As hikers go, I am more your fairweather sort. I like to lounge and idle. Give me a pack and I’ll stuff it with books, venison pie and a bottle of Marlborough port. I prefer a certain style of hike: a run of days, a couple of friends and a stunner of a track. The point is the simplicity of walking, the single path when you’ve set off. It’s become a summer fixture, a way to mark the season and contemplate existence. In my case this time round, it also comes ahead of a milestone birthday, the kind that looms like an accusation, like I ought to have done more with my dilettante years to date.
Which brings us to the Milford Track in New Zealand’s Fiordland. Or, more precisely, a boat is what brings us to it, a tidy little ferry whose barometer sits on ‘Fair’. This atmospheric indication bodes well for what’s ahead, a 54 kilometre trail through glacier-carved valleys to the coast of the Tasman Sea. Though it is sometimes described as the finest walk in the world, this means the scenery, not the weather, because Fiordland is notoriously rainy.
And here’s where we begin. At the tip of a vast fresh lake that is rimmed by snow-capped peaks, we draw close to the shore. Stepping onto the jetty and through a bucket of suds—a measure to stop the spread of an alga known as ‘rock snot’—our band of three sets off to follow an emerald river into a forest of beech. The dry weather looks set to hold. Apparently La Niña—the sister weather system to the better-known El Niño—is at play. As the local paper has it, La Niña here means still conditions. She means transparent rivers, lakes like clear green glass and trout that won’t be fooled without seductive lures.
Four days we are to walk. That might seem a while, but everywhere here is the work of time of a different order. Deep time, to borrow a phrase from the late George Seddon, the Australian environmental writer. (‘Ancient’, as Seddon said, should be kept for B-grade fiction.) I don’t just mean the dozen or so decades that Europeans have walked the route, or the centuries before when the Māori did the same. I’m talking topographic time, of granite valleys carved not in a single ice age but through ice ages plural. And I mean the lineage of the beech itself—Antarctic fossils tell us it goes back to Gondwana days.
Writing about landscapes is full of this line of thought—that the scale of it all puts things in things in perspective, that the grandeur of time and space cuts life down to size. It’s a stock cliché, but it’s still true. In Fiordland, slow processes go on quite heedless of our presence. Mountains grow and are eroded at the pace of a fingernail, while tracts of sphagnum bog gradually break down into peat, that great preserver of the past.
So day one’s miles go quickly. We tramp a pressed-dirt track that roughly follows the Clinton River, from glade to cool green glade, among mossy logs that rear like the heads of dinosaurs. Every now again the screen of beeches opens out to a riverbend or a swathe of turpentine scrub. High above us, in view or not, are those sharp granite peaks, their grey slopes mostly clothed with a mantle of deep green forest, except for where a waterfall descends, fine as a bright white string, or else a long bare rut reveals the path of an avalanche.
We reach the hut with time to lie about, lunch and swim at the river bend. Strangely I’m reminded of a river in Japan, a scene from one of life’s past chapters, five summers or so ago. The resemblance sounds a stretch, but it isn’t really. Both places belong to the rim of the Pacific. They’re shaped by the same faultline. Their topography is alike, which links the lands in time—high mountains are all new mountains (that’s George Seddon again). And the latitude we’re on—45 degrees south, equidistant from the equator and the south pole—has its northern answer in Hokkaido.
What’s that line from Basho? Hearing the static of insect sounds, I half-recall one of his haiku, from the journey-book, Narrow Road to the Deep North, something about the cicadas’ song sinking into the stones. I ponder this idle thought as I pick my way to the river’s edge. Then, on plunging in, I’m jolted into focus. The water is ten degrees, essentially melted snow. On getting out, my earlobes numb, I’m reminded, too, that the Japanese have an old, old word for this. Misogi. Meaning, more or less, purification in water that is super-cold.
Day two has the same rhythm: a good walk, then a swim. Walking in the shade, we’ve no idea how hot it is until we reach the hut that evening. ‘A thirty-three degree day,’ says a ranger named Menaki—a thickset Māori guy, quite young. He gives the next day’s forecast: ‘Wind at a thousand metres. Souwesterly, fourty-five k’s. It’d be bloody fantastic, actually, if it snows. Whites out everything overnight and then you get a blue-sky day.’ Here he does a little jig. (Well, maybe it does something to you, all the time out in the forest. Another ranger we meet is in his ninth season here. A short, slight person clad in three shades of green, he keeps a stuffed stoat in his pocket, ready to wave about with a speech on feral pests.)
Day three and there’s no snow, but the blue sky is back as promised. There’s not a cloud in view as we broach the pass, climbing to 1,154 metres, where snow stretches in ragged sheets across the crags. Below, in all directions, lie relentless vistas of forests and peaks and troughs. Isn’t this where we ought to be taking stock, to ponder the path thus far and what’s to come? But there’s a blessed lack of milestones, just a sturdy tarn, and rather than hang about we shoulder packs and just keep on.
Then already it’s day four. The outlook’s steady on fair, and we’re on the trail and walking before the sun is above the peaks. Yes, the time has fled and gone—except that it is still here in these slow-carved valleys, the rivers out of Basho, the stands of dappled beech. And as for the last few days, these remain as a tightness in my calves. It is, I have to say, a satisfying feeling, and it might just be accomplishment enough. So will I hike out a new person, garbed in elven green with pockets full of stoat? Probably not so much. But it has been one fine hike, and now I get the feeling of coming into my stride—like I might walk on always, like here is where we begin.
Photograph by tewahipounamu on Flickr