Funny how my ‘excellent adventure’ has worked out at times, with inspiration finding me at the seemingly most random moments- though now I have to think that nothing is random and there’s generally a reason for everything- assuming you’re open to it. For example, in January while I was in Cape Town, sitting in Joe’s living room- I still had nothing booked for after I’d return to New York and pack up all my stuff to move out of my Apt. Had a few ideas, but that was pretty much it. Then one afternoon I noticed a National Geographic book on his coffee table about their favorite places in the world- to hike, to climb, to cycle, to explore etc. As I flipped through the pages, this one place jumped out at me. Milford Sound, New Zealand, home of the Milford Track, which was in their opinion one of the best treks on Earth… and it was just that simple. I knew where I’d be going next. This was the centerpiece of my New Zealand experience and the inspiration for everything that surrounded it. None of it- not the Mystery Machine, not the camping, the hiking, the nature, the friendships, any of the amazing moments that led to such an incredible experience- none of it would’ve happened had I not been looking through that book at that moment. I’m forever grateful that it called out to me that day…
The Milford Track (pics at bottom as always):
It’s been dubbed ‘The Finest Walk in the World’ and it 100% lived up to its billing. Keep in mind that at this point my hiking/trekking experience has been limited to many day hikes- maybe 5 hours at most- in Cape Town and whatever I had found in NZ up to that point. I was by no means, a ‘hiker’. So, the thought of ~34 miles over the course of 3 days was a little intimidating! We’d be carrying all our own stuff from lodge to lodge so that also made for a new experience for me- I’d have to be pretty mindful as to what I brought with and what I left behind.
I was totally that guy- the guy who shows up with brand new gear, having just bought most of it outside of my backpack and boots the day before. Hiking Poser. Oh well, everyone’s stuff was new at some point right? I was just gonna have to get this stuff dirty asap!
I had to book my trip through the one approved trekking company as the limited spots for ‘independent’ travelers book up the moment they are released, roughly a year in advance! This trail is that popular… But I didn’t mind that I’d be traveling with a group. Figured it’d be good for meeting new people, having some company when I wanted some on the walk etc, plus the trekking company also had access to the nicer huts (camping lodges) along the way so I wouldn’t be ‘roughing it’ the way the independents were.
Meeting up that morning, I realized how many people there were… there were a lot! In addition to what I assumed the ‘normal’ sized group was, there was also a separate group of about 15 people from Taiwan joining us as well- needless to say, there would be a lot of people on the trail these few days. This was going to be interesting. After storing our packs below, we boarded the bus and we were off…
One thing about Milford Sound is that it’s pretty well isolated from the rest of NZ- no cell service. So they recommended that if we had any notes to send or calls to make, we should do that now as we’d be off the grid for the next 5 days. At this point I knew Grammy was close to leaving us, but she was still hanging on. I had the sad feeling that while on the trail something would happen and I wouldn’t find out about it until after I returned. At our last pit stop, I called Dad to chat, see how she was doing, see how He was doing, and let him know that I’d be out of touch, but that I was there with both of them in spirit. It was nice to see his face (we video chatted) before I was to set off on this trek. As it turned out, I was right. Grammy passed while I was on the trail and I found out when my finally connected to a signal on my way home…. but, we’ll come back to that.
After the bus, we boarded a boat which would take us to the beginning of the trail. It was a beautiful day and the scenery was stunning. Lush green trees and crystal blue water complimented the bright sunshine quite nicely. I could already see why people wanted to do this. Speaking of the people, in addition to the Taiwanese, there were about 25 other trekkers. At quick glance I appeared to be one of the youngest, which at 40 is saying something! Reality is that this tour company is designed (priced) for the older traveler rather than your typical ‘backpacker’, so the average age tends to be higher (I later found out it was ~55). Was funny being seen as one of the ‘kids’ again, apart from our guides of course who were all in their early-mid 20’s… enjoying what I have to imagine is one of the better summer jobs in the world!
Getting off the boat, we were officially on the trail (though we’d only trek one mile today to the first lodge)! From there we’d go on a nature hike for a bit, get settled, take a group photo, and spend the evening getting to know the guides, the trail and what we had in store, and each other. Many different countries were represented, there were a lot of married couples (I think I was the only solo traveler), older groups of friends, etc… it was a pretty diverse group. After a great meal, it was off to bed- we had 9 miles to trek the next day!
The morning routine was as follows. Wake up, head into the main hall to pack your lunch/snacks for the day (they had assorted sandwich/salad making items, fruit, nuts, chocolate etc) before it got too crowded, then enjoy breakfast/coffee, then go shower and get yourself ready to roll. In general you could leave as soon as you were ready, there was no set time as there were 4 guides who walked along with various parts of the group. It was a good system in that the lead guide basically would walk as fast as the fastest walkers and the rear guide would stay with the slowest, with the two in between keeping watch on the other parts of the group. This meant everyone pretty much got to go at whatever pace they wanted, which I appreciated. In a group that large I know I would’ve been prone to impatience if I was constantly waiting… so kudos to them, they kept everyone happy.
I’ll get back to this as well, but we had perfect weather the entire trip. Milford Sound is one of the rainiest places on the planet getting some 6.5 meters (over 250 inches) of rainfall every year! When we packed, they told us to be ready for all climates, and they always joked when someone asked them what the weather would be the next day- ‘promising’, they replied, as in it ‘promised’ to be something, though they had no idea what. Given its reputation, I was stoked when we were greeted with another beautiful sunny day to kick things off. The scenery was beautiful. The air was crisp. And if we ever ran out of water in our bottles, we had only to locate the nearest stream to fill up with some of the most amazing, fresh, and icy cold water I’ve ever tasted- now that’s some high quality H2O! I walked by myself for a bit, before heading to the front with one of our guides, Eoin, a cool guy from Ireland who was working there for the summer. We chatted about travel and life in general, in addition to him pointing out a bunch of cool stuff along the way. I decided I liked this approach, every day I’d find some alone time, but also spend time getting to know people and share stories. Ha, one other thing I decided I’d do, was 15 pushups (with my pack on) at every mile marker. I decided the hiking was good, but I wanted some addl exercise as well. It became a running thing throughout the trek as every time we passed a marker everyone I was with would count out my pushups for me. Yes, I’m that guy, but you know what, I AM that guy so… what can I say.
After lunch, a guide named Veronica took the lead of the group so I walked along with her. She was my guide for the nature walk the day before and we had chatted a bit. Super cool girl, very free spirit, studying to be a Marine Biologist (will hopefully remove a golf ball from a whale’s blow hole someday… talk about a hole in one!). As we neared where we’d be staying that night, we came upon a lake they’d told us about. I decided to hop in. The day was so warm and sunny and though it was super cold, the water felt amazing! Some of the others caught up and I convinced them to join as well. AND since the guides have an unwritten rule that if any of the campers go in, they HAVE to go in also, in jumped Veronica. Bliss. Why have I never done these things before? This was one of those moments I’ll look back on with a smile… always.
Evenings went like this- get settled in your new room. ‘Happy hour’ with light snacks (and beer/wine you could put on a tab to be settled at the end) and chatting, then a really nice dinner/dessert with your new friends, then a bit about what we could expect the next day as well as an ongoing history lesson about the region and the trail itself. It was pretty cool… After that everyone was generally pretty tired so most headed to bed. Tonight was no exception. Had 11.5 miles to hit tomorrow.
Though the first 9 miles was a bit of a ‘cruiser’ (trekking word for a nice easy hike), today’s bit would be a little more challenging as we had to traverse up and over a fairly steep mountain pass. Along the way we’d allegedly be treated to some amazing views of the Southern Himalayas (I liked how they were called this as I’d be heading to Everest and the ‘Northern Himalayas’ next). After the standard morning ritual, I was off, departure was around 730am. The morning was a bit overcast and chilly, in addition to the early hour making it still a little dark. This all led to a bit of a slower start, c’mon coffee, do your thing! As we started up the pass there was a group of us hiking together. Made the climb a little easier somehow to not do it alone. I was still doing my pushups, now it was a challenge, could I keep it up over the 33.5 miles of the trail. If I was feeling good, I’d bump it up to 20! Quick math told me I’d be doing over 500 over the course of the trail… good times. As we got to the top of the pass the wind kicked in huge! We were up in the clouds now and holy shit it got cold fast! This was the changing climate they talked about. I’d seen some of Mark’s (one of the other guides- awesome guy from Christchurch) photos from his last trek and this part was so clear and amazing! Today it felt like a tornado! We paused for a bit to warm up with some hot chocolate/coffee and take some photos (when the clouds broke momentarily) but then we got the hell out of there! Our lodge for lunch was just 300 meters down the trail and there would be much less wind in there!
After lunch, I decided to walk alone for a bit, to check in with myself. The weather changed again. On the back side of the ridge it was sunny and amazing! Now we could see the snow capped mountains in front of the clear blue sky. All the wind gear was shed and it was back to hiking in a t-shirt and shorts. I found cool spots to sit and meditate, I took some time to sit and journal, I took heaps (another new word) of photos… it was amazing. We passed many smaller waterfalls, mountain streams, cool birds, giant ferns, etc… Oh and speaking of Waterfalls, we were camping that night next to one of the largest in the world! So, when I finally got to our lodge for the night, and even though I had just hiked for ~7 hours (crossing 11 miles up and over a mountain ridge), I hopped right back on the trail (no pack this time) to hike the 45 minutes to Sutherland Falls. I was tired for sure, but also feeling so alive! So much so that I decided to trail run up! The falls were amazing! There were a lot of people hanging out there and more on the way as this was one of the highlights of the trail. I found a spot out in the rocks to meditate for a bit- even the sand flies left me alone! Nature is cool.
Back at the lodge we settled in for our meal. I had made a few friends by now and I was eating with them most nights. There was one guy named Wizzard (seriously) who worked as a chef at one of other lodges doing the season. I guess they all get to experience the trek as a participant once or twice per season as part of their job so he was hiking with our group. Well, it was his birthday and somehow a bottle of scotch was produced (I can’t confirm where it came from). This is also after the celebratory bottles of wine we had with our dinner. So… we toasted into the eve and chatted a lot. It was really fun, though I knew I’d pay for it in the morning, especially with an even earlier departure time than normal…
Our last day of trekking would cover over 13 miles, taking us all the way to Sandfly point, which is where the trail ended. As expected, my head was a little cloudy and it took me a little bit to get moving. This was one of the only times I decided to hike with music, as I thought (correctly) that it would help motivate me. Although the day was also meant to be more of a cruiser, we finally got our taste of Milford rain. Thankfully it never got too terrible, it was always just a steady drizzle. And even though we were under the canopy of the trees for most of the day, we were all still pretty soaked by the end. But it was fun! This is what Milford was known for so I’m glad we got to experience it, and thankfully it wasn’t the day before when we had our climb! Both ways, up AND down, would have been infinitely more challenging with a slippery trail. So, when I say we had perfect weather the whole time, this is what I meant. We got to experience it all, the sun, the wind, the rain… but in the most opportune moments of the trek. It was a long day, but eventually we all made it! Our hair was wet, our socks were squishy, but our smiles were large and our hearts were full. We’d just completed The Finest Walk in the World.
From Sandfly point, we’d catch a small boat back to Milford Sound where we’d actually be staying in a proper hotel rather than a camping lodge! Not that the lodges were bad at all, they were quite nice given the wilderness, but this was a nice bed, with an in-room bathroom and shower! After 4 nights on a bunkbed, this was Heaven! That night we had a celebratory happy hour/dinner. Everyone had sent clothes/items they didn’t need for the hike ahead to this lodge back at the beginning so people got all cleaned up, dressed in nice clothing, the ladies had hair and makeup done, and the guides finally got to get out of their red polos they had worn all week! Tonight would be a good time… It was cool seeing everyone all so happy- everyone feeling good about themselves. It’s amazing how a proper shower and some clothes that aren’t covered in Deet will do that for you…
After the cocktail hour, we settled in for our final meal. The guides were finally allowed to eat with the guests, which was a nice touch for both us and them. We had spent so much time with them this week, it was cool to share dinner (and our wine!) with them as well. After dinner we had a ‘graduation’ ceremony, where one by one they’d call us up and we’d get a certificate in front of the group. And then it was time to party 🙂 Music was turned on, people continued to drink, play pool, chat, etc. It was a nice celebration for everyone… on the last night we’d be together. Though it was only a few days, we had spent a lot of time with each other… and it was coming to a close. Good times.
After some AMAZING sleep and some breakfast/coffee, we were off to the final part of our tour, a cruise around Milford Sound. Luckily the weather cooperated for us and we were treated to a sunny (albeit a little chilly) morning on the water. We sailed around for 90 minutes or so, taking in the beautiful scenery. One of the benefits of it having rained the previous day was that the waterfalls were all more full, which was a nice touch! The Captain even nosed the bow of the ship right into the tip of one for anyone that wanted a little waterfall shower (I, of course, did), it was awesome! And that was that… After we docked, we boarded the bus that would take us back to Queenstown. Milford Track- completed.
On the bus home (after a quick nap) I thought back on the days… I really loved this hike, being in nature, and this was something that was only getting stronger. I knew I’d spend the rest of my time in New Zealand out on trails as much as possible. I knew that being outdoors would play a much greater role in rest of this excellent adventure. (beyond NZ). It was good for me. Around now my phone started buzzing as I finally connected to service again. There were many messages from the past 5 days, but there was the one I had feared I’d get. My grandmother had finally passed away 2 days earlier. Though I was sad, I was also a little happy (which I know is an odd choice of words). Finally my Dad would have some peace as I know these past few weeks since she started to leave us had been hard on him, even if he didn’t show it. Finally Grammy would be at peace, joining Pop up in Heaven. And I myself had found peace, knowing that more than anything she loved me, and that she’d ultimately always be with me…. every time I see an owl I know she’s there.
The Milford Trail. My call to New Zealand. The inspiration for what would become one of the most important months in my adult life. For many reasons, it truly is… the Finest Walk in the World.
Much love and bliss,
The boat ride in, stunning scenery!
Here we go!
A new path laid out in front of me…
Our first lodge
My Room! (no roommates though so had it all to myself)
The journey of 1000 (or in this case 33.5) begins with a single step
The whole walk was with complemented with scenes like these…
These little robins accompanied us the whole way, hoping our steps might turn up some bugs for them to eat!
Chillin (quite literally) in this lake! But it felt so good…
Beauty in nature…
The only time I spotted a Kea- a super mischievous little alpine parrot.
Ninja’ing in the forest. Probably just finished some pushups…
Monument to Quinton McKinnon at top of McKinnon Pass…
I was told there were mountains in front of me (you can’t tell but it was SO windy up here in the clouds!)
Oh, there they are! Quick! Take a picture during the cloud break!
View from above…
A fine spot for some #headspace
And a #FlatEmma pic of course
Some pics from the back side of McKinnon Pass, heading toward Sutherland Falls
Sutherland Falls, the tallest true waterfall in New Zealand- breathtaking.
Even treated to a little rainbow at the base….
Group dinner for Wizzard’s birthday!
Channeling my ‘inner warrior’ and eating my steak with my hands…
A (perfectly) rainy start to the day
The few sun breaks gave me the chance to attempt to get ‘artsy’ with some photos
The locals call these mushrooms ‘fairy pads’ as they believe the wood fairies would hang out here. Kind of a magical little story, I like it…
Some pics with the crew
We made it!
A wet boat ride back
Me and the guides! Awesome people…
Our ride for the morning (a much better boat than yesterday!)
Milford Sound at sunrise
We nosed right up into this waterfall!
Once again, Thank you New Zealand for a trip I’ll never forget…
Just a guy on a hero's journey...