Pompolona Lodge to Quintin Lodge: 15km (9 miles). Plus 90 minutes (5km) return to Sutherland Falls.
Today is the biggest challenge of the Milford Track: crossing the Mackinnon Pass, a day of ascent and descent, very little actual putting one foot in front of the other without lifting or dropping it. I don’t mind the climbing, although it’s hard work, but the descent makes my knees beg for mercy and my feet wish for a softer landing than rock.
We begin walking at 7.30am. Like yesterday it is cloudy and cool as we leave the lodge, the pass hidden by cloud. We climb immediately, a steady and gradual ascent through low growth and across small streams. The forest becomes darker, supplejack (kareao: twisted rope, which is just what it looks like) threading through the low canopy, allowing no light through and stealing all colour except brown. Even moss and ferns don’t grow in this denseness, which muffles sound almost to the point of silence, making our footsteps dull and distant. Anything could be hidden a few metres into it and I understand why early settlers were afraid of the thick bush, not having the knowledge that we do now – there are no dangerous beasts, snakes or crocodiles lurking and waiting to pounce.
After we pass the DOC*-owned Mintaro Hut, its overnight occupants presumably ahead of us on the track, the path steepens and becomes uneven, zig-zagging and hugging the mountainside under the pass to one side, sheer drops to the other. Signs warn Rockfall area. No stopping for next 200m, and I increase my pace each time, panting to a halt once I pass the danger zone. A chill breeze drifts the cloud around us, sudden puffs clearing it to give us tantalising glimpses of a view through the trees, back down the valley we walked along yesterday and, in the opposite direction, the basin-shaped end of it.
Above the treeline we have no cover from the wind – whether blowing into us on the zig or behind us on the zag it is icy and even the sun cannot combat it. Ahead cloud races over the ridge and we stop to pull on a warm layer before we reach it. The bank to our left dips slightly and hooray, we’re near the top. The ridge is clear but the wind fierce. We pause for a quick photo by the Mackinnon monument, and for another at the top of Twelve Second Drop (work it out…) then huddle in the shelter of a bank where a guide has flasks of hot drink. So many benefits to walking the luxury way!
The cloud closes in and grey gathers around us as we begin the final ascent. The wind drives into me, buffeting my body like a marble in a pinball machine. I’m glad I opted to put my jacket on. I can see only a couple of metres in each direction and I’m not sure what’s worse: being in cloud and not having a clue what is either side of the path, or having clear skies when we would be able to see how precarious (especially with a wind like today’s) the ridge is.
I’m breathing hard by the time we reach the lunch stop at Pass Hut, the wind stealing my breath as much as my effort on the path does. It’s only 11am but we’re hungry and glad for shelter against the cold, although it seeps into us even inside the hut. The cry of a kea echoes around and it is soon trapped by a couple of DOC rangers. We sneak out to take a peek, the bird’s head held tightly by one ranger, its dark eye watching another as she pulls out a feather for DNA and lead testing – kea are natural thieves, roof nails one of their favourite targets, and whilst both Ultimate Hikes and DOC have replaced all lead-based nails with iron and steel regular testing is done just in case.
Within ten minutes of crossing the ridge we are peeling off layers in the burning sun. Behind and above us the wind chases cloud over the top of the pass like smoke from a forest fire; ahead the view is clear into the valley far below. We descend gradually on an uneven narrow path between banks of low ferns and alpine plants, crossing small streams, some that run along the path, making me wary of slipping on the wet rock.
We skirt the bowl-end of a valley, flora becoming taller as we lose altitude, small trees scattered around us. The pass is high above to our left, now cloud-free, and we can clearly see the vertigo-inducing cliff below Twelve Second Drop, dark and vegetation-free. High walls surround us, closing in as we drop lower and back into the forest. There is no sign of human life at all, not even other walkers, and I feel truly in the middle of nowhere, pausing to enjoy the moment. A weka runs in front of me, scrambling to safety in the undergrowth as I approach.
The path steepens and sets of iron stairs lead down the side of The Cascades, water sliding over huge smooth boulders, dropping over edges into deep green pools. The descent becomes tortuous, steps over a foot high, a constant bending of knee and hip, a constant thudding of foot onto solid stone. The sound of a helicopter hovering, not passing over as others have done, gives me hope that we may be near the lodge and I spy its body at the same time as I see the two-minute sign, moments later breaking out into a clearing by low buildings.
We dump some weight out of our packs, give our socks a quick shake out and set off for Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s highest waterfall (and the reason the track was built, to facilitate access to them). It’s forty-five minutes each way, the middle fifteen requiring some clambering. It would be hard at any time but after six hours of hard walking I expect my legs to give up at any second.
The falls are bright white against the dark bush they fall past, a green velvet bed for a sparkling pendant. Spray scatters as the water lands perfectly on a rock in the pool at the bottom, the wind carrying the refreshing mist over us and blowing it back up the cliff. I’d like to sit for a while and soak up the atmosphere as the spray soaks me, but this is a popular spot and it’s not possible to find solitude. Besides, if I sit, I’m afraid I might not get back up again.
Descending the huge steps on the return is agony and I pause by the river to paddle and cool my sore feet, thinking I’ll sit in it for a few minutes to ease my aching knees and hips. But the water is frigid, painful within seconds, and I can barely lower myself into it before having to jump out again, my feet burning. I resort to a quick paddle and, back at the lodge, a cup of tea and a muffin before a shower. It’s been a hard day, but it’s been worth the effort.
*DOC: Department of Conservation who, amongst many other things, manage the land and public huts on New Zealand’s great walks.