Surrounded by beauty in Fiordland National Park, Michelle Langstone has a change of heart
I'm 42 and I'd never been on a guided travel tour. It's worth mentioning this because I am slightly phobic of groups and ordered schedules. I don't like having to do things at the same time as everyone else, and I've always viewed travel tours as a kind of hell you can't get out of — jammed into a bus or a boat with strangers, no say in your own destiny, having to hop on and off and dutifully record your presence at landmarks. I would like to state for the record that I have been very wrong, and provide as evidence, a thoroughly delightful one-day tour of the Fiordland National Park.
My husband and I were collected early morning from Te Anau by a very affable bloke named Ross, from Trips and Tramps, a local tour company. We piled into a comfortable coach and collected the rest of our group, then headed off towards Milford Sound, for a day that promised a bit of everything - beautiful views, some wildlife, the sound itself, and the opportunity to hike some of the Routeburn track.
Our coach doubled as an NZ Post van, and our guide paused at the local butcher's to pick up meat and other parcels for delivery further along our travels, which felt both charming and very practical. We lost cellphone reception about 20 minutes into our drive upcountry, and gave over the shiny lights of our screens to the silvery trunks of beech trees in the forests we drove through. It was then I realised what a pleasure it is to be driven through those landscapes, having your itinerary mapped out for you — it means you can genuinely take in the experience, not worry about the road or the petrol gauge.
I haven't felt so relaxed in ages, and Ross' highly informative talk was the perfect accompaniment to an environment that seemed to deepen in beauty every kilometre — the Eglinton Plains in their burnished vastness, the Mirror Lakes still and cool in the grey morning, and kilometre after kilometre of deep-green lichen and moss-saturated rainforest. At each stop we made to walk and spy on the beauty, I gulped in clean air and felt grateful.
Tours are also great for the collective gasps of happiness shared as you witness wonderful things. The first time I saw a kea flash through the trees, the ruby under its wings giving it away, there was a group exclamation of joy and it brought us all together. I've never seen a kea in the wild, and I'm not embarrassed to say I got a bit teary.
When we arrived at Milford Sound and stood on the wharf near a local, downy-white kōtuku, the day had brightened, the view into the sound was incredibly clear, and the grins on the faces of fellow passengers would melt the heart of even a hardened curmudgeon.
We took a two-hour cruise of the sound, something I'd not done since I was a child, and I'd forgotten its primordial majesty — it feels like you're in a lost world. Though we missed out on dolphins, we saw plenty of seals flopping around being daft on the rocks, bathing in that sunshine. We nosed the boat in under waterfalls, and headed out to glimpse the Tasman Sea, scoffing our lunch as we drew back into the harbour.
The last part of the tour was the one I had been looking forward to the most — an opportunity to walk a few hours of the legendary Routeburn track. Our guide gave us the option of a tamer, guided walk, or being dropped off on our own for a few hours, and we had chosen the latter. The Routeburn holds a special place in my heart — there's a legend in my family about how Dad took Mum tramping close to winter on the Routeburn, and then proposed to her a week later, impressed by her fortitude.
The Key Summit is one end of the Routeburn, accessed at The Divide, and about a 2.5-hour return trip up steep terrain, through luminous green forests that open out into panoramic views of the mountains. I will never get over the health of the rivers and streams in Fiordland, and filling my water bottle up with clean, freezing water that was bucketing down the mountainside was a joy to me. The bush is spectacular, and the view makes the sweaty climb worth every moment — seeing the mountains reflected in the tarn at the top of Key Summit was breathtaking. Tucking up in a comfortable coach for a warm trip back to Te Anau felt like a luxury, and one I wouldn't hesitate to book again.
Trips and Tramps offers half, full and multi-day tours around the Fiordland region. tripsandtramps.co.nz