A fairytale homeland full of miniature mushroom houses, lichen carpet, curtains of twisted vines and light beams that shoot like stars down between the trees, unfolds before my eyes. At any moment elves and pixies will jump from the mattress of moss that blankets the ground scurrying to escape as our boots send shock waves reverberating across the enchanting forest floor.
I’m in the South West corner of New Zealand’s southern island in the wild and remote World Heritage fiordlands where one could imagine the cute critters of children’s fiction novels residing. Look carefully and we might just spy a glimpse of Tinkerbelle and Queen Clarion flitting around in Pixie Hollow.
Known as Milford Sound, the area was once a giant glacier that carved its way through the valleys and over the centuries as the ice melted, the waters remained to create a stunning fiord. To best explore these wild lands, I am on one of the most famous hikes in the world – the Milford Sound track, a four-day wilderness walk and entrancing journey along what feels like, the untamed edge of the world.
What is it about a nature walk that’s is so good for the soul? Is it the perspective gained on life devoid of any work-based distractions? Is it the immeasurable quality of being one with the environment? Does it offer a sense of belonging to something bigger than just the self? Key research findings in 2010 from Beyond Blue maintain, “that humans depend on nature … for emotional, psychological and spiritual needs”, and furthermore, nature helps to “lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress.”
The beauty of nature is that it resets our minds. Based on psychology’s ART (Attention Restoration Therapy), urban environments constantly occupy our mind and force us to direct our attention to hundreds of decisions and tasks daily, which is depleting. In contrast, natural landscapes demand very little, thereby, replenishing mental resources. In effect, what man-made environments zap from us, nature gives back.
The question begs asking then – is nature the best medicine? Indigenous cultures have known about the intrinsic connection to nature for healing and lived this way for centuries. While the western world catches up, there are many strong bodies of research into eco-therapy confirming that both viewing and being in nature increases mental health and spiritual development. Not to mention the healing plants and minerals that live within it.
Well, what better place than in this remote region between raging rivers and snowy peaks to test my nature therapy skills on. Let’s see what sublime state of serenity I exit the ‘sounds,’ at the end of day four.
World of Waterfalls
From triple-tiered to plummeting, 100m high and majestic to small and rocky, we pass over, by and below a multitude of waterfalls, each as beautiful as the next. We are now in what I call the ‘valley of the falls’, close by Hidden Lake where the cliff faces today shed over 100 and I can understand why this area is known as one of the wettest places on earth. We walk into a clearing and an ethereal mystical fog hovers above our heads, as if not yet wanting to reveal the enormity of the mountains towering over us mere dots on the grass plain below.
The clouds have been leaking for days and as our walking path quickly transforms into a shallow stream, we change from tramping to trudging to sloshing. Heads are down to keep the drips out and our eyes are scouring the forest floor in front for an ideal spot to plant each foot. Up ahead there is silence. I turn my camera to see Don at ground level with just his head above water. #expletives … I momentarily panic, trying to understand the enormity of the situation before rushing toward him. One simple step too far to the right of the walking trail hidden below water and he’s fallen into a deep hole with a 10kg pack strapped to his back. But, he’s now up and back on his feet. A moment passes and it seems that Don is all right and Adam can’t stop laughing but for Linda and I – we’re shocked at the thought of going under so easily.
We continue with care, stopping occasionally to appreciate just why it’s called a rainforest; and with good reason, since the region offers an unparalleled annual rainfall of 7 metres a year. As a result, landslips, rock fall regions, volatile alpine weather and detours are ever present. The landscape is eternally changing so there’s never a dull moment. We side along fern-coated embankments, hairy trees lined by ‘Old Mans Beard’, Hirere Falls, funky fungi, the Pompolona Ice Field and beautiful Beech woodlands. As scenes shift between forests and fields, our path too alters, from chocolate coloured mud to platforms hovering over rocky beds and swing bridges across foamy rapids. Ranging from a trickle to a torrent there is always one consistency; the sound of rushing streams close by.
Like a turtle shell, my pack is glued to my back and we now move as one. I only wish I could say the same of the lead weights on the bottom of my legs that continue to absorb their waterlogged surrounds. Unlike my boots, I feel safe in the knowledge that my backpack contents – food, clothing, toiletries, bedding and equipment for four days, will remain dry. After 5 hours on foot, with a warm fire and dry clothes beckoning, I’m looking forward to arriving at the Mintaro Hut for the night.
Simple dormitory rooms with bunk beds await, above a kitchen and dining area. Arriving before dark allows us sufficient time to unpack our sleeping bags and cook a hot meal before enjoying the company, games and conversations of some of the other hikers. A couple from Germany, a backpacker from Holland, a family with three kids from Queensland and our party of four sip hot drinks by the warmth of the fire. Before too long we are being sidled out as this valuable piece of real estate turns into a Laundromat. Everyone is vying for precious hanging space to dry out soaking socks and tops while the inners of hiking boots are disembowelled and displayed in a three-metre radius around the hearth.
It’s the middle of the night and I wake suddenly with my bed shaking. Unfortunately it isn’t the prowess of my lovemaking skills being tested; it’s an earthquake, 5.7 on the Richter scale. I stay in my sleeping bag, wide-eyed, giving thought to the snow-capped mountain towering above and hope that any slips, landslides or avalanches miss our humble hut below. Already, the heavy rains had resulted in a temporary cancellation of our walk and the track being closed yesterday. We waited at our first night accommodation, Clinton Hut for four hours for the waters to retreat before it was safe enough to continue.
This morning the sun in shining for the first time, the foggy curtain has lifted and the snow line fizzes and steams under its warmth, providing a startling contrast against the blue cloud-free sky. The rivers have receded and once again we are following in the footsteps of centuries of travellers before us. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, given our hiking profile today.
A long day of uphill tramping means that it’s time for some solo walking while others power ahead to reach MacKinnon Pass. It gives me the opportunity to travel at my own speed and absorb the surroundings of Lake Mintaro. Science tells us that the value of walking at your own pace is that cognitive performance (the brains working memory) required for reasoning and learning, improves. A hurried or slow pace, however, will not achieve the same memory boost. With any luck then, I decide, I’ll be more intelligent by the time I reach the top!
Everyone is smiling today and I’m sure it’s not just the improved brain connectivity, but thanks to the sunshine. There’s an obvious physiological response to being in nature, as hoods are off and suddenly the panorama appears bigger, the air is fresher, the colours are brighter and the wildlife, noisier. Delicate flowers emerge from the rock faces, sparrows dart through the undergrowth, rare Whio (blue ducks) float amid the reeds and even my pack seems lighter. Over the next few hours, every step I take and the deeper I go into the wilderness, the greater perspective I seem to gain. Clarity starts to solidify and moment-by-moment the insignificance of small-scale problems dissolves in the midst of nature’s creation.
So why do we find it so relaxing to be in nature? It’s proposed that the environment is innately part of who we are and where we come from. In human evolution terms, cars and concrete office towers have only been a part of the landscape for a very short period of time. So nature helps us by returning our spirit back to its innate setting.
Aside from the rain, the Milford Sound track, so far, has been a comfortable undulating hike and well sign posted. Just watch out for whiplash, given the stunning scenery at every head turn. At 120m above sea level, I now huff and puff my way toward the alpine pass at 1200m, wondering why I didn’t do any training beforehand. With a total of 64-avalanche areas enroute, this means that, in parts, there is no stopping to catch the breath or take in the views – just a small warning sign posted in the ground of ‘200 metres of danger ahead’.
One of the best ways to become more proficient at anything is by integrating both hemispheres of the brain through movement, so I bring myself back to every step on the trail and the mindfulness of my walk. Just like a pendulum, the tempo is providing me with a hypnotic beat that allows my conscious mind to switch off and live more acutely in the moment. This goes a little way to explaining why it’s easier to think if you’re doing something rhythmical and, where better than on this killer uphill hike to practice.
Wow. I’m at the top and it’s breathtaking – in more ways than one. There is not much more that can be painted into this 360-degree scene – mountains, valleys, rainforests, waterfalls, rivers, snow-capped peaks, wildlife, blue sky and happy faces. Literally, I am feeling on top of the world. A view and a moment that would not be lost on even the most seasoned veteran tramper. I feel so connected to everything yet at the same time, so remote and out of reach of modern civilization. Surrounded in rock formations shaped over millions of years, densely wooded Clinton Valley on one side and the forests and waterways of the Arthur Valley cutting through the other, in any moment a hoard of dinosaurs could rumble their way down the valley and the scene would not look out of place.
The region used to be plentiful with bird life and fish as the Maori regularly travelled through the Clinton Valley searching for greenstone to trade as well as in their seasonal search for food. While there is no monument or presence of Maori here today, the Quinton MacKinnon memorial, acknowledging the New Zealand explorer of Scottish decent is a perfect place to stop and refuel. For entertainment, the allusive ‘Kea’, the worlds only alpine parrot, endemic to the country and emblazoned as a logo on the side of most campervans has not only come out of hiding, but in its typical cheeky style is pilfering through walkers backpacks in search of food. A fellow tramper turns her head momentarily while her rain jacket; a plastic bag and some clothing are casually tossed aside by a Kea digging into her belongings.
Just then a distant beat cuts through the mountains’ silence and a helicopter comes into view. Emergency air lifting out of the Milford Sound track is possible, given the inaccessible nature of the place. We hope that someone hasn’t suffered an injury. Rounding the corner to the Pass we watch as the helicopter deposits its drop close by a shelter. It turns out that civilization is closer than you think, for the airlift today was to drop off lunch for a guided tour group – hamburgers and thick shakes. It is a comfort and security for some, seeking home luxuries and pre prepared meals, however, a tiny disappointment for independent hikers embarking on a wilderness experience. It’s moments like these where it becomes even more apparent that every persons ‘eco therapy’ lives at a different level.
We pass by the ‘loo with a view’ and commence our knee-breaking descent into the Arthur Valley. After two and a half hours (maybe three for me) of pushing my legs up the winding mountainside trail to the Pass, they are now deciding to wobble their way down the other side. We scramble beneath Mount Balloon and over Jervois Glacier and another avalanche zone littered with grey boulders – some as big as cars to find ourselves alongside the Roaring Burn River. Here, freakishly tall tree ferns mix with majestic waterfalls (including New Zealand’s highest, Sutherland Falls), steep steps, bridges and aquamarine streams. Despite the near-freezing degree temperature I find a quaint swimming hole close by Dumpling Hut and take a super-speedy dip in the glacial waters.
It’s the final day and once again I walk solo for a part of the route. Sadly the relaxed and leisurely pace I had planned for the remaining 18 kilometres will be replaced by Olympic walking speed in order to meet our earlier boat booking. With the promise of swarms of sand flies ahead, I slow down a little to enjoy my tramping backdrop.
There are many lessons that nature can teach us and watching the rivers diverge through the landscape offers me a reminder of how nature constantly shifts and moves in order to survive. I take this as a nice analogy of the need for flexibility, a cue to allow the space for growth. Just as a sapling radiates towards a space in the tree top canopy that offers light and air, so too can we be malleable and adapt towards our surrounds.
It’s the homestretch and I spend some time by the beautiful Mackay Falls shrouded in spray, hanging out with little Weka’s that scamper about my feet, crawling under the naturally formed rock ledge called ‘the bell’, having lunch with Linda not far from Lake Ida and swinging on the Giant Gate Falls bridge. Finally, the four of us meet up and we tramp our way into Sandfly Point, armed and ready for the little mites to eat away at our bare legs. Surprisingly, it’s all hype. There are no black swarms engulfing our every move, just a few ankle bites to take away as souvenirs today.
Importantly, we have completed our 55km (33.5 mile) hike and ultimately arrived at the stunning Piopiotahi (Milford Sound). Adam, Don and I dip our feet into the freezing waters as Anita Bay chugs its way into greet us. We jump on board and cruise out across the Sound, a part of the Te Wahupounamu World Heritage area where the iconic Mitre Peak launches out of mirrored waters and rises nearly 1700m into the air. Opposite, kayakers glide past as waterfalls spill from hanging gardens in the sky sending a fine mist our way.
The scene is a final reminder of our beautiful four-day walking experience, of being one within nature, raw and engulfed in all the elements. Feeling grounded through the energy of the earth, nature has shown us a fundamental way to reconnect and restore the spirit through eco-therapy. We bid goodbye to our ‘other world travels,’ to this piece of paradise providing cover for the secret world within and one that I will remember (and tell my nieces) as being, the earthly embodiment of a hidden hobbit heaven.
Beyond flexibility, what other life lessons did nature offer me as a part of my self-appointed, eco-therapy walk?
- Depth of beauty (or beauty of depth). Around every corner there is a wondrous scene overflowing with life and what might appear as simple on the surface, is filled with an intricate ecology, thousands of years in the making. Look deeply (at the beauty within ourselves and others) and just like nature, it reveals something more than skin deep.
- Timing. There is no better moment than here and now, but be conscious that there is a cycle, a season and time for everything. Be patient and don’t despair during frosty evenings, as warm sunny days are on there way; hold out over three days of rain and you will be rewarded with rainbows. Appreciate natures rhythmic cycle and that there is a right time in our lives for every event.
- Inner Peace. Even with the challenges facing our planet, nature shines. So too, is there peace already within us. Being in nature provides our minds with the space to let go, enjoy the freedom and find the kind of joy that is not attached to external things.
- Be Open. Flora blooms regardless of the appearance of its face or colour (and its waterlogged surrounds), just as we too can open and share our true nature and make the most of our personal attributes. In order to fully know and appreciate who we are – passions and fears, we need to allow ourselves to open up to our innate essence. Being open is also about being receptive to the potential life changing experiences that are available at every turn and the opportunities that present themselves.
- Survival. On a one-way walk, sometimes the only way to reach the end is over the mountain. Just as nature never gives up; commit to growth, expansion and persistence to overcome any challenges.
What life lessons has nature given you?
- Wear two pairs of socks to reduce blisters and minimise toenail loss
- Food should be high in fat for energy and low in weight. Dehydrated dinner packs are great – just add hot water.
- Tie your shoe-laces together (not while your walking) so the Kea don’t steal them (two is heavier than one for them to carry)
- Bring some waterproof gear. A pack liner is only $5.
- A head torch is handy when trying to find your way to your bunk bed in the dark
- Earplugs are a must against snorers
www.doc.govt.nz. No camping is allowed and seasonal hiking restrictions apply. Bookings are required and fill up quickly when the season opens. Only 40 independent hikers can travel on any given day, due to the number of hut beds available.
To get there. Transport and hut tickets can be booked together. Book a bus from Queenstown to Te Anau. A small bus can then be arranged from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs that meets the boat to take you across Lake Te Anau to commence the Milford Sound trek at Glade Wharf. Four days later meet a boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound followed by a bus from Milford Sound to Te Anau or straight to Queenstown.