The Milford Track walk was magnificent, but there is an Australian walking destination, which I prefer.
At the risk of receiving derisive messages from my Kiwi friends, let me explain.
There is a certain type of scenery that excites me, and it is all encapsulated in the magnificent McPherson Ranges on the Queensland/New South Wales border.
Here, there is a combination of rainforest, gum trees, heath land, waterfalls, fast flowing streams, gorges, magnificent views of valley farmlands, and, best of all, great views of the Tweed Valley, with its sugarcane fields, and, in the middle of it all, Mount Warning (or Wollumbin). Not forgetting the wildlife – wallabies, goannas, brush turkeys, snakes, crayfish walking up the path, and all sorts of birdlife.
My wife, Marie and I walked Milford in January, 2005, as part of an organised tour. Milford has the rainforest, heathland, waterfalls, fast flowing streams, gorges and views, but of course, hardly any wildlife.
The peaks are more striking and the waterfalls higher than the McPherson Ranges, but I still find the experience of the Aussie bush more appealing. That probably has a lot to do with being Australian.
Our 2005 Milford Track experience was the highlight of a four week stay ‘across the ditch’, on the South Island.
We had started in Christchurch, where we picked up a hire car and headed south, across the Canterbury Plains, stopping for a toasted sandwich at a corner shop at Stavely, before a walk to Sharplin Falls.
At coastal Oamaru, we explored the harbor area and Blue Penguin Centre, before a drive through Potter’s Gorge to Dunedin. The next day we drove around the Otago Peninsula, back to St Clair, where we had a drink overlooking the surf beach. Driveway service at Caltex. How quaint.
After a walk through the Botanic Gardens, we enjoyed monk fish and Gurnard in our room.
We loved the home hardware, TV ad where the Kiwi boasted about his impressive new deck.
The following day we drove the north side of Otago Peninsula, through Port Chalmers, walking a beach, as divers completed their outing on the harbor. Hail fell as we drove to Waitati.
We took the coastal route to Invercargill, with walks at Matai Falls, McLeans Falls and Slopey Point, the latter the southern most point of the South Island, where the wind is amazing. Japanese tourists turned back when they couldn’t get through a farmer’s gate. Too complicated. All they had to do was ask my wife.
A stock truck tail gated us on the way back to the highway. I hope he enjoyed his day.
The Motel Aachen, in Invercargill, was basic and the manager said there wasn’t much he could tell us about the city. At least he was honest. Lamb shanks at O’Brien’s Irish pub, where a young local introduced himself, just before his girl came to drag him out.
Our day trip from Invercargill took us to Bluff and an enjoyable bush walk, followed by a drink overlooking Stewart Island.
Dunedin (Otago) and Invercargill (Southland) are rugby union strongholds, but there have been a few league internationals from these regions, among them Bert Ekhoff, William Johnston, Trevor Patrick, Herbert Pearce, Henry Thomas, Alfred Townsend and John Walshe (Otago) and Ned Hughes (Southland). (Hughes played for the All Blacks before switching to league in 1909. He played against the touring England league side in 1910, but was allowed to return to union after World War 1, and in 1921, at the age of 40, played two Tests against the All Blacks. According to Wikipedia, he was killed in a building accident in New South Wales in 1928).
On Thursday, January 20 we drove to Queenstown (via the Puffing Billy stop), checking into our hotel on the lake, ahead of the Milford walk.
The young bloke who had chatted to us in O’Briens, was working on a building site, so we said hello, but he didn’t remember us. Shock.
Friday, January 21, was the first day of the track walk, with a coach trip from Queenstown to Te Anau, a nice lunch, a group photo and then a cruise along the Lake to our first lodge. Marie and I did a warm up walk on the hills behind the lodge. Our guide, a Dunedin uni graduate, knew something about every plant along the way.
The ‘Getting to Know You’ night at the Lodge meant every nationality had to do an act.
At my urging, we Australians sang Slim Dusty’s ‘I Love to Have a Beer with Duncan’, which went over really well with the Japanese, who made up about half the walking group, many of them with the surname, Honda. The Kiwi guides said the song made a pleasant change from ‘Waltzing Matilda’, which every Aussie group seemed to drag out.
We introduced ourselves to some of our fellow walkers, among them Russell Calley and Geoff Falkenmire.
Russell, from Sorrento in Victoria, Australia, was still mourning the loss of his wife to cancer. She had always wanted to walk the Milford Track.
Geoff is a cousin of my former Courier-Mail colleague, David Falkenmire, one of Australia’s most respected sports journalists. Geoff was walking with his two children, Gracie and Harry.
It rained on the first full day of our walk, but that only made for more spectacular surroundings, with waterfalls in full flow. That night we shared our accommodation with Americans, Tally and John Garfield from Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He had done the walk a few years ago with his father. We enjoyed a drink and a sing-a-long with Allen Weeks from Port Melbourne and his lady, Helen Thomas from Glen iris. Jenny, an English lass, was the life of the party.
The next day, we climbed Mackinnon Pass. It wasn’t so bad going up, but it was hard work going down, particularly as my boots were too small. I could barely walk. An old Japanese bloke was the first to the top of the pass. How did we stop them at Kokoda?
One of the females on the trip, from Newcastle in Australia, had her walking boots fall apart, because she had put them in the drying room, when wet, despite advice against such a measure.
Monday, January 24, and we completed the walk, with most of the group adjourning to the Milford Sound pub’s Blue Duck Bar.
The organised trip finished with a cruise on Milford sound, to the open sea. Lots of seals.
There was a bloke on board who was the spitting image of former Brisbane Souths five eighth, Bruce Harry. The Falkenmire kids went past on their surf kayaks, looking delighted they had come with their dad, despite initial misgivings.
The coach took us back to Queenstown, via ice cream at Mossburn.
After walking in the McPherson Ranges, I can’t suggest a nearby place with ice cream as good as Mossburn. That’s a concession I’m only too willing to make.
Photo 1: Marie Ricketts on the Otago Peninsula
Photo 2: Steve Ricketts on the Milford Track walk
Photo 3: Celebrations at end of the Milford Track walk
Photo 4: Jeff Ricketts looks out over the McPherson Ranges.