In 1993 I met a man who became an amazing friend, Steve Mason. Steve and I met while working together at a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida and quickly became friends. We both enjoyed hiking and Steve took me for my first trip on the Appalachian Trail. While that first trip was less than a rousing success (we were wholly unprepared for rats in the shelter and made some decisions that were made in what I now believe was a state of mild hypothermia) but, we continued to enjoy weekend outings together.
From l-r, yours truly and best friends Bob & Steve on our way to Cumberland Island, Georgia (1995).
Steve planted an idea in my mind that we should plan a trip to New Zealand and hike the Milford Track. I remember sitting on Saturday mornings watching Trailside on PBS and one episode was dedicated to host John Viehman’s hike of this iconic New Zealand trail. Between Steve’s enthusiasm and desire to go to New Zealand, and Trailside’s epic production of the hike experience, I was hooked. I knew I wanted this experience too.
In 1997, Steve was taken from this world, far too soon in everyone’s opinion. His was a life that touched everyone around him and now, more that 20 years later he is still dearly missed. But I still have kept the dream of hiking the Milford Track alive. This is my third trip to New Zealand and because the Milford Track is so popular, hut passes (required to hike the trail) are almost impossible to obtain. So, I opted for a guided hike with Ultimate Hikes. Now that my hike is complete, I wouldn’t have taken on this trail any other way.
A little history about the Milford Track for those who are unfamiliar with this little piece of heaven on earth. In 1880, Donald Sutherland and John Mackay carved out a route from Milford Sound to Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in New Zealand. At 580m (1900ft) this majestic beauty is one of the highlights of the trip and the original attraction drawing people beyond Milford Sound. In 1888, Quinton McKinnon (his name is spelled Mackinnon in some places) set out from Te Anau to create an overland route to Milford Sound, joining the route Sutherland and Mackay had already finished. McKinnon discovered what is now called Mackinnon Pass and the overland route from Te Anau to Milford Sound was complete. Originally, the only way people could enjoy this adventure was with a guide leading them. In 1966, the trail was opened to independent (non-guided) walkers and has been enjoyed by thousands of people every year.
My guided tour with Ultimate Hikes began in Queenstown with a four hour bus ride to Te Anau Downs. Here, we boarded a boat and began our journey to Glade Wharf, the northern end of Lake Te Anau. Our group, 50 trampers and four guides, disembarked the boat and started our short trek to Glade House, the first lodge on our journey. Our guides then took everyone on a guided nature walk to point out flora and fauna common to the area and give us all something to do before dinner. This was the only activity I opted out of, not because I was being anti-social, but because I’ve hiked in Fiordland on several occasions and knew this was probably going to be my only opportunity to just relax and enjoy nature for myself over the next few days. It’s a very different experience going from tramping 2600km of New Zealand by yourself to being part of an intimate group of 54 people hiking a trail together. This also gave me time to play around with my camera (which I am still struggling to learn).
If you’ve ever looked around a room full of people, trying to decide who is the weirdo, and no one seems to be the weirdo, then the good news is, you’re the weirdo. The first night at Glade House, we all got up and introduced ourselves and why we were walking the Milford Track. I was in awe of couples celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, old school friends enjoying a reunion, parents getting away from children and the daily grind for a much needed vacation, and family and friends traveling the world together. I particularly enjoyed the group from Korea making sure we understood they were from SOUTH Korea. I was proud to stand up and share that I was finally fulfilling the dream Steve shared with me and I was excited about the journey ahead. It may sound cliche to say we had an amazing group of people, but the other 53 people on this journey were truly wonderful, caring, and thoughtful. So, as a Te Araroa tramper, I was clearly the weirdo and I’m OK with that.
I’ve decided to post about this excursion in installments because it started as just a side trip on my Te Araroa adventure and became one of the defining experiences of my New Zealand trip. I hope you all are excited about what’s coming soon from this experience!
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