Milford Track via Getty
Milford Track via Getty

Peter Williams: My week in Milford

Peter Williams 22/03/2021

OPINION: It is nice to be back after a foray down south to experience what has been called the Greatest Walk in the World, the Milford Track.

I’ll be honest with you. I found it tough going, especially the second day when you go over the McKinnon Pass. It wasn’t so much going up the pass, it was coming down. You climb 700 metres in the morning, have lunch at the top and then go down 900 metres in the afternoon to the Quinton Hut - and then do a 90 minute round trip walk to the Sutherland Falls. 

Like hundreds of thousands before me, I made it to the end and I’ve lived to tell the tale. To be honest, the way we did it, which was the luxury version with clean sheets and a hot shower each night, followed by a couple of beers and a hot dinner was a very pleasant way to do the track. I don’t think at my age I’m up for sleeping backs and DOC huts. Maybe 40 years ago, but you get too comfortable the older you get. 

Anyway, my wife has decided we loved it so much she’s signed us up to do the Routeburn Track next year.

If you’ve done any or all of the country’s Great Walks, which include the Milford and the Routeburn, I’d love to hear your experiences and memories of those. But beneath the surface of the great time you have on those walks, and at other fun tourism experiences around the country, there is, as we all know, a really serious issue in the tourism industry - it has been virtually put to death by the closure of the country’s borders.

We hear that today cabinet will talk about opening up this so-called Trans-Tasman bubble, allowing quarantine and isolation-free travel between New Zealand and Australia, and maybe the Pacific Islands as well. Frankly, for some places in the South Island it cannot come soon enough. You would have seen the regular flow of stories about Fox and Franz Joseph and about how the closed borders have had such a severe impact that the towns themselves may not survive. 

There have been plenty of stories too about Queenstown, and the businesses that have or are about to go to the wall there. The amazing thing about Queenstown, and the pleas for some assistance that have come regularly from the mayor Jim Boult, is the extraordinary lack of sympathy for Queenstown. Which frankly is very un-Kiwi I would have thought. But I want to talk about a couple of places I’ve seen in the last ten days which don’t get much publicity, and their plight has not been highlighted much - Te Anau and Milford Sound. 

We spent a night in Te Anau before the bus arrived to take us to the start of the track. It was very, very quiet. February and March are supposed to be the big months of the year when busloads of foreign tourists come streaming through. So there are souvenir shops and clothing shops which used to sell to the bus passengers that just don’t exist anymore. They probably will never open again. 

We did the trip to the Glowworm Caves. It’s one of Te Anau’s best-known attractions. The day we went, there were two trips to the caves, each with about 40 people. So that’s 80 for the day all up. One of the guides told me that during the summer season, there are usually 10 trips a day to the caves, with a full load of 80 passengers each time. In other words, business is at 10 percent of the level it was before the borders were closed. 

At Milford Sound, where you spend a night after you finish the track, they were getting about a hundred busloads of tourists each day making the round trip from Queenstown. There is a huge bus park there which accommodates about 50 buses at a time. It was empty. 

There are about 10 very expensive tourist boats, mainly big catamarans, tied up outside the huge boast terminal at Milford. Only one is operating regularly. That’s the one that takes out the Milford Track Walkers as one of the final parts of their package. Those operators which rely on the bus passengers or the independent travellers are essentially out of business, and may not come back. 

It is very sad to see firsthand the way an industry has been just decimated overnight.

I doubt very much if the tourism businesses in Te Anau and Milford Sound and Fox and Franz Joseph are going to get much of an upturn this season from any sort of opening the border to Australia. And at any rate, will Australians be prepared to come flooding over here knowing that they could get stuck here if we have another short notice lockdown? Is this an appropriate time to think about our tourism industry anyway? Had it become just too big and was this lockdown a timely reminder that getting bigger every year is not always the best strategy to have? 

One of the guides we had on the Milford Track, who’s lived in Queenstown most of his adult life, reckoned the whole business was becoming unsustainable, so this lockdown and border closure is a time to accept a bit of realism. Which is all very well, but what about the tourism operators who’ve invested hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, into equipment and infrastructure like the expensive boats in Milford Sound which won’t be going anywhere for a while, if ever. 

The opening up of borders with Australia is of course about way more than just tourism. It’s about family connections and it’s about doing some face to face to face business. So is it finally time? 

And should the Trans-Tasman bubble include the Pacific Islands as well? Isn’t it disgraceful that at the height of the fruit picking and harvesting season, there are just not enough people to do the job? 

Over the weekend, news of the strawberry company Perry’s Berries closing down because they could not get enough workers to pick their fruit because the supply of labour from the Pacific Islands, which they relied on before, had just dried up - and not enough people in New Zealand want to do the work, even if it is paying more than 20 dollars an hour. Why oh why are food-producing businesses - businesses that employ people and sell our goods overseas - being penalised? 

How much longer will the government make us carry on like this? How many more businesses have to go broke? And how many more people have to join the unemployed queue?