I look around the room with disinterest. I’m not here to meet new people. I’m here for a girls’ week away, a catch up with friends; to have a break from daily routines, from worrying about who needs to be at what activity when and what to cook for dinner. And, by the by, I’m here to walk the Milford Track.
New Zealand’s most famous guided walk has been popular ever since Quinton McKinnon made a path across the pass from Lake Te Anau to Sutherland Falls 127 years ago. While I had certainly heard of it, I knew little about it. But to me the destination is incidental. I’m just here for the holiday.
To me a guided walk is the perfect mums’ retreat. There is enough exercise to give a sense of achievement; plenty of opportunity to either chat along the way or drop back for some rare solo time and best of all, every arrangement is taken care of. We are free to socialise and be concerned only about ourselves – a taste of what my teenage children experience every day. “Any dietary requirements?” The booking form had asked. “Gin and tonic?” was my friend Sheridan’s only request.
As we introduce ourselves it seems that most of our group of 50 (some of whom have come from the US, the UK and Japan) is here to tick the Milford Track off their bucket list. (Except, that is, for 74 year old Ian, who claims he is too young to have a bucket list). I wonder what can make this walk so special for it to claim to be ‘the finest walk in the world’. Of course it doesn’t take me long to find out.
I had expected waterfalls, rainforests and pretty mountain scenery. I hadn’t expected it to be so spectacularly beautiful.
We start by following the gentle tow path alongside the jade green Clinton River where delicate ferns hang overhead and micro moss forests line the track. This is pretty enough but by the afternoon the cloud burns away and the red beech tree canopy opens up to a spectacular glacial valley where towering waterfalls, dramatic granite cliffs and snow-capped peaks surround us. We cross streams with water so clear it is hard to tell it is there.
We spot a pair of rare Blue Ducks or Whea, and watch with delight newly hatched Paradise ducklings struggling against the current.
The zigzag path up to the pass is carpeted with alpine wildflowers and the panoramic views from the top renders even my group of friends speechless. My camera battery dies from over use but I feel relieved. I am free to just soak it in.
Along the way we learn of the rich history of the track and I am humbled by stories of the early expeditions: of intrepid women trekking for weeks in heavy woolen skirts, often hut bound for days due to blizzards and floods, surviving on pigeon stew and scones made from mutton fat candles.
By contrast at the end of each day we relax in the comfort of the lodges, sinking into deep couches with a drink while waiting for our three course dinner to be served. Although no gin and tonic, that wine at the end of the day is all the more enjoyable having earned it. As the mountains turn pink in the setting sun, we chat and laugh with our eclectic bunch of new friends.
Kevin, who suffered depression after the death of his wife and last year weighed 120 kilos, is celebrating his birthday having conquered ‘The Pass’ many stone lighter. Tatsunami, a 65 year old doctor from Japan, is here on his one week’s annual leave. He sees 1,000 patients a week and looks blank when we question him on retiring. He passes us at speed coming down the precipitous McKinnon Pass, zig-zagging the steep descent like an Olympic mogul skier. And Annette, always smiling, dresses entirely in mauve. “I used not to be able to wear purple,” she explains, “now it is the only colour that suits me”.
After five wonderful days, I return home refreshed. I have enjoyed my break from daily routines, my catch up with old friends and surprisingly have enjoyed meeting new people. More than anything, however, I have especially enjoyed walking the Milford Track.
Ultimate Hikes operates a 5 day/4 night guided walk ex Queenstown. The walk is 54kms and is open Nov – April. See www.ultimatehikes.co.nz Before and after the walk we stayed at Novotel Queenstown Lakeside. See www.novotel.com