Wednesday, October 16, 1985

The Milford Track

Written for Travel & Leisure, 1985

There were forty of us on the steamer, heaving through the restless chop on the vast, glittering lake. Around us were mountains of every denomination—low forested hills, slate-grey slabs, mystic snowy peaks. Travelers of every denomination, too: an Australian sheep farmer, a jazzercise instructor, a New Zealand mother and zoologist daughter, an elderly Dutch international banker and his wife, a young California fisherwoman, a set of Connecticut investors, two physical therapists, a North Carolina airline pilot, a Japanese student, a New York school bus driver. The overweight, the hip, the reluctant, the trim.

We were crossing Lake Te Anu, the great waterway of New Zealand’s South Island. We were all signed up to walk the fabled Milford Track; we had knapsacks stowed inside, keeping dry; and for four more days we would be a part of each other’s experience of “the finest walk in the world.”

The Track—a thirty-three mile walk through staggering, uninhabited country—has been attracting trampers, as they’re called in New Zealand, for over a century. Few of us were experienced at this sort of hiking; in a sense, our inexperience had led us here. Our average age was nearly forty-five, and some were not keeping their doubts to themselves. “Weather’s packin’ it in. mate,” said a burly Australian. “Well, fun and games might as well get started right off, eh?”

Just getting south to Te Anu had been a decisive journey into the serene wildness of Fiordland, an area that from the air looks Himalayan. A propeller plane took us south out of Christchurch, through blustery clouds, to pause at Mt. Cook—its heights hidden by fog—and Queenstown, where the valleys and lake were green and clear.

Te Anu turned out to be a bundle of camping-equipment stores and a handful of motels beside the lake. At our briefing session the outline of our five-day journey was made clearer. Day 1 would take us north up the lake, where we’d be dropped for a 3/4 mile walk to Glade House, our first night’s rest. Day 2 would follow the Clinton River for about ten miles to Pompalona. Day 3 would be the hardest—up a mountain, over Mackinnon Pass, and down again to Quintin. Day 4 would be a fourteen-mile push to Sandfly Point, where another steamer would take us across Milford Sound to the Milford Hotel. Day 5 would be simply spent on a boat, seeing the sound and unknotting our muscles.

On that preparatory day at Te Anu, though we could see frowning clouds and muttering rain hurrying to meet us, our spirits rose at the thought of being so out of touch with the rest of the world for several days. On advice to travel as lightly as possible, we unpacked and repacked our knapsacks several times until the photographer’s heaviest lenses thoughtfully found their way into the writer’s load, and generally tried to reassure ourselves that all would go well.

It wasn’t just the walk—it was the prospect of spending several days in such proximity to strangers, and strange strangers at that. Australians and New Zealanders are to Americans approximately what Americans are to the rest of the world: too big to ignore, too incomprehensible to deal with. The prospect of so quickly making friends seemed improbable.

By morning the clouds had lifted and the lake and its mountains were chipped clean in the crystal light. At noon a bus took us out of town to board the steamer Tawera, which has been doing this run for nearly a century. “All fresh water beneath us, y’see,” the captain said. “That’s why she’s held up so long.” He showed me some old photographs of men and women dressed to the nines on a shore that looked remarkably unchanged from where we’d boarded. “There they are, waiting just like you were. Her name, Tawera, is the Maori word for Venus—the morning star, you might say.”

Below us the pure, glacial water dropped away for 800 feet. Those at the bow were getting soaked by spray. I moved back and a woman from the North Island said with concern, “I do wonder if this weather’s going to hold.” She sighed. “In this country you never can tell for more than a half hour at a time.” The passage through the mountains grew narrow, and the Tawera crept alongside thickly forested cliffs where the beeches grew right out of the dark, toiling water.

As we neared the true beginning of the Track, there were more easy introductions among the group. “I’m Vern, and I’m from nuclear-free Auckland,” commented one man amiably, referring to the latest U.S. dip into the shallows of international affairs. We landed on a beach of heavy rocks, by a dilapidated wharf. “Time for the repellent already,” said a stockbroker’s wife, slapping it on hastily. But the sandflies were mild, and didn’t keep up if you walked—so we walked.

A trail led off into green woods. Fifteen minutes’ tramp, our knapsacks adjusting themselves, brought us to Glade House. Hot tea and biscuits awaited, and Phil and Betty Turnbull, a white-haired couple who have run the place for sixteen years now. It had a gingerbread quality, and a long social room with fireplace, untuned upright piano, dining tables already set for an early dinner, and old pictures of Glade House from the Twenties. Most of our group stood around and made nervous jokes about how easy that kilometer had been, then set off to explore.

Along the narrow Clinton River the water was pebbly, and a breeze was moving its hand swiftly across the surface. The woods were thick, the writhing trees covered in hanging mosses (“old man’s beard”) and green velvet. There were groves of wrecked trees—chaotic driftwood ruins. Ferns were everywhere, the ground spongy underfoot (“It must rain a lot here,” said somebody sourly) so it was like walking on pillows. Sandflies were carrying on their usual dive-bombing attacks. Above us a furrowed cloud bank hung over the hairy scalps of the mountains. Rain tomorrow, I thought; rain and more rain.

Dinner at Glade House turned out to be roast beef, accompanied by a snapping fire and cards afterward, followed by a ceremony of introduction from all hands. Usually such rites have about as much appeal as the Academy Awards, but the act of trying to mark one’s home town with a pin on a wall map, and the Turnbulls’ geniality, made this the first step in the gathering circles of friendship that would grow at an astonishing rate. The map sprouted tight clusters of pins from New Zealand, the U.S.A., Japan, and Australia; a pin from New Caledonia, and from Poland too. There were a few words from tomorrow’s guide,  who’d be bringing up the rear. “Lights out at ten,” warned Phil Turnbull. (“After that,” murmured an Irishman, “it’s braille until morning.”) “We have a tradition here. Those in the upper bunks, the younger, serve tea in the morning to those elder statesmen in the lower.”

In the cozy men’s dormitory room somebody to the southwest of me began snoring with incredible vigor sometime after eleven. In frustration I got up around midnight to watch the steady rain, and rustlings in other bunks convinced me I was not alone. After another hour five of us took our pillows and, this being the wilderness, quietly smothered the snorer, and afterward we all slept soundly.

In the morning the wet light made all seem new: a world of moss and ferns, and trees of millennial height reaching up to grey and sickly clouds, mournful with falling mists. And, now, it began to rain in earnest.

Watching the group in their yellow slickers heading off in twos and threes over a wood-and-wire hanging bridge, Phil Turnbull said to me, “They look like taxis in New York, don’t they? Heading down Fifth Avenue in the rain.”

All morning we followed the course of the widening Clinton River. It kept raining, and the passive river was turned into a turbulent flood. The Track was flat and impossible to lose. We passed torrential rapids, crossed wood bridges past splayed ferns and fungi and undulating  meadows of silken grass. Underfoot, the Track was by turns gravelly rocks or glorious mud. The river kept winding. The rain made myriads of rivulets—spilling waterfalls far above us—tumble down the cliff face through trees. Clouds hung round the crags, and brought back a bit of melodious Tennyson from childhood—The cloud may stoop from heaven and take the shape / From fold to fold, of mountain and of cape. . . . 

We passed through heavenly glades, the fallen logs like an elegant woman’s crossed legs, and through the Black Forest, which should be renamed Rackham’s Forest, after the illustrator Arthur Rackham—for it looks just like one of his creations, a fabled wood in a child’s storybook, with braided limbs and demons and dryads in the trees’ bodies, cunningly dappled light, and a wicked river coarsely grumbling just out of sight.

Then, just as we came to Six-Mile Hut for lunch, early in the afternoon (for we’d taken our time, and fallen far behind), we came upon one of the most wonderfully eerie places on earth. It was the creation of an inspired 1982 avalanche, when hundreds of tons of trees and mountainside came crashing down, and carved out a beach and shallow basin across the Clinton River. A wedge of trees had been smashed flat, the land cleared for a quarter mile, and the mountainside was bare as if someone had ripped its surface violently away. Above, the clouds were lifting over snowy converging passes—though it was summer where we stood, even with a breeze.

On the beach of the basin the sight was even more astonishing, for the raging river had been made into a calm lake, with strange grappling leafless trees rising from the water’s edge of the lunar landscape. Around us a hundred waterfalls busily fingered their way down, and behind us blue skies made the grey mountains look lordly and remote. It was an incredibly complicated place—as if a dozen separate landscapes had decided to converge in this alien site to send the human spirit into a dazed confusion.

All ways meet here
No beginning, no end 
Only the constant becoming 

I wrote, in a paralysis of haiku. The place made one think of the world after everybody else was gone from it. A slightly forlorn beach, impassable mountains, a quiet river dozing, a few waterfalls twirling and pirouetting down into powdery mists. The sun glittered across the stunted trees standing in the crater like bonsais, and the mountains behind looked like beds for giants. We had the place to ourselves, and were glad we’d let the others go on ahead. The sky, reflected in little sandy pools, was bearing fog toward us rapidly. Exalted shafts of sunlight flashed around the passes and were gone in cloud.

At tiny Six-Mile Hut we sipped hot tea and devoured the lunches we’d carried on our backs. The rain stopped abruptly, and in two minutes it became a lovely day. All morning the birds—fan-tail, robin, yellow parakeet—had been the tamest I’d ever seen, alighting on branches at eye level for casual chats or occasionally gossiping from a camera tripod. Now a couple of wekas (pronounced like the basket)—fat brown birds the size of small cats, rather dumpy and matronly—came wandering over and waited patiently for scraps of food or abandoned notebook pages.

That afternoon, covering the four miles to Pompolona, we followed the river. Thus far we’d prided ourselves on keeping our boots dry, nimbly skipping over puddles or sidestepping rain pools like seasoned adventurers. But now our efforts became ludicrous. We came to several places where there was no choice but to slosh calf-deep through flooded streams on the Track. (“Ah. that’s nothing, mate,” a guide told me later. “Coulda been seven feet deep. No problem at all.”) And, inevitably, a half-hearted drizzle began.

None of this mattered, nor the chiding weight on our backs. All was compensated by passing through more different landscapes than I’d have thought possible. In a hundred yards we went from sheer rock, carved in slices like steaks, into deep Amazonian rain forest; then past shaded meadows of profuse ferns, through dense decadent Southern woods, and along the shore of a hidden lake, Alpine passes above us, amid cliffs sprouting waterfalls like a great leaky boat. It was nearly a parody of the travel agent’s dream—a dozen entirely different places in three minutes—and it made you wonder at the simple miracle of this beautiful planet, left to its own devices, working its poetry of constant surprise.

Pompolona that night was different from Glade House: only two years new, a connected system of little chalets with four bunks in each. It would be difficult to imagine a more efficient setup than the New Zealanders have, everyone carrying their own bed sheet for the three nights of the trek, and finding pillows, blankets and towels at each hut. Supper was waiting, and the forty of us were beginning to divide up into natural groups. There were jokes about the rain-flooded path (“The finest swim in the world,” muttered a lithographer) and we put our clothes in the drying shed, a heated metal hut that could drain the most waterlogged boots overnight and shrink anything else in several hours. The talk naturally turned to recent films; somebody mentioned Amadeus. An Aussie girl across the table looked up at the name and said, “Eye sore that. Funny bloke, wadn’t he? Mose-art.”

Lights out again at ten; and that night we found we were sharing our comfortable chalet with the two remaining snorers who, in tandem, sounded like most of the percussion section of the London Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately we were far from civilization, and with Darwinian justice the two offenders were easily dispatched. In the morning there was more breakfast for everyone.

We were all off early, knowing this would be the most grueling day since it meant going up to the Mackinnon Pass (3,835 ft.)—slung like a saddle between Mt. Balleon and Mt. Hart at 7,000 feet—then traversing the pass and heading steeply down the other side, a drop of 3,000 feet over three miles. At first we were rising gradually. The Track took us across a swinging bridge, through bowers of mossy hanging trees so thick that the light seemed deliberately secretive. Beyond the foliage came the murmur of rushing water. Across another bridge, we found ourselves on the floor of a gigantic valley. The cliffs rose steeply—so huge one attributed their size to nearness rather than height, until we saw the buzzing speck of a helicopter taking supplies up to Pass Hut, a smudge atop the mountains. We were climbing there? Surely not.

“My right leg would be more comfortable,” said the jazzercise instructor, “if it were over my shoulder.”

It was strange to be tramping in short sleeves near snowy mountains. The Track, now rocks, began to climb more steeply, and kept this up for a couple of strenuous miles, hugging the side of the mountain. The cliff was more exposed, the trees thinned and gave way to low bushes and flowers—mountain daisies, edelweiss, Mt. Cook lilies, and bursts of yellow known as Maori onions. It was like being suddenly transported to Switzerland.

“Four more zigs to go,” panted a plump American wife. The Japanese was far ahead.

It was a tiring climb, and the narrow track kept doubling back around the brow of the mountain. At the top was a cairn with a cross on it, and a plaque in honor of Quintin Mackinnon, who discovered the pass in 1888. Looking back, you could see all the way up the Clinton Valley—a succession of parading mountains in a defiant row, and the great swath of the narrow river. It seemed both too large and too small a distance to have come in a day and a half. The entire walk was this paradoxical: something seen packed in miniature, yet immeasurably vast to the mind.

At the top of the saddle it was warmer than in the shade far below, but only a long stone’s throw away was a glacier, and thick collars of snow just waiting for us to walk under them. It seemed unbelievable that such a short stretch could contain so many vagaries of landscape: that they should be modeled to such a gigantic scale made me feel I was crossing an entire continent, and on flat feet.

All through the trek I’d been referring to the account of Ella Adams, who made the journey at age eleven, in 1889. She’d done it with her father, the chief surveyor, in the opposite direction. They camped somewhere between the pass and Pompolona, “and all night long were kept awake with avalanches falling. Just over the pass above the heavy bush we went through acres of the large flowered houhere or ribbonwood—it was like a cherry orchard in spring.” She’d had a lake on the pass named after her. “Looking down the thousands of feet into the valley we had left was awe-inspiring. The only way I could look was to lie down flat and pull myself to the edge of the cliff and get my father to hold my ankles.” Little Ella had made easy friends, too, a century ago. “The native birds were so tame that the little robins would come and perch on our toes and hats while we had our meals, ready for my crumbs.”

It was extraordinarily peaceful up on the pass, and this belied the fact that violence had created it. The late William Anderson, who knew the Track for nearly forty years, wrote, “In our short lives we see mountain scenery as changeless, but here on the Track are plain signs of a constant movement in the longer and shorter cycles of destruction and regeneration. Here, too, we can read the longer chapter, beginning with marks left behind from the moving glacier, followed by the mighty forces of earthquake, avalanche, and flood.”

Up this high the grass round the rocks was like a well-trimmed lawn, and narrow slopes fell away to crags and sheer drops. Tucked behind an overlay of creases in the saddle, we came to Pass Hut, and company, and simmering tomato soup.

Over lunch we talked with a blonde warden, formerly a guide, named Margaret. She’d spent five months a year along the Track for seven years now, and her skin had the clean glow of someone so accustomed to pure air and mountain vistas that she’d taken on their light. She said, “You know, there are two types of hikers up here. The ones who do it the more comfortable way, like you—and it still isn’t all that easy—and then the independent walkers, who carry everything themselves. They’re the ones who think that if you haven’t done it the hard way you haven’t done it. I’m not putting them down, but it seems to me Fiordland is here for people to enjoy, and they should do it however they feel best, without trying to prove something. There’s always a rougher way.” She laughed; she’d climbed many of the surrounding peaks, like most of the guides, and she didn’t have to prove her own capability to herself.

On the blackboard, over a sign-in book, was written 3°c at 10 a.m. Weather fine today and Friday. Sign here for Prosperity. It sounded much more friendly than “posterity”.

Up on the Pass is where the weather can play the most havoc. Blizzard conditions are not unknown even in summer (January, February, March), and can come up very suddenly. Now we were enjoying a chill, breezy sunlight; and we realized that after our exhaustion at reaching the top had faded, an exhilaration had taken over which was not to leave for several days. It may have had to do with height, or a small sense of personal achievement; but I think it has more to do with the release of a corner of one’s spirit that happens only in such a place, under such circumstances, like light flooding an unopened closet.

Around Pass Hut the kea parrots, with their ululating cries, were swooping and waddling around, as hungry for lunch as we. These great green parrots, with their peculiar garbled language, were the true keepers of the Pass, and they had an enormous sense of mischief. They’d woken us at Pompolona amid a violent rainstorm by methodically dropping rocks on the roof, then cackling and shrieking over the rain. The keas on the Pass were even craftier. They were so used to trampers that they’d invented complicated team efforts at stealing one’s most valuable possession on these heights—lunch.

We watched a pair of keas, with infinite guile, con somebody in our group into giving up his food. One kea slyly ambled over, happy to pose for a photo; the tramper hastily fumbled at his camera, switched lenses; the kea continued to cooperate. But the beak is quicker than the eye, and while the tramper set his exposure and happily clicked away, the kea’s partner sneaked up and pinched the coveted sandwich from the tramper’s jacket pocket, and both flew contentedly off.

The route down took us two and a half hours, and was the toughest part of the Track. At first, on the mountainside, all was open, and we could see steeply down to the tiny matchbox of Quintin, our night’s hostel, with its visible airstrip. The Track wound down and soon took shelter in trees, and switched direction every three or four steps, descending rapidly. Underfoot were sizeable rocks and thick roots, and though it wasn’t slippery or dangerous, it was depleting. We’d heard that somebody had run the entire Track several years ago in seven hours—which seemed unbelievable, especially considering this part. Roaring and rushing beside us, and sometimes beneath, were great step-waterfalls, going down the mountain with such ease and speed they made us feel earthbound and slow.

“What’s the name of that bird?” asked one woman, pointing up. “Ralph,” said her husband shortly. “We saw his cousin Gilbert yesterday, remember?”

We were all trying to save energy, and despite the increasing pressure in our boots, once we reached Quintin and replenished ourselves with tea and biscuits. we all set off without knapsacks for another hour and a half’s tramp to see Sutherland Falls—at 1,904 ft., one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. The trail, lined with fuchsia, rummaged around in deep woods and followed a sound that, as we neared, resembled a squadron of jets simultaneously breaking the sound barrier. It was so loud that it pummeled thought and replaced it with sheer nervous excitement, for the light was waning in the trees and we saw dimly ahead only enormous quantities of mist and spray filling the air, blown through trees toward us.

Then the trees broke, and we were at the waterfall’s feet. It was like a massive fireworks display put on entirely by water, the jets exploding off the cliff in all directions with a main tubular mass coming down in three great leaps, hurrying to overtake each other so as to be the first to come crashing down in the swirling cauldron of a lake. Around us the air seemed composed wholly of water. We’d been seeing waterfalls ad infinitum; each was beginning to look like the last; but Sutherland Falls brought on an ancient wonder, and I decided that the drama and beauty of a great waterfall comes from its mingled qualities of extreme life and extreme death, so much water plummeting to such a calamitous end.

Later, when we flew over Fiordland in a single-prop plane, Sutherland Falls from above was almost more awesome, since we saw that it’s caused by a huge, flat lake on top of the mountain. From that height it looks like water being poured slowly from a jug.

At Quintin that night, flush with our coming success, the group took on a new unity. It was not the sense of achievement as much as the anticipation of completing the Track, seeing what it all added up to. “I believe I could do this for the rest of my life,” said the airline pilot to me, and everybody seemed in high spirits, full of resolve. That night we were suddenly conscious we were friends—it was something intangible but clearly felt in the room. People who’d said nothing to each other for three days were now chattering away. At such times people are more themselves than usual. There was wine with dinner, the promise of a first-rate meal tomorrow night, and we all felt ourselves unfolding like mountain flowers. Everything in our world today seems to take us further away from each other, and we knew we’d been part of one of the few experiences you can have (and in four days) that gathers you together.

I sat down by the potbellied stove, warmed by wine and fire, and started reading the Quintin Visitors’ Book. The entries, I thought, must be valid for nearly any group. “My shoulders are screaming,” read one. “I came, I saw, I marveled.” “Glub-glub. Mighty wet going.” “What marvelous fools we all are.” “101 waterfalls, and 44 people of the world have come a little closer.” “Your grand memento, Quintin, will take pride of place anywhere I may live.” And one New Zealander’s long entry began: “This is the end of the trail for the 6th successive year. I failed to complete a personal challenge I made with the Sutherland Falls. Am glad I failed. These falls are so beautiful and magnificent in all their fury that no man on earth is entitled to win every round.” And the most frequent entry of all was, “I shall return.”

That last day of tramping had the air of hurry, anticlimax, and summary. We left Quintin early, having sent our knapsacks on in the little supply plane, and unencumbered we walked more as a group than we had earlier. The track wound through mild woods, and all our sores—sore feet, sore backs—asserted themselves. “My feet feel like hamburger,” said a girl in ad sales cheerfully. An elderly woman moaned, “I’m a broken-down racehorse. Don’t let ’em shoot me.” But she kept moving.

We were headed for a mid-morning break at Boatshed, which sits placidly just up a lawn from a lake. By the time I got there tea was well under way, and several fishermen in our group, frustrated by the first day’s rough weather, were recklessly catching trout after trout and throwing them back.

“Want them?” said a grinning, mustached Track veteran named Peter. He looks after Boatshed, and has the amiable, weathered look a giant is supposed to have, brought down to normal size, “Not on your life. We caught sixty here one day.”

In the rafters above us was a dusty collection of old liquor bottles from more than a half-century past. One with skull-and-crossbones stood beside a bottle of Napoleon brandy. I named every drink I could think of and let Peter point out a version in the rafters. “Vat 69? Ah, the Pope’s phone number.”

A blackboard read:
Welcome To Boatshed! 
1) You only have 8 1/3 miles to go! 
2) Boat leaves Sandfly at 4 p.m. 
3) Mackay Falls and Bell Rock 3/4 miles
4) Giant’s Gate Falls (lunch) approx. 5 miles, you should leave there no later than 2:15 p.m.

Bell Rock, by a sloughing falls, was a giant dark rock hollowed out by eons of rubbing by a rock and the river, and several of us crawled under and stood up within it. But we had to hurry on; and my only complaint about the Track would be the suggestion that this final day be divided into two, not for ease but for enjoyment.

I passed a beefy Australian beside his wife. relying her bootlaces. He looked up, gave me a grin. “Road repairs. Lucky we didn’t blow a tire.”

At the falls where we stopped for lunch beneath a wood-and-wire bridge, many of us took off our shoes and froze our feet in the transparent, icy water in brilliant sunshine. Farther on, going over a rough section of twisted roots and packed rocks, I fell into step with a western Australian who had a thatch of sandy hair, a scarecrow body, and a boy’s tentative smile. I knew he was a chiropractor, and I saw he was heading smoothly along in sneakers. “Oh, these,” he said mildly. “Well, y’see—I didn’t wear any shoes ’tall till I was seventeen or nineteen or thirabaouts. Grew up on a sheep farm. Lots of sheep. So me feet is still pretty tough.”

We talked about his profession, and the Track. Would he want to do it again? “Oh, sure, yeah. Y’see, the problem with growing up is your profession, no matter what it is, takes you far away from who you really are. ’Cause you didn’t start out to be jist one thing. You can’t help but get involved, and then maybe y’start t’think you aren’t yourself any longer. Always that danger. So y’need to do something like this every now and again to bring yourself back to shake hands with yourself.” He smiled. “When I was a boy, though, I would’a done this in bare feet and thought nothin’.” Then he said something mysterious. “We got to be sure to meet the gardener at Milford. I heard about him. He’s not like us.”

We were passing through glades of golden light by brimming Lake Ada, and we parted, each to find his own spot to memorize; there were only two miles to go. I stood and listened to bird calls and thought how fortunate I was to have had this time. Most landscapes exist ultimately not as locations, but as states of mind—and it is as these that they move  in memory. Sequestered on the Milford Track, I’d felt utterly separate and at ease, as if I’d left my life behind with the boat where the trail began near Glade House. And soon I was to pick it up again.

Abruptly the Track began to take on a conclusive ease. Before any of us were prepared, we were out of the trees and onto a spit of land, a lake, a deck, a boat—and crossing Milford Sound for fifteen minutes, in the great pyramidal shadow of Mitre Peak, so perfectly poised it looks as if a society of photographers has put it there.

Dinner that night was festive and clamorous, everybody receiving certificates of achievement, making speeches, baiting the waitresses who considerately put up with this ruckus six nights a week. Finally we collected in the bar; tomorrow there would be a calm boat trip up the length of Milford Sound. But tonight there was a postscript: the gardener.

His name was Jeff O’Brien, he was compact and deeply tanned, with inquisitive eyes and a mustache. Had he climbed most of the peaks? Of course. He’d spent two years living by his wits and guts in Africa—“Y’keep moving or you die”—and as one of the finest young marathoners in the world at seventeen, now, a decade later, he’d taken it up again, winning the famous marathon across Antarctica last year. And, two weeks earlier, he’d set out to run the Milford Track, just for the fun of it. He’d carried a knapsack with a wool vest and a track suit, a big bundle of chocolate, and a camera. He’d called back to Milford from huts along the way, just to verify his time, which was slipping by. For he’d run the entire Track in five hours.

“I was getting a buzz off the scenery,” he said with a grin.“It’s easier than running in Antarctica, I’ll tell you that, mate. It was my day off and a fine one, so I went for it. Had tea and scones at Quintin. It was pretty cold up on the Pass—only twenty-foot visibility. The guys in the hut thought I was up a tree.”

He’d “drilled the old record into the dirt”—but I thought he must have the Track in his mind as I couldn’t, as a continuous iambic line. It didn’t matter—everybody’s Track was different. William Anderson had written several years ago, “I have heard many a tramper say, ‘Now I have seen the Track I am satisfied. I wouldn’t want to go over it again.’ These people, mostly fully appreciative of what they have seen, yet view it as a beautifully illustrated book but printed in an unknown foreign tongue. To see the Track is one thing, to know it another.”

To which I would add—and I am sure Jeff O’Brien would concur—the only way to do the Milford Track is to do it again.

One memory stayed with me and wouldn’t quit. It was in that last stretch, as the trees began to thin and I was looking out over the wriggling lake. An older New Zealand woman, a little dreamily, ambled up and said softly, “Are you a poet? I just had a beautiful thought, and I want you to write it down for me. I was thinking about how all the streams rush down the mountain. But they don’t collect. Not anywhere.” Then she was gone, heading down the Track—as we, not yet realizing it ourselves, were rushing on, with more around us than we could possibly collect—and it was all gone before we knew it.

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