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The finest walk in the world

Posted May 6, 2009

The highlight of my New Zealand vacation was hiking the 33.5-mile Milford Track in Fiordland, which has been widely dubbed “the finest walk in the world.”

I went there to find new musical inspiration from the region’s stunning landscapes – Fiordland is a glorious mix of mountains, rivers, waterfalls and rain forests. It is ruggedly beautiful and remote. (View an audio slideshow of Bill's New Zealand journey.)

My wife, Cindy, and I decided to visit the region with a team of experts, so we hooked up with Ultimate Hikes, an excursion company out of Queenstown that took us on a five-day/four-night trek.

The first day was easy. We relaxed during a three-hour bus ride from Queenstown to Te Anau and boarded a ferry that transported us across a huge lake to the trailhead. It’s the only way to get here.

A half-hour hike led us to our first night’s lodging at the Glade House.

Guides Travis, Imelda, Kelly and Greg greeted us with afternoon tea and took us on a short nature walk.

We learned about Fiordland’s abundance of birds and lack of ferocious creatures. You won’t find a single snake here. No venomous insects – that's hard to believe for a rain forest.

There are sand flies, and they like to bite. There are pesky parrots called Keas, and they can wreak havoc on hikers’ unattended backpacks and boots.

Speaking of packs – we were warned to travel light. Of course, we didn’t listen and paid the price with an aching back the next three days.

Day 2 covered 10 miles of fairly flat terrain. We crossed swinging bridges, colorful bogs and coves cut by the Clinton River.

We walked in a valley of towering mountains. It reminded me a lot of Yosemite in California with a little Olympic National Park rain forest from Washington state.

We traveled with a group of 40 hikers – most of whom were from Australia. They had big personalities, charming dialects and a robust optimism. The age range was 10 to 72 years.

The toughest test came the next morning. We left our second hut in the rain and arrived at our third destination in a classic Fiordland downpour.

Ten miles of hiking is no big deal, unless you do it up and down a steep mountain on a zigzag trail that resembles a rocky stream more than a footpath. Cindy called it one of the most challenging days of her life.

There were moments of sweet relief. Imelda greeted us in the wind and cold rain at Mackinnon Pass with a cup of chicken soup. Plus, with all of the fresh rain, the mountains were spewing the most spectacular waterfalls I have ever seen.

I wanted so badly to capture those images on my cameras, but it was way too wet. After a quick lunch in a primitive shelter, we made a teeth-chattering descent down the mountains, giving thanks every step of the way for the sturdy hiking poles we picked up in Queenstown.

The trail seemed to get rougher by the minute. At one bend, Cindy took a tumble, twisting her ankle and bruising her knee. She needed help getting up because of her heavy backpack. She persevered and hobbled on down to our next overnight hut at Quintin Lodge.

Ibuprofen broke the throbbing pain.

We emptied our boots of water and put them out to dry. We made the mistake of not wearing gaiters to keep rain out of our boots. Each overnight hut along Milford Track has a drying room because of all of the rain.

We gathered for a nice steak dinner, traded stories of the torturous march and visions of the world’s fifth highest waterfall.

We blessed the parting clouds that evening and went to bed. It’s always lights-out at 10 p.m., because that’s when crews turn off the generator. Lights come back on at 6:15 a.m. the next day. Hot showers are available by 6:30 a.m.

Food supplies for huts along Milford Track are shipped in weekly by helicopter and barge. Everyone sleeps soundly on Milford Track. You’re too exhausted to do anything else.

Day 4 dawned bright and beautiful, but we were warned not to get too giddy. We still had 13.5 miles to go with 10 of those miles coming before our lunch break.

With boots still wet from the deluge, we plodded on in the pleasant morning sun, listening to the whimsical songs of bellbirds and bush robins. By the way, I took a high-end digital pocket recorder with me and captured sounds, which I plan to use in my musical tribute to Fiordland.

As we approached the lunch stop, the trail gods threw one more challenge our way. The trail turned grotesquely jagged and treacherous.

As one guide told us: “Milford Track is definitely not wheelchair-friendly.”

We soldiered on, only to find our lunch spot swarming with sand flies.

We improvised and carved out a picnic spot near a waterfall. But the wind was whipping and sprayed us with a menacing mist.

Option 3 was a soggy spot up the trail. Using our rain jackets as a blanket, we settled down for a coveted sandwich break.

Guides have a saying along Milford Track when it comes to sandwich preparation: “Don’t be shy. Pile it high.” Ham. Cheese. Lettuce. Tomatoes. Pickles. The only thing this North Carolina boy didn’t have on his sandwich was good ole Duke’s Mayonnaise. I had to settle on dijon mustard.

The last leg of Milford Track was made easier by one of the guides.

I grilled Travis like I was interviewing a newsmaker. He told me he would turn around the next day and take another fresh group of hikers on the same trail – Travis called it “just another lap.”

He skipped along the rocky an uneven trail, barely looking down. He knows almost every stone and stream out there. One of his colleagues has circled Milford Track 58 times through every possible weather.

At the end of the 33.5-mile trail, we were greeted by a gregarious boat captain who took us on a sweet trip to the tiny village of Milford.

As we cruised the waters, Mitre Peak, just ahead, seemed to glow in an ethereal light. My new Canon camera captured some of the magic. I will have to remember the rest.

The mountain was radiant in the late afternoon sunlight. It was truly one of those “mountain experiences.”

The view from our room at Mitre Peak Lodge was most spectacular. We reveled in the silent beauty as the sun sank into the rocks and water.

The next morning, we took a 90-minute cruise of Milford Sound, which has been called “the eighth wonder of the world.”

It was a fitting end to an exhausting, yet exhilarating journey. We watched as the dolphins danced, the seals frolicked and the waterfalls cascaded into the deep fiord jutting out into the Tasman Sea.

What an honor to be in the middle of something so incredibly beautiful!

My only complaint about the trip was time. I wanted more of it to stop and savor the scenery. We had to keep moving for the most part. We packed a lot in. It was indeed a grand adventure.

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  • dgodfrey2 May 7, 2009

    Bill, I have visited New Zealand, Both Island and loved the time I spent there. We had 30 some square Dancer from North Carolina with us. Everyone wanted to stay up late and see the southern Cross I hope you got a chance to view it. Enjoy
    Wayne

  • WolfPackChaser May 7, 2009

    I would say my favorite place would be Cape Reinga, the most north point of the North Island. This is where the Pacific meets the Tasman Sea. It is breathless. Take the Ninety mile drive up the beach (by bus!), no civilization, electricity, etc. Just the beauty of nature. I think that is what I loved so much about New Zealand was it's natural beauty.

  • Kathleen May 6, 2009

    That sounds like a fantastic hike; thanks for sharing. This hike just made it onto my bucket list....

  • bleslie May 6, 2009

    Hi JustBreathe - I'd love to go back. I want to hike the Routeburn Track among many other things. Plus, there's the whole North Island to do. Thanks for your comments. What was your favorite spot?

  • JustBreathe May 6, 2009

    Hi Bill,
    What a great adventure. I always like to hear from others that have been to that beautiful country...takes me back to 2006, and 2007 when my husband and I traveled there. We went to the North Island in 2006 and the South in 2007. Time is always the element of discontent on our trips. We spent 3 weeks on the South Island seeing the same sites that you and your wife took in, and we could have stayed much, much longer. New Zealand is truly one of God's Paradises. Don't you want to go back now? I sit from time to time and dream of the adventures and sight. Truly a camera can not capture the awe of that beautiful place.