We’re back from Down Under and it was (in retrospect) an excellent trip. We started with a lovely boat ride to Waihike (no, not Waikiki, that’s 5000 miles to the NE for you provincials) Island just off Auckland, NZ. Whilst visiting a Music Museum filled with 100-400 year old harpsichords, accordions, bassoons, etc., we were treated to personal demonstrations thereof. Then off to a wonderful lunch at the Te Whau (pronounced Tay-Fow for whatever reason, only the ancient Maoris know) Winery. We also sampled their excellent wines while enjoying a 360 degree view of the bay and islands. Then back across the island to the Music Museum for a performance by twin brothers playing the flute and a rare baritone horn, accompanied by a pianist. Quite an unexpected pleasure. A great seafood dinner finished our short visit to the Kiwi’s capital city. NZ green-lipped mussels are really special!
Our son, Kevin, had been working as a peripatetic pediatrician in Northern New Zealand. We met him at the Auckland airport for the flight to Queenstown, on the South Island of NZ. Actually, since bungi jumping, jet boating, and other similar silly things started right here, Queenstown is probably the daring-activities capital of the world. Soon, we met with our group of 47 people who were to do the Milford Walk with us.
We had many clues that the “walk” was a difficult trek. The first clue that the walk would be unlike the brochure was that the web-site for the “Milford Track Guided Walk” was actually “www.ultimatehikes.com”. (See, the Internet can reveal the truth if you only look). Anyway, the walk started harmlessly the next day with a long but pretty bus ride along Lake Te Anau. The second clue of things to come was when we saw the group returning who had started the walk several days earlier. They were limping, scowling, and looking very tired. Some of us assumed they were just putting on an act for us virgins, but some others including Fran thought the people were really fatigued and exhausted.
Anyway, after a short walk and a pleasant evening at Glade House, we started early the next morning by making lunch. Of course, the lunch had to be carried in our backpacks along with clothing, thermals, rain gear, health and beauty items, flashlights, and other necessities, so we packed as light a lunch as possible. Then 16 km (that’s 10 miles for you English majors) along Clinton River, Hidden Lake, and the Beech Forest, gradually climbing upwards, but enjoying the beautiful views of the Valley of the Perpendicular (luckily, its unscaleable) and many waterfalls. The third clue was encountering signs stating “Do Not Stop Here Due to Frequent Avalanches”. The fourth clue was when we came to a little shelter called the Bus Stop. We learned the derivation of the name is not because a bus can get there (it can’t) but because it may provide shelter in case of flooding. We also saw tomorrow’s distant destination: MacKinnon Pass, high up the snow-covered mountain and very, very far away.
Up early the next morn, Mt. Balloon rears into view, and the climbing is steep and difficult, over broken rocks, muddy rivulets, and swinging bridges. The toughest test (clue #5) was where we had to take a long, tortuous detour around an area devastated by a huge avalanche, so there was virtually no trail. We just kept looking for the yellow markers attached to trees and rocks, or on sticks stuck in the mud. Included was an almost completely vertical ascent, pulling ourselves up by tree roots or by a stout rope that was affixed to the top about 25 feet above.
That occurred along zigzag 2A, the second of many zigzags snaking up the side of the mountain. Eventually reaching the top, we rested and were rewarded with even more spectacular views; but couldn’t remain too long due to high winds, and the necessity to start down the other side. A short ways down, we stopped at Pass Hut and enjoyed the lunch that we lugged up the mountain; but we had to keep shushing away the kea birds. Keas are large NZ parrots with sharp beaks and claws that will steal your food or anything else they can snatch; and since they know that they are a protected species, the keas are fearless around hikers.
Keas are not to be confused with kiwi birds, the national symbol of NZ, who are indigenous, now very rare, nocturnal, and, unfortunately, flightless. Kiwi birds are hunted by weasel-type skinks that were brought in to hunt the rabbits that were over-running the island after being brought in by Englishmen as pets for their children (a prime example of the law of unintended consequences). Nowadays, the biggest pests in are the possums, who are eating millions of tons of NZ’ finest forest vegetation along with kiwi eggs, and so are being hunted. The possums’ skin is woven with Merino wool to make soft, warm garments. My suggestion was to bring in a bunch of good ol’ American rednecks who would quickly teach the locals how to cook and eat them.
Next, we started down the tortuous zig-zags, which are even harder downhill for these old knees. I found myself stopping frequently, both to view the glorious vistas and (not to be repeated) to rest the old body parts. At the end of the descent, after the exhausting 15 km (9 mi.) exertion, many of the (younger) hikers went an extra 3 miles to view Sutherland Falls, the world’s fifth-highest waterfall. I had a beer instead.
Day 4 was the longest hike, 21km=13mi., but not too bad if your body was still intact, as the path was much clearer. However, as we had some rain, many of the rocks became very slippery. Also, we opted to send our backpacks back by helicopter, making the hiking MUCH easier (most people kept theirs, but we’re not proud). All the food, etc., is brought to the lodges by helicopter, hence the availability of good dinners and beverages. We finally got to a large wooden sign, which, when you push aside the old abandoned hiking boots hanging from it, read: Milford Track, 33.5 miles, (and then, clue #6) Sandfly Point. Yes, Dorothy, there are sandflies, millions of them, and they bite.
Day 5 was a fine cruise around Milford Sound, a majestic fjord, and then a return to Queenstown (with a stop to act weird in front of the next-arriving group).
All in all, a deceptively difficult but beautiful and rewarding trek (Fran’s still not sure about the last clause, but she’s coming around). The guides are very helpful and informative on flora and fauna, and the fellow-travellers very congenial. We were the only North Americans, does that tell you something (maybe clue #7)?
For those of you who remember that four years ago Kevin called me “Tiger Bait” during our Nepal trek, I am proud to report that he has again re-named me. This time, it’s “Evil Genius”, because he thinks I convinced Fran to have him carry some of her things and then walk with him for all 4 days. Fran’s favorite New Zealand w(h)ine: “How much further do we have to go today?”
In any case, back in Queenstown for more fun: the Shotover Jetboat, doing 360 degree turns at high speed in the swirling rapids right next to large rocks; taking the skyride to the mountain above the town, riding the luge down; driving to the Puzzle Museum (featuring rooms with illusions like balls sliding uphill and another with 160 faces of Einstein whose eyes follow you no matter how you turn, and then a large two-story maze that we couldn’t find our way out of). We finished with a wonderful dinner with local gold-medal winning Pinot Noir wines.
Leaving Kevin to explore the rest of New Zealand on his own (actually more difficult treks), Fran and I flew to Melbourne where we enjoyed the first two days of the Australian Tennis Open and the new Museum of Victoria. Whilst walking around Melbourne, we were reminded of our friend Mike Platt. Mike thinks that every restaurant is either in the world’s top 10, or is “kaka” (Italian for sh-t). We doubled over with laughter when we saw a sign in a Chinese eatingplace: Kaka Restaurant. Of course, we ate there and sent pictures to Mike. The food? It was just OK.
Melbourne is a great city, but we had tickets to fly Virgin Blue to Sydney. There we had a lovely tour, and lunch at the Royal Squadron Yacht Club, with our friends Des and Carol Quirk (we met them on the Icebreaker Yamal to the North Pole last summer). Then a wonderful dinner at Doyle’s on the Beach with our friends John and Josie Walton, (no relation to Sam, I hope), and their very bright son, William, who we met playing chess on the QE II last fall.
To summarize, as the Aussies describe something terrific: Good on ya!
Rich & Fran
P.S. Clue #8; Started trek with 47 people, ended with 46, don’t know what happened to the poor bloke.