Ray Willett, in his mid 70s, has just walked the Milford Track to mark its 125th anniversary.
His age is only a number and his fitness and competence would easily sit well on someone 30 years younger. He dressed for the journey, as one of his heroes – Quintin McKinnon.
Looking and acting every bit of the part of the 19th century explorer, Ray was able to get inside the character of the man credited with discovering the overland route between Te Anau and Milford—later to become known as ‘The finest walk in the world’.
It is hardly surprising that Ray knows so much about McKinnon. He has spent many years researching the history of the track in its formative years.
Ray’s own involvement is impressive. Once the Milford Track was cleared in the early 50s, after going into recession during World War Two, Ray was involved in the post war boom on the track as a guide. He started in 1958 for the managers at the time, the Tourist Hotel Corporation.
Back then on the track, horses were the main means of getting the season’s supplies from the head of Lake Te Anau up to Pompalona Hut and bunkhouse accommodation. Limited privacy was the accepted norm for all walkers.
“It was a great leveller,” says Ray. “People would drop their pretensions at the beginning of the track and we would be friends for a magical four days. It’s only afterwards you realised that there were people from vastly different backgrounds sharing the natural environment on equal terms. It was magic!”
Ray and his wife Helen worked as hut wardens in the early to mid 60s at Pompalona Hut.
“Pomp was home for summer!” says Ray with a wide grin. “We’d get the horses in with the supplies and the other guides and I would spend the early season stowing the stores and cutting firewood from up behind the hut.”
Ray tells a great story of a ‘number eight wire flying fox’ for the fire wood.
“I don’t think it would pass today’s stringent safety requirements but at the time, we had to use our initiative to keep the place going.”
In spite of radical changes to the quality of the guided accommodation, many things remain much the same as when Ray started on the track, particularly the amount of rain.
“Of course we have had the freedom walkers too since the mid 60s. It’s really great that everyone has an opportunity to enjoy the Milford Track.
“The numbers of walkers is restricted by the accommodation available, which adds to the feeling of isolation in a vast natural world. The positive stories and the sense of achievement for most people is priceless. Milford does that, nature does that to you.”
Ray strides off into the distance with a swagger. The ancient Bergen pack sits lightly on his shoulders.