hike and you didn't really have to work for it. Yet as I lay back in a bed of reeds, watching the trout float around the river, countless hikers just marched right past. I shouted out to a few because I didn't want them to miss this gem of a spot but after a while I gave up and just enjoyed the place to myself; confused as to how you could do a hike and not explore every little bit of it. Maybe it was just me!
Another highlight was Hidden Lake. Over the last few years I've developed a strange compulsion to swim in cold water so stripped down to my boxers in front of ten people and ran into the glacial melt. Super liberating when you don't know anyone! 😁
Shortly after this, I backtracked to my third painting spot. A moody looking view up at Mackinnon Pass. It was off the track and I enjoyed the downtime after the busy waterfall. I also learnt a valuable lesson. If you sit in the middle of a river with the brightest clothing in Fiordland, ALL the bumble bees think you're a giant flower. I couldn't go thirty seconds without one of them curiously landing on me. On my clothes. My painting hand. Even my face. After a while I stopped getting agitated and just gave in to nature. Painting away, covered in bees.
Mintaro Hut was much the same as the night before. My anxiety was pretty high in a busy kitchen full of strangers but at least this time I'd been clocked as the guy doing the paintings. I suspected this would be a pretty great icebreaker and I had a table of friends by the end of the night. This solo trip was turning out to be pretty sociable!
Day 3 of 4
A minor drama was unfolding on the supplies front as I'd spent the previous two days hungry. I bought plenty of food but it wouldn't fit in my pack as I left the house. Doh! I found it hard to ask for help because I thought it would inconvenience people but two "trail angels" clocked my problem the night before and donated some supplies. Turns out they had packed way too much so my problem was actually their solution! A great life lesson!
We were all super lucky to hit the Mackinnon pass on a day with zero clouds. This is almost unheard of in Fiordland. As hikes go, the 500m climb was very achievable and the views were totally worth it. Classic deep valleys coated in mossy Fiordland vegetation and low hanging clouds.
As I'd effectively been running on empty for two days, marching through the hike twice as fast as I normally would, I made a conscious effort to stop and enjoy my donated lunch. I was rewarded with seeing a digger helicoptered through the sky and experiencing a toilet with potentially the best view in the world.
Fiordland. More like Phwoarland...
It was time to make the 1000m descent from Mackinnon Pass to Dumpling Hut, where I planned to detour across to Sutherland Falls for my next painting. It's always tricky to choose them on a hike though because I could hold off for somewhere further down the track, only to discover the composition doesn't work or the conditions are against me. In this case I was half way down the mountain pass and a gut instinct told me I had to sit on a rock plateau and soak up the views. I was rushing down the track like everyone else and the landscapes really deserved more of my attention. It meant I may not have time for the waterfall but I'm learning to trust my artistic spidey senses!
The march down towards Dumpling hut was the most demanding part of the hike. Relatively steep downhill is tricky on the knees and the well groomed gravel temporarily gave way to chunky uneven rocks. In my haste I rolled my ankle a couple of times but miraculously they bounced right back and I got away with it!
I just had enough time to make Sutherland falls so I teamed up with a new friend for this side jaunt. She was a small Chilean rocket! I couldn't barely keep up! It was just what I needed though as light was fading for my third painting and without her keeping pace I would have slowed down. The waterfall itself was impressive. The tallest in New Zealand at 580m, we were advised not to stand under the fall itself because it would feel like concrete. The force of this much water smacking into the shallow pool was loud and powerful. I got as close as I dared and immediately soaked myself. Error. But a fun one.
Light was fading by the time I set up for my painting which was a shame because the whole waterfall and surrounding hillside was swamped in shadow. It meant that the colours were flat and it wasn't my favourite piece but it was a lovely one to sit for because a tiny tomtit came and hung out with me. I love how being still allows nature to interact with you.
Day 4 of 4
My third night's sleep was one of the worst I've ever had. Non stop snoring (through earplugs!) kept me awake so I moved my sleeping bag into the kitchen hut. The solid wood floor was freezing so I made an uncomfortable "bed" out of two benches to keep me off of the floor. Right as I finally started to drift off, all the pans started vibrating and we had a mini earthquake! I was immediately full of adrenaline in case the building know where to dig me out! Gaaaah! Two hours of sleep and I was cooking breakfast at 5:45am. I don't do 5:45am!
Although it hurt, the advantage was that I left an hour earlier than scheduled and could hopefully smash out some artwork before our 2pm water taxi. I was still pushing my luck though so I settled for sketching two waterfalls at fifteen minutes a piece and leaving them as line art to paint later. To get away with this I'd had to really push how fast I could hike. This was my third day of pushing my body beyond a relaxed pace and it started to show. At the thirty mile mark the bottoms of feet felt really sore and every time I found something to photograph I used it as an excuse to stop and rest my aching legs. Much to the interest of super confident Wekas.
I finished up at 33.5 miles with the chance to paint one of the most stunning landscapes I've ever had the privilege of sitting in front of. Even with the sandflies trying their best to find ways through my clothing.
Considering I'd set out three days previous with the intention of keeping myself to myself and growing comfortable with my own company, I looked around and recognised every person from the trail. I knew most of their names. Many of us had shared stories and laughed together. It turns out travelling with a sketchpad and paints is the best icebreaker you could ever wish for and it's pretty much impossible not to meet people. A priceless lesson to take with me on future adventures.
I waved my new friends goodbye as the water taxi took them away to Milford Sound, deliberately waiting for the next one so I had the place to myself.
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