The Milford Track – A forced march with a view

The Milford Track (53.5 Km) is often advertised as the finest walk in the world. The track starts at the head of Lake Te Anau and finishes at Milford Sound and takes 4 days to hike. The route follows the Clinton River into the mountains, climbs over Mackinnon Pass and then drops into Milford Sound. This track is so popular that it books out months in advance so be sure to plan far ahead if you want to freedom hike it. I was fortunate enough to do the guided version through Ultimate Hikes which offers all transport, separate huts, all meals, and a Milford Sound cruise at the end…for a price.

Overall, the hike was great. The scenery was amazing and the weather cooperated for the most part. However, the track is located in one of the wettest parts of the world (Fiorland gets over 7 meters of rain a year). So I anticipated having at least one day of rain with the potential for torrential downpours. It only rained on Day 2, which was one of the easy tramping days. Here’s the breakdown:

March 9, 2011

Pre-tramp briefing in Queenstown. Ultimate Hikes offered 40L packs for its clients to use plus really crappy raincoats, which I decided to pass on. The most important piece of equipment they offered was the pack liner, which keeps all your stuff dry inside your pack. There were 35 people in my group, which was smaller than the max of 50 guided trampers. I also happened to be the youngest tramper on this trip apart from the guides.

March 10, 2011

The coach departed at 9:30 for Te Anau, where we stopped and had lunch. Then we boarded another coach for Te Anau Downs, where we caught the boat transport to the start of the Milford Track. Upon arriving, trampers immediately started dosing themselves with bug spray as the sandflies are really bad on the track. After that, it was time for the obligatory photo at the start of the tramp before heading off to the first hut, located 1 mile away. This is one of the problems with the Milford track is the location of the huts along the route. They are poorly spaced in the midst of sandfly territory and not a lot of hiking is done on the first two days. Most of the hiking is done on the last two days. But I digress. After arriving at Glade House, we took a group photo and were shown to our rooms. Since I was the only single traveler, I had the whole bunkroom to myself. The guided walkers’ huts are first rate. They have hot showers, bug spray, linen, soap, and all food provided. One of the best things about these huts was the clothes washing area and the drying room. So I had clean and dry clothes for the entire trip, which was a luxury. There’s even a bar that servers beer and wine until 9:00 PM, which was a good thing because the group of Australians would have been up all night otherwise. And these guys were the first to finish on all the rest of the days. The huts are powered by a generator, which is switched off at 10:00 PM every night to ensure that trampers get their beauty sleep.

March 11, 2011

We awoke to a steady rain. Go figure. At least this was one of the easier tramping days with 10 miles to cover over mainly flat terrain. The track goes through Beech Forest and continues into the Clinton Valley, which offers spectacular views of the many waterfalls on the rock walls. The lunch stop was at the Hirere Falls shelter, where I saw a wekka, which is similar to a kiwi, and is a bit stupid. After lunch, the track started climbing and the humidity shot up. It was a sweaty way to end the day, but at least I got a hot shower at the end of the day at Pompolona Lodge. This lodge reminded me of a tree house with cabins reminiscent of Girl Scout camp.

March 12, 2011

This is where things started getting hard. The day stared early at first light and immediately starts climbing. I also heard a rockslide, but did not see it during the morning. That was a bit scary because you couldn’t see where it’s coming from. It’s a steady climb until the switchbacks leading up to Mackinnon Pass lunch shelter (1069 meters). It was cloudy for most of the day, but still offered some cool views on the way up. Unfortunately, at the top of the pass, it was really foggy so there wasn’t much to see. After lunch, things started sucking. I was really glad it wasn’t raining. The total descent was 900 meters and the trail was really rocky. I am so thankful I brought my trekking poles all the way from Ohio. They helped with balance and removing pressure on the knees. The downhill section also included the stairs from hell. They were slippery and had large gaps between them. So I took my time going down them with a death grip on the railing. Upon arriving at Quintin Lodge, I dropped my pack and grabbed my camera for the side trip to Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s tallest waterfall and the world’s fifth highest (580 meters).  It was another 1.5 hours on the trail, but it was worth it.

March 13, 2011

I was awakened at 5:20 AM by a 4.1 earthquake, and I didn’t go back to sleep after that. This was the last day of walking, but it was the longest (14 miles). Why they leave the longest day for last, I don’t understand. My feet didn’t want to cooperate and almost refused to be put into my boots. Today we actually saw the sun at the mid-morning tea stop at the Boatshed. The majority of the rest of the track was in the rainforest and the sandflies were out in force. At Giant’s Gate, the lunch stop, I stripped my boots off and soaked my feet into the icy river. After that, it was 2.5 miles until the end at Sandfly Point, where we waited for the boat to take us across Milford Sound to Mitre Peak Lodge.

March 14, 2011

We took a cruise on Milford Sound, but it was cloudy so Mitre Peak was not visible.  There were some kayakers in the water and New Zealand fur seals were seen. After the boat trip, we boarded the coach for the long journey back to Queenstown. Afterwards, the guides put on a video of Milford Sound, and everyone feel asleep.  Ultimately, I am glad that I did the guided hike as carrying a heavier pack would have been a lot harder, especially on days 3 and 4.

Up next:  The Routeburn Track on March 20.

Mackay Falls

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