By Dawn Chapman
I was born in Hawaii to American parents. At 12 years old, my family relocated to New Zealand. A few years ago in an effort to see more of my new country I began to hike New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’. These are a set of nine well-maintained and easily accessible trails through some of the country’s most stunning scenery.
The Milford Track is generally considered the highlight of these walks – New Zealand’s premier tramping track. Over the course of 4 days the hike travels through 53 kilometres of mountains, rainforest and wetlands in Fiordland National Park, finishing in Milford Sound. Each night on the track is spent in a hut with basic facilities. A maximum of just 40 independent walkers can start the trail per day, and spots book out months in advance of the summer season. This year, I finally secured my spot, and hiked the trail with a close friend.
Day one was a short walk to the first hut, and we were offered tantalising glimpses of the mountains above and ahead of us. Mushrooms the size of dinner plates clung to the trees and birds flitted past us as we disturbed the quiet. That night we found glowworms tucked into the dark muddy banks beside the trail, and with nothing more pressing to do we lay outside under the stars and listened to the low hum of the nighttime forest around us.
Despite waking up early, we were the last to leave the following morning. By the time we left the sun had risen high enough to illuminate the valley, and golden mist rose as the light warmed the morning dew. That day the sun shone in a blue sky and we made our way deeper into the valley, past waterfalls and rivers full of fat brown trout.
As the trees grew sparser the mountains became a constant presence, looming on either side of us with their snow-capped peaks. We reached the second hut shortly before sunset, and realised we had taken the entire day to hike the distance due to our frequent stopping to admire each new vista. Fiordland is known for its wet climate and annual rainfall of 8000mm in Milford Sound. Our hut warden that night told us we were the first group all summer to see a full day of blue sky, and we could expect perfect weather the next day on the Mackinnon Pass, the highest point of the track.
We weren’t disappointed. A sweaty morning slog brought us upwards, and as we reached the top of the pass we were greeted with an expansive view of the valley we had spent the last day and a half in. In the other direction, layers of mountains capped in white rose above deep green forested valleys. All around us numerous tarns sparkled a dark blue, set against the golden alpine grasses.
Only the pressing thought of how late we arrived to the hut the day before reminded us to keep moving. Leaving that pass and returning to the forest was leaving a moment that I will be unlikely to ever be able to repeat. Even seeing Sutherland Falls as we descended, New Zealand’s tallest permanent waterfall, could not strike in me the same elation I had felt to be elevated among the mountains.
It brought a slightly melancholic air to the afternoon and to our final day on the trail, as we hiked the last kilometres to Milford Sound. Despite looking forward to returning to cellphone service and the luxuries of civilisation, I felt that as we walked I was moving further away from an experience that was over too soon. In my estimation the Milford Track had certainly earned its title as New Zealand’s greatest ‘Great Walk’.
All photos shot on 35mm film.