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On the early explorers' steps: a journey across Milford Track

Often referred to as the finest walk in the world, the Milford Track crosses Fjorland National Park in New Zealand, from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Most people choose to drive the amazing 120kms- road; I chose to hike the 55kms or so. On 4 days/3 nights. After the first sleep in in a month, it's time to take the bus to Te Anau Downs. Gazing at the mountains covered by the clouds in the distance is already quite a view - and quite a feeling. As for every long hike, mixed feelings come in. Will I be able to make it? What if the weather goes wrong? Did I pack too much stuff? Will my knee be okay? Too late for hesitations now! Time to jump on a 1hr boat ride to Glade wharf, where the Milford Track starts. Among the clouds, mountains sometimes unveils. Only for a short time though... From Glade wharf, it is a short walk to the first hut - under the rain and at the beginning of the valley.

We then have some time to chill, and discover the amazing nature surrounding us. After a good dinner, time to go to bed: real stuff starts tomorrow! The night is cold, and I'm woken up at around 6am, so I head out a bit for some morning pictures. I'm literally amazed: it has snowed so much during the night!! Everything looks white even though we only are about 300meters high. Wow!

It's not raining anymore!! The mountains emerge so powerfully from the clouds - the view is breathtaking. After a few pictures, I go through a much needed breakfast and prepare the sandwiches for lunch. Most important stuff of the day! Let's hit the track! Starting in dense tropical rainforest, the track is really smooth, following the Clinton River. After all the rain and snow of this night, all waterfalls are giving their best and are impressive. There is not a single surface of the mountains that is actually dry and without waterfalls! At some point, the view clears and opens on the whole valley. It's impossible not to stop to gaze at this amazing valley - with water flowing from everywhere. One more amazing point: it's not raining today, and even the sun has came out!! Had not seen it in several days: it feels good 😊

The rivers look transparent, and contrast with both the snow and the 50 shades of green ;) I can't get used to the amazing snow so low in the valley: it brings an impression of grandiose, making the mountains look even more impressive. The track goes through several avalanches paths, and we often here some in the backgrounds. It's really difficult not stopping to take pictures, as the avalanche zones are the opened-view parts of the track... After a few more miles (with even more snow after each step), we get our first view of The McKinnon pass, which we will cross tomorrow - weather permitting. The weather looks good and settled, but it's so unpredictable in this area and there is a lot of snow remaining on the mountains... I hiked the last 4 miles alone - it feels really good and peaceful to enjoy nature in this way... Time to arrive at Pompolona Lodge - dry shoes and have a shower. There's a clan of Kea (bird from the parrot family, who love "playing" with stuff and especially destroy shoes) around the lodge, so everything must be secured inside. Let's have a look at today's pictures! The lodge is surrounded by the mountains, and the sky looks really great : a few clouds are moving really fast, constituting great photo opportunities! A few games later, dinner and chats, it's time to go to sleep! 6am - the lights go on. What is this noise we can hear in the back? Oh, rain again... missed it for the past 24hrs!! It's really cold in the room - let's get dressed up and go for breakfast! Today we have to cross the McKinnon Pass, standing at c. 1400m above see level One hour later, it's time to put on all the waterproof clothes and hit the track! There's so much snow (around 10cm) and trees on the track - it's hard to move forward! And we're only around 400m high: we're all wondering whether we will be able to cross the pass - given the previous group had to be helicoptered... in the background avalanches are often heard: not very reassuring... The way to Muntari Hut is really long and painful with a lot of snow and tree branches on the path. We literally have to force our way through the tropical rainforest. It's incredible to see how much the vegetation has grown in 5 months! (The track is closed from April to November so no one to cut the trees). The rain is heavily falling, slowly penetrating the different layers...

2hrs and twice the time needed later, I arrive at Muntari hut, in a really bad weather (rain, wind, snow, mist, ...). Here, we are told that we won't be able to hike the pass, we have to fly over. Since the weather is bad, we'll wait here, in this small humid hut, all wet. 45 minutes later, we can hear an helicopter flying around. Exciting! Our guides are in touch by radio - but the helicopter has to abandon: the weather is not good enough... We thus have to go back to Pompolona, where we would at least be able to change clothes, and get warm. It's again a long difficult way in the snow, now 80% wet... once at the lodge starts another wait, since the weather is unstable. It's at least warm and comfortable. 2 hrs later, after it has checked the pass, the helicopter lands 3m from the lodge - in a very tiny spot among the trees - to fly the first group. Incredible to see how agile the pilots are to land in such a small space!! It's only 5 minutes across the pass. 10 minutes later, the helicopter lands again, and takes the second group. After only 4 minutes, we hear another helicopter coming. Or is it really a different one ? No... it's the same helicopter, with group 2 still inside: it couldn't make it across the pass due to weather. How can it change so quickly, in only 5 minutes!!

Engine off - another wait start, now with less people... will we have to sleep here again ? Another group is coming: wouldn't be comfortable... Finally 1 hr later, the second group is flown, even though the weather looks worse than before... all 5 groups are finally flown. The flight is quick, impressive through a dense mist. We can now dry our clothes in Quintin Lodge and hike to the Sutherlands Falls, the second highest waterfalls on earth if I remember well, totaling 580m in height. It's impossible to say if it's the rain pouring on us that make us wet, or the water from the falls! It is SO powerful, with thousands of liters crashing on the soil every second, creating strong winds. Wow.

After a good dinner, time to sleep after all these emotions and to prepare for tomorrow's 21kms on the final step of the track... Surprise: it's not raining today, even though this part of the valley sees around 11m of rain every year!! The track is fabulous, along a river in a dense tropical rainforest at the heart of the glacial valley. Impressive, especially with the snow remaining above us. Waterfalls, rivers, mountains, vegetation, swing bridges, we have them all! This final part of the track is amazing.

Finally after at least five hours of hiking, we arrive at the beginning of Milford Sound, an amazing fjord. Mixed sentiments of proudness and sadness: we've make it, but it's already the end!!!

The sunset is fabulous, and I stay on the beach contemplating Milford Sound and famous Mitre Peak until late.

There also is some glowworms nearby our hotel!! After a small 5hrs night, time to get my feet wet again for the sunrise. No particular colors, but nice reflections! I'm quite angry otherwise: I broke my two Nisi filters on the rocks...

After breakfast we embark for a cruise on Milford sound. Breathtaking, the mountains surrounding the sea are so high! This time luck has turned: we get to see two small and rare crested penguins, fur seals and a pod of dolphins peacefully swimming by!! Incredible show and lifetime memories!!

Now time to head back to Queenstown...

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