Christchurch, New Zealand The Milford Trek

Tonight is my last night in New Zealand. I leave tomorrow afternoon, and I have 4 flights before I arrive on the island of Yap.

I put together a map of my route through the South Island. I don’t know why I made it so spiffy. I guess because I’m still stalling about putting together my Milford Trek journal entry.

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All the locations I spent time in are labeled. The blue dots represent places where I spent the night, and the numbers beside them show the order. I basically did a loop of the lower half of the south island. I made a fair-sized dent, but there’s a lot of area I didn’t cover. Not that I’ll be itching to come back here and finish it off. It’s a big planet.

…but it’s a small world. Someone in Estonia has been looking at this site. Artur?

And Seychelles. I got a visitor from a country I’ve never heard of. It’s a tiny island about a thousand miles off the coast of Africa, near Madagascar, with a population of 72,000. Apparently there isn’t much to do there.

Okay, so I’m going to quickly put things in the right sequence, as I’ve been jumping around a lot in the journal. I left Christchurch and went to Greymouth on the West Coast. That’s where I got stuck in the undertow of the Hokitiki Wild Foods Festival and wound up wandering around in a goddam hippy refugee camp.

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I thought tree-hugging long hairs were all vegetarians. Why they flock to a place that serves pig offal, I have no idea.

Maybe they weren’t hippies, though. Maybe they only looked like hippies, but were actually the distant cousin of the hippy: Fair People. Also known as the Fool’s Hippy. Yes. That seems more plausible.

After Hokitiki, I drove down to Fox Glacier and spent a day doing the glacier walk. I spent that night in a little town called Haast. The next day I stopped at Puzzle World on my way to Queenstown. After Queenstown I went to Te Anau, point of departure for the Milford Trek.

Te Anau was a cool little place. It’s set up entirely to service folks who are heading into Fiordland National Park for treks, cruises, and kayaking trips. So it is touristy, but it’s not "Choose from our vast selection of snow globes" touristy, it’s more like "Choose from our vast selection of overpriced titanium pots and pans" touristy. That is way more tolerable.

Milford Trek. Yes. I’m going to go into excruciating detail on this part, cause I spent a lot of time just walking by myself and wound up with a lot to say. So only read on if you’re tremendously interested, or tremendously disinterested in whatever you’re supposed to be doing right now.

Day 1

I got off on the right foot by missing the bus. I made it to the departure place with plenty of time, but I left my bag and went into town for some last minute supplies and when I came back, the bus had left. They don’t have much of a system for checking in or anything. The bus comes. People get on. The bus leaves.

I caught a ride with another tour group and met up with the bus at the dock. We all loaded onto a catamaran for the hour-long ride across Lake Te Anau to the starting point of the trek.

While I was missing the bus, I picked up a hat and gloves, some cheese, and a summer sausage. Oh, how I did covet that sausage in the days that followed. That was a good purchase. And the hat and gloves weren’t such a bad idea either as it turned out.

So we got off the boat, threw our bags over our shoulders, and started walking. It was an informal group of about 40 people. They limit the track to only that many each day to keep it from becoming a stampede. You have to book months in advance to get on the trek, so I imagine there’d have been a hundred or more people otherwise.

The group wasn’t actually traveling together. Most of us were on our own. We just met up at the huts each night as we rolled in from the day’s walk. During the day, you’d run into people every 10 minutes or so, but mostly I was by myself as long as I kept moving.

There was a small, guided tour group amongst us as well. The guided people paid 10 times more money to stay in separate huts with hot showers and power generators. They were mostly middle-aged American couples with matching butt-packs.

After only an hour or two of fairly uninteresting walking, I reached the first hut. Shock. Confusion. It was only one in the afternoon. Was that a full day’s walk?

As it turns out, they make the first day’s walk really short, cause they used to have a much slower boat to ferry people across, and they wouldn’t get in until the early evening. Nowadays it’s different, but the hut is still where it is.

I’d been walking briskly, and was the first one to the hut. I had the rest of the day to kill and was still full of beans. I felt like walking a lot more, so I put on a day pack and headed back to the start of the trail. Did some exploring along the way.

I brought along my Archos portable Mp3 player, even though the batteries only last an hour and there was no way to recharge it. But a miracle happened. What was supposed to last for only an hour ended up lasting the whole trip. It was like that Hannukah candle, the Minora. I don’t understand how or why, but it never ran out. I listened to The Two Towers and Return of the King from the Lord of the Rings audio series, both of which ran over four hours. It was really nice. Without all the other distractions, I could actually concentrate on what people were saying and make it all the way through the story without falling asleep or turning on the tv.

It was pretty long and boring. I definitely prefer the films. The guy who played Aragorn was a poncey swish and he sounded ridiculous delivering his tough guy lines. I listened to about half of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well, and even though I’ve listened to it a dozen times before, it was still way more entertaining.

I maintain that J.R.R. Tolkein desperately needed an editor. I know 100 million people disagree with me, but the guy really had a tendency to ramble. The story ends about halfway through the third book, but it just keeps on going through this boring epilogue forever and ever. People act like it’s sacrilege to criticize it, but it’s flawed, self-indulgent storytelling.

Guess what! I’m rambling too!

The weather was great on the first day, but the report said to enjoy it while it lasts, cause it would be raining for the next three days. A feeling of dread came over me as I realized I hadn’t brought any rain gear.

I also neg lected to bring a slee ping bag. My understanding was we’d be sleeping in bunks — which was true, but I kind of imagined the bunks would be fitted with sheets and pillows. They weren’t. Just a hard mattress. And it gets very very cold at night.

I am living with chronic stupidity syndrome. I was afflicted with it as a child, and it has since gone into remission. But certain conditions can trigger relapses that are quite severe. Packing for a camping trip is one of those conditions.

So not having a sleeping bag was really bad. By the time the sun sets in Fiordland, you can see visible smoke puffs when you breathe. I piled on every piece of clothing I had: pants, shirt, shorts, wool pullover, two pairs of socks, and that hat and gloves I bought, and I shivered through the whole night. Fortunately, it was dark, so no one else knew how much of an idiot I was.

Day 2

Got up at the ass crack of dawn, which wasn’t hard cause I never got past semi-asleep. Had a quick but huge breakfast and started walking by 8 in the morning. My plan was that walking would warm me up, and it did. By noon I had peeled off all the layers and was down to a T-shirt and shorts. It’s amazing how fast the temperature changes in that area.

A couple hours in, I finally started seeing some neat stuff. The path winds through a steep valley, following alongside a stream. The water in the stream was some of the clearest freshwater I’ve seen. There were huge trout swimming inside and they were as clear as goldfish in an aquarium. All the fishermen on the trek were jumping up and down about getting in there and catching them. Anyway, it was pretty. And there were countless little cascading waterfalls running down the cliffs on either side of the valley, feeding into the river. I love cascading waterfalls. I am a cascading waterfall junky.

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The hike was long and exhausting. It started getting pretty steep as we neared the second hut, and I had my first taste of wondering when in the hell it was going to end. But the forest was lush and green and really amazingly beautiful.

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It was a 16 km (10 mile) walk, compared to only 6 on the previous day. I’d still been going fast, though, and was again one of the first people to the hut. As soon as I dropped my bag, I wolfed down about two days worth of spaghetti. My body needed food.

The ranger stationed at the hut said that since it was still a good day, we should keep on going to the summit, cause tomorrow it would be raining. I couldn’t handle that. I needed sleep. I conked out at 4 in the afternoon. It was a shame to waste all those daylight hours, but I really had no choice. And it was also good to squeeze some sleep in during the day, cause once it got dark it was too cold to really do anything but shiver.

Day 3

Holy crap!

This day was the killer. Right out of the gate, we started going up the mountain. And it wasn’t a smoothly winding path. They’d cut 11 zig-zags into the side, each one increasingly covered in unstable rocks and each one steeper than the one before it.

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I started at maybe 200 meters above sea level, and after two hours of walking, reached the summit at 1154 meters. Folks, that’s 1 kilometer straight up.

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It was grueling. It was, after all, climbing a goddam mountain. But of course, once you get to the top…

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These pictures are going to be pretty huge files. I couldn’t bear to shrink them down.

Fiordland National Park is one of the world’s largest suppliers of Windows pre-installed desktop wallpaper.

The summit is called MacKinnon’s Peak. MacKinnon is the guy who discovered the path and charted it back in the late 1880’s. He drowned in Lake Te Anau a few years later.

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You can’t really see it here, but I’ve been using this trip to conduct an experiment with my facial hair. I haven’t shaved since I left. You’d need a good sense of humor to call what I have right now a beard, but it’s definitely shaggy. I’ve been cursed with an inability to bridge the gap between my upper lip and chin, so it looks like I’m intentionally going for a Tom-Selleck-meets-Amish-farmer look. I’ll have to get rid of it pretty soon, but at the moment I’m really enjoying stroking it.

…keep it clean, boys. Just let that one go.

From the top of the mountain, you can look back down the valley and see what you spent the first two days walking through.

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The river winding through there is what you walk alongside. That view looks back about 15 kilometers. It’s hard to get a sense of just how big the scale is.

So once you’re done being awestruck, you’ve got to face the challenge of getting back down to 150 meters above sea level by the end of the day. Now you may be thinking, "So what? It’s downhill. Easy." You’d be wrong about that. If it were a sloping dirt path, it would be easy. But it’s a steep and uneven pile of unsteady rocks, which is much different. The path leading back down the hill is ankle sprain alley. It’s where most of the injuries happen. Some of the steps require you to jump down, and with a heavy pack on your back and no guarantee that the thing you land on is going to stay where it is, it can be hard work. It’s especially tough on the knees.

The good news: still no rain.

A couple hours of that and I was ready to die. Then in the midst of my agony, I stumbled upon a thing called a Kea. Actually, it stumbled upon me. They’d told us a lot about them back in the huts, and assured us there would be encounters. The Kea is an interesting bird. It’s the world’s only alpine parrot. It’s also supposed to be one of the smartest species of bird in existence. Don’t ask me how they measure bird I.Q., but surely they know what they’re talking about.

Keas are beautiful birds, and quite large. They’re also extremely curious. Apparently this is an evolved trait that helps them nut out where food is in a harsh environment where the best meals are often hidden. When humans are thrown into the picture, this turns into a problem, because they have no reservations about coming right up to you and poking around for something to eat. If you leave your shoes out at night, they’ll peck right through them. Socks? Gone. They can allegedly even pull open zippers with their beaks to look inside peoples’ bags.

So I’m walking down the path by myself and a Kea lands on a railing right in front of me.

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I freeze. It takes a step forward. I take a step back. It takes two steps forward. I pull out my camera to grab a quick snap, then it starts flying right up to me.

I ran like a little girl.

Eventually I reached a group of four Australian women looking at a waterfall. They turn to me and can clearly see that there’s a problem. I explain that there’s a Kea blocking the path further ahead, and I didn’t want to pass it alone. The women were not impressed. They walked right by me, then right by the Kea without any dramas.

Boy, did I feel like a sissy.

A long, long ways after that, and I finally reach the next hut. I’m completely wiped out by this point. But oh no, this wasn’t a hut for me. This was one of the fancy Guided Trek huts with all the comforts of home. For us commoners, it was just a locked door. Our hut was another hour down the path. There was also, at this point, a turn off for Sutherland Falls. It was an extra 45 minutes of walking each way to see the falls. I wasn’t about to bother with this, until I found out it was the fifth tallest waterfall in the world.

Here’s a tip for getting me to go anywhere or do anything: think of something we’ll see along the way that is either the world’s tallest, shortest, oldest, fattest, widest, steepest, slipperiest, or most purple. And if you don’t think I’ll believe that it’s the world’s most, tell me it’s the world’s fifth most. I’ll probably believe that, and once I hear it, nothing will stop me from seeing it. I’m a total sucker for the phrase: World’s Most.

I’m going to start a page on this site to keep track of all the World’s Mosts that I see. I’ll call it Matt’s Book of World Records.

So I drop my pack at the camp site and slog through another hour and a half just to see the goddam fifth tallest waterfall in the world. Here it is.

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Boy, isn’t that tall? It sure is. Man, I’m such a sucker.

You were supposed to put on your rain gear and stand underneath the waterfall. But I didn’t have any rain gear, and by then I didn’t want to take a single step that didn’t lead me directly to a surface that I could lay down and sleep on.

Got to the hut, still at the front of the group, but not as far ahead as I’d been on the previous days. It was 13 incredibly difficult kilometers, plus another 4 to see the waterfall.

I read Catcher in the Rye while hanging out in the huts. It was a great book. I loved it. I particularly enjoyed that Holden Caulfield was a kindred spirit in that he could find just about anything or anyone annoying. It was brilliantly written, and I now have a strange, uncontrollable urge to go assassinate a public figure.

I got lucky on that third night. The windows in our bunk room had no screens, so they had to leave them shut. This meant we had to share in the richness of each others’ smells, but it also meant the room was considerably warmer. I slept well, despite my aches and pains, and despite the guy in the bunk underneath me who had a bladder infection and had to get up to pee every half hour.

I couldn’t walk, though. My feet were a mess. I was thumping around like Frankenstein’s monster with both of his legs asleep. My blisters actually had their own smaller blisters. I got some bandages from one of the other hikers — another thing I’d neglected to bring — and wrapped my feet up until I looked like a burn victim.

You know what? There are too many words for hiking. Every country has to come up with their own. We call it "hiking," Australians have the euphemistic-sounding "bushwalking," Kiwis use the ridiculous "tramping," then "trekking" — I don’t know where that comes from. I use all of these interchangeably, and I can never sort out where I am and which term is appropriate. I usually end up listing two or three of them and hoping for a look of recognition. I demand a U.N. resolution.

Day 4

On the last day, my luck finally ran out. I woke up to a pounding rain. Everyone else started pulling out their rain gear, and I just kept staring out the window. We had 19 kilometers to go — the longest day of the trek — and there was nothing I could do to escape getting very wet.

I decided that the less clothes I wore, the less there’d be to get wet. So despite the cold, I went out in the morning in just my shorts and T-shirt. The first hour was pretty bad, but once it warmed up a bit and I was completely soaked anyway, it really didn’t matter whether I had rain gear or not.

I’d like to spend some time talking about the other people on my trek and how much I didn’t like them. I didn’t dislike all of them, just the vast, loud majority. And they’re far more worthy of coverage.

Loud American Couple – When you project your voice, it implies that you have something important to say to other people. This couple from Texas must have thought their flight arrangements were extremely important. Everyone on the trek knew when their plane was leaving Queenstown, how long their stopover was in Christchurch, and whether or not they would be checking into a hotel or leaving their bags at the airport. They also had the annoying habit of running around to do all the side excursions before anyone else so they could lord it over us by saying, "You have to do it. It’s so worth it!"

Psycho New Age Lady – This woman had just been let go from her consultancy job in New York. She clearly had a "freak out" and had to come down here to get "centered." She also had strong psychic impressions that she needed to get as far away from New York as possible, because something terrible was about to happen.

Weight Loss Lady – I’m pretty sure this Chicagoan went on the trek for the sole purpose of losing weight. Not that there’s anything dreadfully wrong with that. She just didn’t seem to be having a good time. She had the demeanor of someone who dislikes herself tremendously and doesn’t want to bring anyone else down by talking to them.

Australian Ya-Ya Sisterhood – These women weren’t so bad. They did, after all, rescue me from the clutches of that ferocious Kea. They just amused me with their rampant Australian-ness. They brought along an "esky" filled with Milo and Cordial, and they ate only bread covered in Vegemite and Marmite. One of the women observed that there are two types of people in this world, "Those who like Vegemite, and those who like Marmite." I wanted to step in and explain that there’s a very large third group who aren’t from Australia and find them both revolting. And there’s an even larger fourth contingent that has never been to Australia and thus never heard of either spreads.

The rest of the people were fine. So what is there to say about them, really?

Sandflies were a serious problem. The sandfly is a small insect, very much like a mosquito, that sucks blood from any warm body it can find. Or I should say, the females suck blood. The men just hang around and do nothing. They’re pretty much everywhere. Repellant doesn’t seem to do much. The only way to keep them off of you is to always keep moving. The moment you stop, they start feeding. The really terrible thing about them is that you can’t feel them on you until it’s too late, you’re already bitten, and you’ll be itching the spot for days. The good thing is that they’re slow. You can easily smack them once you know they’re there.

Sandflies get everywhere. You have to walk with your mouth closed when you’re on sand or near the water. I had several fly up in my nostrils. But as I said, they’re slow, so you can squeeze your nose, crush them, and let their corpses drop out. Vivid, eh?

Sandflies were named by guess who…

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That’s right. Our good pal, Captain James T. Cook. This is true. I’m not making it up. He really did name everything.

They were already called blackflies. But that didn’t stop Jimmy. No, sir.

Captain’s Log, 10th of August, 1770
"Joseph Banks, a botanist from our science entourage, has been bitten in numerous places by a troublesome insect that lives near the sand. I shall call it the sandfly. And Joseph I shall call Cynthia. The cook has taken to placing pork slices between two pieces of bread for many of my meals. I enjoy it tremendously. I shall call it a hamburger. The cook will be called Susan. He hails from the town of Redding, which I have just named France."

Anyway, I got bitten to death. Amongst the other problems my feet were having, I had about a dozen little bumps that were getting more and more itchy. The bite marks still haven’t healed all these days later. And they still itch a little.

I was starting to feel a bit pathetic by this point. I am close to my physical prime, so this is about as able as I’m ever going to get to do a trek like this. I was in total agony, and I was fairly vocal about it. Meanwhile, half the group was over 50 and there wasn’t a peep coming from any of them. They were doing just fine despite bad backs, bad knees, and what I imagine were a whole litany of other medical problems.

19 kilometers. That needs to be discussed some more. The phrase "1 9 kilometers" doesn’t adequately convey how long of a distance it is. 12 miles. No, that doesn’t do it either. 25,500 footsteps. Try counting your footsteps while you walk. It takes a while to get up to 25,500. Here’s a good way to represent it: 206 football fields lined end-to-end…and strewn with big, loose rocks. It’s a long distance when you’re walking. And when you’ve already walked another 35 kilometers. And when your feet are covered in blisters. And it’s raining.

It was a tough day. It still wasn’t as horrifically brutal as the third day, cause it was mostly flat, but it was hard. I didn’t take any pictures on the last day because of the rain. I didn’t even really look up very much. I just wanted to get through it.

And I did. One by one, we started rolling into the cabin at Sandfly Point around 1:30 to catch the 2:30 ferry. I think I was about the sixth person to finish. The end of the trek was called Sandfly Point for good reason. It was the cruel reward for completing the trek early — you get eaten alive while you wait for the boat. That was bad, but by that point we could all endure pretty much anything.

We had a quick jaunt across Milford Sound to the tourist outpost of Milford. Then we hopped on a bus and rode back to Te Anau. I caught several people that night at the local steakhouse wolfing down large pieces of meat and alcohol, which I was doing as well.

That’s it for the Milford Trek. A long and tedious entry, to be sure. But it gives you a taste of just how long the trek itself was. And if I can pass some of that pain on to others…well, it was all worthwhile.

I’ve still got another week in New Zealand to cover. I will get to it as soon as I can. It was March 19th when I started this entry, but now as I finish this it’s getting pretty close to April. I’m having too much fun here on Yap to stop and write. I’m itching to get into what I’m up to now, but I won’t let myself until I get caught up.