Chapter Two: Day 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
If there’s one thing worse than a snorer, it’s a snorer on the Milford Track. It was the subdued talk of the hut on the morning of Day Two. Some were convinced it was the Israeli. Others swore it was the father and son from Boston. Whoever it was, it was in our bunkroom (there were two; we lucked out) and it was loud. A bit of glowering and lots of yawning went on over breakfast, but generally we were a happy bunch. We had 16.5 kilometres ahead of us, and we were ready. Our hike would take us further up the Clinton Valley, rising steadily in the last couple of hours before reaching Mintaro Hut, perched at the foot of the Mackinnon Pass. We would knock that bastard off the next day, but for now we focused on the valley and the relatively gentle few hours ahead.
As I ripped open the top of my breakfast – Muesli, Strawberry Yoghurt and Apple was the improbable label on the front of the packet – I pondered the phenomenon that is dehydrated food. Boiling water, ten minutes and voilà! There you have it. Spaghetti Bolognese, Cottage Pie, Vegetable Stir-fry, Chicken Tikka Masala, even Roast Lamb and Vegetables. Here’s the thing: they promise so much, and, hardly surprisingly, deliver so little. And here’s another thing: the chicken pieces (or should I say “chicken” pieces) are all little squares of identical size and thickness. You could lick them clean, write letters on them with a black vivid and you’d have an instant game of Scrabble. Now there’s a marketing idea for you. Dinner (or should I say “dinner”) AND the prospect of a triple word score. But I digress.
I scored my instant breakfast 7 out of 10 (not bad), packed up my things, and prepared to set off. My fellow hikers were leaving in dribs and drabs, with calls of “see you tonight!” and “Save me a bed NOT next to the snorers!” (Interestingly enough, I think this WAS one of the snorers.) I was on the trail by 8.30. I felt excited to be on my own once more.
Before leaving I had padded my feet, loosened my laces in strategic places and applied copious blister plasters, and all I could do now was hope for the best. I followed the Clinton River again, the track rising gently but steadily. At one point I followed an intriguing path down to the water’s edge to fill my water bottle. (The water on the track tasted delicious, by the way; pure and glacial and restorative.) The beech trees had bent over from either bank to greet each other, forming an emerald guard of honour for the river. Lichen draped and poured from the branches, filtering the sunlight.
Hidden Lake, 10 Minutes said a sign on my left. How could one resist such an invitation? Chicago had caught up with me, and we headed down the path together. (By now I had started to call my trail mates by their city or country of origin: the young couple from Chicago was simply “Chicago”. The Israelis were “Israel”. My tall American friend was “Montana”, although he earned a new trail name before long. More on that later.)
We passed a large, clear puddle of water and stopped, nonplussed. Was this the hidden lake? Surely not. We carried on and the path soon issued onto a little shore, and there was the real thing. Glacial grandeur plunged to impossibly clear water. For a moment my eyes played a trick on my mind. I felt a mini wave of vertigo; it felt as though I was standing on the edge of a vast valley. In fact, it was simply the mountains and the sky reflected in the lake. A weka (a native NZ bird) pottered at the edge, lending a prosaic touch to an otherwise surreal landscape. We carried on up the valley, a short distance from the river now, crossing small streams in open plain or in the enclosed, secret green. At one point, deep in the bush, the sun broke through abruptly; it was as if God had turned his torch on. Scores of palm-like ground plants, suddenly a brilliant, illuminated green, seemed to offer up their leaves in worship.
Another sign announced: First View of Mackinnon Pass. I scanned the horizon. It looked high. The Pompolona ice field, even higher up, winked and beamed.
I would walk alone for a while, then meet a fellow walker and join them for a while. The joy of the track was that you could peel off or join up as and when you chose. People understood my desire to walk most of the way alone. But I was starting to enjoy the company of the other people in my group. I chatted with Montana and his companion. Originally from the US, he now lived in Auckland, as did she. They weren’t partners – his partner, he told me with good-natured exasperation, had “buggered off to Singapore for work”.
“I know who got the better deal,” I said. He smiled.
The jaggedly open landscape, testament to an earlier massive landslide, offered spectacular views of the encircling mountains. The sky was perfect blue, the sun hot, the sandflies fierce. I stopped to peel off layers and apply sunscreen to my sweaty face. Lunch was a brief affair, punctuated by slaps.
At one point the trail picked its way over a vast dumping of boulders and rocks. The way forward was imperceptible but for occasional metal poles with orange makers. A couple of times as I clambered over giant blocks I wondered if I was going the right way. I gazed right and left for the not-particularly-obvious marker poles. Here, they announced. It’s this way, but that’s all the help we’re going to give you. You’ll have to watch your footing, and scramble. I stopped often to stare open-mouthed at the gob-smacking view. It was harsh and wild and enormous; not lush and enveloping like the previous day. Waterfalls speered down glacial valleys that, thousands of years ago, were covered in ice, waiting to be scoured and tortured by a reluctant glacial retreat.
A little further on, robins hopped over to say hello. They tilted their heads and blinked as I whistled softly at them. Bellbirds invisibly shook branches and fantails spread their feathers in greeting.
Five hours down, sitting by Prairie Lake, rubbing in my umpteenth spray of insect repellent, sore and sweaty, surrounded by profound silence, I felt a peace and happiness I hadn’t felt for a very long time. Some things just fill you up, you see. For some, it’s people and activity and cities and parties. For others, it’s intellectual endeavour, love, sexual connection, artistic creation. For me, at this exact point in my life, it was this. This wild, vast, silent place, and the restoration it offered.
The final stretch to Mintaro was hard work. Up and up, over more stony, uneven terrain, constantly watching your footing, hamstrings and ankles protesting. Happily, my feet had stood up (Ha!) very well. No aching bunion, and no blisters. When I plodded up the hill to Mintaro hut, I silently congratulated my body then panted my way onto the deck, dropped my pack and hobbled inside. It was a very welcome temporary home.
I claimed a bottom bunk upstairs next to Montana and his companion, with Northern Ireland on the bunk above me. We hoped the snorers had taken the rooms downstairs, and started to gather our dinner things together. By this time I could hardly walk. I had made the mistake of lying down on my bunk for a few minutes and my muscles were NOT HAPPY when I tried to get up again. But it was a good sore, and we all felt it – except, it would seem, those in the group who dumped their packs and headed up the Mackinnon Pass to see the view, just in case the weather closed in the next day. Two to three extra hours of walking. Up and down a mountain. It took me precisely three seconds to decide I would stay at the hut and read my book in the sun. I sunbathed on the helipad (every hut has one; I was momentarily tempted to fake injury just so I could have my first helicopter ride) for a blissfully sandfly-free half hour. The Pass hikers (AKA the crazy ones) eventually started to trickle back into camp, eyes a little wider and gait a little more awkward than before. Apparently it had all been worth it; they had been rewarded with a view that would make an angel weep. I couldn’t wait to get up there.
At dinner, a few of us gravitated to the same table grouping as the previous night. We fell into easy conversation. We were becoming friends.
At 7.30pm, the resident hut ranger came to give us a short talk. Tom was very young, very clean-cut and very English. He had been in the job for just a few months. We gave him a roaring ovation, whistling and stamping. I asked him jokingly if I could pop over to his private hut and use his shower. From that moment, my friends referred to me by my new trail name: Tom’s Girlfriend.
It was the shower I was after, people. Only the shower.
Everyone was in bed early that night. The mountain lay in wait. I snuggled into my sleeping bag, reviewing the day and anticipating the next. It would be the toughest of the track. “Sweet dreams,” whispered Northern Ireland. “No prizes for guessing who’ll be in them.”