Quintin Lodge to Sandfly Point: 21km (13.5 miles)
Another day on the Milford; another 7.30am start. We don’t set off as a group today and, for the first few km, Neil and I are alone. Travelling as part of a large group I’d worried that we might spend a lot of time in a queue of walkers; I’m relieved that my worries are unfounded and we can enjoy the solitude of this area. The forest is quiet this morning, just the occasional birdcall or flutter of wings, not even a breeze to move the trees. Beside us the Arthur River glides by in silence, bubbling into sound occasionally when it narrows. The mountains are clear of cloud and it’s not as cold as it has been, the sun already goldening the topmost peaks, sliding down the cliffs across the river.
The walking today will be easier, no significant hills – fortunate as my legs feel sluggish and it takes them a while to get going on the uneven path. We walk through green tunnels, breaking into small clearings beside the water, boardwalks covering marshy patches, and a view of the Sutherland Falls behind us through the cool greenness. Flattish rounds half embedded in tree trunks look like crashed flying saucers and I imagine tiny aliens running around the forest somewhere. They are actually fungi, hard-shelled and soft-middled – early Māori scooped out the middle and used them to carry a glowing ember of fire – and their attachment to the tree is solid, stable enough to hold fruit-eating monkeys in other countries, earning them the nickname Monkey Ledge.
The forest is dim in the shadow of cliffs, with sudden bursts of warmth in more open areas where the sun has warmed the rocks. As the temperature rises birdsong becomes more prevalent and when Neil pauses to take a photo a bellbird calls from his left side, immediately answered by another to his right. They’re probably discussing tactics: Remember to wait for him to point his camera and focus it, then fly off at the last second!
My legs have warmed up by the time we reach the Boathouse shelter for morning tea but I’m happy to sit in the sunny glade with a cup of tea. Within seconds we have company: sandflies. Someone gave us a tip – spray repellent under the brim of your hat and it will protect your face, but they still swarm around our heads in a cloud. We don’t sit long, taking the short path to the riverbank for a quick paddle. The water is, of course, freezing, and so clear it’s hard to tell how deep it is. The sandy bottom glows green, a reflection of trees lit by the sun. A large eel swims by, causing a flurry of evacuation from the water, and I note that even those born here aren’t too fond of the creatures.
We clamber up a path cut into the cliff that looms above us and cross the river on a long high swingbridge. ‘Widen your feet and take shorter steps!’ calls the woman behind me as I bounce and sway across. I pause and try again – it works! The bridge still bounces but I seem to move more in time with it rather than against it, feel less as though it is an unbroken colt trying to buck me off. I deduce that it must be a Kiwi thing – where I grew up, river and stream crossings are solid stone (most of them older than the country I now live in) and I didn’t need to learn how to walk on these precarious things.
A short path to the left leads to wooden steps. It’s either serendipity or a very clever design, the steps hiding the Mackay Falls from view until you reach the platform at the top for a wow moment as they are revealed. Spray mists us as we gaze at white streaks of water fanning down through green draped boulders into a shadowed turquoise pool, the sun highlighting ferns around it.
The river forms small lakes as the valley widens, the path high above the water hacked into rock and slippery with moisture. I skulk close to the wall, trying not to look at the steep drop below me. Mile markers (the track was originally measured in miles) count down to the end of the track and I regret that I am looking for them; I don’t want the experience to end but each step on the hard surface is painful and I will be glad of a rest. Younger walkers bound along with what seems like endless energy and I remember when I was the same – do they realise that one day they will struggle to do what comes so easily to them now? I wish I’d appreciated it more.
Evidence of last year’s storm is prevalent. Trees, stripped of leaves and smaller twigs, lie stranded well above the current waterline, torn sections of bridges amongst them; rocks, scoured clean in massive treeslides, are stark against the dark forest, fresh growth only just beginning to show. New bridges replace those destroyed, and sections of path are elevated beside deep gouges where the old ones were washed away. At one point the line where vegetation wasn’t torn away by the water is above my head. We lunch beside falls at Giants Gate, which once had a verdant green backdrop but now fall in front of bare rock. Below them the clear pool is cluttered with twisted metal and concrete that were once supports for a swingbridge – it disappeared downriver in the flood.
The last few kilometres are along a flat wide path with glimpses through the trees to the Sheerdown Hills across the river. I pause for a minute, staring at a grey granite peak rising above green-shawled shoulders. We’ve been surrounded by mountains like this since we stepped off the boat on Lake Te Anau, sometimes so close I have to bend my head far back to see their summits. I feel lucky to be here, a twinge of dismay that I will soon have to leave.
We end the walk as we began it: on a boat. This one is smaller and faster, and the water is the sea, within a fiord but still a little choppy. We bounce across small waves, thumping back down. There are a few squeals from other passengers but Neil and I are grinning, enjoying the ride. After dinner in Milford Sound we wander outside to savour the peace for the last time. A crescent moon hangs over Mitre Peak. It’s a perfect end to a wonderful experience.