Billed as ``the finest walk in the world,'' the Milford Track has lured hikers from around the globe for almost a century now. Nestled in the alps of New Zealand's South Island, the 34-mile track stretches from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound. Entrance and exit are by boat only. Away from cars and highways, ``tramping'' here, as hiking is called in New Zealand, can be a three-day discovery of this nation's finest alpine scenery. The track's route resulted from efforts to link the west coast to Lake Te Anau. In 1888, explorer Quintin Mackinnon pushed west from Lake Te Anau and cut his way through dense brush in what is known today as Mackinnon Pass to join a path to Milford Sound. Soon afterwards, the route was developed as a tourist hike with Mackinnon as head guide.
Today the Milford Track plays host to thousands of hikers during its November-to-March season. Yet few signs of human intrusion appear. An occasional hut and a well-maintained trail with drainage ditches are among the few reminders of the world beyond.
There are two ways to tramp the Milford Track. The Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) runs a guided trip, providing staffed huts with hot showers and drying rooms for wet clothes. With an issue of sleeping sheets and rain gear, the THC eliminates the hassle and extra weight of gear. A pair of sturdy boots and some physical conditioning are the only requirements.
For the independent minded, the Fiordland National Park runs an unescorted trip. The ``freedom walkers'' stay in FNP huts and carry their own cooking and sleeping gear.
My husband, Joseph, and I chose the THC trip. Since we were including the hike in our tour of New Zealand and Australia, we liked the idea of not having to lug extra gear.
Our preparations for the track began in Te Anau, a lakefront town trafficked by tourist buses and sightseeing planes. Checking in at the track headquarters, we lined up behind a woman from Auckland. In an accent that was more cockney than New Zealand, she shyly told us that this was her first hike. ``My children took bets if I will finish,'' she drawled, as she struggled to stuff gear into her pack.
At 1 p.m., we boarded the bus for a 20-minute drive to the dock, where a steamer waited to take us across Lake Te Anau. Our group of 28 included both the elderly and the overweight, the novice and the veteran. The average age was about 50. Many had never hiked before.
As the Tawera slid across the lake, we relaxed in the warm November sunshine. Around us, mountains cascaded down into the clear lake, creating mysterious inlets. The boat turned, and the lake narrowed as we approached the starting dock.
Greeting us at the Glade House dock were the notorious sand flies. Smaller than the mosquito, the sand fly creates misery for the hiker who forgets his repellent.
During a 15-minute walk to the hut, we lingered in the dim beech forest, trying to identify strange new birds. Having no indigenous mammals, New Zealand compensates with an abundant bird life. We saw a tui, a tit, and the friendly long-legged South Island robin. Unseen above, bellbirds struck their ding-dong notes.
On the steps of Glade House, Phil Turnbull greeted us with a smile. Phil and his wife, Betty, have hosted hikers every season for 16 years. The hut was simple but comfortable, with separate bunkrooms for men and women and a large living and dining room.
That night after dinner, Phil called a group meeting. Urged on by Betty on the out-of-tune piano, we sang various national anthems. The Turnbulls seemed to know them all. After describing the next day's itinerary, Phil advised: ``Take your time. Enjoy the scenery and relax. That's what the Milford Track is all about.''
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we set off. The trail led across a meadow to a suspension bridge over the Clinton River. Crossing the bridge, we walked under trees dripping with thick moss. Feet sank into a cushion of soft earth. Overhead, the forest brimmed with an amazing array of birds. The path followed the river, gradually climbing uphill, passing under the towering ``Black Forest'' and winding through an impressive avalanche field.
Six Mile Hut was our lunch stop. Ron, our guide from Glade House, turned back, and Louis took over. Assigned to specific huts, the four track guides ferry the groups from one part of the trail to another. While we munched our roast beef sandwiches, kea birds -- large, multihued parrots -- begged for tidbits, occasionally snatching whole lunches from the unsuspecting hiker.
Soon after Six Mile Hut, the trail turned a corner, and there it was -- the pass, a 3,835-foot saddle surrounded by 6,000-foot snowcapped. It looked imposing. Remembering my lax training, I felt a twinge of anxiety. The trail passed several lakes, fed by waterfalls gliding down the side of cliffs. The terrain steepened, and the trail began to climb. Breathless, we arrived at Pampalona Hut, which was named for the fried scones that the guide Mackinnon used to serve his hikers.
After dinner, the guide narrated a slide show that showed the pass in sunshine, in drenching rain, and under snow -- in January (New Zealand's summer). ``You have to be prepared for anything,'' Louis commented coolly.
Dark skies greeted us the next morning. Anticipating a long day, we hurried to get an early start and arrived at Lake Mintaro around 10 a.m. Suddenly, the low-lying clouds obscuring the pass lifted, allowing a view of the vertical slope leading to the top. Where do we go up, I wondered.
The climb was easier than it had appeared from below. Eleven switchbacks led us up at a moderate incline. At the 10th switchback, the trees disappeared, and we could look down. Below lay the serpentine river valley, like a map of our accomplishments. Reaching the top, we dropped our packs by the cairn erected to commemorate Mackinnon and rushed to look down what is known as the ``seven-second drop.'' Far below, the roof of Quentin Hut glimmered next to an airstrip used to bring in supplies.
The top of the pass was an alpine wonderland. Like small jewels held in giant hands, ponds reflected the snow-tinged peaks. White Mount Cook lilies dotted the paths. Posted signs warned hikers to stay on the trail, since walking on the mossy undergrowth could disturb an ecologically sensitive area.
After our euphoric conquest, the descent was a grind. On the west side of the pass, the terrain changed from alpine to arid. The sun beat down. Shedding layers, we maneuvered between jagged rocks.
Then the trail dipped into the cool forest -- down, down, down, over more rocks. We couldn't relax yet. One wrong step could be dangerous. When it seemed as though my toes would bore a hole in my boots, the trail leveled out.
Leaving our packs at Quentin Hut, we hurried to make the round trip to Sutherland Falls before dinner, where the water descends from Lake Quill above, falling more than 1,000 meters in three spectacular leaps.
The hike to Milford Sound was a welcome relief. Passing through towering rain forests, the trail gradually dropped to sea level. We passed MacKay Falls, an impressive sight but lacking the drama of Sutherland Falls. Skirting Lake Ada, we arrived at Sandfly Point. Here a boat was waiting to take us across the sound to the Milford Sound Hotel. As we clambered aboard, the first-time hiker from Auckland smiled. ``Ayh,'' she said, ``that was fun.'' Practical information
Reservations for guided hiking on the Milford Track can be made through a local travel agent, by calling Southern Pacific Hotel Corporation at 800-421-0536, or by booking directly with the Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand in Christchurch: tel. 64-3-790-718.
Bookings for Fiordland National Park's unescorted tours can be made through a travel agent or by calling the Christchurch number above.