I must have decided ‘no,’ as that’s exactly what I found myself doing last week, first flying to Queenstown, then by bus to Te Anau and by boat up Lake Te Anau to the start of the track. For me there were two more reasons – I’d always heard that my great aunt Gertrude had walked the track around 1900 – in the days when you had to walk both ways. If ‘frail’ Gertrude (who lived to 86) could go there and back then I certainly could at least get there. And then one of the discoverers of the overland route to Milford Sound via what was to become the track was a Mackinnon, just like me, if the variation in spelling be overlooked. (Although, he actually seems to have spelt his name McKinnon, but official documents go with the Mac spelling).
Through the main tramping season 40 ‘independent’ trampers is the daily quota. The ‘independents’ are paralleled by the ‘guided walkers’ – it’s a curious system, arising out of the monopoly that the Tourist Hotel Corporation once had on the track, at which time you couldn’t go independently. In 2011 the two groups – the guided and the independents – have separate accommodation, at separate locations, with the effect that groups starting the same day don’t even see each other.
The independents have it ‘harder’ of course, as they have to carry their food, sleeping bags, and anything else they might want en route. But the track is not that difficult, the only really steep part is the climb to Mackinnon Pass (1154 metres) and that takes two hours at the very outside, and usually more like 70 to 90 minutes. After the descent from the pass, the side trip to the base of the 580-metre-high Sutherland Falls is a bonus.
I guess the experience was much as I expected, but there were particular aspects of it that weren’t. I wasn’t prepared for the amazing number of kōtukutuku (native fuchsia) on the track, the peeling light brown bark on their contorted trunks standing out sharply against the prevailing green. The range of flowers was a pleasure; as too the sighting of robins and whio (blue ducks) amongst other birds. ‘Sightings’ of sandflies couldn’t have been described as pleasure, but would it have been Fiordland without them?
I learnt the hard way that the track was 53.5 kilometres long – so a correction is on its way to Te Ara, where it is given as 52 kilometres – I can’t forget that last kilometre and a half! Interestingly the distance markers are still in miles – 33 of them – with the kilometre distances added.
The overnight huts, as well as being comfortable, had lots of interesting geological, botanical and historical information about the track and its surroundings – like a portable Te Ara you might say.
The track, and indeed the whole of Fiordland, are placed firmly in the Southland region in Te Ara, and I think that’s where they belong - certainly the national park is run out of Te Anau, a township with a strong rural Southland flavour. But the historical information showed how much the exploration endeavour in the late 19th century came out of Dunedin, whilst today many of the walkers on the track are Queenstown-based. They’re from all over the world – our cohort had Dutch, Germans, Japanese, Americans and Australians as well as Kiwis. Neither geography nor history stands still.