by Peter Hillary
Milford Track, New Zealand
Never have I seen anything more beautiful than the scene before me: Rows of craggy peaks and jutting glaciers plunging straight down to fjords filled with crystal clear ocean water rippled by dolphins. The near-omnipresent rain has metamorphosed into brilliant blue skies, and waterfalls cascade from every steep ravine. This is the Milford Track, New Zealand’s best known and most popular multiday hiking trail. Despite its heavy traffic and the strictness with which the park service regulates trekking here, the place is still so stunningly beautiful that its pull can’t be denied, even by a globe-trotter like me.
After motorboating for miles down a deep, blue lake to the trailhead, I’ve tramped two primeval days up valleys only recently evacuated by great glaciers; I’ve wandered past beech trees draped in spooky lichens; and I’ve glimpsed the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea. The weather hasn’t been bad by southern New Zealand standards, which tends toward the sodden punctuated by peerless blue skies and balmy warmth, or, just as often, by ferocious storms that transform the vertical valley walls into the most amazing collection of waterfalls on the planet. These meteorological extremes often can be sampled in a single day.
Three huts provide shelter along the 33-mile hike to Milford Sound, and your park-dictated itinerary requires you to stop at each in order to ensure that you don’t overlap with hikers in front of or behind you. For this reason you’ll have an illusion of relative solitude belied by the thousands of trekkers who come from around the world for this ultimate hike. (Other great “tracks” in Fjordland National Park will provide you with more freedom, if that’s your goal.) At the sound is a hotel and the options of flying or boating back out.
Duration: Four days, precisely.
Blue Gum Forest Trail, Australia
Trails in the Blue Mountains above the metropolis of Sydney reveal what 100 million years or so of isolation in the South Pacific does to flora and fauna. As you leave Mt. Victoria and descend tracks (trails) that take you past great red walls of sandstone and into Blue Mountain National Park, you’ll walk past trees with leaves that look like blue-green leather, you’ll see small bears that raise their young in convenient pouches positioned around their midriff (koalas), and you will, I can assure you, come face-to-face with rodent-like creatures that weigh 200 pounds and can jump over your head-kangaroos, of course. From the clifftops you can see forever-or at least deeply into the blue haze of eucalyptus vapor that floats above these hills and gives the scene an impressionistic appearance of dream-time.
Duration: Two days.
Overland Track, Tasmania
If you love the outdoors, which you obviously do, then your trip to Australia won’t be complete without a visit to the “Apple Isle,” Tasmania. The route from Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair in Cradle Mountain National Park leads you along paths that at certain times of year are celebrated for their nearly unbearable mud (which you have a reasonable chance of avoiding from November to March). You can stop to drink from sparkling lakes and tarns, angle across steep-flanked mountains, and gape at ancient gnarled huon pines. If you’re lucky, you may glimpse a bad tempered Tasmanian Devil running among the trees.
Duration: About five days.
Peter Hillary has hiked and climbed on five continents. The highlight of his nonstop adventuring was following his father’s historic first-footsteps to the summit of Mt. Everest.