Custom bus, Queenstown to Lake Te Anau
So, onward to conquer the Milford Track…or, maybe not. First though, a confession. I’ve hiked backcountry all over the planet for over 30 years. Everywhere from Alaska to the Andes. Slept in a lot of rainy, muddy places and ate marginal food while swatting flies. Loved almost every minute of it too. But now in my mid-fifties, for once I have more $$ than time and knee cartilage. I now say if someone offers you a dry bed, hot shower and a grilled lambchop in the absolute wilderness, just say ” Thank you sir, may I have another…?”
The Milford is considered one of the most beautiful multi-day hikes in the world. As you’ll see, the way it’s laid out builds the excitement gradually, culminating in a challenging 1000 ft ridge hike and then a long slog out. It covers around 35 miles, with most of the hiking occurring over three 10-13 mile days. The Fiordland region of SW New Zealand is a vast temperate rain forest, and World Heritage area. It’s so remote that the Tekahe, a large, blue, flightless bird (pictured below) was recently rediscovered in the forested mountains, after being considered extinct
for over fifty years!
A model of a Tekahe, thought extinct for years
First evening misty mountains from Glade House

Glade House lounge and dining room

The Milford is really popular, but still remote. You have to drive 3 1/2 hours south from Queenstown, and take a ferry down Lake Te Anau for 1 1/2 hrs just to get to the trailhead. There are public cabins, but permits need to be booked a year in advance, as weather closes the track for 6 months every year. Ultimate Hikes is the only private company on the track. For a very fair price they arrange all permits and transpo, provide private bunkrooms with hot showers and real beds, and provide all food for four nights and five days. For me, a first-timer to NZ, it was the way to go. PS: you still have to put in the hard miles, though with a lighter pack.

Glade House Museum

Steve leading the post dinner orientation

Local NZ Venison Stew…Yum….!

A really great feature were the friendly, knowledgeable guides. Every evening held an informative talk on the day’s events, local history, flora/fauna and a preview of the next morning’s challenges.

Lead guide Steve heading out on Day ##2

Clinton River at Glade House

I seem to have lost my photos of the ferry ride, but it was a pretty wild and windy affair; with whitecaps and angry grey cloud-cover overhead as we headed down lake and into the impressively steep and brooding alpine mountains. Very reminiscent of the Alaskan panhandle around Sitka for me. Towards evening, the ceiling lifted somewhat, and we had high hopes of better weather and visibility by morning.
A deep, green world…. The trail ahead.
An iconic NZ swing bridge
Clearing skies…!
Exploring a sphagnum bog
New life reaching upwards
Heading up the Clinton River
Snacks and blister check

An interesting aspect of a group hike was to meet people from all over the world and hear their stories. Fifty strangers all working towards the same goal, for many different reasons. The esprit de corps was high and over five challenging days, bonds and memories were forged. Another nice feature of the Milford is that it’s a one way trail. Once you got into your groove, you hardly saw anyone else all day long except at rest stops. No “trail etiquette” required working past oncoming groups…Very chill indeed….
Feeling the freedom in the sublime Clinton Valley
Maddie, a nurse from Maine, working in Sydney
Pristine water, all drinkable without treatment
Up into the “Prairie”
Higher into the valley, timber thinning out

Peaks tower 4000 ft overhead on both sides of the valley

Crossing avalanche talus rubble
Pompolona Lodge, ten miles in

Clean and dry. Spartan, but beats a tent!

Fresh scones to greet you

Pre-dinner cocktail hour. Sharing stories of the trail

Guitars even..!

Pompolona twilight, night #2

Lights out, big day tomorrow.

The way ahead, morning day #3

Looking back down valley
Guide Andrew and Maddie setting the pace
Approaching Mackinnon Pass

Adjusting gear before heading over the pass
Mackinnon Pass to the right

Pass trail winding higher

As a marquee hiking destination, the trails, bridges and shelters along the Milford are maintained to a world-class standard. The public shelters are placed a mile or so beyond the Ultimate Hike’s, so you never encounter the folks ahead of you. The entire experience feels authentic, uncrowded and pristine. No fires or camping are allowed on the track and hikers must keep moving every day.

Looking down into Clinton Valley, the way we’ve come.

In the groove and feelin’ good…

Mt. Cook Lily
Moving higher, above timberline

Getting “rugged up” in the alpine weather

Clearing skies in the pass, pretty rare…

Mackinnon Memorial at the pass, built in 1912
A spot of hot tea..?….”Why, yes…”
A Kea, the world’s only true alpine parrot
An ominous cloud break; the way down as well…

Above the monument, “12 second drop” beyond
Heading for the Pass Hut, out of the wind…
High above the Clinton Valley
The famous ” Loo with a view” Listed in the top ten in the world!
Lives up to it’s reputation…!

Keas are very bold and cheeky. Watch your lunch, and fingers!

Lunch and warmth inside the Pass Hut
The “12 second drop”, off the backside of the pass

After making the pass, the work’s not over. For many hikers, the 3 1/2 mile, 2000+ ft down hike to Quintin Lodge is the real knee-strainer. It was long and painful by the end of 10 miles…
Trail down
A portable bridge over avalanche rubble, placed seasonally.
First sighting of Sutherland Falls
Water music all around you
The trail follows a wonderful series of cascades
Amazing infrastructure engineering
Below 12 second drop, off the Pass
A profusion of ferns
Quintin Lodge piano carried in almost a century ago
Bridge towards Sutherland Falls

Once you get to Quintin lodge, you really just want a well-earned rest, hot shower and cold beer. However, the rest must be brief if you intend to make the 3 mile, 1 1/2 hour side trip to Sutherland Falls before dark.
At nearly 2000 ft, it’s the world’s 5th highest waterfall and NZ’s highest. A thunderous triple cascade that overwhelms with it’s raw power, it’s definitely worth the extra effort.
Even from far off the roar is impressive, and exciting!
Approaching the falls, too wet for cameras!

Another awesome experience is to brave the forceful blast of the falls and go laterally up towards the cliff face. You can then walk behind the falls. As you approach closer, the water is blowing horizontally off the rocks in gale force, an icy, stinging spray. You stumble over mossy, soaked boulders, nearly blinded by the force. You then sneak along the cliff face and are suddenly in a relatively quiet pocket behind the thunderous cataract. Soaked to the bone, but feeling more alive than you have in a long while!  Exhilarating….!
Look carefully to the far left, you can see Pete’s leg
Me and Pete after the falls soaking…Feeling very alive!
Drying room at Quintin Lodge
Steve, lead guide, at Quintin Lodge
The evening’s entertainment begins
A well-earned eye-filet….Oh, yes….
What happens in NZ, stays in NZ…Quintin hijinks…!
Packing lunches for day #4
Evening storm moving in. But the pass is behind us…
Getting ready for day #4
Morning waterfalls above Quintin Lodge
Wayne and a Tree Fern, Jurassic Park in real life..
Two Concord-Carlisle (Mass) Grads, Peter 1989, Me 1975. Small world!

It finally rained on the 4th day. But we’d been very fortunate. The guides remarked that in the past two 5 day hikes, they saw not one ray of sunlight over 10 days! Only 1/3 of days on the pass has any visibility at all. In a weird way, having the rain falling gave the track an entirely different feel. The rivulets and creeks were all running hard, filling the air with water music from every direction. And the verdant, varied greens of the foliage glistened with a magical iridescence. Completed the rainforest effect, you might say…
Long swing bridge over the Arthur River
Camera’s getting pretty soggy

Day #4 is a long one, 13.5 miles,  but you are over the pass and on the long slog out to Sandfly Point and the ferry to Milford Sound village. The miles and hours pass as you get into the rhythm of the trail.
A long green tunnel
Iconic Mackay Falls, a scene from a thousand calenders, but worthy!
Trail buds, Wayne and me at Mackay Falls
Trail cut into the cliff by prisoners in the 1890s
Giants Gate Falls
Sensing victory selfie
Trail now broad, flat, open….Close…!
Sandfly Point shelter!
Reaching the finish line, and not even a blister!

A feeling of real accomplishment!

Waiting for pickup

Milford Sound Ferry

New Zealand nautical colors

Buddies celebrating their experience

Milford Sound, our destination

Mitre Peak Lodge
A well-earned lambchop!

And then amazingly, the ceiling began to lift again towards evening; and we were treated to the sublime Grand Finale of the stunning Mitre Peak. This is a view that many travel great distances to see, and are often denied; due to the persistant cloud cover….Lucky folks indeed…!

Mitre Peak from the lodge

Feeling the Pinot…or something…
Epic way to end the hike…

Our guides; Steve, Adie, Amanda and Andrew

The evening finished off with a really funny awards ceremony and talent show, liberally lubricated with adult beverages, now that we were all safely off the track. Only then did we discover that a quiet, unassuming Japanese gentleman was the oldest person in our group. He did the Milford, without even a complaint, at 79 years old! Inspiring…!
Morning over Milford Sound
Morning walk to the Ferry

The adventure, and great weather, continued as the hike culminated in a 2 hour cruise of the fabled Milford Sound out onto the Tasman Sea. None of us could believe our good fortune with the sudden weather change. The boat pilot said it was the best day on the sound in over three months!

The perfect end to a lifelong dream

Out onto the (rarely) gentle Tasman Sea

Even the Fur Seals are basking
More waterfall close encounters!!

Me and guide Andrew, a Sydney college student in real life

Kayakers dead ahead…
It’s a busy little harbor
Back on the bus to Queenstown,  a very smooth operation
Road scenery along the famous Milford Sound road

Up in the high, dry country near Lake Te Anau
Our guides dropped off at Te Anau ferry to start all over again!
Lake Wakatipu, approaching Queenstown
A valley sheep station, Lake Wakatipu
Queenstown along the far shore

Evening light in downtown Queenstown

And suddenly, you are off the bus and back into reality. The past five days of cameraderie, effort and accomplishment a sweet memory, already past. Fifty people working towards a common goal for very different reasons, now scattering around the globe, most never to be seen again.

In sum, hiking the Milford Track was a life-long goal, and while not the extreme climbing challenge of my younger, wilder days, provided a challenging goal to work up to and accomplish. The trip was even better than anticipated, and I expected it would be great! Ultimate Hikes took all the logistical challenges away, and allowed for peace of mind as well as a lighter pack, which made the entire experience more enjoyable. They come highly recommended for those with a little extra cash laying around but the desire to share a challenging adventure in New Zealand. I hope to do the Routeburn 3 day alpine hike with them next year, in fact!
So thanks to them for being wonderful guides and hosts during our brief time together.

I will eventually finish “DDU Does NZ -part three “which will travel north into the Mt Cook/ Aoraki National Park  and McKenzie Country Lakes District for some further alpine adventures, Kiwi-style; as well as a sailing adventure off the sublime Banks Peninsula and French heritage town of Akaroa. Until then, I hope this installmant inspires you all to dust off those old hiking boots and find that trail less travelled that still haunts your dreams..And hike it…! Happy trails!  DDU

Hiking up the Clinton Valley, Milford Track, NZ

Hard to believe it’s been six weeks since I returned from an 18 day solo hiking/ road trip on the South Island of NZ. Stephanie and the kids were back in the US for Christmas and January,  I worked over the holidays, and then took the opportunity to see a new part of the world and complete a lifelong goal of hiking the Milford Track in the Fiordlands area of SW New Zealand. It was an amazing adventure; one that will require yet another three-part DDU, so I hope you enjoy the ride as much as did!

Maori wood carving

So, New Zealand…I’ve never been, and after two years in Australia I thought it would basically be like an alpine Aussie experience. It’s only a three hour flight from Brisbane to Christchurch, on the east coast of the South Island. There’s a long and lively rivalry between the two countries about everything imaginable, but especially rugby; also a common English Commonwealth heritage and language. At one time NZ actually considered entering the AU Federation as the seventh state!

But, in fact, NZ and AU are very different worlds indeed. A few amazing (non-scientific) facts to consider:

NZ is one of the most volcanically active places on the planet, the last AU volcanic period was around 20 million years ago.

There are some 700 species of eucalypt in AU, by far the most dominant plant genus. There are none in NZ.

AU is word famous for it’s curious mammals, most of which are unique marsupials. NZ has no native mammal species except for two species of bat

Maori hunting the now extinct, 6 ft, flightless Moa

NZ was the last major, fertile landform to be inhabited by humans. The native Maori (15% of the pop. today) only arrived 800-1000 years ago, crossing the vast Pacific from Polynesia in small boats. They are closely related linguistically to Hawaiian Islanders.

The Aboriginals of AU are considered to be the oldest currently active culture on earth. Origins somewhat obscure, they have been in AU for at least 50,000, and perhaps as long as 100,000 years. They have no cultural connections to the Maori.

And even the native NZ folks, so-called Kiwis, are a different breed than their Aussie cousins. Perhaps it’s the harsher, more demanding climate, but Kiwis in general seem more direct, focused and no-nonsense than the laid-back Aussies. If Kiwis are similar to New Englanders, Aussies are more southern Californian, or if rural and ranchy, Texan. Just my own observations here.   So…it’s like a completely different country down there….Who knew!   And only just across the Tasman Sea (or “Ditch”  as they call it down here).  Well, let’s get going, shall we…..?

Brisbane International

1st view of the wild west coast

Southern Alps heading east

Mount Cavendish above Christchurch

Micro Brews..Oh, yes…!

Junk fish art…

ChCh Cathedral with the main spire gone

Christchurch (ChCh) was historically considered the most English of NZ cities; a small (500K) compact college and literary center, founded in the 1840s, it is the capital of the Canterbury region and sits on a vast alluvial basin right on the east coast . Famous for extensive and beautiful heritage stone buildings and graceful parks, a genteel pastime is punting on the Avon River that flows through downtown. Life changed abruptly on 4 Sept 2010 when the city was struck by a 7.1 mag. earthquake. A second 6.3 mag. tremblor struck on 22 Feb 2011; shallow and centered less than 10 km from the CBD, this quake essentially destroyed central ChCh in under 30 seconds. A heroic rescue and rebuilding effort has been underway in the ensuing three years and I was very interested to see how the city was recovering.

Extensive heritage building resoration

Eighty-five percent of the buildings in the CBD were damaged beyond repair, and most of the ones still standing are condemned and will be torn down. Extensive, and ingenious, re-engineering is ongoing to salvage the remaining fragile heritage buildings and make them more earthquake resilient. Work moves ahead slowly, impeded by over 2000 aftershocks.

Botanic Garden bridge

Antarctic exploration exhibit at Caterbury Museum

In spite of the destruction, life continues along. The Botanic Gardens and adjacent Canterbury Museum are wonderful, orderly spaces of normalcy that are highly recommended.

And punting continues on the Avon River

Downtown, the scappy local community soon got a temporary shopping district up and running. Using shipping containers, painted in bright colors, it’s become an iconic testimony to human ingenuity and resilience in the face of overwhelming loss.

Unfortunately, much of the CBD remains a vast network of
vacant lots; now cleared and leveled and awaiting
the next, uncertain phase. Frankly, I was overwhelmed by the scale
of loss and how much recovery remains. It’s daunting to think of all the sub-surface “stuff” that was also destroyed. Sewer, electic, water all needing to be meticulously reconstructed while life continues along above ground. So thoughts and prayers for the resilient residents of ChCh as they continue to rebuild their shattered city….

Heritage dormer awaiting replacement

The entire structure rebuilt and reassembled over a concrete and rebar form…

Summit road above ChCh
The basin ChCh is built on, much of
the substrata liquified and can’t be rebuilt on

Very high and dense windbreak, outlining pasture. Unique!

After two nights exploring Christchurch, it was time to hit the road west, through Arthur’s Pass to the west coast…Another thing about NZ, it’s a very rural place….About the size of Great Britain, with one fourteenth the population (at 4 million). You are into farm country with grazing sheep within 30 minutes of leaving the CBD.

Castle Hill, right out of Lord of the Rings

Amazing limestone formations

Summit selfie

Midsummer wildflowers

Riders of Rohan, I swear…!

Antarctic Beech

Devil’s Punchbowl Falls
Green, wet and wild….I like this…

Perfusion of ferns

Summer Lupine

Extensive glacial rivers

Heading west…

Over the pass, into the wild and wooly Westlands

Engineering marvel

A very cheeky Kea, the world’s only true alpine parrot

If you can”t beat ’em; shunting rock and waterfall over the road…

Kea, crow-sized , olive color, with bright red underwings..

Heading for Lake Brunnner

Rough country

Cow tunnel under the road,  at milking time…

Lake Brunner
The wild west coast

Downtown Hokitika

Clearing skies…a good omen

Hiking up to the base of Franz Josef Glacier

Water falling everywhere…music!

Chocolate and Vanilla avalanches…
Keepin’ it simple at Fox Glacier

Evening pastures

Famous Mt Cook reflections at Lake Matheson

Matheson Cafe…excellent!
Western face of Aoraki/ Mt Cook summit in twilight

Clearing skies at dusk, psyched..!

NZ can be expensive, that’s per LITER, (around $9/ gallon!)

Fox Glacier moraine

More LOTRs…Helm’s Deep…?

Lake Wanaka

After getting really lucky with the weather for a few days on the west coast, I turned inland heading SE up and through the sublime alpine Haast Pass. Into the high, dry Central Otago plateau. It’s a landscape of vast, dry alpine valleys and enormous, crystalline mountain lakes. Stunning…..Next stop, Waneka and then Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of NZ!

Sunset at Wanaka

Summit ridge above…gee, that looks pretty far…

Next day it was up early, hot and dry already. The plan was a challenging training hike up Mt. Roy. Around 16 km (10 miles) and around 3000ft elevation gain, my final buildup for the Milford Track.

Sublime Lake Wanaka below

Summit Ridge, and really feeling it, believe me…!

Looking NW into Mt Aspiring NP

Happy, happy knees…
Mt. Aspiring

Wanaka town below
“The earth makes music for those who listen….”   Shhh….

The road home…

The parking lot….tiny…tiny….tiny…

Leveling out, finally…
A NZ icon, on the high road to Queenstown

High road to Queenstown, see it off in the distance?

Gibbston Valley

Lake Wakatipu and Walter Peak, Queenstown
TSS Earnslaw, a 1912 steam-powered lake steamer. The last of it’s kind

Busy, groovy, outdoorsy QTown

Queenstown is the outdoor adventure capitol of NZ, and the birthplace of bungy jumping. There are a million ways to break a sweat and spend a buck in this town. Nice to visit, but I was here for a very specific purpose; as the link-up point for a five day, 35 mile hike on the Milford Track with Ultimate Hikes NZ. After spending the afternoon exploring the compact downtown, we had a pre-trip orientation at their headquarters, then off to bed for an early morning departure for Lake Te Anau and wild places beyond. The Milford Track will be the sole subject of “DDU Does NZ”, Part 2. I think you’ll find it to be quite a worthy adventure and perhaps motivating to start planning your own hiking adventure. Safe  travels and happy trails, until then!  Your DDU….

Calorie loading before the Milford Track
Hotel sunset over Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables


Morning storm brewing….?
All set to go…….morning pick-up.

Ultimate Hikes last minute preps and meeting the crew…..

Stay tuned for the next, riveting installment…Will they make it out alive….?  With how many blisters…? Cannibalism in the wilds of NZ…? We’ll see…. Thanks for traveling along, ddu