The switchbacks snaked around the mountain's midriff at gentler angles than I had imagined. As the links became steeper and shorter, we hunkered down closer to the earth. Now and then we stopped to look back and appreciate how far we'd progressed or to catch our breath.
We marveled at the Mount Cook lilies blooming on the mountainside, their white-petaled flowers with bright yellow centers set in large saucer-shaped leaves. It was early November, spring in this part of the world.
"The Milford Track is neither easy nor difficult - it's a challenge," stated the Milford Track brochure. A challenge in a setting of spectacular natural beauty with varied landscape of lush temperate rain forests and sandy riverbanks, trees leveled by avalanche, rock-filled creeks, snowy mountain peaks, and rushing waterfalls at every turn. Hiking the 33.5-mile track for three days was like moving through a kaleidoscope of changing shapes and angles.
The recommended training - walking up hills and over broken ground like riverbeds - seemed an impossible assignment in the flat landscape of central Florida, where my husband, Howard, and I live. The steepest incline in our neighborhood, the health club's treadmill set at its highest angle, didn't meet the requirement. Yet we felt physically fit for our ages of 55-plus and reasonably confident we were ready for New Zealand's treasure, touted as "the finest walk in the world."
The track package included all meals and overnight stays in comfortable lodges with bunk beds and hot showers. Each walker carried a backpack with clothing, personal items, a sheet and a bag lunch. Standard group size was 35 to 40. With all of us moving at our own pace in this vast wilderness, we learned we could enjoy both solitude and companionship.
The evening before we left for the Milford Track, our group gathered for introductions at the Travelodge in Te Anau, a tourist town on the South Island's Lake Te Anau. We met the elder statesman of our group, Tom Duffy, a short, wiry 84-year-old from Dunedin, New Zealand, who twice before had walked the track as an independent walker, carrying full gear and food and plotting his own route.
Bus and boat transported us into the wilderness. We landed at Glade Wharf, where the resident army of biting black sandflies, the same kind that greeted Capt. Cook in 1773, swarmed around us.
The track's first mile, a wide path near the Clinton River, led us to Glade House, our first overnight stop. I leaned on the porch railing and watched the independent walkers (also known as freedom walkers) trudge past us toward their first shelter near the five-mile marker. Their backs almost parallel to the ground with the weight of large framed backpacks, they lumbered like tortoises under heavy shells.
In twos and threes we set off next morning on a 10-mile trek, led by Aaron, our 20-year-old Kiwi guide, and the goers, young Australians who sprinted like mountain goats. Cathy, a young, energetic Californian, and I marched along at the rear. I felt relieved that we didn't have to be on alert for snakes or bears, for there were none here. New Zealand claims only a few indigenous species in its animal kingdom, two kinds of bats and some insects.
The last nation in the world to be settled, it was physically isolated until the Maoris, a Polynesian people, arrived about A.D. 800. Adapting to changing conditions, the native fauna and flora still thrive, such as the cushion plant that grows flat and dense against the rocks, a survivor of the ice age.
The trail resumed behind Glade House at a long suspension bridge across the Clinton River that linked to a wide path once used by packhorses and tractors delivering supplies to Pompolona, our next lodge. A pair of paradise shelducks, a black-headed male and his life-long white-headed mate, arced through the air and plunged into the river with a splash.
Farther on, at the left of the trail a sign marked the site of the Two-Mile Hut built by Quintin Mackinnon in 1888, when he and Ernest Mitchell cut the track through Clinton Valley and over the pass in drenching rains.
We moved through an enchanted forest, one of many along the way, draped in moss, curling vines and an abundance of ferns - pointed crown ferns, spleenworts drooping from branches, hound's tongue fern with thick, shiny fronds reminiscent of its name, and silvery bush flax on the floor.
Often we paused to contemplate unfamiliar sights - an eerie scene of petrified trees standing like abandoned soldiers in a deserted battleground of water. In areas marked "danger," avalanches had strewn the valley floor with everything in their path - granite boulders and flattened trees with trunks like giant husks piled in layers. There we heeded Aaron's warning and did not linger.
When we caught up with Tom Duffy, our octogenarian, I asked him about his secret for a long life of walking.
"It's simple," he said. "Just put one foot in front of the other." Then he picked up the pace and left us behind. We met again at Hirere Falls shelter, our lunch stop and also the hangout of the keas, large, playful olive-green parrots with scarlet underwings. They perched on the railing, squawking loudly in search of bounty.
Near the end of the day's walk, we came upon a sturdy roofed shelter with a sign: "Bus Stop." Another example of Kiwi humor, we thought, as we marched ahead toward a wide berth of boulders that extended up the hillside to our left.
With no place to anchor my walking stick among the rocks, I hopped from one rock to another as a child might in a game. This sea of boulders, we later learned, was Marlene's Creek - the dry version, that is.
In heavy rains, the walkers waited in the shelter until the water level in the creek declined and they could cross safely. If the creek was impassable, they returned to Glade House, our first residence, where they were flown to the third lodge so the next group on the track could proceed. The timing of this guided walk had to be finely tuned.
After dinner that evening, Aaron previewed the next day's events with his usual wry wit: "It's a wee walk up and a wee walk down." But New Zealanders had told us about the infamous third day, the five steep miles up, and the real test, the four miles down. In preparation for the downhill, Aaron recommended a toenail cutting session. The constant pressure of the foot moving forward in the shoe could damage or cause the painful loss of toenails, preventing the walker from completing the trek. The "wee walk" took on a new dimension.
In the chilly morning mist, we tramped over small footbridges spanning creeks, past Lake Mintaro edged with ancient trees. Sunshine warmed us as we trudged steadily up the switchbacks, through bush and over toppled trees fuzzy with moss and lichen.
Beyond the tree line, we advanced past the cirque hollowed like a giant sand trap below the Nicholas Peaks, whose snows feed into the Clinton River. When we finally stepped up to level ground on Mackinnon Pass, we felt giddy with the pleasure of having arrived. The short, wavy line on the Clinton Valley sign seemed worlds away.
The ring of mountains stood like ancient totems rising to the heavens. On some peaks, sharply sliced planes of glacial ice and snow lay against the bald, dark rock. On others, blankets of green covered their steep, rough sides. Tussocks of grass sprouted from the sandy soil in the pass in a muted landscape of wheat and green, gray and brown.
We stopped to read the plaque on the Mackinnon Memorial stone cairn, erected by the Gaelic Society, the Otago Rugby Union, and the New Zealand government. Then Cathy walked fearlessly to the cliff known as the "12 Second Drop," where some of the younger set were seated, dangling their legs over the edge. I kept my distance but enjoyed the wide-angle view of New Zealand's Southern Alps and the rich green of Arthur Valley below with its toy-sized Quintin Lodge, our next overnight quarters, and a Band-Aid of an airstrip beside it.
We headed for Pass Hut, a short walk past snow patches and small mountain tarns. The sign in the large room complete with kitchen read "Welcome to Pass Hut. The restaurant at the end of the universe." Warm chicken soup awaited us.
On the downhill trek, we walked cautiously down the stubby zigzags around Mount Balloon and then scrambled from rock to rock. On this precipitous track, my thigh muscles strained with the pressure of the downhill grind. Wherever winter avalanches had erased the main trail, we followed the steeper emergency track, in part a sea of oozing mud. At the point where it dropped two feet, I stopped abruptly and traded my walking stick for the arms of Cathy and Diane Krys, our assistant guide.
One mile from Quintin Lodge, I was forced to rest under the beeches' thick canopy. I suddenly felt dizzy and weak. My throat was parched, but our water bottles were empty. I sent Cathy ahead, so she could complete the optional trek to Sutherland Falls. As I peeled an orange I'd saved from lunch, my hands shook. The last mile to the lodge, eight hours from our morning start, I lurched from one slippery rock to the next, talking aloud to myself in encouragement.
At the start of the final day I floated along the track. Taking advantage of Aaron's suggestion to walk light, I had stuffed my entire backpack and most of its contents into a large plastic bag for air transport back to the Milford Sound Hotel. Eight hours later, Cathy and I raised our walking sticks in triumph at the signpost: "Sandfly Point, Milford Track, 33.5 miles from Glade House, Lake Te Anau via MacKinnon Pass."
The next afternoon, as our toy-sized plane climbed over Milford Sound's snow-capped peaks, the pilot pointed out the sights: "Look down below at Mackinnon Pass. That's where the Milford Track walkers climbed."
As I stared at the strip between the rises, my throat tightened and my eyes blurred. Before I could stop myself I shouted "Hurrah!" in the spirit of an exuberant summer camper. I grinned and remembered what Cathy had said when we parted: "We'll walk the Milford again when you're 84."
* For more information on the Milford Track and New Zealand, contact the New Zealand Tourism Board, 780 Third Ave., Suite 1904, New York, N.Y. 10017; phone 212-832-8482. Or visit the board's Web site: http://www.nztb.govt.nz