The glamorous life of a travel writer. Or, is it?
My research for our future Expedia Queenstown Travel Guide recently led me to this adrenalin capital on New Zealand’s South Island. Everyone knows that the Kiwis can show you a hundred ways to die, so it takes a fair bit of courage to even visit their country. In fact, I think that’s why everyone drinks so much wine there.
Apart from being a great place to go white water rafting, jet boating, sea kayaking, and skydiving (check, check, check, and check) (and I didn’t even die once!), Queenstown is also the gateway to one of the most scenic hikes in the world: the Milford Track.
My friend Heather, who also used to work at Tourism Media, had put this 53-kilometre tramp (as the Kiwis insist on calling their hikes) on her bucket list for her 50th birthday. So, after discovering Queenstown, my partner and I met up with her posse in Te Anau. The rest of that day was spent sorting out our gear and stocking up on essentials (chocolate, hip flask of bourbon, wine, oh… and some food too).
Off to a good start
We got lucky with the weather and enjoyed a splendid early morning ferry ride across Te Anau Lake to the starting point of the track. The trail follows a river and weaves through the mountainous wilderness of the southern fiordlands. This remote corner of the world is so pristine that you can drink the water straight from the river. To keep it that way, they only ever allow 40 independent hikers and roughly as many guided hikers on the trail per day during the peak season. The guided tours follow a different schedule, so as an independent hiker it feels like you have the place to yourself.
The first 20 miles or so were bliss, with generous sunshine, cooling off in the icy cold river, group games at the hut, fresh, wholesome meals to keep us energised and wine at night to induce sleep.
Then the rain came
Then, on day 3, the fresh food and alcohol ran out (so we could no longer sleep through the synchronised snoring in the dorm) and the rain came. By mid morning it was bucketing down so hard that we could drink the water straight from the sky and had to dodge newly erupting waterfalls. On the pass we weren’t rewarded with panoramic valley views, but with wind gusts of up to 70kmph.
Despite all the expensive Gortex gear, we were soon soaked to the bone and our backpacks and shoes started to weigh us down. Lunch at the summit was a sad affair, with 40 shivering, sleep-deprived people scrambling around a single stove in a bare log hut.
Of course this is when New Zealand’s famous “Lord of the Rings” landscape is at its most mystical, so we didn’t actually complain, but I did start to question my choice of career. Wasn’t travel writing supposed to be a glamorous job? Why was I doing this again? Or, am I perhaps taking my travel research too seriously? Did it really have to be that in-depth? It suddenly dawned on me that I could have just stayed in Queenstown, visit wineries and eat fish and chips for 3 days and then simply interview newly returned trampers about their experiences. Is that how other travel writers roll?
And it got worse…
To add to the adventure, the ranger at the last hut warned us that it may not be possible to finish the hike the next day, with being airlifted out a real prospect. However, having invested that much and come this far, we wanted to reach the 33.5-mile marker to be able to say that we had “done” the Milford Track.
We could hear it rain all night, but early the next day the Department of Conservation in Te Anau radioed through that the path hadn’t flooded and it was safe to proceed. Mind you, “safe” in Kiwi language, doesn’t quite mean the same as in the Aussie or American language, so we still had to skip over rocks in knee-deep water, cross narrow swing bridges over roaring rivers, climb over trees that had been broken like matches during a recent landslide and shimmy past waterfalls on narrow ledges carved out in the rock face.
Apart from Iguazu Falls and Niagara Falls, I don’t think I have ever seen so many waterfalls in a row and it was actually very rewarding to experience the Milford Track in all its misty, moody, magical glory. By the time we reached Sandfly Point and put on brave faces for our group picture at the finish line, I had forgotten all about the not-so-glamorous side of being a travel writer.
And of course, safely back at my desk in Brisbane now, I’m already planning my next adventure…