Soaking up freedom in the rain

ALTHOUGH it is billed as the finest walk in the world, I was filled with trepidation. There were stories of back-packers having to risk their lives fording raging rivers on the 54-kilometre Milford Track.

New Zealand's most famous hike or tramp (as locals say) takes four days, traverses two glacially-carved river valleys and a 1,154-metre pass before finishing at Milford Sound, one of the country's most picturesque fiords.

It follows the route taken by early Maoris in their quest for greenstone or jade for tools and the path of explorer and surveyor, Quinton Mackinnon, the first European to cross from the southern town of Te Anau to Milford Sound.

We started out by boat to the head of Lake Te Anau, the largest lake in New Zealand's South Island, with 38 other freedom walkers - independent trampers loaded up with their own food provisions and sleeping gear.

Twenty-nine other hikers were also on board but they would be doing the guided walk, carrying only a small day-pack because food, bedding, and hot showers would be provided.

In the early days, Mackinnon took passengers on his sailing boat and spent a night on the lake shore before starting out on the track. Years later, the explorer drowned in the icy lake after his boat capsized one stormy night - a testimony of how rugged conditions can be in Fiordland.

By the time we reached the northern shore of Lake Te Anau rain had already set in. We had been told to expect wet conditions. Here, more than 500 mm of rain can fall in 24 hours.

We set off on the wide gravelly path through the lush New Zealand beech forest carpeted with several varieties of ferns, lichens and mosses. A half hour up the path, the guided walkers stopped at Glade House where they would spend the night.

But we continued for two hours before reaching our hut.

For freedom walkers on the track, New Zealand's Department of Conservation maintains huts equipped with 40 bunks, several gas burners, flush toilets and running water. The advanced booking system guarantees all trampers a bunk.

Wardens at each hut brief trampers on the next day's walk and provide optional night activities such as seeing glow-worms and trying to spot kiwis, New Zealand's national bird.

The briefings are informal and full of light-hearted banter and good-humoured leg-pulling, but wardens insist that all garbage is taken out and that no soap, shampoo or detergents should be used in the area's rivers, streams or lakes.

A warden's hut was washed away in December 1989 when the Clinton River changed course after a 24-hour downpour. For an area with so much rain and more than 10,000 tourists passing through it from October until April, the track is amazingly well kept. Footbridges and suspension bridges cross almost all rivers and streams, making fording raging waters the exception rather than the rule.

On day two, we walked 16 kilometres along the Clinton River through bush alive with the distinctive notes of tuis, bellbirds and fantails. We spotted a ground-dwelling weka and a rare blue duck. Further up the valley, a New Zealand falcon soared.

As the roar of the Clinton recedes, the walk opens up to a glacier-levelled area surrounded by mountains adorned with wispy ribbon-like waterfalls.

With the sun out at last, some of our fellow freedom walkers stretched out to sunbathe at Mintare hut at the base of MacKinnon Pass, while others braved a dip in the frigid waters of Lake Mintaro with Canadian geese and paradise ducks looking on.

Since blue skies do not last long, we were encouraged by our hut warden to dump our packs and climb up Mackinnon Pass to see the view. It was advice worth taking.

The beech trees and ferns give way to sub-alpine mountain flax and later to alpine Mount Cook lilies, Maori onions and large mountain daisies. The alpine flowers and the panoramic view up the Clinton valley made the two-hour ascent well worth the effort.

At the top of the pass, two parrot-like kea birds waited in vain for scraps of food then took off showing us their brilliant orange under-plumage.

The next day we ascended the same switchbacks, this time with our packs on. The weather closed in as we neared the top of the pass so we did not stay long before descending along the switchback trail into the Arthur River valley.

Going down is much harder with packs, especially in wet conditions, but the track passes numerous waterfalls and threads through even more luxuriant bush than on the leeward side.

The highlight of the eight kilometre descent is the trip to Sutherland Falls, the sixth highest waterfalls in the world. By the time we reached the falls, the rain was pelting down adding to the thunder of the water as it plunged 580 metres to the rocks below us.

At the final hut, we contemplated the 18 kilometres left. Mel, our hut warden, said most people make it to the end with no problem. But he said in emergencies helicopters were called in.

The fourth day we woke up to frigid temperatures and Mackinnon Pass was covered in snow. It soon warmed, but we felt sympathetic towards those travelling a day behind us who would have to trek through the snow.

Although the last day covers the most distance, it is a relatively mild descent along the Arthur River and along the shores of Lake Ada. This came as a relief, given the aches and pains we were suffering.

On the final day we journeyed through forests of tree ferns, tree fuschias and silver beech listening to the calls of birds, and crossed more bridges, marvelling at the beauty of the many waterfalls.

Now we had to pace ourselves. If we were too slow, we would miss the afternoon boats from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound. Too early and we would be bitten by swarms of sand flies.

Maori legend has it that the sand fly, Te Namu (in Maori) was the creation of the goddess of the underworld, Hinenuitepo.

She gazed at the beauty of Fiordland and was fearful that humans would never want to leave such a paradise so she created the sand fly to remind us of our mortality and warn us not to linger too long.

At the 54-kilometre point, we hopped on to the waiting boat for a ride to the bus terminus to take us back for that much welcomed hot shower and non-freeze-dried food.

The cost of track bookings, bus and boat rides to and from Te Anau per person for freedom walkers is NZ$169 (about HK$670). Freedom walkers must have their own backpacks, food, and cooking utensils. Guided walks are about NZ$1,300.

This includes all transportation, food and accommodation.

Bookings for freedom walks can be made through New Zealand's Department of Conservation. Guided walks can be booked through New Zealand's THC (Tourist Hotel Corporation).