Star Trek

David McGonigal laces up his boots for the Milford track, the "finest walk in the world".

Our first day on the Milford Track had been a breeze. A leisurely morning exploring the thermal sock shops of Te Anau, an afternoon cruise up the lake and a stroll of less than two kilometres to Glade House where we put our feet up and waited for dinner. So this was trekking, New Zealand style?

At the lodge I had a chance to meet the others in my group. The first I spoke to was Sue, a litigation nurse from Arizona, travelling with Lynne, from the same legal practice. I refrained from mentioning the aptness of someone named Sue working in litigation.

Sue had flown directly from Phoenix, Arizona to Te Anau. After the desert winter, the scene-setting warm drizzle that was falling as she arrived seemed quite refreshing. Still, like the rest of us, she was facing the next few days with some trepidation.

In our group of 37 there were about equal numbers of Australians, Americans and Japanese plus a handful of Europeans and New Zealanders. Except for the staff at the huts, these would be the only people I'd see for the next four days.

It takes three days of solid walking to cover the Milford Track's 54 kilometres. The entire walk is through the Fiordland World Heritage area. Much of the track is relatively flat, passing through forested valleys alongside crystal clear rivers and lakes. However, there's one high pass that provides a good workout.

The track is highly organised. Everyone walks it in a northwest direction so you never meet anyone coming the other way. And there's no free camping - you stay in huts.

Actually, there are two sets of huts about a half day's walk apart. One set is managed by Southern Pacific Hotels Corporation (SPHC) and have comfortable heated bunk rooms, staff to cook meals and, oh bliss, hot showers. The other basic huts for independent walkers have cooktops and bunks but you must carry all food, cooking utensils and sleeping gear. All have flush toilets.

In track terms, the two groups are known as the "pampered" and the "smellies" (or, more politely, "freedom walkers"). We were an SPHC pampered group, easily recognisable by the minimal size of our packs.

Everyone who walks the Milford Track pays but the SPHC trip is considerably more expensive. It's matter of deciding how much you're prepared to pay for a hot shower and to have someone cook your meals. There's also the security and the wealth of information provided by your guide. In our case, Liz was worth every penny in encouragement and knowledge.

According to Robert Romauch, the SPHC track manager, many people in his groups have never walked for several days before. If my group was any example, most are surprised by how well they perform. Then again, it isn't a hard trek.

It is, however, an exceptionally beautiful walk. Of course, my view is coloured by the fact that we had perfect weather every day except when we crossed the Mackinnon Pass.

Milford Sound is renowned for having one of the world's highest rainfalls. Over half a metre of rain has fallen on the track in one day!

So my recollections of sunlight streaming through mountain beech forests to dample the trail, of afternoons swimming in alpine lakes, watching giant trout in the river, and looking across to waterfalls as ribbons of silver spilling down the valley walls are not the norm.

Everyone meets the kea, alpine parrots with pickpocket morals. Whenever we stopped for lunch, a gang of kea would arrive. While one or two did some busking, the others went through our packs.

Mackinnon Pass is a slog. There's a zigzag climb of about 800 metres to the highest point at 1154 metres then the path descends 900 metres in 5.5 kilometres. The pass is really a barren saddle between the Clinton River Valley on the east and the Arthur Valley that leads westwards to Milford Sound.

At the summit, the panorama from Twelve Second Drop (that's how long you'd take to hit the valley floor below) is like a 3-D geography lesson. Subject: glacial landforms. Jagged mountain peaks, hanging valleys, mountain tarns and cirques surrounded us.

"I've never known a tourist brochure to understate an area's attractions before," Sue declared. "But this magnificence is much more than I expected. In a couple of hours, we've gone from lush rainforest to alpine fields."

That night at Quintin Lodge was our last on the track. The hours on the trail had turned a group of strangers into good friends.

One of the Japanese party had become the resident clown. Tsukasa looked rather like an elderly Charlie Sheene in Hot Shots II and video-taped every step of the way - and each of us at every meal. His wife was sick at home so he was taping it all so she could share the experience. We nurtured the belief that she would have a relapse when confronted by several televised hours of strangers eating.

The last day we walked 21 kilometres to arrive at Sandfly Point from where the boat would take us to Milford Sound Hotel. Even as we discovered how the point got its name, we posed for photographs by the final mile post. There was an atmosphere of accomplishment.

That night, Sue left the celebration dinner to look for the Southern Cross. The black bulk of Mitre Peak blocked off part of the cold, cloudless sky.

"I never expected I'd be standing here looking at such an unfamiliar sky," she mused. "I certainly never dreamed I'd walk here. Last week I couldn't imagine what the country was like. Now I've walked its forests, smelled its flowers, scaled its passes. Because of the Milford Track I feel New Zealand is part of me."

Fact File

The guided Milford Track walk is operated by Southern Pacific Hotels Corporation between late October and April. There are departures every day except Sunday.

For the 1994-95 season, the 6 day/5 night package cost ex Te Anau is to be $NZ1255 (up from $1205 this season) for adults and $NZ750 for children 10 to 15. At current exchange rates that's $988 and $590 respectively - but you have to add 12.5% GST.

The package includes accommodation, dinner, bed and breakfast at the Te Anau Travelodge, bus and launch trip to the start of the walk, all meals and accommodation for three days on the track, accommodation and a celebratory dinner at Milford Sound Hotel, a cruise on Milford Sound, and coach back to Te Anau.

On the track, backpacks and raincoats are provided. There are towels, blankets - even hair dryers, shampoo and conditioner - in the track lodges.

For direct information on the Milford Track call 64-3-2497411 or fax 64-3-2497947.

The only pre-planning required is to buy a good pair of waterproof boots and do lots of walking in them. The fitter you are, the more you'll enjoy the walk.

High Times

By David McGonigal

Mount Cook is shorter these days. In 1991, an earth tremor caused the top ten metres of peak to fall off. The climbers I watched approach the summit (now at 3754 metres) didn't seem gratified by the knowledge that there was less mountain to climb. They just looked exhausted.

Suddenly they disappeared from view behind a ridge. I reached across for another glass of champagne.

Flightseeing around the Mount Cook region of New Zealand's South Island is a remarkable experience. Indeed, unless you like the feeling of dry, frozen air searing into your lungs with each breath and your feet slogging through the snow, an overflight is the only way to fully appreciate the splendour of our near neighbour.

Even at the end of summer, Mt Cook is a wonderland of ice. In winter it is one of the world's best glacier skiing destinations - with runs to suit all level of skiers.

But it is from the air that you best see how vast the area of towering mountains and enormous glaciers really is. Every saw-toothed rocky ridge reveals another panorama in black and white.

Since we arrived at the sprawling Hermitage Hotel there had hardly been time to catch breath. We barely had time to take in the astounding view from the foyer before we were bouncing over glacial morrain in a 4WD on the way to a lake with icebergs floating in it.

This lake tour in a inflatable rubber boat gives you a view of ice from the perspective of a cocktail olive. Floating mountains of ice crack and groan in the sun. Milky, sediment laden, water swirls below while the sun sparkles off the ice all around.

While our guide explained the dynamic forces that produced glaciers and their landforms, the noise and action around us reminded us that we were really in a vast puddle on a river of ice. Occasionally, a large chunk of ice would break off a berg and crash into the lake.

A well prepared member of my party had brought a bottle of vodka and some glasses along. So, while the ice refracted the light into rainbows we lounged back drinking vodka with ice that had been formed when Tasmania was still attached to Australia. This was ice on the rocks on the ice.

As an Australian I expect landscape to be passive, the canvas upon which we act. Not so over in the Ricketty Isles where the scenery wants to get in on the action: the ground rattles and shakes, tops fall off mountains and conversations are punctuated by landslides.

The pristine alpine scenery of Mt Cook looks as if it should be quiet and peaceful. It isn't. In fact, the Tasman Glacier is 27 kilometres of dual purpose intrusive ice-making machine and conveyor belt of noisy rock slippage.

A large part of the Mt Cook National Park's appeal is that it is a realm of many mountains. Besides Mt Cook, there are 18 other peaks in the park rising over 3000 metres.

Not surprisingly, the region has attracted climbers since the first days of the colony. Mt Cook was first climbed by a young plumber called Tom Fyfe in 1894 - and the region's tradition of amateur alpine climbing began. Today Alpine Guides, which is based in Mt Cook, is world renowned for the standard of its mountaineering courses for all levels.

It was in this National Park that Edmund Hillary, a young bee keeper developed the climbing skills that took him to the top of Mt Everest in 1953.

Those of us with less exalted aspirations find a wealth of walks around the park. These range from a 20 minute stroll from the highway to Blue Lakes, to five or six hours of solid going to Liebig Hut below the Murchison Glacier.

On a clear day you'll find a line of climbers making summit attempts on Mt Cook. This necessitates a 4 am start and preparation for a very long and strenuous day.

Walking around Mt Cook is surprisingly hazardous. Glaciers work hard to produce ankle twisting rocks. That, combined with scenery so grand that you walk around with your eyes raised to the high peaks, creates a perfect "high hazard" zone.

The risks are worth it. If you stay at the lower levels of the valley, looking up to the glacial tongues, you'll find scenery that is the equal of the grand alpine regions of Canada, the US and Europe. On the other hand, a skiplane flight will take you to scenery that is literally out of this world.

When Sir Henry Wigley landed a Mt Cook aircraft with retractable skis on the Tasman Glacier in 1955 it was a world first. The retractable skis allow the plane to take off on wheels at the Mt Cook airport then land on the icy slopes of the glacier.

That may sound like a dangerous thing to do - but only until you get the perspective right. Stepping out onto the dazzling white snowfield I thought I'd walk to the side of the glacier. After a some time spent crunching through the snow, I turned around to find the skiplane was a mere dot in a white expanse. However, the glacial wall wasn't discernably closer. I realised we could have comfortably landed across the glacier. I never made it to the edge.

The surrounding scenery was simply exhilarating. Jagged crests fringed in snow lined the horizon. With some trepidation, I laid down to peer into a crevasse and discovered a translucent green and turquoise world descending out of sight into unimagined depths below.

Most of all, there was a liberating sense of space. No longer were we confined in a valley looking towards alluring peaks. It felt like we were on top of the world. It's a sensation I've only found previously on Himalayan passes and at the top of a volcano I once climbed in America.

But unlike those moments, which were the reward for hours of effort, this had been an instantaneous transition from the comfort of the Hermitage to absolute wilderness.

It is impossible to talk of Mt Cook without mentioning the Hermitage. The first Hermitage was built in 1884 but was destroyed by flood in 1913. Wisely, the second Hermitage was built on a different site. It burned down in 1957 and the present building was subsequently erected.

This one is so large that you may feel your first mountain trek is to your room. Like an imposing dowager, it had been growing old ungracefully until SPHC took it over in 1989. It is now undergoing renovation and is looking revitalised.

I bet hardly anyone notices. The Hermitage commands a grandstand position looking up the valley to Mt Cook. This is one hotel where every moment is spent looking outwards. In a single day you may wake to find the mountain shrouded in mist at dawn, glistening in the sun by lunchtime, and glowing as if lit from within at sunset.

If Mt Cook wasn't constantly battered by the elements it would probably stand about 18,000 metres high today. Instead it's shrinking.

Fortunately, the burgeoning array of activities here greatly add to the alpine experience. They more than compensate for the recent 0.27 per cent reduction in the height of New Zealand's most impressive mountain. Mt Cook remains one of Australasia's grandest holiday experiences.

Fact File

The most convenient arrival point for Mt Cook is Christchurch. Air New Zealand has 11 direct flights from Sydney to Christchurch each week and, although the cheapest published fare is $529 return, better deals are available through your travel agent.

The return air fare from Christchurch to Mt Cook is $277. However, travelling this route by road provides a cross section of New Zealand's best rural scenery so many prefer to drive. The fly/drive package is better value, too: $598 per person including trans Tasman flights and six days car hire with unlimited kilometres. A room at the THC Hermitage costs $208 so a six day/five night fly/drive holiday at Mt Cook would have a total cost of $1176 per person.

Alternatively, if you wish to do a coach tour, the Mt Cook Line "Panorama" takes in Christchurch, Dunedin, Te Anau, Queenstown and Milford Sound as well as Mt Cook. The cost (including air fares) from May 1 to September 30 is from $1157 per person, twin share.

For more information on fares and schedules, call Air New Zealand (which owns Mt Cook Line) on (02) 929 8388 or (008) 221 134. Direct reservations for the Hermitage or any other SPHC property can be made to (02) 267 2144 or 1-800-222 446.

All the tours at Mt Cook can be reserved at the Activities Desk at the Hermitage. The Glacial Lake Tour costs $NZ60 per adult and $NZ30 per child. A ski plane flight around the region costs from $NZ85 or $NZ135 including landing on the glacier.

The New Zealand Tourism Board (Level 8, 35 Pitt St, Sydney, Tel 247 3111) has general information about all holidays within New Zealand.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd