The Finest Walk in the World

Brian Merewitz is a senior Natural Resources Management major and is currently studying abroad in New Zealand.

[Originally posted September 18, 2013. To see more from Brian, check out her blog directly here.]

McKinnon Pass

McKinnon Pass

So, exams are done (finally!), and now it was time to travel. After a rough goodbye with some good friends, my mate from Colorado State who is in New Zealand (Lisa) and I headed off to the bus to Te Anau for the Milford Track, dubbed the “finest walk in the world.”

The bus left Sunday afternoon, but we wouldn’t start tramping until Monday morning. However, our bus broke down, but after a short delay, we were on the road and made it to Te Anau. Lisa has used couchsurfing many times before, which is a social network for travelers, where you can meet people to travel with, host them in your place, or found hosts to stay with, all for free. I had never used it, but she organised it to stay with a guy in Te Anau and it was an amazing experience! He was 53, semi-retired, and full of information. He has hosted over 50 people and has heaps of fascinating stories, pictures, and gifts (including a rock from Antarctica), but he even met us at the bus stop, walked us to the DOC office, and really made us feel at home. There was also a German kid, 20 I believe, there who was really friendly. Des, the host, knew the area like the back of his hand and was Maori, so he told us a lot about their culture. Anyway, we spent Sunday night at his house, then were to catch a bus to Te Anau Downs, where we would catch a ferry to the track–it’s quite the trek before you even begin!

Now, Des warned us that a few days ago he had two Aussies stay at his house and they were required to pay a helicopter deposit because avalanche danger was high, but we didn’t have to pay when we got there! The track is fully booked (40 people/day) from now until March 27th and on the ferry, we already made some friends–a Dutch kid travelling around the world called Robin and a German named Christian. So, once we finally got to the trail head, Lisa and I, along with our new mates headed off! Unfortunately, they regulate the track heavily during peak season, so you’re required to stay at the first hut, which is a mere 1 hour walk from the trail head. Once we got there, though, we went down by the river and were going to swim, until we got our toes wet and decided laying on rocks in the sun sounded more fun. I was a little uneasy about sharing a hut with 40 people–so far, I’d had nearly every hut to myself, but as the time went on, I really grew to like it. Part of what made the trip fun was the social aspect. That night at the hut, we met an Aussie (Otto), who was there with his dad as a college graduation gift and a group of 3 Australian couples in their 50s, who were super friendly! Throughout our 3 nights together, we got to know nearly everyone, but Otto, Robin, Christian, and the Aussies were the best! There were people from all over the world–America (us, a couple from Cleveland, and a couple from San Diego), France, Aussie, NZ, Germany, South Korea, and Holland. Back to the day though, once the sand flies (NZ’s mosquito) got bad, we retreated from the river back to the hut to eat dinner and socialize.

Me on McKinnon Pass

Me on McKinnon Pass

The second day was slightly harder, but still not too bad. The hut warden told us that if the weather is nice when we get to the hut, we should continue up to the pass–the highest part of the track because it’d be a pity if we didn’t go then the weather was bad on day three. This day’s walk was fairly easy through the bush with a few very scenic openings, and then a bit of an incline towards the end. When we woke up, there was a great deal of cloud cover, but by midday, the sun broke through. So now, we’ve had two days of sunshine in a row. This area is notorious for its rain–the ranger told us 28 rainy days/month isn’t unrealistic! So, we arrived at the second hut around 3pm and, since we’re in summer and at low latitude we have long days (light until 9:30pm), so we took a short break. Afterwards, the sun was still shining strong, so Lisa, Otto, Robin, Christian, and myself walked up the pass, which was about an hour from the hut (without packs it felt great!). The views were unreal. Even after 5 months here, I was speechless. We were surrounded by peaks in every direction and most of them have waterfalls running off of them, not to mention two of them had avalanches coming down while we were there. I’ll let the pictures do the talking! After trying to climb a little side peak (and getting about halfway up) and relaxing on the rocks a bit, we headed back down. Same kind of routine–dinner and socializing before bed!

Now day three is a special one. 1-it’s my birthday! 2-it’s when you are “supposed” to go over the pass. 3-you go to Sutherland Falls–NZ’s highest waterfall. After waking up, and getting a few birthday wishes from Otto, Robin, Christian, and Lisa, we were going to head off. The keas (one of my new favourite animals), the world’s only mountain parrot, were out in full force picking our scraps off the picnic tables and hanging in the trees! They caused a brief delay, but eventually we started and going up the pass was much worse with a pack on, but the sun was shining again and the views made it all worth it, even for the second time. At the top of the pass, I had my first birthday task–a friend had given me a beer and told me to chug it at the most scenic place I go on my birthday, so it got skulled on top of McKinnon Pass. That was, however, the only beer I drank on my entire 21st! We continued on a wee bit further and got to a little shelter at the junction to Sutherland Falls. First of all, they had tea and coffee in the shelter, so that was satisfying, but the falls, NZ’s highest at 580m were stunning! And, since by this point we had worked up a sweat, we were able to walk behind the falls, which was really thrilling. The water, of course was chilly, and is splashing and blowing, so you can’t really see as you walk on slippery rocks, but there are mini-rainbows everywhere from the splashing of the water off the rocks and the sun hitting it! By the time we got back to the shelter, the 3 Aussie couples had gotten word that it was my birthday, so I got my first wee serenade there (and reminded how young I really was still)! After singing, they reminded me how young I was (the youngest on the track in our group), and how as you grow, life changes, but there are always new adventures to keep it interesting! They continued to joke with me the rest of the day about my knees hurting and back hurting and so on, but once again, we finally made it to the hut. This one was covered in more sand flies than the others, so we stayed inside and cooked and socialized some more. Now, I did run back to my bunk to grab something from my bag and had a surprise when I got back! Lisa had carried a brownie and candle with her and, while I was gone, lit it and told everyone to sing, so once I got back I had 40 people singing to me with a brownie and candle!! I’m not sure how she carried a brownie 2 days without eating–certainly a feat I’d be incapable of–but it was much appreciated! And that’s how my 21st birthday was spent.

Friendly Kea

Friendly Kea

The fourth and final day is a long, but easy walk back through the bush to be picked up by the boat. Pretty uneventful on this day. Just had to say goodbye to our new friends and Lisa and I went back to Des’s house for the night before catching our buses and going separate ways, so now I’m back here in Dunedin to pack up before heading on my last adventure.

Milford Track was the very first thing I had booked in New Zealand and it was everything I had hoped for and more. I was skeptical of the “crowded-ness” of it, but grew to love the socializing aspect. As I mentioned, the weather here tends to be pretty awful–28 days/month of rain with rain coming as fast as 6 inches/hr at times. We, however, had 4 straight sunny days with temperatures reaching 28 degrees (that’s upper 80s, Americans)! What an incredible trip to wind down my time in this amazing place and I can only hope my final roadtrip will be just as good!

Thank you all for the birthday wishes! I don’t know when my next blog will be–depends on internet access, but I will definitely post one, hopefully two, before coming back to the stars and stripes. See yall soon!!

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