Auckland, Queenstown, Milford Track, Queenstown, Routeburn Track, Lawrence, Invercargill, Dunedin,
Christchurch, Banks Peninsula Track, Abel Tasman Park
We tramped the
fantastic 33-mile Milford Track in
There are only two ways to do the Milford Track, one of two "controlled" walks in NZ (the other is the Routeburn Track.)
1. HIKE INDEPENDENTLY: In peak season (December, January, February), it's necessary to reserve months in advance because the number of hikers on the track at any one time is strictly limited, to avoid ruining both the trail and the wilderness experience. The independent hiking permit fee for the four-day, three-night period is under US$100 each. The fee reserves a bunk with mattress in each of three very basic but clean "huts." Everyone hikes the trail in the same direction - and is allowed to stay only one night in each of three huts along the way. The independent trekkers' huts are located a couple of miles down the trail from the guided walk huts, and have cold running water, flush toilets, small gas cooking stoves and tables with benches. There are no showers, carpets, curtains, food supplies, cooking utensils, refrigerators or guides. The huts' two co-ed bunkrooms hold 20 bunks each.
2. HIKE WITH A GROUP: We decided (Lou reluctantly, Joan happily) that walking 10 to 13 miles a day over a mountain pass, while carrying 20-pound packs of clothing, toiletries, lunch and water was ENOUGH at our stage of life. We didn't need to carry an additional 12-15 pounds of sleeping bags, food and cooking utensils - and then make all our own meals at the end of an active day. So we hiked the Milford Track in comparative luxury. The $800 per person fee included two bus trips to and from Queenstown, a ferry ride across Lake Te Anau and a two-hour boat ride in Milford Sound at the end of the track; four nights in huts/lodges, two guides with radio communication, bedding and towels, and all meals including good NZ wine. (The hearty meals added pounds to nearly all of us, despite our hiking six to eight hours each day!) At each of the huts we had laundry facilities, drying rooms, hot showers, carpets and only 4-6 bunks to a room. Unisex bathrooms were down the hall.
The Milford Track guided walk included 48 friendly, interesting people from Great Britain, France, Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. 48 people sounds like a huge crowd, but we found that we could walk along the trail at our own pace, spacing ourselves to be together or completely alone. As a woman, Joan seldom has felt comfortable on a wilderness trail when all by herself. But on this track, she didn't have to worry about crazy hunters with guns and there are no bears or snakes here. It was pure bliss for her to stride alone in a cool rain forest, up and down the trail and over swinging bridges - with nothing to listen for but bird sounds!
After walking alone all day, we had
lots of new-found friends to enjoy in the evenings. It was really ideal. Well,
we did make a hasty exit from one assigned bunkroom when we learned that John
was also going to be in it. John was a big-time snorer. However, we rushed from
the frying pan into the fire by bunking down with two German couples - all four
of them snored! One evening after dinner, Lou joined forces with Trevor ( (Amusing note: In
the middle of one night, Joan encountered the five Japanese hikers walking in a
line to the bathroom - all wearing headlamps!)
(Amusing note: In the middle of one night, Joan encountered the five Japanese hikers walking in a line to the bathroom - all wearing headlamps!)
The first night of the trek was
spent at Glade House (hut #1), a gracious old wilderness lodge about a mile
from Lake Te Anau. After a big breakfast, we shouldered our
backpacks (provided, along with rain parkas) and tramped across the nearby
At Pamplona (hut #2), we were greeted by several inquisitive keas. The large alpine parrots wanted desperately to get inside the bunkrooms, where they love to chew boots apart, destroy blankets and generally wreak havoc. We saw a number of less aggressive birds along the trail, including two blue ducks (rare), paradise ducks, tui, tomtits, gray-colored robins, wood pigeons, fantails, and warblers. Melodious bird song accompanied us along the way.
At Quentin (hut #3), we rested from hiking the misty zig-zag trail 9.5 miles up and down Mackinnon Pass, then took the three-mile round trip side trail to see Sutherland Falls - the world's fifth highest waterfall. We were among the few hikers over age 35 to wade across the slippery stream and BEHIND the thundering waterfall. (We figure we aren't old if we refuse to act our ages!)
The final day was a 13.5-mile downhill hike through lush rain forests; it rains about 300 inches a year on this side of the pass. A two-hour boat ride through Milford Sound the next day completed our trip. Milford is actually a fjord (carved by glacial action) rather than a sound (a flooded river valley). It's surrounded by steep granite mountains with waterfalls that plunge straight down to the sea. We saw several sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks along the edges of the sound. The mist-covered mountains, deep blue fjord and almost total silence were heavenly!
The famed Milford Track may be acclaimed as the "Finest Walk in the World" but we disagreed after trekking the nearby Routeburn Track. This hike is even better!
This time, we decided we could manage to trek on our own. A permit to hike the Routeburn Track, including reserved bunks for 2 nights, cost a total of $68 for the two of us - a LOT less expensive than the $1600 Milford Track four-night package! It was necessary to buy/rent/carry our own food, utensils and sleeping gear for this hike, but lightweight freeze-dried food and rental gear was available in Queenstown. We spent the night before the trek in the Queenstown YHA Hostel, stored our excess luggage there, and - from in front of the hostel - caught the Backpacker Express bus to the trailhead early the next morning.
The first morning's hike was on a gently rising trail through a dripping forest. We ate lunch on the banks of the Routeburn River (salmon from a can opened with a Swiss Army knife and slices of red onion on English muffins, plus apples, granola bar & trail mix). Joan hiked on ahead while Lou took time to cross the river to explore a nearby valley. Nearby picnickers asked him where he was from - knowing he wasn't from New Zealand when he sat down to take off his hiking boots. (Kiwi hikers are known for fording streams without removing them - and probably suffering from blisters afterward!) He kept his socks dry, but forgot to re-apply mosquito repellent and ended up with 30 bites on his legs and feet!
Recently-constructed Falls Hut is wonderfully perched on a steep mountainside, with spectacular views of the valley below. The two co-ed bunkrooms each sleep 18, though they were only half-occupied when we were there. The rustic kitchen has eight cooking stations: sinks, double-burner gas stovetops and cooking pots. For dinner we had (freeze-dried) beef & vegetable stew, carrot sticks and chocolate bars with Earl Grey tea.
After dinner, Lou talked with a fellow hiker:
Hi, I'm Lou from
I'm Matt from North Ireland.
Oh, Joan and I went to Ireland in 1993 and had a wonderful time.!
No, I'm from North Ireland.
Oh, Matt, how stupid of me. I do understand the distinction between Ireland and NORTH Ireland. I have read quite a bit about your religious and political history, and I apologize. When Joan and I were in NORTH Ireland, we enjoyed Antrium and the Giant's Causeway.
No, Lou, I'm down from NORTH IRELAND!
Well, it took awhile longer - and a lot of laughter - to sort out what was going on here. The bottom line is that this guy, in his heavy Kiwi accent, was saying that he was down from the North ISLAND of New Zealand!
That night was cold at Falls Hut, but we were cozy in our sleep sacks - wearing clothes topped by fleece vests, jackets, pants, gloves and hats. The dozen other hikers in our bunkroom were non-snorers, so we slept well. In the morning, we hiked through sub-alpine country - rocky cliffs surrounding a large open meadow of tufted green and gold grasses, crops of lichen-covered rocks and dozens of meandering streams, each adding its own notes in stereophonic concert. We were beginning to think that last week's Milford Track is only the second best walk in the world. From the top of Conical Hill, we enjoyed a 360-degree panorama of snow-patched mountains, the Hollyford River Valley and even - in the distance - the Tasman Sea. (Hikers coming toward us from the opposite direction had been caught in a half-day deluge and didn't see the spectacular views we did from the top of the trail.) From here the trail traversed the mountainside before dropping down through a moss-covered forest to McKenzie Hut, which sits alongside a small lake. We were bathed in sunshine, yet it was cool and crisp.
The traverse during mid-day was equally mind-blowing. We encountered dozens of rivulets and small waterfalls along our path. The waterfalls were what Lou called "designer" waterfalls - the kind that seemed to have been created by a film set designer. These plummet for awhile into a pool, then fall again into the next pool and so on. The small streams are bordered by fantastic, variegated rock gardens. The vegetation here is largely endemic to New Zealand. The mosses come in many shades of green, yellow, brown and even black and white. We had to kneel down to inspect the tiny "perching" plants. Otherworldly! The larger view along the traverse is also breathtaking . From the trail, cut into the side of a steep mountain, we peered down, down, down into the meandering Hollyford Valley a thousand meters below. This is all volcanic and glacial terrain; the streams of the river are braided, and some of the mountain peaks are nunateks - pointed peaks that remained above the level of scouring glacial action.
The descent to McKenzie Hut towards the end of the day began with an amazing vista of mountains, valley and one of the royal blue designer lakes tinged with electric green moss around the edges. Lou used the last three frames of his cardboard camera in an attempt to capture this panorama. (His brand-new Olympus had given up its electronic ghost at the top of the Milford Track a few days earlier, and he was so frustrated he nearly threw it off the ridge - doing a swan dive after it.)
The two-kilometer ending to a day of sensory overload was the absolute epitome of fantasy hiking. We have never experienced anything like it! The narrow greenstone path winds down through a gnarly, red and silver beech forest thickly draped in moss and lichen. Every boulder, every embankment, every trunk and bough is smothered in chartreuse green moss and perching plants. This primeval forest, sheltered by the canyon walls from snow avalanches and winter winds, has trees up to 700 years old. The dark grottos and the grotesque tree trunks and branches encrusted with layer upon layer of parasitic growth are simply eerie. The sun splashed dollops of orange light onto the forest floor and set fire to the lichen-covered treetops above. When Lou stumbled out of the forest and arrived at Lake Mackenzie Hut, his hair disheveled and his eyes glazed, he announced to the startled hikers lounging on the porch: "MILFORD SUCKS!"
BANKS PENINSULA TRACK
After tramping the famed 30-mile Milford Track and the less-famed 19-mile Routeburn Track, we crossed South Island from Fjordland to walk the 21-mile Banks Peninsula Track. Located near the city of Christchurch, Banks Peninsula (BP) is shaped like a tortured piece of jigsaw puzzle. Millions of years ago two volcanoes erupted to create the peninsula; the resulting lava flows formed its many indented bays. Around 1985 ten BP farm families decided to augment their sketchy income by "farming" tourists as well as sheep. They created New Zealand's first private hiking trail, using old farmhouses along the way as stopovers for the trampers. We were bussed from the little town of Akaroa to the first hut, the only one built just for the track. A total of 12 people hike each segment of the four-day track at one time, while four other trampers (two-day hikers who have to move twice as rapidly along the trail) breeze past.
The first hut was a wooden lodge on a grassy knoll that was being rapidly processed by hungry sheep. At sunset, we sipped wine on the long veranda - facing a silvery bay cradled by green hills. Eight of the 12 hikers were Kiwi (New Zealander) women friends, who had a raucous good time the whole trip.
The others were a young man from South Carolina and his Japanese-American girlfriend. They'd met at college in her native Oregon. These friendly twenty-something "kids" roomed with us in four-bunk rooms along the track. The first hut was the only one without a flush toilet. It was exciting to get up at 2 a.m., grab a torch (flashlight), stumble down the loft's steep stairs, head out across the grass into the darkness, open the gate without touching the electrified fence (yikes!) and slip-slide down the wet grassy slope fifty yards to the outhouse, past pale sheep glimmering in the darkness - then reverse the procedure!
Morning, unfortunately, dawned very wet and windy. Facing a six-mile tramp across exposed headlands, everyone left early. We opted to wait until late morning to start - hoping the weather would change. Bad idea. The weather changed, all right. It got worse. A LOT WORSE. We were blown and thrown over the hills, rain in our faces, our Goretex clothes and boots valiantly keeping us semi-dry for the first three hours before the boots gave up and went soggy. At one point, bent nearly double in the gale, stepping repeatedly in piles of diarrhetic sheep shit, we began giggling at our plight. We laughed ourselves into semi-hysteria - two goofy retired folks, unable to act our ages and watch television from a reclining chair! At one point, the forest stream turned into a raging torrent and washed out the trail. We had to backtrack up the ravine to the farm road, adding two miles to our day. Finally, we stumbled into the second hut - a 130-year-old farmhouse on the shores of Flea Bay.
The farmhouse was crowded - not only with the other ten trampers, but also (in their underwear) the four drenched two-day hikers, who had yet to move on to their next hut. The living room was strung with lines that held bras of all sizes, smelly wet wool socks and lots of fleece, thermals and outer gear. Boots were piled near the fireplace and trampers with steaming mugs of tea were sprawled over the sofas. They were just then considering whether to send a search party for us, so they were glad when we hove - raingear flapping - into sight.
The next morning was overcast but mild. This time we left early, and had a wonderful hike across the headlands and along forested gullies - arriving at Stony Bay a couple of hours before the others. For all of us, this place was the highlight of the BP Track. The farmers in charge of this "hut" must be reincarnated 60's hippies from California.
Everything was handmade-rustic, down to the hand-carved toilet seats. Bits of metal gingerbread adorned each of several small wooden huts. We had an elfish experience in a wee hut for two near the gurgling stream. It was just large enough for two bunks, two chairs, a tiny sink and a two-burner gas stove. The entrance was through a tree and the little windows looked out at hollyhocks. The shower was in another small hut, also built into a hollow tree. It had ferns growing around the shower and large openings for peering up at the sky while lathering. In a nearby enclosed garden there was a claw-footed porcelain tub, wood-fired from underneath. The two of us stripped and climbed in together - sitting on a wooden plank on the floor of the tub so we wouldn't burn our bottoms.
The hut complex has a small shed filled with fresh farm produce & eggs, excellent NZ wine, steaks and other food. It was set up as serve-yourself, leave your money in a box. We barbecued steaks and fried up zucchini and onions and could have stayed a week! The next day, the two of us loitered until the last minute - getting out just before the next group of trampers arrived.
This day's hike took us along a spectacular coastline, where we could watch seals as well as sheep. (Joan is shown here wearing her beloved Eagle Creek backpack, with its rain cover on, Lou's pack at her feet.) The Long Bay hut is a white clapboard farmhouse set into an old-fashioned garden of roses, hollyhocks and honeysuckle. It faces a sweeping, sandy bay where swimming is safe, but cold. Lou gathered a red pail of mussels from the rocky edges of the bay and steamed them for dinner; we washed them down with chilled white wine, adding peas and freeze-dried pasta to the menu. That night we left the windows open and were rocked to sleep by the sound of waves crashing against the shore.
The last day we followed the trail up to an 1800-foot ridge, then descended back down to the town of Akaroa. The farmers trucked out our backpacks (containing sleeping bags, clothing, toiletries and leftover food - about 20 pounds each) for less than two dollars apiece. Great deal! Carrying only lunch, water and raingear, we hiked to Akaroa in under four hours. Fantail birds flitted about our heads through much of the forest, spreading their white tails flirtatiously to draw us away from their nests. We walked past ferns and waterfalls, over fence stiles, past sheep, along pasture trails and finally down through a eucalyptus grove to town and our rental car. It was a very enjoyable "soft adventure." Although pretty miserable at the time, in retrospect even the wet first day was fun!
After three great tramps on some of New Zealand's best tracks, we took off our hiking boots and put on our waterproof sandals for a kayak/camping trip in Abel Tasman National Park. The park is on the north shore of New Zealand's South Island and has a spectacular, island-dotted coastline. For our two-night, three-day trip, we bought camp food in Nelson and drove an hour to Marahau, where we rented two single kayaks. We also rented a tent, one-burner cooker, waterproof camera box and sleeping mats, and purchased canisters of cooking fuel. We had a one-hour orientation on tides, weather and safety rules, then the instructor checked our kayaking skills and sent us on our way. Well, it was quite a day. After an hour of paddling, we arrived at Fisherman's Island where we had a picnic lunch with some seabirds, then got ready to shove off again (below).
We cruised around the back of Adele Island, then headed for the Bark Bay campground, about 12 miles up the coast from our launch site. Somehow, we paddled right past the first night's campground, landing at our second night's destination in Onatahuti Bay - about 18 miles from where we started!
Arriving with heavy arms, we dragged our kayaks and weary bodies up onto the sand and staggered them into the campground, stripped them of our wet & salty clothing, rinsed with cold water and put on dry clothes. We set up the tent, fired up the stove and had dinner: freeze-dried macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks, NZ red wine, apples and dark chocolate. Camp meals were tasty but simple. There's not much room for food in the kayaks once they're loaded with several big bottles of water, all of our camping gear and personal items. After dinner, an Israeli couple camped nearby called excitedly to us "Come see the moon!" We dashed to the beach, to see the full moon rise through mounds of strawberry ice cream clouds and shine over the lavender bay. This is the stuff dreams are made of...
The next morning we packed up and paddled two miles out to Tonga Island. It's illegal to land here as it's a marine preserve. Get within 10 meters of it and the minimum fine is $1000, plus a year in jail! We could see why it's protected. This island is a maternity ward literally littered with fur seals and their pups. We spent about an hour sitting quietly offshore in our kayaks watching the pups nurse. One mother grew restless (she'd probably spent weeks on that one rock) and finally slid into the water. The pup went ballistic - lurching from side to side on the rock and piteously barking "MAMA!" Finally, he got up the courage to take the plunge and we witnessed a delightful swimming lesson. A nearby mother was guarding two slightly older pups playing in a pool below her rock. Suddenly, her red tongue started working in and out of her mouth, she rose up and made a heaving motion. With a great belch, she spit an eight-inch fish down to her pups!
From Tonga Island we paddled back along the coastline to Bark Bay, to a campground set alongside a tidal lagoon and amidst trees with twisted trunks like those in paintings by Cezanne and Derain. We picked our way across the lagoon on sandbars to Bark Bay Hut, reserved for trampers on the Abel Tasman Track. The hut's outdoor shower is set in a forest of 20-foot tree ferns. No one was around to stop its use by mere campers, so we stripped and turned on the water. It was a delicious experience to bathe naked in the forest, but we had to put on insect repellent quickly after showering. Then we headed back to our campsite and kicked back for an afternoon of reading around the fire. (Note our kayaks behind Lou - hung high and dry above the tide.)
After a dinner of freeze-dried mushroom pasta enhanced with a can of smoked salmon, we went down to the beach to see another of nature's spectacles. The full moon rose low on the horizon through horizontal cloud strata, as if it were a huge, ringed Saturn close to earth. We fell asleep to the sound of lapping waves as the rising tide pushed into the lagoon. Around midnight, Lou climbed out of the tent to go to the outhouse and inadvertently startled a possum - who scampered up a tree and turned to peer down at him. Breakfast was a bowl of muesli (oats, nuts, dried fruit) moistened with "tinned" apricots, along with surprisingly good Italian espresso coffee in coffee bags. We broke camp early to catch a high tide that enabled us to paddle up Fall River as well as into Frenchman's Lagoon. Food was running low by now, and our picnic lunch was a meager handful of gorp (trail mix), two oranges and a hunk of dark chocolate. We headed back to Marahau under a threatening sky.
THE MAD MILE
At this point things got dicey. We'd been warned to watch out for the "Mad Mile" - an area of whitecaps and swells just off a rocky point where there's no place to land in an emergency. As we neared it, the wind and whitecaps were rising, the current was strong, the sky looked stormy, the kayaks were tippy and we were miles from help. The bay just before this point was the last place we could catch a water taxi to ferry us and our kayaks back to Marahau. Joan began to talk about bailing out of the adventure. Lou - as usual - wanted to go for it. Since we were in single kayaks and couldn't help each other very much in an emergency, we decided that we'd go for it only if Joan felt she could make it. Much dithering. Finally, she said "Let's go!"
After three hours of arduous paddling through roller coaster swells and whitecaps, we made it back to Marahau just as the tide was running out. We paddled furiously to shore in five inches of water, barely avoiding having to drag our kayaks for 500 meters across the mudflats. After juice and hot showers at the kayak base, we headed back to Nelson, splurged on a crayfish dinner and fell into bed, exhausted. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
After we recovered, we flew to AUSTRALIA
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOKS: New Zealand ; Tramping in New Zealand (both by Lonely Planet)
BACKGROUND READING: The Bone People, Keri Hulme (won the Booker Prize)
FILMS: The Piano; Once Were Warriors; Whale Rider
MILFORD TRACK GUIDED WALK:
$800 per person, including all transportation, food and lodging for four
nights, five days.
MILFORD TRACK INDEPENDENT WALK: www.i-needtoknow.com/milford/ also: www.doc.govt.nz/Explore/002~Tracks-and-Walks/Great-Walks/Milford-Track/index.asp
TE ANAU: Te Anau Backpackers, $19/double, including bath; gear storage, cooking facilities. Ph: 249-7713.
QUEENSTOWN: Bumbles Hostel, $16/double, including bath. Ph: 442-6298. Also, Wakatipu Lodge (YHA Hostel), $22/double, bath down hall. We had a lake view from our room, stored luggage here while trekking. Ph: 442-8413
BANKS PENINSULA TRACK: $140 per person, includes four nights of hut accommodations; booking ahead essential: Ph: 03-304-7612; Fax: 03-304-7738 www.bankstrack.co.nz/
NELSON: Club Nelson, 18 Mount St. - a hostel in rambling old mansion on hill, $22/double, bath down the hall; cooking facilities. Ph: 548-3466.
MARAHAU: Abel Tasman Kayaks - kayak rental $135 per person for a 2-night, 3-day trip. Camping equipment adds a bit more. (Guided 2-night camping trips using double kayaks are available for about $295 per person; camping gear provided but bring your own food.) Ph: (800) 527-8022 www.kayaktours.co.nz
SAND FLIES: The scourge of New Zealand, they're almost invisible and their bites don't itch until a day or two later. Then they itch like fury for five or six days; if you scratch them, they itch worse. Because of a tiny bite between two fingers, Joan was ready to cut off her left hand in the middle of one sleepless night! A year later we discovered full-spectrum insect repellent - which protects against both sand flies and mosquitoes. It's available at www.rei.com or www.chinookmed.com
Joan and Lou Rose firstname.lastname@example.org