This would be our last day of hiking, a long distance but not hard. From the Quintin Hut to Milford Sound is 13.5 miles, mostly flat. We started off on another fine morning and got a nice view of Sutherland Falls as we looked back from a clearing about a half a mile beyond the hut. After a couple of hours of hiking we stopped for a midmorning break at the Boatshed. This is a shelter that isn't beside the trail. The track actually passes through it. Or at least under a roof that connects the two separate rooms of the shelter. Kind of hard to miss, as one of the guides said in the briefing the evening before. This was the one spot on the whole trip where the sandflies were horrible. We stopped and went inside for a cup of orangeade. As we left we took a minute or two to stow our long-sleeved shirts in our packs. Even that was too long to be standing still outside and it involved lots of shooing of sandflies, loud cursing and trying (usually counterproductively) to hurry. We got moving again as quickly as we could and left the sandflies behind.
The rainforest on this side of MacKinnon pass, the west side of the divide, was even more lush than in the Clinton Valley. There was vegetation everywhere. Some of the ferns were as big as palm trees. Every square inch of surface, whether it was on the ground, on a rock or up in a tree had moss or some kind of vegetation on it. Moss hung from vines which hung from plants which hung from trees. It was very obvious that this valley got a lot of rainfall. This was the section of the track that the group two days before us had to be helicoptered over because it was flooded. We heard that they had ten inches of rain in a 24 hour period.
We stopped at Mackay Falls, named after the man who had won the bet from Donald Sutherland for naming rights. Not nearly as high as Sutherland Falls but very pretty. It's featured in lots of post card photos although with my little Sony digital camera I didn't manage to get very good pictures in the poor light. Near the falls is Bell Rock, a huge rock that has been eroded in the center. You can crawl underneath and there is a large open chamber inside. Very unusual.
We stopped for lunch at Giants Gate Falls. Another pretty falls, it has lots of boulders just below it that get enough breeze and spray from the falls to keep the sandflies away. That made it a great place for a lunch break as the sandflies definitely were worse on this side of the divide. A bridge crosses the river just below the falls and it is a Milford Track tradition to jump off the bridge and take a swim in the river. A few brave souls in our group did it but the water was way too cold for me. For independent walkers who haven't had a bath for four days it might hold more allure.
After lunch we were on the home stretch. We had three pickup times for boats and Sandy wanted to try to make the earliest one. I was a little worried as the trail ends at a place called Sandfly Point, an ominous name if there ever was one. I wasn't too anxious to have to wait there very long for the boat.
We reached the end. Made it!!! There was a shelter but virtually no bugs so we just stayed outside. We had about a 45 minute wait till the boat arrived to pick us up. We took our picture with the sign at the end of the trail. Then it was time to relax and have a cup of tea to celebrate completing the hike.
The boat ride was only about ten minutes. At the end of the road in Milford Sound is a boat dock and terminal. There are about half a dozen boats, several very large, that do scenic cruises on Milford Sound and out into the Tasman Sea along the Fiordland coast. There is also a parking lot, a petrol station (which was closed), a pub (which was open), a small airport, and one lodge. The only way that you can stay at the lodge is if you do the Milford Track with Ultimate Hikes. Most people can only come to Milford Sound on a day trip. Since it is a two and a half hour drive from Te Anau or four and a half hours from Queenstown (one way), day trips to Milford Sound are really long. That was one of the things that had discouraged us from visiting the previous year.
That evening the guides got to have dinner with us. At all of the huts on the track there was minimal staff so the guides were also the wait staff who served everyone at dinner. After a full day of hiking I'm not sure that I would have had the energy to want to do that. But they usually were racing around serving everyone quickly. One evening at the Quintin Hut they even dressed up in clown costumes while they were serving dinner which got a big laugh from the group. Tonight they got to relax with us at dinner and it provided a chance to talk to them and get to know them a bit better. All were in their early twenties. Tom was from England and had guided hiking in New Zealand and kayaking in British Columbia. Gretta was a Kiwi who worked as a massage therapist - she could have probably done a good business with Milford hikers at the end of each days walk. She was going to move to Australia with her boyfriend after the hiking season. Imelda had just finished her degree at the University of Otago in Dunedin and was working in the mountains for a summer before getting a "real job". Marcus was from the North Island but I never did get to talk to him to learn much about him.
Dinner each night was a good chance to get to know the other hikers in our group. There were 43 of us from all around the world. The largest group was from Australia, probably about fifteen people. There were several families of parents hiking with two or three older children. That was unusual because of the cost for a large group. John was a doctor from Perth who was there with his wife and two sons. Albert and Shaio were originally from Taiwan. Now they lived in Melbourne where they both taught at the university. They mentioned to us that they had studied in the US. Albert went to the University of Michigan. Shaio attended an obscure school, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A small world indeed - I got my BS in physics from UWM. They were with their son and his girlfriend/wife.
There were more Australians from Perth and New South Wales. There were about ten kiwis from various parts of New Zealand. One couple we got to know had been expats all around the world for over fifteen years before returning to New Zealand. Dominic and Susan were a young couple from Germany - he was an air traffic controller at Frankfurt airport. Christian was an Austrian who lived in the Netherlands who was traveling by himself. There were several Americans. Bob was a venture capitalist. He and his wife Marissa were doing an adventure sport holiday. They had gone canyoneering first, then hiked the Milford, then were going to do sea kayaking next. Bob had sprained his ankle on the canyon trip and seemed to be really hurting. I am not sure how he managed to finish the hike.
The most intersting guy of all was from Korea. Soo Jae was a high school teacher. He spoke only a handful of English words but everytime I saw him he was talking to someone. When I say "talking" I mean saying a few words, pointing, smiling, gesturing, pantomiming and even drawing pictures. The conclusions you reached at the end of a conversation with Soo Jae were always somewhat tentative. But he was a bold traveler. He had toured much of Europe and North America on his own and now he was seeing New Zealand. He also didn't quite fit my picture of the typical Asian, who I think of as being quiet and reserved. Soo Jae was a real character though. The first evening at Glade House we had to get up in groups by country and either tell a joke or sing a song (I did NOT enjoy this). Most groups stumbled though a song together. Bob saved me and all the other Americans by telling a joke. Soo Jae of course was up front all by himself. He started clapping his hands and got the whole group to clap with him. Then he launched into an amazing routine that was half dancing and half martial arts exercise, in time to the clapping, all the while he was singing and chanting loudly in Korean. He did this for about two minutes and had the whole crowd on their feet by the end. I felt sorry for the group that had to go after him.
I didn't really care much for these evening sessions. Dinner was fine - I enjoyed getting a chance to meet and talk to the others in the group. That was enough social interaction for me. I carried a paperback book along (a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, since I'm sure you're dying to know) so I was quite content to sit in the lounge or retire to our room and read after dinner. Sandy had her knitting along with her and was busy. But without tv, it seemed that everyone else was sitting around expecting to be entertained. So after dinner we would have a briefing from the guide about the next day. Useful info but they were far too long and only Tom was a good speaker. Then we would have some sort of group activity like the "sing-a-song or tell-a-joke" just described. I did not enjoy that at all. The last night was the longest. Every single person in the group got a certificate of accomplishment that they had to get up in front of the group to accept. Most of the people in the group gave speeches and went around giving the guides and half the people in the group hugs. Come on - it was only a three day hike together! But for most of the people on the trip it seemed to be a big deal. I guess I was the only curmudgeon in the group.