Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hiking New Zealand

A couple of years ago I started planning a spring 2011 trip to Europe. But the euro was soaring against the dollar, and my abandoned plans to go to New Zealand as part of our trip to Austraila in 2008 weighed on my mind. I began researching a Kiwi road trip, and as always happens when my trip planning takes off, the place grew in my imagination.

I have what is popularly called a bucket list (and yes, it's long), but truthfully New Zealand wasn't on it. I pictured it as a pasture with sheep and nice Pinot Noir. Like one of those Viagra bathtub ads.  No fountains, ancient vineyards, or screaming Romans? Fuggetaboutit. But then came the Lord of the Rings films with the heartstopping landscapes, and, re-reading Tolkien as if it were a New Zealand guidebook, I became entranced.

I spend a lot of time on travel forums, as both teacher and student. When I'm going somewhere new, I try to avoid questions until I've done my research so that I don't end up asking something like "can I take a ferry to Fiji on a day trip from Australia?" (yes, actual question). But my first attempts at an itinerary were, much to my chagrin, shot down rather roundly. Too ambitious, and, most embarassing, I was planning to drive from one town to another where there were in fact no roads. I consulted my amazing travel guru agent extraordinnaire, Travel Beyond's Sue Rovegno, who helped me figure it all out and got me some good rates on properties as well. And then, somewhere in the planning process, I ran across the blog of a couple who had hiked the Milford Track. And oh, my imagination got me in trouble.

Look, Z and I, we're no athletes, but, I told myself, we're fit enough. We swim, play golf, hit the gym, and we even had some pretty good day hikes under our belt going up and down our mountain. Yes, 33.5 miles in three days with a climb up and down a mountain pass sounded like a LOT, but it was like those people I've always hated admired who in their forties decide to take up running and end up doing a marathon. I was 40, but just barely. And 40 is the new 20. Or something. It was a bright shiny GOAL, and the photos were so pretty.

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound

Now even though I was being incredibly foolish adventurous, it never crossed my mind to do the unguided "hut" hike. I draw the line at dehydrated meals. And carrying my own wine. So with a flourish, and buoyed by the website's description of the hike as "easy/moderate", I booked our Milford Track hike with Ultimate Hikes for the end of March 2011.

For the next several months, we expanded our local hikes until we managed an 8 hour adventure up and back down our mountain, with about a  2700 foot elevantion gain (and loss). This was similar to the elevation gain on the third day (second full day of hiking) on the Milford Track according to the trusty elevation map, which Ultimate Hikes kindly makes look innocuous enough.

We arrived in New Zealand two weeks before our scheduled death march Milford Track departure. There is something about the place, maybe it's the oxygenated air, maybe it's the sheep, I don't know, but we were downright vigorous vacationers. We hiked about 50 miles in those two weeks.

Around the gorgeous Waiheke Island:

Past huge kauri trees and down to the beach at Kauri Cliffs

Around volcanic thermal parks and the rainforests of Rotorua:

Across Cape Kidnappers to the gannett colony

the Rob Roy Galcier in Mount Aspiring Park.

We hiked to 1,043 dozens of water falls

And yes, before, in between, after, and during, we drank lots of wine

And saw lots of sheep

 I bought some tragically expensive hiking poles from some Nordic country that became my best friends. The Track loomed large for Z. His eyes grew wider as the days passed and we got closer and closer to M I L F O R D. I was fine. I got this. How hard could it be.

At the goregous Whare Kea Lodge in Wanaka, a chirpy 20-something manager tells us she just completed the Milford Track. Couldn't have been easier. It's even paved. Not really like a real trail at all. Huh.

View from Whare Kea Wanaka

Whare Kea Lodge
We arrived at Fiordland Lodge in Te Anau the day before THE DAY. Beyond its soaring glass windows was Lake Te Anau and in the distance, the start of the Milford Track. It was ominous looking.

Fiordland Lodge

The next morning at breafast our young server tells us he has just completed the Milford Track. How was it, we ask? He groans. He says he plays rugby, he thought he was fit, but the climb to Mackinnon Pass was brutal. We ask about sand flies and he points to a huge red sore on his face I thought was acne. Wait, what happened to "it's paved, hardly like a real trail at all!" ?? *($&%*(^$.

Well, it's too late now.

We arrived at the Ultimate Hikes parking lot as the bus carrying the newly minted Milford Track finishers was rolling in. I eyed them carefully. No obvious signs of PTSD. Was that some limping I detected? Whatever, that guy's old. I got this. How hard could it be.

We awkwardly met our fellow hiking companions and guides, including a boisterous, very tall guide, Paul, who goodnaturedy tried to steal Z's stylin' Artec jacket.

 It was a varied group, I was pleased to see, we didn't stand out. There were some young single females, a Kiwi couple in their 60s, a young American couple, a Chinese lesbian couple in their 30s or 40s, and a rambunctious, brimming with vim and vigor group of kiwi friends in their 50s, lawyers and doctors and their wives who looked like they did this kind of thing every weekend. My worn in but not worn down Asolos didn't peg me as a virgin. My backpack was neither too big or too small. I got this. How hard can it be.

Then it was on the bus, and then on the boat to cross Lake Te Anau.

Some explorer guy died there. Or about there. His body was never found. But we're told he loved the place.

So exciting! So beautiful! Ooo Ahh! It really was a gorgeous day. It was cold on the lake, but the sky was Bora Bora blue, the water reflecting the soaring peaks, I felt young and invincible and ready to DO THIS THING.

Then we're off the boat and officially ON THE MILFORD TRACK! First just a mile walk to Glade House, our first night's lodging. Easy-peasy. No prob. We all are off the boat and geared up and bustling down the trail towards Glade House. About 5 minutes in, I realize my shins are aching. 10 minutes later I realize they are BURNING. This can't be good. I feel the cold, ugly hand of panic. Is it my backpack? I hadn't carried this much stuff before. Were they going to have to heli me out of there? OMG! Then we're at Glade House and are shown to our rooms.

I say nothing to Z about my shins, it's just too bloody embarassing. I need a drink. But first, we're ordered outside to all take a mandatory group photo.  As we're standing there, the vicious, legendary sand flies attack. I'd already been bitten a few days earlier, and the insane welts and itching that resulted had me abandoning all eco-friendly bullshit and using 75% DEET. One annoying loser decides to skip the mandatory photo (obviously missing that particular word in his word-of-the-day calendar), and they leave us there for the flies while they track him down.

A blessedly optional "nature" hike follows, we beg off and head off to find large quantities of alcohol.

That night after an excellent dinner and a bottle of wine, we get a briefing on the next day's schedule and hike. We're to be up at 6am for breakfast, to make our lunch, and then on the trail between 7-7:30am. It's to be an easy 10 mile hike, mostly flat. As I expected, I'm ready to leave at 7:30am, but have to wait another 15 minutes for Z. We're not the last ones to leave though, aside from the kiwis, who zoomed out like roadrunners before I even cleared the sleep form my eyes, everyone's moving pretty slow. It's a beautiful day, cool and crisp, clear skies, and I'm glad the legendary Milford Track weather hasn't yet shown its face.

We cross the Clinton River on a footbridge and we're off.

There are a few optional side trips, and we take them all the first day, as there's plenty of time and the hiking is easy. The beech forest becomes more luxurious and we make good time.

As the day wears on, the sky turns an amazing blue.

We rarely see any of our fellow hikers, it's like we have Middle Earth to ourselves.

My shins and legs feel great, and I realize that what happened is we speedwalked that mile to the Glade House in order to keep up with the bloody kiwis. I know not to make THAT mistake again. We cruise toward the back the pack, absolutely amazed that we're here, in this incredible place, doing this incredible thing.

We reach Pomplona Lodge around 3:30pm. It's a bit of a climb the last hour, but we feel strong. A rest, shower, dinner follow. Food, wine, accomodations are all very good, which makes me guilty when we come upon "independent" hikers. Ah, who I am kidding, I think they're idiots. I'm feeling fantastic about our first day, but the part I've been dreading, the climb to MacKinnon Pass, is the next day. I sleep well, though, apparently untroubled enough.

Day 2. MacKinnon Pass day. The weather has turned, and it is with shaky hands and weak knees that I survey the gloomy sky and the day ahead. 9 miles. About a 2700 foot elevation gain. And then the long, steep, scramble down (which isn't even on my radar). Our guides chirp about how great it is we're going to get rain as it will keep the sandflies at bay and the waterfalls cascading. Yeah. Right.

We climb steadily to the beginning of the "zigzags". Thirteen in all which, when completed, will mean we have arrived at MacKinnon Pass. The rain has held off and as I climb I count each zigzag and realize I am almost halfway up before I even stop to take a breather. My elation carries me the rest of the way up. I cannot believe I was worried about this.

We arrive at the monument just before the weather completely turns. While we don't get the amazing stunning views we would have gotten on a completley clear day, we can see all the way back down the valley to our desintation, Quinton Lodge. Yes, it looks very far away, but I'm feeling too good to really contemplate the meaning of that little speck.

The the rain and the wind start. Our shelter and lunch spot, Mackinnon Pass Hut, is a mile away from the monument, which I had not expected. As we start walking again, the wind begins howling, with enough strength that I am literally almost blown over. The trail falls off steeply on both sides. Every drop of well-being and confidence I had evaporates. Our guide, Kimmy, walks in front of us and stops and encourages me frequently. I am incredibly grateful for her presence. She is small but seems confident and sturdy. I use my poles to try and remain upright. I hate this.

Z stops to pose at the highest elevation sign post and expects me to take a picture. I contemplate pushing him over the side, but take the photo. I want shelter. Now.

We finally get to Mackinnon Pass Hut. Pretty much our entire hiking group is still there, even the kiwis, which makes me feel better. At least they're not already down sipping scotch and making merry while I'm stuck here in hell. The wind and rain howls. Z actually goes out to the outhouse clinging to the side of the cliff and flailing about in the 60 mph gusts. I decline.I can't even think about the soggy sandwiches in my backpack. I eat a Mounds bar and wish the kiwis would offer me some of the hooch I KNOW THEY HAVE.  As everyone begins to finish up their lunch and leave to start the descent, I tear up. I am terrified of being blown off the mountain. I don't want to leave. I beg nonexistent Milford Tracks gods for a sudden cessation of the wind. It doesn't happen. Paul, a guide, has gone on ahead with a group and radios back advising people to stick together as "things are bad". I almost cry. I am not a crier.

Finally, I buck up. Kimmy's going with us. I can do this. I just climbed MacKinnon Pass and it WASN'T EVEN HARD. What is wrong with me? Stop being a baby! Now! And so off we go.

Kimmy walks ahead as I do one of the hardest things I've ever done, which is walk down a mountain in a hurricane. Or so it seems. The trail clings to the side of the mountain and several times I consider just sitting down and waiting it out. But I keep going, one foot in front of the other, desperately keeping Kimmy in my sights. Paul said the tree line is only 30 minutes away, then we'll be safe. I keep looking for tree line, but it's another hour before we're even close. Finally out of the wind, I stop fearing death, and just concentrate on the constant pain in my knees as the trail steeply descends. Down Down Down. I cannot believe this, but I really wish for more up.  I tell Z we should be at the lodge by 4pm if my calculations are right, he scoffs and says it's much further, 5:30pm if we're lucky. HE'S lucky there's no more cliff to push him over. I am soaked to the skin, but every part of me is just focused on putting one foot in front of the other over the difficult trial; slippery rocks and roots and steep decline. Z stops at one point at a shelter to put on dry clothes. This strikes me as ridiculous and I keep going and don't see him again.

Holy crap, is this place beautiful.

A few minutes before 4pm, I start to think I really can't walk anymore. My knees are screaming, and I don't know if I've just missed the mile markers, but I'm disoriented about how far I've gone or how much further it is. I wait a while for Z but he doesn't show up, and my knees hurt more standing still than they do moving, so I turn around, and start walking again, and then I see it.

Quinton Lodge. A handsome lodge staff guy greets me and I see a woodstove merrily burning in an inviting room. "I have never been so happy to see a place in my entire life" I say. And it's true. I inquire if I was the last one (besides Z) in, and he says "not even close". I suddenly feel awesome. I did it. There is wine and fire and a bed in my future. And it is straight up 4pm.

I am invited to go on a 90 minute hike to Sutherland Falls. After I stop laughing hysterically, I head to my room to peel off my waterlogged layers and put everything in the drying room. The kiwis also skip the falls hike, but seem none the worse for wear, laughing it up and pouring liberally. I park next to the woodstove with my wine and my burning, sad feet up on a pillow. Z shows up about a half hour later. He's more exhausted than I am but seems almost giddy. After a fantastic dinner (hokey pokey ice cream!), many are treated for blisters.  Two of the Americans fell on the descent and are bandaged and limping badly. I happily am not so afflicted but take Advil steadily.

I sleep like the dead, completely unaffected by the thought of tomorrow's THIRTEEN MILE hike. All I've heard is that it's flat, and that's all I need to hear. Piece. of. cake. I have survived MacKinnon Pass. So there.

The next day dawns just beautiful.

Waterfalls are everywhere after the previous day's rain. I take off. I don't know what a runner's high is, but I think I have a hiker's high. I feel fantastic, strong, and like I'm 20 years old. The Advil has pretty much done it's job, although when there is the occasional incline or worse, decline, I feel it. But I'm flying. It's a gorgeous day, and my last one, on the Milford Track.

This was I thought the most beautiful day on the track.

I left Z behind pretty early. I flew past several others on the track as well, which is a first, including the American couple who look shellshocked. At one point I even see the backs of the kiwis and I feel like I am a tramping superhero. I'm channeling Gandalf. I'm a track wizard.

Then about five miles in, around mile marker 25, I get whatever the opposite of the runner's high is. The lunch stop which is around mile 26 seems all but unreachable. I wait for Z. We carry on together moving much more slowly and encounter some brutal uphills that on any other day wouldn't even register, but today my knees feel like every incline is Everest. We make the lunch spot and are pleased to see we're well on pace with everyone except the kiwis who are probably in Fiji already.

Lunch is at a gorgeous waterfall, and all I want is to take off my hiking boots and socks and put my feet in the freezing cold water. Which I do. And I am instantly swarmed by sandflies on the exposed flesh. I can't bear the thought of getting up to go get my backpack to get out more spray. I put my boots back on and stand up and just want it all to be over.

At this point, I pretty much put away the camera. I'm nervous about making the boat on time, and I also really don't want to be bringing up the rear, which so far we've avoided. The only people behind us, however, are the Chinese couple, and although Z and I feel like we're booking it, every time we slow down even a little, there they are on our heels, with a guide in tow. Babysitting. We whisper "the Chinese are coming dammit!" and pick up the pace.

At this point, the most beautiful things we saw,\ were the mile markers. But those damn things could either make me the happiest woman on earth, or plunge me into despair.

Sometimes, we'd miss one. And sometimes, we walked for so long we were sure we HAD missed one, only to realize that no, we really did just take over an hour to walk ONE MILE.

Only two days ago, three and half miles seemed like a lark. I can do that in 30 minutes on an elliptical trainer. What's the big deal? Now, it seemed like a marathon. Our jokes about a death march suddenly became NOT FUNNY.

I think we were actually almost passed by the Chinese at this point. Between that and realizing we now had only 2.5 miles left, we found something extra.

This was a huge one. It became apparent we weren't going to miss the boat, and in fact might make it in time for the early sailing (which was good, because who wants to sit around at a place called Sandfly Point?).

O. M. G.

Notice my hands were none too steady in taking Z's photo. But holy crap, we did it. We actually did it.

We missed the early boat (and the kiwis. Of course.), but as the Chinese were hot on our heels, and everyone else was present and accounted for, having arrived just ahead of us, the boat turned right around and picked us up after just a few minutes in the Ultimate Hikes shelter at Sandfly point. A quick boat ride took us to our hotel for the night, the Mitre Peak lodge overlooking the Milford Sound.

Our floor was on the second floor. We were out of Advil and so stopped in the gift shop for more before attempting to climb the stairs to our room. None. No aspirin. No nothing. The clerk took pity on us when she saw our horrified faces and actually went and got her own stash of some sort of painkillers out of her purse. I loved her.

That night, our group met to be presented with our certificates of completion and photos. Each person stood and walked up to get theirs when their name was called. I just sat and waved a weak hand, and Kimmy brought me mine. I took some satisfaction from the kiwis who groaned whenever they got up, and after saying what a great time they had also said they wouldn't be in any hurry to do it again.

The young perky single girls did the naked tunnel run that night along with our guides.  Don't even ask.

The next day was our treat, a cruise on the Milford Sound. We weren't moving around too well, so it was a good thing it wasn't very demanding.

It was absolutely stunning.

Then it was time for the bus ride back to Te Anau, and to say our goodbyes. As I stumbled off the bus, I saw the new set of virgins sizing us up. I limped heavily and saw a girl look away and I knew she was thinking "whatever. She's old. I've got this."  Ha!

After another night at Fiordland Lodge where we commiserated with our waiter, now all being Milford Track FINISHERS, we made our way to Blanket Bay outside of Queenstown for three days of what we expected to be R&R. Just a gorgeous room, a cozy fire,  lots of wine, and plenty of Advil.

Our room at Blanket Bay

Blanket Bay Lodge
 And then, New Zealand happened to us. Again. Yes, we found ourselves HIKING.

First there was Glenorchy. Black swans in golden mirror ponds and snow capped peaks. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? The place was unbelieveable.

And then, you know what we said? That Milford Track was FANFRIGGINTASTIC! We were AWESOME! Let's do the Routeburn with Ultimate Hikes when we come back! Yes, we actually had that conversation. And of course, as we were just a short drive from the start of the Routeburn, we decided we'd just go check it out. Not hike on it or anything, because that would be, ya know,CRAZY, but just look at the sign or something.

And then, we decided just to walk on it a little ways.

And it was so beautiful that we walked a little further...

And way leads on to way...

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