- Day 21: THE BEST WEATHER DURING THE TRAMP
- Day 22: THE SKIES STARTED TO SHOW ITS ANGER
- Day 23: SOAKED THROUGH THE GORE-TEX
- Day 24: STILL SOGGY…
- Day 25: THAT’S A WICKED PHOTO…
Day 21: THE BEST WEATHER DURING THE TRAMP
Julie and I slept in at the Anchorage Motel in Te Anau knowing that the Milford Track tramp wasn’t going to commence until early in the afternoon. I was anxious about doing this so-called “finest walk in the world.” My main objective was to finally see Sutherland Falls – arguably the grandest waterfall in New Zealand. I was a little concerned about Julie since she hadn’t done a backpack since we did the Narrows two summers ago. Fortunately, this tramp was the more expensive guided one (hey, we were on a honeymoon anyways so we had to splurge here).
We checked out of the Anchorage Motel and loaded up the car.
It was 9am when we drove over to the Te Anau Hotel and Villas. There, they had an Ultimate Hikes (the concessioner for the Milford Track Guided Walk or MTGW) office, where we saw a safety video and got fitted for some equipment that was provided. Since they provided a gore-tex jacket, Julie talked me out of bringing ponchos to reduce the pack weight. We were also concerned about a break-in to the car since we’d be gone for nearly a week, but the folks here assured us that it had never happened. Even with that said, I still didn’t want to be their first victim…
We did lots of waiting around since we waited for the bus of trampers coming from Queenstown who finally showed up at noon. After a brief lunch with everyone participating in the tramp, we took the coach headed for Te Anau Downs at 1pm. The ferry that would boat us across Lake Te Anau to the Glade Wharf took off at 1:45pm and we made it to the Glade Wharf at 3pm.
The weather was nearly cloudless. Given the fickle and foul weather we’ve had during most of our stay on the South Island, this was unusual. So under these blue skies, the boat passed by a Quintin Mackinnon memorial as well as some blooming rimu trees. Other than that though, the boat ride was uneventful.
Once we all got our packs, it was time to get walking. The well-worn track between the Glade Wharf and the Glade House was barely half an hour away. I wished that we could’ve left earlier and went further down the track to take advantage of the beautiful weather. But anyways, we were on a tightly regulated track so we had to take what we were dealt.
The path was mostly shaded from the sun. Since there were a little over 40 trampers on the guided walk, it did feel a little crowded during this short stretch of track. At least the independent trampers left much earlier and went to the Clinton Hut another 2 miles further from the Glade House.
It was about 3:30pm when we arrived at the Glade House. The afternoon sun provided deep blue skies that contrasted with the snowy mountains around the Dore Pass behind us. We could see Mt Sentinel in the distance in the direction of the setting sun. We were also met with plenty of sandflies trying to find unsuspecting blood donors.
After we briefly got settled and put our packs in our assigned rooms, we went back outside to meet one of the guides for a short nature walk around the area. This nature walk was more or less an exhibition in bird watching and foliage identifying. It ended with a brief scramble over to a rocky creek bed where we sat by the cascading water as it made its way over to the Clinton River. It was quite relaxing, but it wasn’t anything special for a waterfall lover.
At 5:45pm, we returned to the Glade House for a shower. At 6:15pm, we had a nice hot dinner. After the dinner, the guides made everyone participate in some ice-breaker activities.
It started off with all the different nationalities grouped together and getting up in front of everyone to sing a song of their choice. Most chose a folk song or national anthem – such as Aussies singing “Waltzing Mathilda” and Japanese singing their national anthem. When it came time for the Americans to get up and sing, our collective self-conscious souls ended up singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It was a good call by one of the folks and certainly more appropriate than singing the “Star Spangled Banner” given some of the crappy foreign policy our corrupt officials engaged our country in.
At about 8pm, one of the guides gathered everyone for a slide show. He basically broke down what we could expect to see during our tramp tomorrow. It also contained the forecast as well as some interesting side hikes we could do along the way.
And when the slide show ended, it was 8:45pm and it was time to head to our rooms to sleep. Seeing how the sun faded and created gorgeous alpenglow colors, I tried to do my best Galen Rowell imitation by photographing it all – to no avail of course.
Day 22: THE SKIES STARTED TO SHOW ITS ANGER
When we awoke a little before 7am, the weather was still fine, but it was already overcast. It was quite a contrast to the gorgeous weather of yesterday. We got our belongings together and went for a breakfast. In addition to nice hot breakfast foods and the usual condiments to supplement sandwiches, there were also stations to make a packed sandwich for the upcoming hike.
During the breakfast, Julie and I were open-minded enough to try out some of the condiments that we weren’t used to. One of them was a jelly-looking spread called Veggemite. It looked pretty good and so we both gave it a try on a piece of bread…
…but the bitter faces we gave each other told us we weren’t going to try it again. Sometimes I wonder if Aussies and Kiwis have a good laugh seeing foreigners trying Veggemite for the first time 😉
At 7:30am, Julie and I started walking – being one of the first out the door. It wasn’t long before others followed along.
After initially crossing the green Clinton River over a long swing bridge, the well-defined track immediately entered lush rainforest always following the Clinton River. There was also a guide at the head of the pack (Cory in this case) pointing out things that might be of interest as well as keeping on eye on people in case any of them got into any trouble.
At 9:25am, we made it to a spur that was signed the Wetlands Walk. I recalled the sign said something like it would take a half hour or so, but the walk was no more than ten minutes long. Nonetheless, the boardwalk went into the bog where we had open expansive views of Mt Sentinel before us as we were surrounded by interesting vegetation.
Half an hour later, we took a fairly lengthy spur to the Clinton Hut. Here, we used their facilities for a little restroom break. It was already quiet as many of the folks that stayed here were already on their way to the Mintaro Hut, which was 2 miles further from the Pompolona Hut that we were going to stay at.
It wasn’t until 11:30am when the scenery started to change from dense forest to the open expansive U-shaped Clinton Valley. It was quite a scenic stretch of track that totally made you feel insignificant compared with the sheer magnitude of the valley walls and the towering ephemeral waterfalls tumbling among them.
During this open expansive stretch, I noticed heaps of dead gnarled trees amidst pools of standing water in a boggy marsh. The track bypassed around such obstacles, but I figured this was the Dead Lake that the guide was talking about during the slide show. Behind Dead Lake, I could see in the distance Hirere Falls plunging off a hanging valley while accompanied by a taller ephemeral waterfall.
Not long afterwards (12:30pm), we approached the Hirere Falls Lunch Shelter, where we got a chance to catch a break and eat some of the sandwiches we prepared during breakfast. Cory the head guide was already here making cold drinks to serve the guided walkers. In addition to sandflies, there were also keas – a green, alpine parrot – that looked cute, but man they were aggressive and annoying!
These critters weren’t shy about coming up to you and taking your food. I remembered back in Arthur’s Pass that there was a kea trying to rip the rubber lining off our windshield wipers! Anyways, we did our best to keep these dudes away from our food while enjoying the scenery of Hirere Falls tumbling behind the dense jungle sitting in between.
Then, we continued the tramp. About an hour or so later, we saw a spur that led to a part called Hidden Lake. It was an interesting “lake” fed by an ephemeral waterfall. The bare cliffs surrounding the area told me that it was definitely a landslide zone so I didn’t really want to linger here for too long.
The rest of the hike passed through more of the open valley passing through named areas called the Prairie and another Hidden-Lake-like feature as well. Way up ahead, we could see Mackinnon Pass. We even had to go across a rocky avalanche area just beyond a dilapidated building called the Bus Stop.
Finally at 2:30pm, we made it to the day’s destination – the Pompolona Lodge. After being shown our assigned rooms, Julie and I took this opportunity to shower.
Speaking of shower, the skies started to show its anger by opening up its load of water on the valley. What a contrast to the beautiful weather we had yesterday! It already wasn’t looking good for decent weather on Mackinnon Pass tomorrow. That meant clouds blocking the birds eye views I was so looking forward to.
There was plenty of time to kill this day so we did some handwashing of some dirty clothes while trying our best to ignore the sandflies. The sandfly bites I already received we very itchy and difficult to ignore. They were far worse than mosquito bites.
Following the dinner, the Japanese guide talked in his best english to the slide show. Unfortunately, the forecast for tomorrow said for more bad weather. To make matters worse, tomorrow was also the hardest day of tramping as we had to hike 9 miles with over 2000ft elevation gain to Mackinnon Pass. The collective groans from the audience pretty much indicated the mood.
When dinner was over, I took the time to take some photos of the plethora of waterfalls coming down the mountains surrounding the lodge. They came down like veins. Also despite the rain, the sandflies were still present. Don’t they ever go away?
I managed to see a group of employees shooting the breeze. I talked with one of them basically about the scenery and how the hike went so far.
Day 23: SOAKED THROUGH THE GORE-TEX
We awoke at 6am. Although it had rained all last night, the day actually had a promising start. Even though the cloud cover remained, there was at least some sliver of sun penetrating into the valley and painting some of the cliffs a sliver of orange and yellow.
Once again, we had hot breakfast and prepared our sandwiches. We didn’t come close to touching the veggemites this time. And like blokes on a mission, we were out the door by 7:20am.
Amidst the gradually brightening skies, we could still see plenty of waterfalls lining the valley walls. About 20 minutes into the hike, we saw the signed St Quintin Falls and its thin 115m three-tiered drop.
The rest of this morning stretch of the track was flat and pretty much the same scenery of dense foliage towered over by ephemeral waterfalls and steep cliffs. The rain started to come down again when we approached the Mintaro Hut at 8:30am. Julie took this opportunity for a break while I walked to the end of a helicopter landing pad (for emergencies only) that protruded right into Lake Mintaro.
Now, the track started to climb. At first, it went up a smaller slope with fewer switchbacks called the Practice Hill. But soon thereafter, the track went up at least 13 switchbacks on its way to Mackinnon Pass.
A few of the switchbacks were bypassed due to a previous landslide. It was a steep scramble up the landslide that was very reminiscent of the lava flow ascent to the Mangatepopo Saddle on the Tongariro Crossing.
After a brief interlude of rain, the sun started to penetrate through some of the waterlogged clouds – creating interesting god beams into the Clinton Valley. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as the weather worsened once again as we continued to make our ascent.
There was plenty of waterfalls sitting in a bowl-shaped depression at the head of the Clinton Valley called the Nicholas Cirque. It was intriguing to say the least, but I wondered how much better the view would be had the clouds not obscured the highest peaks.
So we huffed and puffed our way up the switchbacks in the already worsened weather. I has hoping against hope that we might still see both the Arthur and Clinton Valleys from above at the pass, but Mother Nature refused to cooperate.
Finally at 10am, we made it to the top of the switchbacks and could see the Mackinnon memorial up ahead. There was also some commotion past the memorial as Cory was handing out hot drinks amidst a large company of keas and trampers who had already made it up here.
The weather continued to act foul. The views were obscured so Arthur Valley was nothing but fog and Clinton Valley was draped in a haze of rain. My hands were numb from the icy rain and frigid cold. The opportunistic keas were all around us looking to steal food and didn’t seem to mind the weather.
I knew this region was one of the rainiest in the world and they sure weren’t kidding!
It seemed like forever to go from the Mackinnon memorial to the Pass Hut Shelter. Even the sight of the shelter sitting alone amidst a dense layer of menacing clouds was welcoming.
The Pass Hut Shelter had two rooms. One was for independents and the other was for MTGW. The independent trampers weren’t allowed inside the MTGW room. Needless to say we eagerly went into the MTGW room not even bothering to see what the independent room was like. While inside, the Japanese guide was serving hot drinks. Never before had I felt a warm hot cholocate drink and soup make its journey down my esophagus and into my stomach. It sure was the right beverage and food for the moment.
Other trampers were also recovering from the cold drenching of the morning hike. One even had to remove his wet clothing in search of a dry one as he was shivering uncontrollably.
And so Julie and I had a lunch and a brief respite from the hostile weather outside. But we were back into the elements at 11:20am.
Now the track started to descend along a steep and rocky track. Ahead of us, we could see heaps of waterfalls falling beneath the snow-covered mountains. The tops of the mountains up ahead couldn’t be seen due to the low clouds.
The rain continued to pour and we were passing by mostly independent trampers who seemed to have a miserable time.
Finally at 12:20pm, we crossed a bridge over the Roaring Burn and soon the track led to a wooden platform looking directly at one of the Anderson Cascades. It was the first permanent waterfall we had seen since St Quintin Falls earlier in the morning and was a welcome diversion.
Now, the trail descended down stairs with metal steps and wooden handrails. The metal steps were actually quite slippery. One of the independent trampers in front of me slipped and did a scary somersault tumble head over heels before landing with a thud on his pack at the bottom of the stairs. Not long afterwards, my feet slipped out from under me but fortunately I held on to the hand rails long enough to only fall on my butt.
While I was busy taking photos of the cascades, Julie went way ahead of me. As I tried not to take any bad spills on the slippery staircases, I managed to take more photos of some scenic cascades along the Roaring Burn. There was even one that looked like it had a waterwheel on it.
This scenic stretch of cascades ended when the track went across a very large avalanche zone traversed by a swing bridge. Beyond this, the track continued to descend rocky switchbacks. As the rain continued to pour, we could hear thunder rocking the skies above.
This was pretty wicked weather!
By now, I was so thoroughly soaked that it was almost as if the provided Gore-Tex jacket wasn’t there. Even my camera and accessories were getting wet through the camera bag. I sure wished I had kept my ponchos and made use of them because everything was soaked through the Gore-Tex.
Just after 1pm, the monotony of the wet tramp was broken by a sign that said Dudleigh Falls. This was a nice punchbowl-type waterfall that appeared to be part of the Roaring Burn. Not long afterwards, another sign said Lindsay Falls. Unfortunately, this waterfall could only be seen from the top and I wasn’t in the mood to scramble to find a better view of it at its base.
There was actually a drying room in this facility so Julie was already making use of it. I was still dying to do the 90-minute side hike to Sutherland Falls. Julie was exhausted from the strenuous day of hiking and did not want to do the additional walk. So I was on my own again…
As I left the Quintin Lodge at 1:50pm with just the camera and hiking sticks, I was greeted by a sign that broke down Sutherland Falls’ three tiers and their heights. They were cumulatively 580m, but apparently wasn’t the tallest if you count Browne Falls in the mix.
The historical Beech Hut was not far from the sign so I checked it out. At the time, I didn’t know its significance as the first tourist hut set up by Donald Sutherland himself. So, I basically didn’t spend much time here and continued back on the Sutherland Falls track to the falls itself.
The track was mostly uphill. Given the rain, I could see mini-streams of water rushing down the track. Finally by about 2:30pm, I could finally see Sutherland Falls before me.
The towering three-tiered waterfall dwarfed the French hikers before me. Fortunately, the clouds weren’t low enough to obscure even the top parts of this majestic waterfall.
As I got closer to the base of the falls, I could feel a very strong wind with mist blown in every direction. Looking back down the valley, I could see a nice contour of a classic steep-walled valley. Of course, the valley walls still had waterfalls on them.
After having my fill of this waterfall, I returned to the Quintin Lodge at about 3pm. I had heard one of the trampers actually went behind the base of the waterfall! I wasn’t sure how he was able to do it because it sure looked a bit dangerous when I was there.
And so I finally got my long awaited hot shower and eagerly put my clothes into the drying room. That drying room was packed with other peoples’ gear as well so I wasn’t sure how effective it would be. The room also wreaked of that foul odor you get when you have this much moisture combined with sweat, bug repellant, and, dare I say, fungus.
Once again, dinner was at 6pm and we had yet another hearty and lovely gourmet meal. The subsequent slide show was now presented by Suze, another one of the MTGW guides. So she broke down what we would see on the fourth day of the tramp and also broke the news that the forecast was for much of the same weather… Great…
Even though tomorrow’s day of tramping was mostly flat, it was also considerably longer – about 14 miles total. So it wasn’t like it was a walk in the park.
We slept at around 10pm. I didn’t recall nearly as many keas this time around so we certainly slept better than yesterday…
Day 24: STILL SOGGY…
We awoke again at around 6am and had our usual hot breakfast while packing sandwiches for the day’s tramping.
Like the forecast said, the weather remained soggy. Our clothes in the drier weren’t completely dry and the boots were still waterlogged. So we had to make do with what we had and grin and bear it the rest of the way…
We started the tramp at around 7:30am. Ten minutes later, we could look behind us and see Sutherland Falls’ upper two tiers in the distance amidst the mist and haze of the heavy rainfall. The low clouds obscured the uppermost sections.
I guess that was too bad because this was said to be one of the more scenic spots to view the famed Sutherland Falls. But with Mother Nature being as stubborn as she was on our time through the tramp (no pun intended), I guess we just had to keep on and not sit and wait hoping for the view to improve on this morning.
The track continued to descend before it started to flatten out and follow a boardwalk that skirted a cliff and kept us from having to slog through a very dense bog. This section was called the Gentle Annie.
Much of the morning hike was pretty much a mix of dense forests and narrow valleys cut through by the Arthur River. Although it was different from the wide open Clinton Valley, it was a bit monotonous especially given the relentless rain that soured just about everyone’s mood.
Even the odd waterfall here and there that we had seen along the way started to blend in with the rest of the wet and gray scenery all around us. Indeed, today was an exercise in perserverance both physically and mentally.
It wasn’t until 9:30am that we finally made it to the Boat Shed Shelter. Here, Cory was serving hot drinks. He even had to shoo away an independent tramper hoping for a drink. I guess that kind of testified to how miserable the tramping must have been for the independents.
Meanwhile, the sandflies were still buzzing around while the shed felt a little bit humid despite all the wet weather around us. We didn’t feel the need to linger here for long though the hot drinks hit the spot.
After this brief rest, Julie and I continued onwards. We crossed a long swing bridge over the Arthur River then entered a boardwalk area through a very dense jungle. I forget if this dense jungle had a name to it or not.
Not long afterwards, the boardwalk became stairs as it led to an overlook of the interestingly-shaped Mackay Falls.
The falls was split by a rock at its base giving it somewhat of a wishbone shape. Not far from the overlook was an odd rock called Bell Rock. You could go inside the “bell” so to speak as it could fit three people standing up. Neither Julie and I bothered with this though.
It was now 10:30am as we continued along the track.
Once again, it was mostly flat and soggy. The rain already soaked through the now-useless Gore-Tex jacket. The trail also had several muddy areas that were slippery and deep in some places. There was one moment when I was so preoccupied with my footing in the mud that my head whacked a low-lying branch from a tree.
Shaken but not stirred, I continued. Julie didn’t even notice my mishap.
There were also some tree avalanche obstacles where we had to scramble across fallen trees and exposed roots. These made for some interesting maneuvres to get through, but we persevered and trudged on in the rain.
Finally at 12:45pm, we made it to the Giant Gate Falls Lunch Shelter. Unlike the previous shelters, this was in the open air so you had to fight sandflies and keas.
The nearby swing bridge offered views of Giant Gate Falls. I wanted to get that familiar view I had seen during my research of the swing bridge before the scenic falls. However, that required a daring scramble into the swollen creek that fed the Arthur River downstream from the falls. I wasn’t in the mood to do that scramble so I passed on it.
The tramp continued along flatly through more dense forest as it skirted parts of Lake Ada. More ephemeral waterfalls tumbled alongside the track. However, even I had suffered from waterfall fatigue as I had already seen way too many.
Finally by 2:15pm, we made it the Sandfly Point Shelter! True to its name, there were heaps of sandflies in the area. Surprisingly however, most of them didn’t get too far inside the enclosed waiting area.
It was 3:10pm when the first wave of trampers could be transported from Sandfly Point back to the Milford Sound. The weather remained brutal, but that didn’t stop me from standing outside in the rain to take more photos. Even Bowen Falls looked majestic in its misty grey shroud.
This room had a large living area and a separate bedroom. The bathroom had a large bathtub that doubled as a spa. We wasted no time getting into the green waters of the spa. By the way, the waters in the lodging were green because they came straight from the fresh water of the area. They were fresh and didn’t look poisonous from what I could tell.
After unwinding and getting our drenched clothes into the drying room, we engaged in some small talk at the lobby at around 6pm and had a satisfying dinner at 7pm.
After the dinner, the guides gave out awards for finishing the tramp and also gave a short little presentation on the options for viewing the Milford Sound tomorrow.
It was 10pm when Julie and I retreated to our honeymoon suite and slept the night away…
Day 25: THAT’S A WICKED PHOTO…
I awoke at around 6am. Once again we were supposed to have an early breakfast at around 7am. I took this opportunity to shoot photos from the window of the honeymoon suite, which looked directly at the Milford Sound.
Speaking of views, the weather still looked menacing. I was a little discouraged by this because it might impact our viewing experience on the Milford Sound cruise today.
And so the trampers and guides bonded one last time over food as we had a hearty breakfast in the main dining area. Much of the conversations varied from our experiences on the tramp to reality shows and soaps like the Apprentice and the OC (which Suze finally learned it stood for Orange County and not the Original Crew) to even political discussions about Kiwis meeting Americans apologizing for what our government was doing in the Middle East.
Towards the end of breakfast, I started to notice the weather started to clear. As the morning light started to pierce the clouds and paint Mitre Peak in the distance, I grabbed my camera and bolted out of the dining area…
…I quickly ran past the empty car park then cautiously tried to make my way over the slippery boulders towards the calm shores of the Milford Sound.
It was Milford Sound with Mitre Peak and the Lion and Elephant reflected in the calm waters painted by morning light. I enthusiastically took several photographs in all sorts of exposures not at all concerned that sandflies took free shots at me.
When I returned to the Mitre Peak Lodge, I eagerly showed off my photo on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. Even Suze said, “That’s a wicked photo!”
By 8am, we checked out with our packed belongings. We stowed them away to be transported back to the Te Anau Hotel and Villas and we took with us only our camera gear. Then, we all headed out to the Milford Sound Wharf where our cruise vessel awaited us for our boat ride.
The vessel left at 8:45am and the weather continued to improve, which in turn improved our viewing experience. At last, the rain was finally letting up!
Now we could see Bowen Falls backed by snowy mountains behind it. This cruise was the only way to get a frontal view of the falls since the track to its base was closed.
As we got deeper into the sound, the iconic Mitre Peak loomed larger over us. Right across from the peak, we could see Stirling Falls fed by its watercourse spilling out of its hanging valley between the Lion Mountain and the Elephant.
When we went past Stirling Falls, we could see heaps of waterfalls coming down the slopes of Mitre Peak. Across the fiord, we could see Palisade Falls and its S-shaped flow. On the near side of the fiord, we could see Fairy Falls as well as Bridal Veil Falls.
The vessel would continue towards the Tasman Sea before turning around and heading back to the Milford Sound Wharf while skirting the northern side of fiord this time.
During this part of the trip, we saw some more penguins by the water as well as New Zealand fur seals resting on some rock outcrops. Those who had SLRs with telephoto lenses had a field day photographing them.
When we went past Palisade Falls, there was a school of dolphins quickly making their way around and past our vessel.
Next, the boat headed towards the base of Stirling Falls. We were forewarned that if you stood outside the boat, you’d get wet. Some brave souls, including the guide Cory, stood in the front of the boat where they got the full brunt of the falling water.
The boat then started to go away from Stirling Falls as it made its final leg back towards the wharf. It passed by the Harrison Cove, which provided an interesting photo subject of yet another valley, but it was also where the underwater observatory was located. We could’ve visited it if we had booked a trip that included it.
Soon after we got our last looks at Bowen Falls, the boat ride ended and we climbed into the waiting coach soon after. This cruise was like the icing on the cake, and after all the trouble and discomfort we went through along the Milford Track in bad weather, the Milford Sound revealed the haunting beauty that drew us here in the first place. Anyways, when we the bus took off, it was 11am.
So after five days and four nights in the Milford Track and our soggy sojourn, we left the Ultimate Hikes adventure with plenty of memories and photographs.
Finest walk in the world?
I’m not so sure about that. But it was certainly one of the most memorable!
And with that we loaded up our rental car, which wasn’t broken into thankfully, and headed south towards the Tower Lodge Motel in Invercargill…
The drive was a continuation of the long traverse south beyond the southernmost expanses of the Southern Alps and towards the Southern Ocean. We made a brief stop to see the turbulent ocean at a place called McCracken’s Rest, where we briefly stretched our legs and took photos at around 3pm.
Another hour later, we’d finally make it to Invercargill where we checked into the Tower Motor Lodge. The skies remained threatening but didn’t really deliver on any more significant rain. However, it was quite windy and that wind resulted in some biting wind chill.
Julie and I had a very delicious dinner (I recalled we had NZ mussels and scallops) somewhere in the main part of town not far from our motel. And after that fulfilling dinner, we quickly retreated to our motel where we cleaned up and snuggled close to each other as we were fighting off the very cold temperatures even inside our room!
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