New Zealand: The Vistas of Summer

During the previous week the weather along the mountainous west coast of New Zealand's South Island had been incredible. Blue skies. Glaciated peaks sparkling white in the sun. And, at the lower elevations, among the forests of silver beech trees, crisp, clean air that smelled of perfect summer days.

But today Marcia Stenson and her husband, Alan Poletti, their heads bent forward and their hands holding tight to the clinched hoods of their rain slickers, are tramping - or hiking, as Americans would say - into a cold and blowing rain that prompts Stenson to shout: "The prospect of a trip to Italy seems ever so much more delightful!"

Late in the morning, with the rain coming down even harder, they cross a scar of land where a huge slab of mountain recently slid down toward the fast-flowing Clinton River. Above them, the bare face of Mount Fisher, a solid mass of black rock a few hours ago, is now striped with white ribbons of cascading water. The river is plainly on the rise, which is made all too evident when the track, or trail, they are following disappears into it.

Stenson, seeing the track emerge again a short distance upstream, wades in up to

her boot tops and then above her knees.

"Are you coming, Alan?" she asks.

Poletti hesitates. "What's that saying about keeping your boots dry?" he calls out.

"No," Stenson answers over her shoulder. "It's ¿Keep your powder dry.'" Poletti starts to follow, hesitates, starts again, hesitates.

"That's four times today she has given me advice," he says aloud. "And every other time she was right."

Still, after hesitating a moment longer, he decides to follow an alternate path. One that, from all the muddy footprints, appears to have been taken by a group of trampers just ahead of them. He turns inland, into a thick cover of trees, and almost immediately both the river and his wife disappear from view.

Flashback to the previous day. Often at this time of year, which is early January, Poletti and Stenson would be out sailing on Auckland's waters. Or, because New Zealanders are adept at placing their relatives in convenient places around the world, they would be visiting one of Alan's sons in Australia or perhaps Marcia's brother in London. But this year they decided to do something special.

Taking advantage of the long summer days, they are embarking on what for many New Zealanders is a kind of pilgrimage - a pilgrimage famous for blistered feet, leaking rain gear, and one of the planet's most stunning landscapes.

Near the bottom of South Island, amid the twisted topography of Fiordland National Park, they are about to tramp the 33-mile-long Milford Track, seldom referred to as anything but "the finest walk in the world."

Stenson, a shortish, sturdy, auburn-haired woman who just retired after 34 years as a schoolteacher, is a lifelong tramper. Poletti, who tends to spend his free time on boats, is slender and has the bespectacled, owlish look of the professor he is at the University of Auckland, where he says he has found no quicker way - in strongly antinuclear New Zealand - to bring a pause to cocktail party conversation than to mention that he is a nuclear physicist.

The two want to walk the track for all the usual reasons - the natural beauty, the fitness benefits, the chance to experience part of their national heritage. But they want to do it for another reason as well. One that makes their pilgrimage even more special. The couple, who were married a year ago, both had previous spouses who died relatively young.

"We like to think," says Stenson, "that the Milford Track tramp is something all four of us might have happily done together."

It is possible to tramp the Milford Track independently, but Poletti and Stenson have elected to go with a guided group. They will stay in comfortable lodges, have their meals prepared, have to carry little more than a bedsheet, and - perhaps the only downside - be required to wear name tags.

"Most Kiwis do the independent walk," says Stenson, who started out to do it herself six years ago but was thwarted by rain so heavy that park rangers did something they rarely do - closed the track. "But this time, maybe because I am a bit older - and wiser - I'm quite happy to let somebody else take care of most of the gear."

Their group consists of 46 other trampers and 2 guides, both female: in all, 17 Japanese, 17 Australians, 8 New Zealanders, 6 Americans, and 2 Swedes. The Japanese, whose polypropylene tramping outfits are color coordinated, look as if they all went shopping at the same sports boutique. The Americans and the Australians, one of whom is wearing a T-shirt promoting the heavy-metal band Metallica, look as if they have been outfitted at a variety of Salvation Army stores.

That first day is easy, almost embarrassingly so.

It begins in the little town of Te Anau, followed by a two-hour crossing to the head of the glacier-fed lake where the track begins. Aboard the motorboat, Poletti - who is, as it happens, one third of New Zealand's entire nuclear capability - pulls out what somebody recognizes as a Geiger counter. Taking Geiger counter readings during his travels is a kind of hobby. It also allows him the luxury, one can't help but observe, of an abundance of personal space on a boat that is otherwise very crowded.

When they step off the boat, Stenson pauses to consider what they are about to undertake.

"Because it's easier than some of the other tramps I've done," she says, "I always thought of the Milford as something I would put off until I was a bit older. And yet here I am. What does that tell you, Alan?"

Poletti, who is comparing a nearby tree with a photograph in a guidebook, answers by saying, "Look, Marcia. It's the cabbage tree. Cordyline australis."

Less than a mile away lies the rustic, wooden riverside lodge known as Glade House, where the group will spend the first night. The last-minute preparations for this first walk - adding to or taking away from layers of clothing, self-consciously adjusting and readjusting pack straps, applying copious amounts of in-sect repellent - almost take longer than the walk itself.

Applying the insect repellent, in particular, is attended to by all, because the track's small but voracious sand flies have a fearsome reputation. They have been part of the Fiordland experience for virtually every visitor, including Capt. James Cook, who, sailing along the coast in the early 1770s, called the sand fly "the most mischievous animal."

A rising, misty breeze makes the repellent unnecessary, however, and the only pain Poletti and Stenson have to endure takes place in the lodge's recreation/dining hall, where pinned to the wall is the following exchange:

Q: What's the difference between the New Zealand cricket team and the Milford Track?

A: Not everybody has walked over the Milford Track.

Dinner is a blur of unremembered names, and seating is at random, although Poletti, using scientific analysis, determines that with an average of eight people to a table, and a ration of two bottles of wine per table, it is better to sit with families who have children.

After dinner, during games organized to get the group to mix, some of the names begin to stick: There is the single father, Peter, from Australia, who is with his 12-year-old daughter, Michele, the youngest member of the group, and his teenage son, the ever-challenging Danny, who wants to know why a walk through the cold and wet New Zealand bush could be considered better than, for instance, the family holiday in Egypt he wanted to take.

There is another Australian, a young woman, Aneita, with silver studs in her nose and a safety pin through her lip, who spends the evening looking, unsuccessfully, for her mother's name in the guest books from the '60s.

And there is the American photographer, Bob, who leads his fellow Americans in a chorus of "Yankee Doodle" while dancing a jig, thereby losing what little chance he had of someone taking pity on his blown-out knees and helping carry some of the heavy camera gear over the infamous Mackinnon Pass.

Poletti and Stenson chat with some of the others for awhile, then retire early, to a cabin they share with another couple picked at random by the lodge managers. At ten o'clock the generator shuts down, and the lights go off. Somewhere in the night, a bird calls, and Japanese women giggle.

The first full day of tramping begins with more drizzle. Most of the trampers, dressed in yellow rain gear that does amazingly little to actually keep out rain, bunch up to cross, one at a time, the suspension bridge that sways above the clear-running Clinton River. But once across the water, everyone sets his or her own pace. Poletti and Stenson, sometimes going only a few steps before stooping over to study a plant or reaching out to touch a leaf, are soon at the back of the pack.

"It's nice, not rushing to get a bed," says Stenson, recalling that on some of her New Zealand tramps - on tracks with huts but no reservation system - most of her energy was focused on arriving early enough not to have to sleep on the floor.

All morning they walk along the river beneath a forest of silver beech trees interspersed with paper-thin-barked mountain holly, shrublike pepper trees, and purple-flowered fuschias that are said to be the largest in the world. Sometimes they're accompanied by the chiming of the bellbird. And often, when they pass close to the river, they can see rainbow trout finning just below the surface.

As the rain picks up, Poletti begins to wonder aloud why an umbrella is not part of the standard gear of a Milford Track tramper. He goes on at such great lengths about what the ideal tramping umbrella would be that when one of the guides comes within hearing distance, Stenson feels it necessary to make an observation of her own.

"Did you ever notice," she says, "that the more a scientist goes into detail the more likely he is to be talking BS?"

Then they come to the spot where the track dips into the river, and the two go their separate ways. Stenson makes it safely to the track on the other side and continues until the detour rejoins the main track. She waits. And waits.

Finally Poletti appears, approaching at his usual slow pace, stooping first to look at some plant that catches his eye on the left side of the track, and then at another on the right.

"Some interesting specimens along that section," he says with a smile. But his effort to stay dry was a wasted one. His path, too, dipped into a rush of water, and his boots were soaked more than once.

At lunch Poletti and Stenson gather with the other tail-enders in a shelter at Hirere Falls, which is no longer a delicate thread of white but a raging example of the brute force Fiordland is capable of. Boots are off, and the guides are serving up hot drinks and helping apply first aid to blistered feet. Poletti and Stenson are in good shape and - despite their brief split-up - good spirits. But a group of three Japanese women, still brightly color coordinated, are, by contrast, looking decidedly grim.

Back on the track, Poletti and Stenson are soon last again and walk much of the afternoon with guide Susan Gilbert, who is taking her turn at making sure no stragglers get left along the track. The rain becomes even heavier, the wind rises dramatically, and walking becomes a constant slog. Above them, the steep-sided valley walls, when they are visible through the swirling clouds, have become almost one continuous waterfall. Being heard above the wind has become impossible, but Stenson keeps muttering, apparently for her own benefit: "We won't have to set a tent up, we won't have to set a tent up."

When Poletti and Stenson arrive in a hard, blowing rain at the night's lodge, they are greeted by manager Warwick Chinnery, who asks the couple, as he no doubt has asked each of the 46 trampers ahead of them, how it was.

"It was bad," Poletti answers. "Every time Marcia gave me any advice, she was right."

In the recreation hall before dinner, it's clear that the hardship of the day - and the fact that everyone came through just fine - has transformed yesterday's group of strangers into companions brought together by a shared experience. (The atmosphere is helped by the assurance that the drying room - which uses exhaust heat from the lodge's diesel - will produce dry clothes for tomorrow.)

Stenson and Poletti chat with a Japanese woman about places in the world she has walked, while some of the Americans make the mistake of challenging the Australian youngsters to what proves to be the down under edition of Trivial Pursuit.

The easy mood is snuffed out, however, when a rumor rages that the group just ahead encountered such bad conditions at the Mackinnon Pass that for awhile they had to crawl on hands and knees to keep from being blown off their feet - and the mountain. To make matters worse, the threat of an avalanche on the far side of the pass had caused the guides to consider using a much steeper emergency trail to get them off the mountain.

Not to worry, Chinnery assures the couple when they are sitting with him over a cup of tea after dinner. It is snow, not rain and wind, that is more likely to cause serious problems, he tells them. And this isn't the time of year for significant snow. However, he does admit that the meteorological service has reported hurricane-force gusts atop the pass and that the barometer - whose readings usually drop as the weather gets worse - is the second lowest he has seen it in nine years.

During the night the rain comes down hard. But - unpredictably - by morning it has changed to an intermittent gray mist, and the mountainside torrents have disappeared. Still, despite the improving weather, it is a quiet, subdued group that heads off for Mackinnon Pass. On some, the looks register as, "I can do this." Others seem to be asking, "Can I do this?"

As it turns out, they all can. After a morning of hard climbing, with views only of the mist and the tiny, hardy, tundralike plants that cling to the side of the upwardly zigzagging track, Poletti and Stenson arrive at a windblown hut atop the pass to find most of the group wolfing down their lunch with the enthusiasm of the reborn.

The American photographer, in particular, is in high spirits, not only because he made it to the top despite his own dire predictions but also because he has discovered that on the final day of the walk, it is possible to have one's pack flown out.

Poletti and Stenson eat their lunch, take a few Geiger counter readings, then head down the other side of the mountain, where they are almost immediately rewarded by a quickly dissipating mist that reveals an alpine valley of incredible beauty. Beneath a once-more-blue sky and towering, snowcapped peaks, the green valley walls are painted with wildflowers - mountain daisies, bluebells, snow marguerites. Far below, a river runs silver until it disappears into a mountain shadow. Above, a glacier hangs sparkling white in the sun.

"Fantastic," says Stenson.

"I'm glad we had the rain," says Poletti, unable to prevent himself from being the scientific observer he is. "Otherwise we would have been denied the full Milford Track experience."

They are at Quintin Lodge in plenty of time, and with enough energy left, to walk to the roaring base of 1,904-foot Sutherland Falls, said to be the fifth highest in the world. In the evening, around a piano, somebody tells the story of how the instrument had been hauled 13 miles over the track from Milford Sound. It seems that one of the early lodge managers had decided that learning to play the piano might help his wife overcome the loneliness of living in such isolation.

"Pity," says Stenson, "she wasn't interested in the violin."

The final day's expedition to mountain-girded Milford Sound, is a long one - seven hours. But for the now-well-conditioned trampers, it is otherwise easy. Ambling along a gentle downward slope, the group descends again into a forest of silver beech trees, then skirts the shore of Lake Ada before arriving finally at the enclosed shelters at aptly named Sandfly Point, where a boat is waiting. Across Milford Sound is the lodge where they will spend a final night together.

"So long," somebody writes in the shelter's guest book. "And thanks for all the sand flies."

At the farewell dinner, which is accompanied by an exchanging of addresses, a bit of doggerel composed at the guides' expense, and, here and there, a tear or two, Poletti explains to his tablemates that not long ago he met a man who claimed that even leisure travel must have some purpose to it - some goal. The man's goal was to visit the world's ten greatest rivers. The argument appealed to Poletti, and now his goal, he says, is to do the world's ten greatest walks.

"Mind you, it will be difficult to find a better walk than this," says Stenson, to general agreement - except for 12-year-old Michele, who groans.

The slight young Australian had obviously struggled to finish the walk and looks worn out. Still, everyone congratulates her on a job well-done.

"You just have to remember," Poletti says, "that nothing worth doing is ever easy."

To which her brother, Danny, who appears far from worn-out and apparently sees no reason to let the pronouncements of even an esteemed professor of nuclear physics go unchallenged, counters, "And what about sleeping?"

Stenson smiles pleasantly at the boy. "When did you say you return to school?" she asks, with the serenity of someone who knows that for the first time in three decades her summer holidays will last the entire year.