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March 2012 Issue
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Preconceived ideas

Don't let preconceptions cloud your judgement on whether to walk on a track - just go out there and do it. Photo: Mick Abbot
Just because a track is famous doesn’t mean it’s not a wilderness experience anymore

Somehow, it seems, we build up preconceived ideas about certain tracks that just aren’t for us. We’ve either heard or read something that makes them appear less appealing.

For example, people have often told me the Milford Track is not for them. There’s almost a sense of pride as they say this is the one track they have no intention of walking. Various reasons are given: too many people, the booking system forces you to move huts every day, and there’re too many planes flying overhead. Then there’s the presence of 40 fully guided and catered walkers who get to sleep in freshly made beds each night.

My perspective on the Milford Track is completely different. Maybe that’s because it was my first-ever tramp, when as a nine-year-old, I got to feel how amazing (and gigantic) the forests and mountains are. I’ve now made it over Mackinnon pass five times, including as part of one journey that led me over the mountains west of Lakes Hauroko, Manapouri and Te Anau.

Last year I was there again, this time with my two oldest kids, and it was just as great – especially the stunted forests immediately past Lake Mintaro, and the large flagstones laid along the path near the pass. Even though fully booked, the track never seemed that crowded. That’s because you’re all travelling in the same direction and once everyone has spread out according to their own pace, you hardly see anyone.

Also enjoyable was being able to travel with the same group of people. That meant conversations about the trip – where people were from, and other adventures they’d had – got layered up over the four days. Then there are the Clinton and Arthur valleys. Like the Sutherland Falls, which in three steps drop 580m, they’re simply spectacular: deep pools, sheer cliffs and hanging glaciers abound.

The Milford Track is also one of our most historical, being a route Maori used to get to Piopiotahi – Milford Sound – to collect tangiwai pounamu. In 1888 it become one of this country’s first guided walks, while in 1908 it achieved instant notoriety when it was described in the UK as ‘the finest walk in the world’. A sense of this past is on display in the huts – including an image of the messenger pigeons used to let people know they were safe.

This Christmas I realised my own preconceptions had let me miss out on another special place – one that I’d consigned as being too busy and bland. It’s the track that heads up the Mingha Valley to Goat Pass, and which yearly is inundated with multi-sport athletes as they race from Kumara to Sumner on the Coast to Coast.

The thought of walking a track being routinely passed by people training for the big event had never appealed. I imagined the track to be a highway, and the valley a similar experience to those others nearby I’d been up and down.

How wrong I was. From Greyney’s Shelter you immediately ford the Bealey and with it leave the road and railway line behind. For the next hour you get just enough of travelling up a rocky river bed to know whether a full day of Canterbury river-bashing up the likes of the Matthias would be your cup of tea. After passing a deep swimming hole the track proper begins, and with it any sense that the track is a highway. Instead it’s a steep, sustained climb up a root-bound track out onto Dudley’s Knob. Here are views both back to the Waimakariri and ahead to the pass, and the forested valley through which the track sidles.

By the time we made it onto the upper flats the kids had decided we’d stay at the first hut. That is until they realised what they thought was the toilet was in reality the two person Mingha Biv. It was definitely not what they had imagined. With hardly a pause, and lured on by the promise of more generous comforts, our five-year old set off, leading the way.

In a little over two hours, river bed and then forest had given way to alpine scrub – stunted flaxes, hebes, dracophyllum and the like. One last ford of the Mingha, followed by a series of boardwalks and we were on the pass. Goat Pass Hut is a 1980s Lockwood-style building with good views down the Deception Valley. Kea know it as a place to check out and spent a fair chunk of the night we were there scrabbling around on the roof. While the runners on their training trips pass through in various states of comfort – some look barely troubled, while others look shattered – we took the steep but worth the effort side trip to Lake Mavis.

Our first night was spent passing around the bright orange ukulele carried in by a Dutch hiker walking the Te Araroa Trail, and also playing card games with a couple thrilled to have their daughter take them over the route she had raced through during an earlier Coast to Coast. The next night we had the hut and the valley completely to ourselves.

Perhaps this piece of writing – especially snippets about the rough track to Dudley’s Knob, or kea clattering through the night – creates a less favourable impression of the Mingha. Perhaps that’s also the trouble with listening to people’s concerns about the Milford Track. Maybe a key part of being adventurous includes removing expectations on what you’ll find or experience.

Regardless, it must be time I checked out the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, Cass Loop and Queen Charlotte Walkway.