Whoa! The time has come again! After a week or so traveling around the South Island we finally started our second great walk! We are doing a total of four great walks on the South Island. As I mentioned in the post about our Tongariro walk, booking is required to stay in the Great Walk huts during the open season. These walks are extremely popular and spots can fill up very quickly (less so if you have a tent and use the campsites).
We booked our spots on this hike the day they went on sale, all the way back in May. I visited the booking site a few hours after they went on sale only to find that the Milford Track had almost completely sold out for all of December and January (Summer holiday season). And these walks are not cheap. The Milford track has no campsites so you are required to pay $70 a night in order to book a bunk in the three huts on the track. That is significantly more expensive than what Alana and I pay for our nice AirBnb rooms when we’re not hiking. Also we had to get a boat to and from the trail, and, since it is one way, a bus back to the start where we parked our car.
If you take into account the food we had to buy, the trip cost almost $800 (New Zealand dollars). That just goes to show how popular this hike is. It’s crazy expensive, pretty remote, and physically challenging, yet it sells out in a few hours. The moral of the story is: if you want to go on a Great Walk (especially the Milford Track, the so called “Finest Walk in the World”) it’s best to plan ahead. Of course, with a price tag like that and all the hassle of planning, you may be wondering “Is it worth it?”
We set out from our AirBnb in Kingston at around 7 am. It took about one and a half hours of driving through some very scenic countryside to get to the Fiordland National Park Visitor Center, where we picked up our tickets for the huts, boats, and bus. Our boat wasn’t scheduled to leave until 10:30 so we decided to get breakfast in town. We ate a delicious meal at the Sandfly Cafe (we didn’t know how telling this name was at the time, but oh would we learn).
After breakfast we drove to the docks at Te Anau Downs, parked the car, and hopped onto the boat. It was an hour by boat to the start of the trail. The weather was great and the boat ride was very scenic. They had complimentary coffee and tea on board which we appreciated greatly given our early start. As we got off the boat we had to soak our boots in a solution in order to kill any Didymo, an invasive algae species that is a threat to the native environment. New Zealand takes their conservation efforts very seriously.
As soon as we were on the shore, the sandflies started in. I’m no biologist, but my observations lead me to believe that sandflies are some horrific cross between gnats and mosquitoes. They are small, black dots that swarm all around you and fly in your eyes, nose, and mouth like gnats, but they also bite you causing redness, swelling, and itching like mosquitoes (I am still itching my arms and legs in between sentences as I type this post). They are evil incarnate, and there would be no escape from them for the next four days.
The first day was short. We only had an hour and a half walk to get to the first hut where we would spend the night. The trail was relatively flat and wound through incredibly lush green forest. The trees, the rocks, the ground outside the trail, everything was covered in different shades of fuzzy green moss. There was a small river alongside the trail filled with water that was simultaneously crystal clear and vibrant turquoise. In the background, snow capped mountains stood out in sharp relief against the forest on the other side of the river. This was only the beginning and I was already feeling overwhelmed by the scenery.
We made it to the hut around one in the afternoon. That left us the entire afternoon with nothing to do. We spent a while wandering ahead on the trail (both to fight off the urge to sleep and to avoid the sandflies who would instantly appear any time we stopped moving). When we got back to the hut I tried to read, but ended up having a nice afternoon nap in my bunk. I woke up at five because the hut ranger was giving a talk on some of the local flora and fauna. Because New Zealand broke off from Gondwana (old mash up of continents before they separated) and was isolated for so long, it is home to a host of plant and animal species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
After the talk Alana and I made a scrumptious dinner of carrot, garlic shoots, asparagus and 豆干 (a throwback to our days in China, think beef jerky but made of tofu) that we got from an Asian supermarket in Queenstown. All this covered in a Moroccan honey lamb sauce and served over rice. Since the huts have gas for cooking and a dining area we can get a little fancy with dinner. Since we’re pretty far south it stays light out until after 9:00 pm but I was tired and went to bed anyway.