Milford Mecca

Diane was stopped along the trail, helping one of the kids, when I passed. “Is this the way to Mecca?” I asked. She got the joke. We were in a long line of pilgrims on a nature-lover’s haj, New Zealand’s iconic Milford Track. It was the first full day of hiking, after a three-mile stroll the day before. We had started in Te Anau, where a bus picked us up and took us to Te Anau Downs, little more than a dock on Lake Te Anau, the South Island’s biggest lake. From there it was an hour-long boat ride up to the top of the lake.

It’s a bit like the entry into Disney World in Florida. The mystique is increased by the series of steps you have to take before you get to Cinderella’s Castle: First you park your car, then ride in a little train, then take a boat across a man-made lake.

In this case, the lake and the attraction are both natural, which is heartening. All these people hiking farther and working harder than they ever have in their lives, not for a kitschy childhood fantasy, but for the real McCoy – glacial valleys and gin-clear rivers, sheer cliffs of rock solid Earth.

On each of the four segments of the trail are about 100 people – 40 “freedom walkers” or “independent trampers,” who pay about $200 apiece to cook their own meals and sleep in sleeping bags in a series of bunkhouse-like huts, and the rest guided walkers, who pay up to $2000 for four-days of hiking, with catered meals, private rooms, and linens on the beds. That means there are 400 or so people hiking somewhere on the Milford Track on any given day during the peak season from October through April.

During our hike it was mostly Japanese people on the guided walk, with a few Brits and Americans. At times, we seemed stuck to a pair or a few pairs or foursomes for the better part of a day. We’d stop for a picture and they’d squeeze by us on the trail, nodding with serious expressions. Five minutes later, they’d stop and we’d squeeze by, with our big American smiles and “Excuse me!” and “Thank you!” We’d leapfrog like that for hours at a time.

There’s a kind of a class system on the trail, and Diane and I found ourselves feeling superior to the guided walkers and resenting them for using our hut’s restrooms. Our huts were about an hour down the trail from theirs, so every morning, when we were finally getting on the road, the early risers from the guided walker huts would start lining up outside our bathrooms, just when we wanted the kids to use them one last time – preventing trailside emergencies. “Easy for them to get up early,” we’d think, “with someone to make their breakfast, and hardly anything to carry.” Many of them had packs as big as ours, and we wondered what they could possibly be carrying. Four entire sets of clothes, perhaps? Evening wear? Bags of cash?

At our plebian huts, we encountered a mixture of Americans, Germans, Israelis, Aussies and Kiwis, with a couple Swedes thrown in. They say you’re more likely to meet New Zealanders on the Milford Track than on some of the other Great Walks, because it’s a kind of rite of passage for Kiwis.

Part of the fun of the Milford Track was getting to know all these interesting people. The first guy we met happened to be from Minnesota. He was a typical ultra-nice young Minnesotan, a Norwegian social worker who was always happy and friendly. We also met a sweet young couple from Ashville, North Carolina. We didn’t get to know the Israelis very well, but the kids worked on a puzzle with some of them at the first hut, and I had a long enough conversation with one guy to learn that he’d lived in the U.S. and Canada, where he studied computer science at the University of Toronto.

The most impressive were three Aussies – a guy aged 71 and two women age 65 and 61. They had met up with three other Aussie women in their fifties. We also chatted with three Kiwi women with two teenage boys, who were interested in our experience of their country. Everyone gave us lots of praise for bringing our kids to New Zealand, and to the Milford Track.

Fun as the evenings were, the days on the trail were the highlight. The first full day took us through the Clinton River valley, a huge U-shaped glacial valley with towering cliffs on each side and a mixture of forests and shrubs. We took a break at the river, where Leif jumped in, and another at a little pond called Prairie Lake, where two waterfalls tumbled off the cliff.

That night at the hut, Leif and I walked to Lake Mintaro and took a very quick dip. The water was barely above freezing. We could see the waterfalls feeding the lake from the glaciers and snowfields on the mountaintops. After I got out I realized I had lost my glasses. In the panic of cold I must’ve tossed my head out of the water so fast I threw them off.

I told Leif I’d give him a dollar if he went back in and found them. He tried, but couldn’t see them, so I went back out and saw them lying on the bottom. Leif wanted the dollar, so he went back under and grabbed them.

The next day was the highlight of the trip. Straight out of the hut, the trail started switching back and climbing steeply toward McKinnon Pass, named for the first Milford Track guide, Quintin McKinnon, who discovered the route in the late 1800s and took the first parties across. There’s a monument to McKinnon on top of the pass, where a kea tried to steal food and colorful objects from trampers.

Leif and I made it up first and waited for Diane and Cedar. The day was crystal clear without a single cloud, so we could see back down the Clinton valley and forward down the Arthur valley, which we would follow to Milford Sound. The trail followed the ridge to a small hut, beside which stands the toilet with the best view in the world. We had a cup of Milo and a snack before heading on the long, steep hike down.

Leif ran on ahead while I tried to keep up. I practiced my German with a guy named Jurgen. By the time we made the bottom, my feet were aching, as they always do on the long downhills in this country. Diane and Cedar caught up soon, and we took a side trip to Sutherland Falls, the highest in New Zealand and fifth highest in the world, at half a kilometer or so. Then it was an hour to the hut, where Leif and I took another arctic plunge in the Arthur River.

The next day was the longest in terms of miles at 11 1/2, but supposedly only a six-hour hike. We were the last ones to leave the hut and just made it – along with the Aussie seniors – by our three o’clock meeting with the ferry that would take us across Milford Sound to meet our bus. We had another perfect day, with a great view of Mitre Peak.

We were happy to see that we were sharing the bus with a bunch of the folks we’d shared the cabin with – the two North Carolinians, the Minnesotan, and the five Israelis. Back in Te Anau, we said our goodbyes, ordered a good meal, and made our way back home to Tuatapere.

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