Long before we left the States we made reservations to hike the Milford Track. Of New Zealand’s several “Great Walks” Milford is the most renowned for its singular beauty. It was one of our chief destinations of all the many we have in the world.

Milford, part of Fiordland National Park and a World Heritage Area, is so popular camping is not allowed. Only so many hikers per day are permitted, and these groups walk, sleep and eat together for four days at designated stopping points along the track.

Climatically Milford is a volatile region year round but especially so in spring, which is one reason the track was not fully booked during our hike.

We were subsequently to begin the nearby Routeburn Track, another Great Walk, two days after completing Milford. But closures due to avalanche danger precluded that hike.

Day One, October 27

Today a boat ride and short hike to Clinton Hut. Base camp of sorts for longer days ahead.

We came into Te Anau, at the southern end of Lake Te Anau, a day early to prepare our gear and get our paperwork in order. The tiny town squats happily beneath the blue-and-white spine of the Kepler Mountains that fill the horizon like an enormous mandible. Here the Department of Conservation clerk issued our tickets – necessary at each hut – and informed us that Routeburn was closed, indefinitely.

On the day of departure a short shuttle ride takes us north to Te Anau Downs, midway up the lake, where we board our ferry. Cold, black water of the lake rippled by sprinkling rain. Warm coffee in the cabin, where the majority huddle, listening to the mumbled narration of the captain.

Our group is small for Milford, because the season is young. Weather unpredictable, but forecast – they always try – grim. Rain, rain, more rain. The usual for this place. Possibility of sun on the fourth and final day … too far ahead to expect meteorological accuracy.

The ferry takes us past the rocky point where Quintin Mackinnon, first white trailblazer of Milford, drowned in 1892.

Great wooden cross in the rocks, lapped by cold waves.

October 28

Sunless dawn on day two. Kiwi wailing in the moss. Fluorescent, cartoonish green integument on every side, up every tree, over every rock. Threat – promise – of hard rain, and some small anxiety whether our gear is adequate to the task. Only one way to find out.

Spurred by worry over the impending deluge we got an early start and put nearly half the day’s march behind us – more than 8 kilometers – before pausing even for a drink of water. But we didn’t fail to appreciate our isolation in the vast virtually unknown swath of forest and mountain.

Nor the incredible scenery and diversity and caprice of our surroundings. The narrow valley of moss-covered beech trees, a fantasy-land of ferns, epiphytes, lichens, grasses, hanging growths. The unexpected weather patterns amid these prodigious green mounds that rise, parabolic as roller coasters, on both sides of us. Lined with falling water, and at their summit grey rock and white ice.

The preponderance of Spanish moss or its New Zealand equivalent.

Pungent stink of rotting vegetation. Ribbons of white water wending down the mountainsides. Some permanent waterfalls are as high as 300, 400, 500 meters. Waterfalls everywhere splash and spray and send mist rising all around.

Growing things are ubiquitous. Once I leaned against a rock wall for balance and went elbow deep into soft dripping moss.

Lisa and I and a German woman, Kathrin, are in the vanguard. To our right all day is the emerald Clinton River, by turns docile and mighty; at left, a gurgling trailside stream.

We pass many places where the path has been washed out and detoured, other spots where, in high water, the way goes directly through a rocky watercourse. Fortunately there are no impassable points, yet.

Sense of water, of wetness, everywhere.

The foaming whitewater like splayed hands reaching across quartz-flecked rock faces. Intricate as a spider’s web.

We reach Mintaro Hut, our destination for the day, in just over five hours, well ahead of the rest of the troop. Warm and dry inside, and our reward is first choice of bunks.

A warning from the ranger: keas – mountain parrots – like to snatch small items and poke holes in boots with their sharp curved beaks. Keep all belongings indoors. Curious birds these keas: big as turkeys, mischievous as monkeys. One takes up residence on the hut veranda, cocking its head at every passing human. Stories of lost cameras, torn tents, sundered sleeping bags.

Half an hour after our arrival the hard, lashing rain starts and doesn’t stop all night or into the next morning. Most of the group wet, miserable, querulous.

Ululating melody of bell birds in the trees, and the crackle of smoldering charcoal in the stove.

Gruel for dinner never tasted so good.