SATURDAY, APRIL 5, 2008
The Briefing Meeting - 3:45
I have anticipated this tour for so long now as its’ own unique challenge - 5 to 7 hours of hiking in a World Heritage area - that I came and asked the time of the meeting twice while I was roaming the streets of Queenstown making last minute arrangements. So it was with some trepidation that I walked in for the briefing. I looked around and sized up the group. The English are supposed to be born hikers I’m told and the Kiwis live here so they must hike a lot. Home field sort of thing. Look at their shoes. A few have on serious hiking boots. I’ll avoid them for sure. No high heels. And pants - none look new and they all look practical. No weak society matrons with manicured nails here. Damn! I’m in trouble. There are two teenage boys. Hmmm…..A few older retired types. Hmmm……..What sort of group will this be?
Who will be fast, who will drag, and who will everyone wish could be voted off the track? I hope it isn’t ME!
We were all issued numbered backpacks, sleeping sheets, a rain coat and told what we should have with us to keep the packs light and ourselves warm and comfortable. Leave behind - makeup (eeek), multiple changes of clothes (live in one set of hiking clothes and one set of evening clothes.), money, credit cards, passports, anything that add extra weight, no matter how small. We were also given a small bag into which we could put a change of clothes and other small items we may want in Milford. This was also their opportunity to sell all the little things you may need like a wool T -shirt (cotton is not advised as it traps moisture), wool fleece for your feet (not to keep them warm but to cushion blisters and other sore spots), walking sticks, and a “torch” which is a small flashlight for midnight trips to the potty.
A few dollars poorer (I really needed that torch and fleece sounded preventative. And who can resist an all wool T-shirt, especially one with mountains on it? Heck all I have are cotton and I sure want to wick!) I headed up the hill to my room to sort out my clothes and do a load of laundry. What to wear in the evenings? Which shoes? Yikes, the bottle of sunscreen is FULL and weighs 8oz. Which shoes are lighter - the sandals or the moccasins? To decide I held them both out to the side at shoulder height and closed my eyes and waited for one arm to feel heavier. They felt the same. Sandals won because they had open toes and I thought my feet would appreciate that after a day of toe banging in boots. Bug spray for sand flies- another full can. Well, I can’t spray half of it out and I’m told that the flies are vicious, so in it goes, even full. And in spite of the weight I brought my money, passport and credit cards, not trusting to leave them at the hostel for 5 days. I thought it was enough of a risk to leave my computer in their locked room. I went to bed mentally making sure I packed everything I would need.
SUNDAY, APRIL 6, 2008
Wake Up To The Adventure - .8 miles of walking
I was up extra early, writing my blog (yes, I do think of you) and making last minute packing decisions. After a lovely breakfast overlooking the Lake, Mandy called a taxi for me and I loaded all my luggage. Off we roared to the storage area of the hostel, which was further out of town than I thought it would be. After offloading my own backpack and suitcase (which has now been expanded to fit all the stuff I’ve accumulated) we raced through town to pull up beside the bus to Te Anau five minutes before departure. Imagine my surprise when I walked up to a full bus, stepped aboard and was greeted by everyone in unison saying “Hello Beth” (pronounced bayth). Sigh. My fate is sealed. I’m sure to be voted off the track. I’m also at a grave disadvantage now; everyone knows my name and yet I know no one at all. (Mercifully, we all wore name tags the entire trip) In defense I reminded them all that I still had 5 minutes, they were all way to early and there was still time for a cuppa. They all laughed and I slipped into a seat, wishing anonymity, but knowing all the while that that was now totally impossible.
The bus took us to a hotel in Te Anau where we had lunch - hot soup and an array of sandwiches. I sat at a table of mostly men, one of whom I had sat next to on the bus. Keith is a retired air traffic controller who likes the outdoors, particularly hiking. His wife was unable to make such an arduous trek, so he came alone. The other men indicated that their wives would not enjoy this sort of activity so they, too, came alone.
After lunch we were milling about waiting for a group photo when a bus rolled up. Murmur went around that this was a group that was just finishing, and so we were keen to see their expressions. Were they haggard? Were they limping? Or were they smiling and happy go lucky. Mixed. Hmmm……… No severe limping, some smiles, all together didn’t look too bad. Soon we were back on the bus and on the way to the far end of the lake. The ferry boat that transported us had an upper deck and a lower seating area inside. The captain provided a running commentary of the area we traversed. The lake was smooth and surrounded by mountains with high cliffs and small caves that the Maori used for shelter in winter. Further along was a small island with a memorial cross for Mackinnon, the first to cross the Mackinnon Pass in 1888 and a famous mountaineer in these parts. They know his boat wrecked in this area but all they found of him was his skull, which they buried at this spot. Now isn’t that a lovely way to start such a trek? On and on we went for an hour’s boat ride in the waning afternoon light to our dropping off point - a small dock and path. I felt like a cast member of “Survivor” as I stood and watched the boat drive off - without me. Committed. No way out but to walk to the other end.
But once we started the 20 minute walk to Glade House it was like being transported to a surreal place. Even though I was still sizing up the competition, I marveled at the scenery we passed. This was a rainforest and moss coated all the trees, their branches, the forest floor - everywhere. So many different kinds of shrubbery and trees and birds singing. I expected and alligator to pop out at any moment. Fortunately there are none in New Zealand. And just like that the walk ended and we came out to a clearing with a stream and a lodge in the midst of a grassy clearing. It could have been Montana for all I knew.
We were greeted with tea, scones, and cookies, a daily afternoon ritual. We were assigned our rooms, where we dropped our packs and explored the lodge and its’ small museum dedicated to the track. To reve up our appetites there was a nature walk through the moss covered forest where many of the trees and shrubs were identified, including a black pepper bush, which actually tasted like pepper. The Maoris used it as a pain killer. Could we rub it on our sore feet if needed? On the way back I noticed the head and antlers of a large deer, recently picked clean, leaning against the back of the lodge.
The choices for dinner were venison (Hmmm…..) or Blue Cod, all simply prepared with steamed squash and carrots without any seasoning and mashed potatoes. Very lean and healthy. Dessert, however, was different. A delicious apple strudel with some sort of baby gooseberry was offset with vanilla ice cream.
This group of 42 includes a large contingent of Aussies, about equally matched with Kiwis, one Korean (who has moved to Sydney), 1 Tasmanian, and 2 Americans, including myself. One group of Kiwis are high school and college chums who, along with spouses, have decided to do this together. Another group of Aussies all seem to work in the same ENT practice. All told there are about 3-4 doctors, a lawyer, a finance person, several retired couples, a young freelance photographer (US), a physical therapist, 2 teen boys, a management consultant, a few single women and a few single men (some just not with spouses). The group is very congenial, the Aussie/Kiwi rivalry notwithstanding. It actually was fodder for good humor.
After dinner everyone introduced themselves with a few comments, the guides gave a humorous presentation, there was more coffee and cookies, and a slide show about the next day’s walk. This all ended about 8:30PM, at which time some people stayed around for another beer and others, myself included, slipped off to bed. The generator stopped and all went dark at 10PM sharp.
MONDAY, APRIL 7, 2008
The First Real Day of Tramping - 10 miles (5-7 hours)
The lights came on at 6:45, waking everyone up without the need of an alarm. Fast shower, repack, and make your own lunch. At a long table were several stations of lunch meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and all sorts of sauces like chutney and chow-chow in addition to the usual mayo and mustard. At another station were several types of packaged cookies, chocolate bars, granola bars and fruit. No need to fill your water bottle as the stream water is drinkable and refreshing. Be sure to eat all your food and drink all your water we’re told. Don’t need to tell me twice. There’s muesli and other cereals with yogurt or milk, “porridge”, bacon (thin ham slices), baked tomatoes, poached eggs, crispy potato squares, and toast. Food is plentiful. As we hit the trail about 8:00 in a cloud of eau de bug spray, I can’t help but sing and skip to “We’re off to see the Wizard” because it seems we are following “The Yellow Brick Road”.
There is so much eye candy here - bare trees clothed in moss with little ecosystems growing on the moss, the tree branches twisting and intertwining in eerie shapes. The path is lined with a ditch along which giant ferns grow. White moss on green, reddish moss blending in - it’s just one amazing view after another.
We are following a river as it babbles along the wide Clinton Valley. We cross streams that feed into it either by suspension or wooden bridges. There are brown trout (fishing for one’s self is allowed with three licenses), eels, and ducks. The birds, whose names I’ve never heard of don’t chirp - they sing and flit around the trees. Rocks look like gold in the crystal clear water that we pass over on suspension bridges. On a short side track is a birch tree so wide that 7 people can stand around the trunk. Off another side track is a bog with spongy moss as far as you can see of all colors and shapes. You would sink to your knees if you walked on it, which you can’t. One moss looks like Italian parsley, another like curly. Some are yellow, others are white, and yet others are red. Interspersed are bushes, some with bare branches others with small leaves. And the mountains in the distance are ever present, rising some 3,000-4,000 feet above all around. At Hirere Falls shelter we stopped for lunch and a hot cup of soup or other hot drink. The break was needed and the soup, while powdered, tasted delicious. After the break the path climbed and at one point there was a break in the trees to provide a glimpse of the Mackinnon Pass, which we will traverse the following day. Along the path is a moss covered shape with twigs for antlers and two stones that someone has placed for eyes. It makes the shape look like a dinosaur of some sort and adds a little humor to the walk. Towards the end of the walk is a ramshackle building with a sign “Bus Stop” on the front, a little ironic given that there has never been a bus here, but this is used as a shelter in the event of flooding.
We were met at the entrance to Pampolona Lodge by fresh glasses of water or Tang and the lodge hostess, who showed us to our cabins. The night before I had been sharing a bunk house with an attorney from Tasmania, but this time there were 4 of us sharing - a couple from Auckland, the attorney and myself. After a little finagling the attorney and I moved to a separate cabin, allowing the couple a cabin to themselves.
The tea hour melted into the cocktail hour which melted into dinner. Conversation was decidedly more animated this evening and groups tended to mingle. Many of us made it a point to sit at a different table each night so as to meet each other.
The entré choices this evening were pasta bolognaise or salmon with a red pepper sauce. And after dinner, tea, the next day’s briefing, and a day full of glitter I melted off to bed.