Wow. I am seriously still in awe of how incredible New Zealand is. Queenstown and the Milford Track both went above and beyond my expectations. The last week has been truly a week to remember!
We left a very rainy Auckland last Sunday and arrived in incredibly warm and sunny Queenstown. The flight attendants literally had to tell people to not take photos as they exited the plane onto the tarmac. We had landed in a stunning valley next to a lake, surrounded by mountains and no one could stop looking. Once we arrived in town, we quickly learned that this was truly the “first day of summer” for Queenstown residents, as there had been very little sun for months and now it was finally here. We lucked out to say the least!
Our flight had been delayed 2 hours so we were starving and headed straight to Fergberger, Queenstown’s famed burger joint which has a line out the door at every hour of the day (and it’s even open til 5 a.m.). Stacey, who reads my blog and is from New Zealand, recommended it to us and we also read about in our guidebook. Apparently everyone else did too as the line was, as warned, out the door. The burgers (and fries) were absolutely to die for and we ate them out on the steps next to the lake, watching the boats and birds.
After lunch we took the Skyline Gondola up the steep mountainside, passing by a bungie jump and mountain biking trails along the way. The views from the top were spectacular, especially given the beautiful day we were having. We also purchased two rides on the luge, which I had seen on the Amazing Race at some point and had always thought looked fun! You take a little chair lift even further up the mountain and then get in little plastic sleds that slide down a winding track. It was really fun!
That evening we had our pre-trek briefing for our Milford Track tour. There are only 2 options for trekking on the Milford Track – complete it as an “independent hiker” and carry your own gear and food, or pay the price for a guided, luxury tour. We splurged and chose option 2 and it was worth every penny! More on that later. That evening we had a really amazing indian food dinner and headed to bed – before the sun went down. It stays light until past 10:30 PM here!
The Ultimate Hikes Milford Track guided walk is composed of 5 days – Day 1 is driving to Te’Anu (3 hours or so), a 1 hour boat ride and then a short walk to the first lodge as well as a 1.5 hour guided nature hike. Day 2 – 4 are full hiking days, 9-13.5 miles per day and Day 5 is simply a the Milford Sound boat cruise and the drive back to Queenstown (5 hours).
When we arrived at the lodge on the first day, we realized that our money was well spent. We had our own private ensuite room with a cozy bed, a hair dryer, fancy shampoo and conditioner and electricity from about 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. every day. There was a place to wash our hiking clothes each day and a drying hut to place them overnight so they’d be nice and warm and dry in the morning. We were hardly roughing it! Our room in each of the lodges was very similar. All lodges have a dining room and lounge and each one had a Christmas tree! We were served a hot breakfast every morning and a 3 course dinner every night. When we reached the lodge each day we were greeted with cold drinks and cookies, the bar was open for beer and wine purchase in the evenings and there were appetizers served during happy hour. Yes….it was certainly not camping ….and it was amazing!!!
After settling in on Day 1, we took a group picture with the 41 other “walkers” (which reminded me of the Walking Dead every time we were called that) and our 4 guides. We then went on a wonderful nature hike which ended at a waterfall. Our guides explained the history of the area and pointed out various plants and birds that we’d be encountering on our trek. It was unknown to me before this time that New Zealand was an island solely inhabited by birds for almost its entire history. It wasn’t until the British started to introduce new animals to the country that it ever had anything like deer. That’s the reason there are NO snakes in the entire country!
The amazing weather followed us for Day 2 of the trek as well. It was already warm and sunny when we got up. The trek was 10 miles that day with a few option side tracks, including one to a wetlands area. Although this was a luxury tour, we did have to carry our own packs with our change of clothes and shoes, toiletries, daily lunch and snacks, water, etc. Carrying a fairly heavy pack was hard to get used to at first and that was definitely the biggest challenge for me on day 1, since the trail itself was mostly flat. 10 miles of trail walking with a pack is definitely harder than my easy 10 mile morning runs.
We hiked through mostly forest during the first half of the day and later in the day it opened up a bit more. We crossed countless bridges and stayed close to the river. Although our group seemed large, we found ourselves walking completely alone for a large part of the day, which made the shaded forest paths seem even more magical. Toward the end of the trek we had the chance to go for a swim in a swimming hole – Mike made it all the way in but it was basically ice-melt water so I convinced myself to at least get halfway in, figuring it was a good ice bath.
Day 3 was the big day – although we’d only hike 9 miles, we were heading up and over Mackinnon pass, an ascent of about 2,000 feet and a descent of over 2,500 feet. We stuck to the front this time and walked the first portion with one of the guides, an energetic 18 year old Australian guy whose knowledge of the track made him seem much older. A group started to bunch up as we made our way up the 11 switchbacks to the top, but no one spoke as we all were huffing and puffing. The view from the top was spectacular and we stopped for warm drinks (the guide carried them to the top for us!) before heading on another 30 minutes or so to the lunch hut at the top of the mountain (which has a bathroom that overlooks the valley – nicknamed the “Loo with a View”).
As we runners know, going down is often harder than up. The descent was technical and challenging but I enjoyed it quite a bit. We had started to make some friends on the trek and had a good time chatting with them on our way down. Once we arrived at the lodge, we were tired but were told that the optional 1.5 hour (including return) trek to Sutherland Falls, the world’s fifth largest waterfall, was worth the extra effort. It definitely was!
Day 4 was the longest day of walking, with 13.5 miles to be crossed before the finish. This walk was abundant with river crossings (with the requisite bridge) and short climbs and descents over rocky paths. A large majority of the paths wove through stunning, vibrant green forest covered in a thick coating of moss. Every view was incredible. By lunchtime, my legs were definitely tired from the cumulative miles but we continued until we reached Mile 33.5 at aptly named Sandfly Point (so.many.little.flies). We waited for the rest of the group and then headed over to the Milford Sound on a little boat where we made our way to our final lodge.
The view from our room was simply incredible. Just as we thought Ultimate Hikes could get any better, we opened the door to our room which had an incredible view of the Milford Sound. That night we had our final celebratory dinner and were each given a finisher certificate with our group photo from the first day. Although those 41 people and 4 guides were strangers that first day, they felt like friends now.
The boat cruise around the Milford Sound on Day 5 was just the icing on the cake. It as raining and foggy, our good luck weather having worn off, but it was still stunning. We stayed on the top deck for the duration of the 2 hour cruise, enjoying every whip of the wind and rain drop on our faces.
I tried my best, but I can’t even fully describe how beautiful and surreal the Milford Track was. There is something truly humbling about being surrounded by such an incredible display of nature’s best work. There’s also something to be said for disconnecting from work, email, social media and the world for 5 days and fully immersing yourself in nature, as well as dining and walking with strangers who become friends, swapping stories and learning about new cultures simply through the art of conversation. The trek was an excellent example of why I love to travel so much.
Once we returned to Queenstown and wished our new friends goodbye, we had just about 24 hours left to enjoy the city. After a relaxing evening wandering the streets, stopping to listen to street artists playing music, dining on fish and chips on the sea wall, and sharing a cup of gelato, we finished up our trip with an exciting white water rafting trip this morning. I had never been white water rafting and was a bit nervous as they kept talking up how dangerous the rapids can be (which were Class 4-5), but it turned out to be just fine. It was incredibly exciting but not too scary – only one person fell out of our boat the entire time (another boat did completely flip though!). Our guide did let us jump in and float down the river for a bit and it was exciting without even falling out first! Whitewater rafting was a rush and a great way to say goodbye to Queenstown, the city of adventure.