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Tramping the Milford Track

Lush forests, silvery waterfalls and magnificent vistas on an often-taxing trek

September 17, 2000|CHRISTINE BARNES | Christine Barnes, based in Oregon, is the author of "Great Lodges of the West" (1997) and "Great Lodges of the Canadian Rockies" (1999)

FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK, New Zealand — Our group of trampers was a sorry-looking lot as we shed our dripping rain gear and fumbled for a mug of hot tea inside Pass Hut. The wind roared as we prepared for more trekking along the Milford Track, the arduous and popular 33 1/2-mile route through New Zealand's largest national park.

How, I wondered, can I explain this as "vacation"? What had brought us to this place along the peaks of South Island in the driving wind and rain?

After hiking from lodge to lodge in the Canadian Rockies the previous summer, I was hooked on hiking through breathtaking scenery to back-country lodges for four days and three nights.

The Milford Track winds across beautiful rain forests, mountains, fiords, rivers and coastlines. The track gained fame following a route pioneered in the 1880s by Scotsmen Donald Sutherland and John Mackay, who began blazing a trail southeast from Milford Sound. Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell were cutting a trail north up the Clinton Valley, then over Mackinnon Pass; the two trails were connected in 1888. The next year Mackinnon guided the first tours over the track, and "tramping," as New Zealanders call hiking, became a Kiwi way of life.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
New Zealand hike: In a story about a trek on New Zealand's South Island ("Tramping the Milford Track," Sept. 17) Air New Zealand was omitted from a list of airlines that fly from Los Angeles to Queenstown, the nearest airport to the starting point of the trail.

In March, my husband, Jerry, and I flew from Auckland in the North Island to Queenstown in the southwest part of South Island. After a day of sightseeing, we made our way by bus to Te Anau, about 200 miles to the southwest, on the flank of Fiordland National Park. There we started the journey on the Milford Track.

At Te Anau there are two ways of approaching the tramp. "Freedom Walkers," those on unguided trips, make reservations months in advance to use Department of Conservation huts. Bookings for a limited number of trampers begin in July for the next season, which runs November through April. Freedom Walkers must pack and carry everything.

We opted for the Milford Track Guided Walk. Guides would lead us through the fiords and forested canopies and past waterfalls, with stops for afternoon tea. At the end of each day, hot showers, prepared meals and beds would await us.

After checking into our simple room at the Centra Motel, we headed for a reception and edged into the group of 23 strangers. We would be the season's 118th group, made up of a variety of people--among them a 20-ish Silicon Valley techie and a 75-year-old widow from England celebrating successful cancer treatment. (She was the best hiker of the lot.)

"You need one set of layered hiking clothes," our guide, Susan Gilbert, said at orientation before our noon departure the next morning. Sunscreen, insect repellent and good sunglasses were recommended; cotton clothing that soaks up sweat and water was not. Susan rolled out an appropriately attired mannequin, which was dressed in a striped polypropylene shirt and long johns, shorts, a fleece jacket, hat, gloves, poly-blend hiking socks, boots, rain jacket and backpack.

"Leave that makeup and shaving kit behind," she told us. Each lodge had toiletries, hand laundry facilities and huge drying rooms to hang gear overnight. We packed a change of clothes for evenings, plus underwear, socks, walking sandals, pajamas, a flashlight, reading and writing material, camera, lots of film plus an extra pair of hiking pants and shirt.

A shuttle took us to Te Anau Lake, and we cruised across it. From the wharf, it was a mile or so jaunt to the first lodge, Glade House, the official start of the Milford Track.

After a "nature hike," apparently to size up our level of fitness, and dinner, we readied for bed, climbed into our bunks and said good night to our roommates, an Australian couple who snored. We quietly slipped in our earplugs.

Lights came on at 6 a.m. with the generator, and we shuffled to the communal bathrooms. After breakfast, we packed our lunches and, finally, were ready.

A suspension bridge over the Clinton River led to a profusion of ferns and into a silver beech forest. The path was wide and sandy, and under the beeches grew a sub-canopy of tree ferns and shrubs, then a floor of moss and lichen.

My sighting of two endangered blue ducks a few miles into the walk gave me official "birder" status.

One mile slipped into the next, and six miles into the trek we ascended a canyon, stopping for lunch and tea at a hut near Hirere Falls.

The track crossed avalanche chutes cut by snow and trees, and grasslands, alluvial fans of gravel and regenerating forests dot the landscape. More unusual are the tree slides. The lush forests grow on a thin layer of compost atop sheer, steep rock, and roots form an interlocking mat that stabilizes the dense foliage. When a tree falls, usually during heavy rain after a dry spell, it rips the other plants' roots. The resulting slide leaves a bare rock scar.

We had covered 10 miles as we approached Bus Stop, a shelter with a sign that reads: "If in flood wait for guide." We crossed the gurgling stream and headed for Pomplona Lodge, where we were greeted with hot tea and room assignments.

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