Many years ago, (ten to be exact), a beautiful young woman started a life-long conversation with a man. One of the early parts of the conversation was how this woman wanted to move to New Zealand someday and work there for a while. Well, this man, who was quite smitten, thought that moving to New Zealand with this woman would be pretty cool, since he enjoyed travel, adventure and this woman. And, it also struck this man that moving to New Zealand might be a GREAT opportunity for him to pursue one of those things on his bucket list, namely, hiking the Milford Track. He had pretty much assumed that this particular item on his bucket list might be pretty remote until he met this woman…
As the conversation continued, it morphed into a long-term relationship, a.k.a., a marriage. And, this couple morphed into a family. Their roles changed in that relationship and he became a chef/chauffeur/shopper/stay-at-home-with-the-sick-kids-dad/trophy husband/landscape photographer. And, this beautiful woman morphed into She Who Must be Obeyed (as well as She Who Reads This Blog)…
Eventually, this family actually moved to New Zealand! And, this man had birthday. And, with her great magnanimity, She Who Must be Obeyed granted this man a long weekend off from his family chores (as long as he filled the freezer for her before he left) so that he could walk the Milford Track…
Or, something like that…
So, on the last weekend of October 2012, I had the great fortune of realizing a long-held dream of walking/hiking/tramping the Milford Track. I don’t remember when I first heard about the Milford Track or having some desire to walk it, but it has been for many years.
The Milford Track is one of nine “Great Walks” in New Zealand, along with hundreds of other formal tramping routes – some long, some short. The Milford Track is the most famous of these Great Walks. It’s a 53 kilometer walk up the Clinton River valley in Fiordland National Park, over the MacKinnon Pass, and down the Arthur River valley. The prime hiking season on the Milford Track is roughly November through January because the weather is better and school is out for late December through January. Hiking the Milford Track requires a permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) from late October through April, and only forty permits are granted for each day for independent trampers. (The other option is one of the fifty spots each day that Milford Track Guided Walks offers, although the price is a tad bit higher [$2000]– and the food and lodging significantly better!) Currently, the Milford Track is completely booked for independent trampers from November through January (summer season) – a sign of its popularity. As much as I wanted to go when the weather might be better, the only bookings available (in mid-September) at a time that also was convenient for Asta was for me to go in late October. You also can enjoy the Milford Track the rest of the year, but at your own risk; DOC leaves the huts open and that’s about it. During the prime season, you can only walk from Glade Wharf to Sandfly Point, another difference between “in” and “out” of season.
The Milford Track was originally scouted through the rain forest by Maori’s looking for a route to the sea. In the late 1880s, explorere Quintin MacKinnon formalized the route in the young country of New Zealand. The purpose was to establish a route from inland New Zealand to the Tasman Sea with the hope that this would turn into a trade route. That never really came to fruition due to many different difficulties, but it did become a famous hiking path. Around 100 years ago, in an article that appeared in the London Spectator, the poet Blanche Baughan declared the Milford Track to be “the finest walk in the world.”
“This is truly the “region of the perpendicular” – the mountains are split right straight down from their summits to within a few hundred feet of sea level. The other valley-side, perhaps half-a-mile from its fellow, is equally steep and just as precipitous; and presently, as the track ascends, as the trees lessen both in size and number, and the frowning white-tipped walls begin to draw together above the canyon, you realise that you are walking at the bottom of a gigantic furrow of the earth.”
As for my journey on the Milford Track, it was a medium-difficulty hike/walk, wet, fun and the views at the top of MacKinnon Pass were spectacular! The Milford Track begins at the north end of Lake Te Anau at Glade Wharf. There are no roads that get you to Glade Wharf. You can hike seven kilometers from the Te Anau-Milford Sound Highway to Glade Wharf or take a Real Journey’s ferry boat there.
When you book your walk through the DOC website, you are automatically booked into each of the three successive DOC huts along the Milford Track – Clinton Hut, Mintaro Hut and Dumpling Hut. DOC wants you to keep moving along the track and not stop for wet weather (which is quite common). Additionally, the DOC booking service helps you by assisting your booking for:
• a bus from the DOC office in Te Anau (the nearest town) to Te Anau Downs (the site of the ferry service that gets you to Glade Wharf),
• the ferry to Glade Wharf,
• the ferry at the terminus to get you from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound, and,
• bus service back from Milford Sound to Te Anau (if needed).
My day began in Invercargill from where I took two TrackNet buses and a couple of hours to get to Te Anau. I arrived about fifteen minutes before my bus to Te Anau Downs was to depart. This gave me time to pick up my DOC permits for the Milford Track. While picking up my permits, I was told that it was likely that a portion of the Track would be closed on my second day due to concerns about avalanches and that I also needed to purchase a ticket for a helicopter shuttle over that portion.
As an aside here, I was perturbed with this idea that I needed to be protected from avalanches. I’m an American who likes my time alone in the very wild wilderness! In America, it’s the policy (I believe) of the National Park Service, US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that if you get yourself into trouble, then it’s your responsibility to bail yourself out. They’ll assist with your rescue, etc., but you’ll pay for it!!! When I took my American Environmental Policy class in grad school, one of the books that we read was Joseph Sax’s Mountains Without Handrails. Again, if you’re going to be in the outdoors, then you’d better be prepared to deal with those risks. Darn nanny state of New Zealand, trying to protect the reputation of its tourism industry. Yes, I’ve been told to stay off of certain trails by the National Park Service because of grizzly bear sightings, and I did. More later…
We (there were 23 trampers who made the trip this day) finally arrived at Glade Wharf at mid-afternoon under a grey sky. Rain was in the forecast and it’s about a five kilometer hike to Clinton Hut. I decided to hoof it with the hope that I’d make it to the hut before the rain. The walk along the Clinton River was relatively flat, pleasant and uneventful. And, yes, it did begin to rain just before I got to the hut.
The huts along the Milford Track are pretty basic and spartan. They consist of two or more bunkrooms (a total of forty beds with mattresses) and a common room with communal cooking and cleaning facilities, and nice toilet facilities. Bring ear plugs – everyone else snores, those mattresses can be noisy and folks are getting up at all hours to go to the latrine. No hot water or showers – that’s what the river is for. Drinking water comes from the sky – collected rain water or stream water. During the tourist season, DOC provides propane for cooking, so it’s pretty easy to take care of your cooking needs and you don’t need to bring your own stove. Each kitchen area held several sinks and two-burner stoves. The common room also held several tables, benches, chairs and a small wood stove. These spaces were decent with the 23 of us and I’m glad that I didn’t have to share all of this with forty people! The first people to arrive each day usually fired up the stove, but it still took several hours for this room to warm. As you might expect, it’s common courtesy to clean up after yourself and it appeared that everyone on my trip was quite courteous. ☺ Since the Fiordlands “enjoy” about seven meters of rain a year (yes, that’s not a typo) and there’s a 70% chance of rain on any given day, these huts have lots of overhang areas, outdoor drying lines and pegs/hooks for hanging clothes and boots. Now, that doesn’t guarantee that your clothes will be dry by the next morning, but they will be less wet. And, hanging your boots on the pegs protects them from being chewed/stolen by the keas.
A major feature of these huts is that they are staffed by a DOC conservation warden during the hiking season (late October through April). Our wardens – Peter Jackson (yes, that’s his real name), Ed Waite and I didn’t catch the last warden’s name – were all very knowledgeable, experienced, fun, pleasant and informative. If you need serious help, they’ll get it for you via their telecommunications system. One of their major roles is to share the upcoming weather forecast with you. And, it seems that they’ll leave you to enjoy your experience on your own, if you wish. But, as we heard, their main role is to ensure that you have a safe experience.
At Clinton Hut we were told that it was likely that we would be partaking of the helicopter shuttle on our second day. The plan was that we’d leave as a group so that we’d arrive at the shuttle point en masse. (Again, a bit of seething on my part…) So, on Day Two, we faithfully departed at 8:45 am (a late start by my standards) in the rain. Yuck!
I haven’t spent that much time hiking in the rain, but I do remember not enjoying it. This time, I was better prepared (this is New Zealand). I wore my water repellant (not water proof) boots, gaiters, rain pants and raincoat. Other hikers wore shorts and ponchos. Frankly, I don’t think that it made any difference. You got wet from the outside (rain) and the inside (perspiration). I was as wet as anyone else at the end of the day. The contents of my backpack were mostly dry, thanks to many large plastic bags. Most importantly, while my feet were damp/wet, they also were warm. My boots allowed water to slowly soak in, and my two pair of socks and gaiters allowed my body to warm the bit of water that was getting in. My boots also dried decently during overnight – not bone dry, but decent enough. I do think that the hikers who wore less clothing were colder than me.
The other thing about hiking in the rain along the Milford Track is that the track is very well maintained and it’s frequently the lowest point in the forest. Since it’s the lowest point, the rain water pools in the track and you end up walking through major puddles. The puddles may be shallow or ankle deep, even with the drainage that DOC carves into the sides of the track. And there are frequent streams to cross that might be more than ankle deep. When the rain hits those glacially carved valleys, underlain with all of that solid granite, the rain really has only one way to go – downhill and overland. While hiking in the rain is not really that pleasant, you have to just grin and bear it. The pleasant side of the rain in Fiordland is all of the beautiful waterfalls and streams!
On our second day, rather than hiking the entire 16 kilometers and climbing about 400 meters, we walked about ten or eleven kilometers to an area called The Prairie. Before we arrived at The Prairie, we were joined by a DOC conservation warden, Grizz Hamish, who coordinated our helicopter shuttle. At The Prairie, Grizz called in the copter, had us pile our backpacks at the landing zone, and then helped us get into the chopper about six at a time. The last load of hikers brought along the backpacks in a net dangling from the chopper. The flight was short and exhilarating, leaving us at the Mintaro Hut helicopter landing pad. (Each hut has it’s own helicopter landing pad, just in case.) Since we arrived at Mintaro Hut a couple of hours earlier than we normally would have anticipated, there was a lot of time to dry out and better get to know each other.
One of the features of such a hike is the people whom you join. The group of folks on my hike was very nice and mostly young (by my standards) and about two-thirds male. About a third of our group was from Germany, while the rest were from France, Australia, Canada, Japan, England, South Africa and Argentina – plus the lone American. With everyone mingling in the communal room, it was a great chance to talk together, play cards, share a cup of tea or coffee, share life stories and so on. I have to say that I put a LOT of energy and research into preparing for the walk, but very little energy into considering the social aspects of the hike (that’s me, the introvert). But, enjoying each other’s company was really one of the better parts of the Milford Track and a very much underappreciated part of the experience.
On the third day, we received the good news that the weather was expected to be fine and mostly sunny, and that we should have a very good walk heading over MacKinnon Pass. But, we also had heard that one of the best side trips of the Milford Track, the walk to Sutherland Falls, was closed due to a major landslide caused by all of the rain – bummer. While a few people took off early, most everyone else slowly ambled on about 8:00 am. The first kilometer or so from Mintaro Hut was relatively flat. And then, you start up the switchbacks to the Pass. It takes about two hours to get from Mintaro Hut to MacKinnon Pass. Those two hours aren’t easy, but they aren’t tough either. MacKinnon Pass tops out at a bit over 1100 meters and I wasn’t sucking wind like happens on big hikes in the Rocky Mountains.
The view from MacKinnon Pass is spectacular – I’ll just let my photographs speak to that. The sun was shining, the clouds were blowing through, and the temps were pleasant. There also was a bit of fresh snow from the day before. And, atop the Pass is a memorial to Quintin MacKinnnon.
This slideshow is best viewed full screen.
As I was hiking to MacKinnon Pass, and standing on top of it, and then heading down the other side, there was a nearly a constant clatter of rockslides and the occasional small avalanche. Maybe that helicopter ride wasn’t such a bad thing after all… I’ve come to understand that avalanches in the Fiordlands are different from the avalanches in the Rockies that I’ve seen on TV. In the Rockies, the mountains are basically these large cones that snuggle up to each other. The avalanches run down their sides and then pile up in chutes where the mountains overlap at their flanks. Here in New Zealand, the mountains are packed a bit tighter. And, not all of the areas between the mountains are “gentle” slopes but there are quite a few U-shaped glacial valleys. The snow piles up on top of the mountains. When there’s enough snow and/or rain, the snow lets go and moves as an avalanche – no different from what happens in the Rockies or many of the mountains here. The difference in these glacial valleys is that the snow then slides off of the top of these mountains and over the lip of valley – and then descends nearly vertically (and quickly) to the valley floor. An avalanche in these glacial areas is basically a big dump. The avalanche happens nearly directly above you, where you’re not looking, and it falls straight down. The avalanche lands with a big WHUMP and blast of wind that knocks everything around it down. If you’re lucky to not be hit by the falling snow, then you likely won’t escape/survive the wind blast – at up to 300 km/hr. Plants don’t get a chance to grow very tall in the areas where the avalanches are common. So, again, maybe that helicopter wasn’t such a bad thing after all…
After about thirty minutes on MacKinnon Pass, shooting and shooting the mountain scenes, I headed onward. While I was quite pleased with myself that I’d climbed the 500 meters up to MacKinnon Pass and enjoyed its beauty, I now had to get down the other side. Here’s the part that they don’t really tell you – you now have to go down about 1000 meters. Oh, and because of the avalanche danger, a part of the main Track was closed and we had to use the emergency track, which is steeper, not as well maintained, etc. Oh my aching legs!! Even if the path to Sutherland Falls had been open, I don’t know if I would have wanted to do it because I was tired enough climbing down from MacKinnon Pass. It’s a fourteen kilometer trip from Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut, but there’s also the 500 meters up and 1000 meters down. It took me about seven hours that day. Everyone at Dumpling Hut was moving slowly and sorely, but enjoying the warmth of the sun. A little splashing around in the river helped to rinse off the day’s sweat, at least ‘til the those pesky sandflies showed up.
On the last day, the eighteen kilometers to Sandfly Point are pretty tame, especially after being at MacKinnon Pass the day before. There are a couple of very nice waterfalls – Mackay Falls and Giants Gate Falls. There’s also Bell Rock, right next to Mackay Falls, which is a former streambed grinder that appears to have fallen from someplace much higher and come to rest upside down. But, your muscles are sore and you’re ready to get back to civilization. Everyone was up and out earlier than usual, in part because they were hoping to be on the 2:00 pm boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound. If you miss that ferry, then there’s a 3:00 pm ferry. This was the warmest day of the trip, pleasantly so, and no rain. Finally reaching Sandfly Point is a very nice goal and everyone was smiling when they wandered in, happy to be finished. And, this blog post ends about the same as tramping on the Milford Track – unceremoniously, with a smile, and you’re glad to be done with it…
So, was this the “finest walk in the world”? Well, no, but it’s a very fine walk, and I’m not going to start an argument with the New Zealand tourism industry’s PR people… 😉
Which Great Walk should I do next? The Routeburn Track sounds pretty interesting and it’s shorter… And, maybe I can take my girlfriend with me, that is, if she’s still talking to me… Oh, and anyone wanna take care of the kids for us?