Spending half the year based on the Milford Track, Ross Harraway may have the finest job in the world.
At 198cm tall and 75 years old, Ross Harraway is often called the Gandalf of the Great Walk.
“I love it,” Harraway says. “I should be retiring, but I’m still enjoying it.”
And why not – the oldest person Harraway has seen walking the Milford Track was an 81-year-old, and he has heard of walkers nearing 90 completing the 54km trail.
“Some 70 or 80 year olds are fitter than 20 year olds,” he reckons.
Harraway has been a hut warden on the Milford Track for 14 years, mostly based at Clinton Hut. He has walked all of the South Island Great Walks and says the Milford’s point of difference is the sheer scale of the landscape.
“It has wonderful scenery, no matter what the weather. The birdlife is also probably better than any other track I’ve done.
“There’s been a terrific change since trapping and 1080 poison drops started. Since then I’ve seen a flock of 25 bellbirds – I’ve never seen that before.”
Another big change has been the growing diversity of trampers.
“There used to be mainly Kiwis and Australians, but now we get people from all over the world: South America, eastern Europe, Asia – it’s amazing.”
Harraway runs a nightly nature walk at Clinton Hut, and also assists with biodiversity monitoring for DOC.
His favourite section of the track is Mackinnon Pass, which has spectacular views of the alpine valleys and surrounding mountains, followed by Dumpling Hut, which walkers stay at on the last night.
“It’s a bit sunnier over there,” he says. “And if you’re working as a hut ranger, people often head straight to bed when they reach the hut. At Clinton Hut, people are still pretty fresh, asking a lot of questions.”
Harraway says the best time to walk the track is December to January, when the alpine flowers are out, although February often has the best weather.
His biggest tip is to be prepared.
“Make sure you are fit and have the proper gear. A lot of people have problems when they aren’t fit enough, or they don’t have the right equipment. The light ponchos some people wear are hopeless in a Fiordland storm.”
Although the walk often books out within minutes, he says sometimes persistence can pay off.
“We do have cancellations, so if you call the DOC office in Te Anau, sometimes people have been able to secure a bunk on the day.”
DOC Te Anau recreation supervisor Pania Dalley says Harraway is one of the great assets of the track.
“Ross is renowned for his scones and pikelets – there is always a fresh batch just out of the oven if he knows there will be guests staying at Clinton Hut or passing through,” Dalley says. “He’s known as our gentle giant – everyone loves Ross.”