My February 2015 Milford Track Experience

A Short Essay by Carol Fiore

(Permission granted to reproduce parts or use photographs
as long as the author is credited.)
  I do not travel well with groups, so it was with reluctance that I signed up with Ultimate Hikes to achieve a life-
long dream of hiking the world-famous Milford Track, in search of my favorite bird—an alpine parrot that lives
only in a few locations on the south island of New Zealand. The kea is, without a doubt, the smartest bird in the
world. I have personal experience with this amazing animal. I took care of them when I was a bird zookeeper,
years before the accident.
  My husband Eric was an experimental test pilot. Hiking was not really his thing and birds were not his passion.
But he loved me. He promised he would take me to New Zealand one day to see the kea. He never broke his
promises, he often joked, so I knew I would see them. But the plane crash on October 10, 2000 took more than
my dream away. It took the only man I have ever loved. He was only 43 years old. There were so many
adventures we never took, so much life left to enjoy, two young children to raise.
  For years, I was not okay.
  “Go!” our two daughters, now young adults, urged last year. “Daddy would want you to see keas.” Their
support came with one caveat—I could not hike alone. They knew I would spend close to a month alone on the
south island watching birds, and they were fine with that. But hiking alone, in a remote area, was a different
matter. A recent foot surgery and my tendency to be accident prone, despite my hiking experience and
extensive running, convinced them I needed a guide.
  The country of New Zealand allows 90 people a day to hike the Milford Track—40 independent hikers and 50
escorted hikers. Ultimate Hikes, based in Queenstown and Te Anau (www.ultimatehikes.co.nz), is the only
company allowed to escort hikers. Independent hikers must apply for their own permit, carry their own food,
towels, sleep sheets, and gear. Hikers traveling with Ultimate Hikes only have to carry their own personal gear.
Initially, I was put off by the cost of traveling with Ultimate Hikes, but, as the saying goes, you get what you pay
for. What I got was a first-class experience with seasoned guides, fantastic lodges, unbelievably good food, hot
showers, washing/drying facilities, comfy beds, and a lighter pack (oh those poor independent hikers with their
enormous packs!). Did I mention the 3-course meals every night with a selection of wine and beer? Who
thought I’d be drinking New Zealand pinot noir in a remote area of the country. I still haven’t decided whether to
tell my daughters how I was “roughing it.” Did I also mention the hot cooked breakfasts with real coffee (not
instant) and the picnic lunches? I’m a vegetarian so I didn’t expect much and even brought a supply of power
bars. I never ate any of them. Every meal had a vegetarian option. I dined well.
  The cost of the 5-day adventure also included a cruise on Milford Sound and a stay at Mitre Peak Lodge, with
a break-taking view out to the fiord. We were transported to the start of the track in a bus with a giant kea
painted on the side. Okay, I admit it. I took several pictures of the bus.
  The Ultimate Hikes’ guides were knowledgeable, energetic, and cheerful. They never stopped trying to help
everyone have an amazing experience. There was Moon with his botany knowledge; Akiko with her warm smile
and history stories; Mark with his sense of humor and funny bits of trivia; and there was Gwyn who never
stopped telling me I would see keas and who, when we found them the second day, followed me around
snapping pictures of me laughing. Did I mention she carried hot chocolate in huge thermoses all the way to the
top of Mackinnon Pass for all of us? Gwyn, Mark, Akiko, and Moon carried or prepared hot tea and coffee every
day for us out on the trail. Spoiled? Yes, we were.
  If you’ve heard that the Milford Track is the most beautiful walk in the world, then you heard correctly. I
completely agree. This is a chance to leave your phone and computer behind and reconnect with nature in a
way that will stay with you for a lifetime. You can hike alone on the well-marked trail or with others from the
group. The guides are always helping—one in the front, one in the back, and the other two floating between.
There are beech forests, soaring mountain peaks, rambling valleys, water that you can drink directly from
crystal-clear streams and waterfalls, fun suspension bridges, and amazing birds. South Island robins will sit on
your boot as they follow you through the woods. Bellbirds and tui will serenade you as you walk. You may spot
a weka or, if you’re lucky, a rare blue duck. And of course, there are the keas—those wonderfully cheeky,
mischievous clowns of the mountains. My first sight of them left me breathless, and then giddy with happiness.
  It was the best day of my life since Eric died.
  A bit of training is required to carry a pack for 33.4 miles, but the Milford Track, in my opinion, is not a
particularly difficult hike compared to some of the ones I’ve done in the Rocky Mountains. Although I’ve been a
runner for most of my life, I was a bit out of shape for this hike. I’d had foot surgery four months prior and had
done no exercising for all that time. Keep in mind that Ultimate Hikes does much of the work, spoiling you along
the way. But, it’s still up to you to put those poles into the ground and move your feet along through all those
miles. Ultimate Hikes thinks it’s something to be proud of and honors everyone with a certificate and ceremony
the last night.
  Since I returned home, I’ve started planning for my return. I have 49 new friends now—those adorable
Brits led by Nigel, and that darling Irish couple Barney and Anne. There are the Aussies, and the Kiwis,
and all the other great folks from around the world who went. I’ll miss my new Chinese friends, Crystal
and Ping. Me? Traveling in a group and liking it? Who knew!
  When life throws hardships at me—as I know it will—and my grief tumbles back, and anger threatens to
swallow me, I will wrap my experience on the Milford Track around me like a raincoat and look up at the
sky with a smile. I will once again be on that mountaintop with the parrots I so love, with Eric in my heart,
and I'll know the world cannot be a bad place as long as there are keas in it.