I knew long before the fork incident. I figured it out pretty quickly. You don’t belong here. You can’t do this. But I was here, and now everyone was getting out their camping equipment to make dinner and there I was with my fork. With only my fork. Pots and pans clinked and clanked onto the hut benches, little table top stoves were unfolded as if by magic and a full dinner set of plates and bowls appeared in front of everyone. They all looked at my fork. You don’t belong here. You can’t do this. There was that voice again. Except now instead of just hearing it in my head, I could also see it on all of their faces. Were we meant to bring our own camping equipment….? Oops. Only 3 days to go….
The Milford Track in Fiordland New Zealand is 53.5km long, it starts at Glade Wharf at the head of Lake Te Anau and finishes at Sandfly Point in Milford Sound. The track is intended to be done over 4 days with a boat picking you up and dropping you off at either end. In other words there is no easy escape. I couldn’t help but think this as I lay in my top bunk on that first night. There was no electricity but instead of the room being dark I was lying directly under a skylight with the moon staring down at me. You don’t belong here. You can’t do this. Not you too Moon?
There are two ways to hike the Milford Track, one is guided and the other is independent. Most people book it months in advance, the huts book out quickly and for the whole great walks season which is from October to April. I however, found out the week before. I’m a big believer in the ‘say yes and figure it out afterwards’ philosophy when it comes to opportunities and adventures. A woman who I followed on Instagram messaged me and told me that someone in her group had pulled out and would I like to take her space? You see that’s the beauty of instagram, you can appear to be whoever you want on it. Apparently I come across as someone who is keen to walk through the wilderness and sleep in huts with strangers, none of whom have showered, for days on end. When in reality I’m actually all about the Airbnb-with-a-hot-tub-and-a-glass-of-wine kind of life. Yes I love nature and a good hike but I thoroughly enjoy grabbing a pizza and a shower afterwards!
‘Bum butter’ was the first thing I saw when I entered the outdoor shop where I assumed I could find everything I needed. Bum butter was for exercise induced chafing the tin told me. I glanced back at my rump which had definitely been on the smaller side before my four days of wine-and-every-kind-of-cheese-ever-produced fest. I decided I didn’t want bum butter but I did need some expert advice. I asked the store assistant what I would need to do the Milford Track. She told me she had never done it but she could guess. I was fine with this, (however, looking back now I can see where I should have maybe seen some red flags in this plan).
I would be getting wet she said so I would need lots of changes of clothes! I would probably be changing twice a day this clueless girl told me and I nodded in ignorant agreement. She sold me base layers this and merino tops that, I had a handful of $45 socks in one hand and a new sleeping bag in the other. Dehydrated meals for breakfast and dinner were purchased. Cereal bar snacks and wool for my toes were scanned and bagged. A water bladder was thrown in too, I wouldn’t want to be carrying a water bottle I decided, the bladder was a fantastic idea! I sat in the car afterwards, head in hands, credit card practically singed and smoking after the nearly $1000 bill. I didn’t even have hiking boots yet! Or a bag!
A frantic call to my insta friend later and she told me she had boots I could borrow. My soon to be husband said I could use his fishing bag as my backpack. I started to calm down. Ok I was sorted! I could do this! I had yet to look up the actual track so I decided to do that. A red exclamation point screamed for attention on the web page. I clicked it. Avalanche alert, chances of avalanche are high. WHAT WAS I DOING. At this point I should probably tell you that I have lived in New Zealand for the past 7 years but I am originally from Ireland. I was not born in this hiking, outdoor environment. I suddenly felt it now more than ever. My inner Irishness noted my distress and stepped in at this point. “It’ll be grand sure”. This is the best piece of advice you can give an Irish person. It basically means ‘it is what it is, now go and get on with it’. It blanket covers all situations and there really is no arguing with the logic. I trusted in it and got packing.
Would you be shocked if I told you that fishing bags are not well designed for a four day trek over a mountain? I was. There was no space for my sleeping bag except jammed haphazardly into the top of it, giving me a silhouette similar to that of a deformed camel. The morning to go had arrived though and it was too late to do anything else about it. You don’t belong here. You can’t do this. It’ll be grand sure.
On seeing my obvious struggle with my monstrosity of a bag, my friend Kate quickly informed me that it would not be grand sure. She drove me to the shop again and we grabbed waterproof trousers, a waterproof clothes pouch and a few $1 plastic ponchos just in case. We were off. It was a four hour drive to the boat terminal and these hours were spent in a state of serious denial at what I was about to undertake. Also I had a coffee and therefore need to stop to go to the bathroom multiple times. I am not a good traveler, all the signs were there but still we pushed on.
On arriving at the visitor center I was introduced to the rest of the group. They were a mixture of New Zealanders and Australians and all looked like capable proper hikers. I found myself trying to hide my bright pink manicured nails as I said hi. That’s when the voice really started. You don’t belong here. You can’t do this. We were again warned about flooding and the avalanche risk and asked to prepay for a helicopter that was potentially required to chopper us out of a flooded zone. Everyone else groaned, they didn’t want to miss any of the track. I pretended to be equally disappointed while in reality I had my pink manicured fingers crossed behind my back.
And then we were on the boat. I forlornly watched as we got further and further from the shore, the reception bars on my phone leaving one by one until they cut out completely and my phone was nothing more that a fancy but powerless piece of technology. I decided it would distract me from the tightening feeling of terror in my chest if I made a video diary. I distracted myself with that. As I was filming a shot of all the hikers backpacks on the back of the boat I noticed that they all had one thing in common, all of them except mine of course. They all seemed to have raincoats. Perfectly fitted backpack covers in every colour you can imagine were everywhere, on everything, except for my random fishing bag with my sleeping bag stuffed into the top of it. Maybe it won’t rain I told myself.
It immediately started to rain. The boat didn’t have much further to go until we were dropped off into the New Zealand rain forest. You don’t belong here. You can’t do this. The $1 plastic poncho. It was the only thing I could think of. I pulled it out of its tiny pouch and tied it around the bag, stretching it tightly over the hump of the sleeping bag and tying up the holes which were left for arms and a head. It looked watertight. Watertight and ridiculous. We were there, everyone grabbed their bag and disembarked and suddenly the boat was in the distance. We were alone in the wilderness. It was raining. My heart was pounding. There was nothing else to do but to start walking.
Clean and still quite dry, the muddy trail below and the rain from above felt very unwelcome. My borrowed boots were spotless and I noticed with annoyance and dismay those first few flicks of mud on the toes, thinking about how I would have to clean them carefully before I returned them. I had also borrowed a rain jacket from my fiancé, it was huge on me as he is a large Scottish man and I am a small Irish woman so I looked as ridiculous as my poncho clad bag when I put it on but at least I was dry. Until about half an hour in. The rain got heavier, the water collecting on the canopy of trees above and banding together to fall in huge droplets onto the hood of my jacket. The wind joining in and pulling it constantly off my face and allowing the rain to mat my hair. Having my hand up to hold my hood allowed the rain to drip into my sleeves and down my arms. My body heat doing little to take the chill out of the icy rain that trickled along my skin. You don’t belong here. You can’t do this.
The relief I felt on reaching the first hut where we were to spend the night was immense. It was beautiful. It looked like a gorgeous mountain lodge, a helicopter was parked nearby unloading supplies and the smell of cooking was wafting out of the windows, the warm glow of electricity a beacon to my frozen fingers and wet clothes. My relief was short lived. A man emerged with a clipboard and asked if we were on the guided tour. As I contemplated wrestling him to the ground and forcing him to write my name on the list, the rest of my group answered that no we were not. I wondered how much of a bribe it would take for him to let me in, I could give him my engagement ring, or a kidney perhaps. We were asked to move along so that he could get a proper head count on his ‘guests’ for the night. We were shepherded off the beautiful porch and back into the wilderness, engagement ring and kidneys intact but broken hearted. The rest of my group commented how they couldn’t understand how people did the track like that, how that wasn’t ‘real’ hiking. I agreed as whole heartedly as possible with the bits of my heart that were still intact while simultaneously thinking that I was in the presence of insane people.
Our actual hut was much more hut like. The rain was bucketing down now and I was soaked through. The rain jacket I had borrowed turned out to be no more than rain ‘resistant’. It caved quite quickly to the Fiordland weather and it felt like even my bones were wet by the time we arrived. Everyone peeled off their soggy clothes and hung them on a wire outside the bunk room. I was pleased to find that the $1 poncho had actually done an amazing job and my pack was bone dry. A tiny victory but it definitely quietened the voice that was now screaming at me that I didn’t belong there and that I can’t do this. I’M AGREEING WITH YOU I yelled back inside my own head.
It was dinner time. I grabbed my fork and my dehydrated meal and looked for a kettle to boil some water. I soon realised the shelves in the kitchen were bare and glanced around to see everyone unpacking a full kitchen set from their bags. Panic set in. We’re going to die here aren’t we, the sensible side of my brain asked. I told it that yes, we probably were. And then, just as I was accepting my impending death on the Milford Track, something wonderful happened. The women that I was with looked at me. Now I should explain that my hair doesn’t do well in the rain so it was horribly frizzy and quite scary looking, the complete opposite from the sleek straightened style it had been when I had met them in the real world just a few hours ago, so I assumed they were looking as this. They were, of course, it was hard not to, but they had also noticed my fork situation. I found out that day what wonderful people hikers are. They realised that I had no clue what I was doing, how ridiculously unprepared I was and they embraced me into the world of hiking for the rest of the trip. They lent me pots to boil water and insisted I have some of their tea bags, they talked to me about how many calories I should be eating to keep my strength up. They accompanied me back to the bunk room and helped me to repack my bag so it was less deformed camel and more sturdy horse. I wasn’t going to die!
The first night was hard. I felt a lot better after my dehydrated pasta meal and my pot of tea and some good chats with these amazing accepting women but as I lay there alone in my top bunk with the full moon glaring down at me I was seized with fear. I pretended I was the moon, that I could see the world from his vantage point high above. In that scenario I was just a tiny dot in a vast rain forest, no civilisation for miles and miles around. I kept picking up my phone to call my fiancé, forgetting that there was no reception and no way to charge it. I wondered if the moon could see him too and I missed him terribly in that moment. I opened the notes app and I wrote him a letter. I told him about my day and I even managed to see the funny side of it when told as a story to someone I love. I must have fallen asleep because the next time I opened my eyes the moon was gone and bright light had taken its place.
Day two started with the news that they didn’t know if we could get past the flooding on the track. We were told to wait while the situation was assessed. More pots were borrowed and tea was had. My rain jacket was still soaking from the day before. I peeled it off it’s wire hanging spot noting that rainy weather is not the best for drying clothes. I went to fill my water bladder and found it had a hole in it. This should have caused me serious distress but to be honest there were already so many reasons to be stressed that I just found it funny. I couldn’t wear the soaking wet rain jacket so I pulled the second clear plastic $1 poncho from my bag and turned myself into a large plastic example of how not to be a hiker. Today was the day we had been worried about, we had to do a river crossing. We were given the all clear to go and off we went, nerves in my chest and rain dropping on my plastic covered head. The icy water rose steadily up our legs and finally stopped rising at our waists as we trudged into the overflowing river. Our boots filled with river water and our toes shrank from the cold as we pushed our way through the thick swirling water. A long line of human turtles carrying our belongings as high on our backs as possible to keep them out of the river.
The strangest thing happened in that river. As soon as I was waist deep in the water, freezing water swirling in between my toes I realised something. That it was just water. The worst had happened! I was soaking wet walking through a river and I was completely fine! It. Was. Just. Water. As soon as I realised that I no longer cared. I stopped staring at the ground trying to avoid getting a spot of mud on my boots, I stopped pulling at my hood and trying to keep the rain off my face. I looked up and I looked around. I was blown away instantly by what I saw. Everywhere to be seen there were mountains and on every one of those mountains there were the most amazing waterfalls cascading down the sides of them. The plants were so green, there were trees in crazy shapes and the landscape was so lush I felt like throwing off the pack and frolicking through it. The next few hours were passed in a haze of amazing scenery, goofy grins and complete contentment. Sometimes we walked as a group and sometimes we split up and walked alone with our thoughts. When we got to the second hut I didn’t want to stop, I wanted to keep walking. What was happening to me?
Someone managed to get the fire going at the hut and it was comical watching everyone trying to huddle around the tiny bubble of heat it emitted, an unspoken agreement that everyone’s soaking wet boots would take pride of place in front. I pulled a hot water bottle from my bag, filled it and let my sore muscles melt under the warmth. Everyone congratulated me on my excellent idea to pack it, I seemed to be the only one who did, I was delighted with myself. I ate my dehydrated meal with the toasty warm hot water bottle shoved up my top. I climbed into my sleeping bag and fell instantly into the deepest sleep, warm and cozy and calm.
Putting on soaking wet boots the next morning put a dampener on the start of the day both figuratively and literally. The girl in the shop who told me I would be changing twice a day could not have been more wrong. Luckily this meant I had more than enough clothes to share around and I was able to repay people’s kitchenware-kindness with clean dry clothes for anyone that needed to borrow something. Today was to be the big day. We were going to summit the mountain today and then go back down the other side. My burst water bladder had ended up to not be a big deal the day before. There were so many crystal clear streams to drink from and mini waterfalls with perfectly good drinking water the whole way along the track that I didn’t give it a second thought. I assumed today would be the same. We started the uphill hike. The higher we climbed the more the air temperature dropped, the rain stepped aside but the wind joined us on the climb instead. I started to get thirsty. I kept waiting for a stream that I could drink from but there wasn’t any that high up into the mountains. I pushed on, telling myself that we would come across something soon. The only thing I came across was dizziness, it came over me quickly. White spots danced in front of my eyes and I grabbed at plants on the side of the narrow mountain track to steady myself. I looked out over the steep mountain path, this was not the place to lose balance. I needed water. The others had hiked on ahead but I knew they only had enough water for themselves in their bottles, I was determined not to ask them to give any of it up for my stupidity. I looked around. I really didn’t feel good now. That’s when I noticed the margarita glass.
It wasn’t an actual margarita glass of course, it was a leaf but it was shaped like a Gatsby style champagne glass. And it was full to the brim of water. I stared at it, making sure I wasn’t so dehydrated that I was imagining things but no, there it still was. With shaking hands, I snapped the leaf from its stalk, careful not to spill any of the precious liquid it contained and brought it to my lips. Instant relief rushed through my body as the water quenched my thirst. I looked around. Margarita leaves everywhere. I proceeded to drink my fill from the nature all around me and was on my knees licking a leaf when I heard someone clear their throat behind me. A hiker who didn’t need to lick leaves to prevent dehydration had caught up to me and was looking confused by my strange stance. At this point I had a choice to make: get up and act like a human or continue to lick leaves until I was no longer dehydrated. I made my choice and I let them step over me.
Feeling refreshed at last and far less humiliated than I probably should have, I continued on. We made it to the summit in no time and the sun burst out magnificently from behind the clouds to greet us just as we arrived. The views. There are no words to describe what it feels like to be up there on the top of a mountain that you physically climbed yourself. Knowing it was your legs that put you there. The thighs, that you sometimes grab in disgust, burning from carrying you up there. You realise two things in that moment: how beautiful the world is and how beautiful you are. You look down at your body and you say thank you, you apologise for constantly telling it it’s not good enough, not skinny enough and not tanned enough. Look what it just did for you. Look where you are.
Keas came to see what we were up to. Curious green mountain parrots with stunning bright orange colouring under their wings, they screech at the top of their lungs when they see you. The magnificent birds flew above us as we took in the majestic landscape. The sun eventually saw us begin to depart and quickly turned to hailstones as a farewell gift. We began our descent as the hailstones bounced loudly off my plastic covering, the wind picking up suddenly and turning the poncho into a sort of parachute of embarrassment, billowing around me and tugging me this way and that. The descent was grueling and hard on the knees. Everyone banded together, helping each other and anyone around us that needed it. Beautiful warm sunshine was waiting for us at the hut that evening and everyone rushed to hang out their wet clothes. The sun happily complied and every drop of rain was dried up at last. One day left. I was excited to get home, but I felt something else too, was I sad to go?
The final morning arrived and there was a new buzz in the air. We woke up to dazzling sunlight. The mountains around the hut lit up, the sun making the waterfalls glisten. We packed our bags for the last time, I no longer needed help, I knew exactly how to pack it now. We tightened each other’s shoulder straps and we were off. Everyone seemed lighter this morning, sounds of laughter and chatter made its way along the track and everyone fell into a comfortable pace. I thought back to the person I had been four days ago. She seemed like a distant memory now. How could I have changed so much in only four days? I imagined that woman licking leaves and I laughed out loud. I was happy. I smiled the whole way along the track. I choose to walk the final stretch alone. I wanted to think. I wanted to thank my body for everything it had done for me, for keeping me alive. I had survived but it was so much more than that. I had thrived. My mind was quiet and I had definitely sweated the last of the wine and cheese from my body from that bachelorette party. I left a little bit of myself on that track and I found a whole new side of myself while I was at it. That’s what happens when you step out of your comfort zone isn’t it, you find that you can survive in a whole new zone. Ironic that almost dying makes you feel invincible. I rounded the final corner and saw the boat terminal up ahead. I belong here. I can do this.
Click to watch my video diary that I recorded while I was hiking (warning: includes very fluffy hair and moments of leaf-licking-insanity)
For advice and transport so you can do the Fiordland Tracks yourself: