The Milford Track was one of the greatest adventures of our travels and the one we had been planning for months. It is a four day, three night, 33.5 mile hike along the ‘finest walk in the world’. The path is historic having been discovered in the 1880’s and leads hikers through green forests, into alpine terrain, and up over the Mackinnon Pass close enough to the mountain tops to see the ice fields.
Day 1 – Monday, March 9, 2015
The boat to the start of the track left at 10:30am, however we were excited to start and awoke well before then. Even though we had shopped for food the previous day, we headed to the grocery store for some last minute additions. We bought a few side dishes and more snacks for the hike. It is a good thing we did because we were hungry every night.
We opted to drive ourselves to Te Anau Downs to meet the boat. Parking is available along the road. We were early and waited, watching the crew ready the boat. Finally we couldn’t wait any longer and at 10:15 we walked to the end of the dock and boarded the boat. The crew and captain were very friendly and welcoming and offered us complimentary coffee and tea. A few minutes later the bus with the rest of the trekkers and a few tourists arrived. Soon we were headed off across Lake Te Anau.
The boat ride was peaceful and relaxing. The lake was calm and mountains rise up about it. To breakup the boat ride the captain pointed out sights of interest such as caves used by the Maori people, memorials to explorers, and geographical features. The boat ride took approximately 90 minutes.
Close to noon we reached the start of the track at Glade Wharf. We took turns taking photos with the other hikers at the signpost marking the start of the trail before starting down the forest trail. Hardly 1km later we reached the Glades Wharf hut, a historic building that now houses trampers who take guided tours of the trail. At the Glades Wharf hut the trees part and we were treated to views of the Clinton River and the mountains. Not far away was a bridge over the Clinton River which would take us back into the forest for the remainder of our first day’s trek.
The hike to our first hut was only 5 km. Along the way we would pass and repass some of the other hikers. More hikers, from a later boat, would be following in a few hours. The trail was very smooth and flat and was easy to walk on. At times a gap in the trees or a small beach would let us see the green Clinton River. We stopped once to eat a quick lunch on a beach. It didn’t take long for some flies to find us and we soon got to know the biggest pest on the track, sandflies. Sandflies are small flies that leave very itchy bites that sometimes last for weeks. We didn’t see any wildlife except for birds.
Just before the first hut is the Wetland Walkway, a short boardwalk hike over marshy ground. It was cloudy and half of the mountains were hidden under fog. However, there were some interesting carnivorous plants in the marsh and they apparently eat sandflies. Jon would later wisely suggest that the huts along the track keep these plants potted on each table.
We arrived at the first hut, Clinton Hut, mid-afternoon and familiarized ourselves with the amenities. I was surprised to find that there were no lights in the bunk rooms and bathrooms. The common room wasn’t heated except by a wood burning stove. The exterior of the hut had lots of pegs and hooks for hanging wet clothes in case it rains while hiking. The kitchen gas stoves, dish soap, and hand sanitizer.
With time to kill, our fellow trekkers took to playing cards, reading books, and a few even walked an hour up the trail so they could take photos incase the weather wasn’t as good the next day. Slowly hikers from the later boat began to arrive. By 6pm most of the stoves were lit and dinners were being cooked. At 7:30 the ranger came in for the safety talk and to tell us a bit about what we should expect the next day. Part of the talk was about the expectation of rain on the Milford Track; a place where it rains more than half of the year. The ranger insisted that rain was a good thing, it would refresh the track and bring out all of the small waterfalls hidden in the mountains. We sat at a table with three guys who were hiking three walks in a row. After dinner one of them brought out a card game and we joined them in playing until it was dark and we were the last people in the common room.
One perk of the first hut is that it is near to a glowworm grotto. When we finished playing cards four of us grabbed our headlights and walked to the grotto. It wasn’t as dense with worms as the caves we saw on the North Island, but it was still lovely. Just as nice as the glowworms was the amazing night sky. I would say the Milford Track is one of the top three night skies that I’ve seen.
Day 2 – Tuesday, March 10, 2015
The hike on day 2 was 16.5km. Well before dawn we heard other trekkers waking up, packing their gear, and starting out for the day. By 7am most of the trekkers were up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, or starting the hike. While eating breakfast at the hut we saw our first Keas. Keas are impressive looking and smart parrot-like birds but are extremely destructive and loud. We enjoyed photographing them, but were warned to move our hiking boots inside so they wouldn’t be eaten.
It was a bit chilly in the morning, but walking soon warmed us up. The hike was relatively flat and still on a well maintained trail. The first 6 miles were through lush forest with a lot of mosses and ferns. We took a quick snack break at Hirere Falls. Around mile 8 we reached the ‘first view of Mackinnon pass’, but unfortunately it was completely obscured by clouds. Not much further the forest gave way and we could see the mountains on each side of the valley we were in.
Many of the mountains had small but tall waterfalls running down them to the valley floor. A few side trails we hadn’t heard about were a nice surprise. These include a detour past Hidden Lake and a trip to Prairie Lake. It had been threatening rain all day, but by the time we reached the Prairie shelter for lunch it was a relief to be out of the drizzle. Many of our fellow hikers were also taking their time in the Prairie Hut watching the rain. We didn’t want to wait too long and continued in the rain. Just past the next shelter was a landslide area. Having to navigate the rocks made the path was more difficult, but it didn’t last for long. With only about a mile to go a strange flightless bird crossed our path. We were very excited to see it, even through we later experienced firsthand how common the Weka are.
Around 5pm we reached the Mintaro Hut and our bunks for the night. The configuration was the different, but the hut amenities were the same. This time the exterior hooks were filled with wet clothing. Inside the guys were trying to start a fire in the stove and clothes lines above it held more wet gear. We were tired and laid down for a few minutes before joining everyone downstairs. This time we sat near two hikers from the Netherlands. They were in New Zealand for 3 months and had walked 7 of the 9 great walks in that time. After dinner and the ranger talk we rejoined our friends from the first night and played another game they had brought with them. Once again we were the last ones awake and even had to clean up our game in the dark when the automatic lights in the common room shut off.
Day 3 – Wednesday, March 11, 2015
This was the big day, the day we crossed MacKinnon Pass. Over 14km we would climb 1500 feet to the pass and then descend more than 3000 feet. Hikers were up early that day and so were we. We set out close to dawn. It was foggy and we couldn’t see far in front of us. The moisture in the air was so thick that water was forming on plants and dropping onto us almost like rain. The first 2 hours of hiking was uphill along switchbacks. The quality of the path was worse than the previous day and was very rocky. Occasionally we would come to a break in the trees and look for a view down to see how far we had come, but all we could see was fog in the distance.
At some point we cleared the treeline and were in alpine terrain. Without trees it started to get cold and windy. We could see yellowed grasses around us with scattered puddles and fog. Right at the windiest point of the hill the tall shape of the MacKinnon memorial started to form. We walked to the edge of the pass to look down into the distant valley but still couldn’t see anything. Slightly further along the trail was a sign marking the highest point of our trek, 1154 meters.
Just down from the highest point was the MacKinnon Pass Shelter, the only shelter along the trail equipped with a gas stove and heater. Inside the shelter was most of our group of 40 trekkers, all hoping the clouds will clear so they can see the view. We had brought with us a dehydrated breakfast to cook on the stove. Most of the others were making tea, coffee, or other hot drinks. The remaining trek for the day was estimated to take 5 hours, plus there was an optional side path to a waterfall that would add 1.5 hours to hike. Slowly hikers who had been waiting an hour or more started to drift out the door and continue down the trail without seeing the view. We waited about an hour and a half and then started down the trail.
We didn’t get far as just around the corner some clouds shifted and revealed a mountain peak just above us. Two trekkers were sitting on the hillside and invited us to join them. They were in a sunny little spot and told us that they had been sitting there watching the clouds shift for a while. We decided that we wanted to see the view more than the waterfall later on and would sacrifice that side trip to wait longer. We joined the hikers on the hill and as we sat there different mountains and valleys would start to appear and then fade away as another became clear.
A few hikers who had remained in the shelter walked past and told us that they were starting to see parts of the valley behind the shelter. We left our packs where they were and walked back up to the shelter. The clouds were still moving, but at times the valley was clear. Eventually the valley floor was very clear and a ceiling of clouds hung over it.
I’m not sure how long we waited in total, but the all of the clouds disappeared before we left. We back tracked a long the path to see the views we had missed from the Mackinnon Memorial and highest point. It was beautiful. Only 6 of us remained long enough to see it, but I’m glad that we did. If I had it to do over, I would have enjoyed sleeping in instead of waiting in the shelter for hours until the clouds began clearing, but of course the weather is gamble.
Finally at 2:15pm we started back down the trail in the bright sunshine. We were still above the treeline and could see small waterfalls on the surrounding mountains. The next shelter marked on the maps was the Anderson Cascade Shelter. We hadn’t given the name much thought, so it was a lovely surprise to find ourselves walking along beautiful waterfalls in the Roaring Burn River. The waterfalls continued for much longer than we would have expected.
After the shelter, we continued on to the Quintin Hut where we had another big decision to make. The Quintin Hut was the start of the 1.5 hour roundtrip optional hike to Sutherland Falls. We had been willing to forego Sutherland Falls when we wanted more time at the top of the pass on the basis that it was ‘just another waterfall and we’ve seen plenty of them’. However, the reality is that Sutherland Falls is the largest waterfall in New Zealand and it is only accessible by hiking the Milford Track or hiring a helicopter. When we we arrived at Quintin Hut several of the hikers were just returning from the walk to Sutherland Falls. They all said that they enjoyed it and it was worth the walk. We also saw the other 4 trekkers who had waited with us at the pass. Two of them had decided not to go to Sutherland Falls and two of them had decided they would go. We talked about it for a while, and finally said ‘enough talking, we’d be halfway there by now if we’d just go’, and so we went. We dropped our bags in the hut and hurried there and back. The hike there was up stairs carved into a steep hill, but the day was cooling down so we were able to keep a good pace. At the bottom of the falls we admired them, but the sandflies were relentless so we didn’t stop for long.
The last 2 miles of the day went by very quickly because we rushed to beat the darkness. We had missed the ranger talk, but the ranger was very nice and was happy to hear that we took the time to see the views at the pass. That night everyone was exhausted so there was much less socializing, however we were once again about the last people turn in.
Day 4 – Thursday, March 12, 2015
The last day of the Milford Track! It was a bit of a confusing day with a lot to consider. Day four is the longest walk, being 18km. However the trail is flat, well groomed, and estimated to take only 6 hours to hike. The track ends at a boat dock which runs three times a day; 2pm, 3pm, and 4pm and you don’t want to be late for the boat. At the same time, we were advised not to arrive early for the boat because the dock is named Sandfly Point for a good reason.
The morning at the last hut was a bit different. Everyone had tickets for specific boats and so the group didn’t all need to set out at the same time. We were on the 4pm boat and so were some of the last people to leave the hut. Leaving later also meant that we were sharing the path with most of the guided trekking group which was normally an hour behind us.
Once again the trail was very well groomed so walking was easy. Along the way we passed several more waterfalls. First we went past Mackay Falls. We had heard the mist from the falls would keep the sandflies away and be a good spot for a snack break. We tried to eat a snack, but the flies were still relentless. The falls were quite pretty though. Also at Mackay Falls is Bell Rock. We didn’t know what Bell Rock was, but there was a small path under it with a sign saying to look up. The large boulder was hollow inside like a bell. A guided walker told me that their groups try to see how many people they can fit inside at once.
The other waterfall we passed was Giants Gate Falls. Just before the falls was a shelter with many people gathered. Mostly, everyone wanted to kill some time so that they didn’t arrive too early for the boat. We realized that we were very early, and decided we might as well catch an earlier boat. A suspension bridge took us past Giant Gate Falls.
When we reached the mile marker ½ a mile from the end of the trail we found two more trekkers sitting on the side of the trail passing the time to the boat. We joined them and sat until we had 15 minutes until the boat. When we got to the boat, we were the only 8 independent walkers there, which means that everyone else had walked the trail fast too and got the boat one hour earlier than they were scheduled for.
We had been hoping the boat across the Milford Sound would be a long tour of the sound. After all, cruising the Milford Sound is one of the most talked about attractions. The cruise to the wharf was only a 15 minute boat ride straight across the end of it. However, on the ride we did get to see Mitre Peak and a few waterfalls.
We joined a few other hikers and got a drinks at a nearby hotel while waiting for the 5pm bus back to Te Anau Downs and our car. We drove to Te Anau and checked back into our hotel. For our first dinner back we decided to go Moose’s Bar and Grill where we had their steak specials.
Booking the Milford Track (and other Great Walks): Because of its popularity, it is difficult to get permits/tickets to hike the Milford Track without advance planning. Tickets for each month may be booked up to six months in advance through the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC). The DOC’s website lets hiker register for the walks. For the Great Walk, you select your start date and the DOC website will autofill in the date each hut will be needed. Once the booking is complete a confirmation email is sent. One to three days before the start of the hike, tickets must be picked up from the national park visitor center associated with that hike.
Note: In addition to booking the track huts ($54/person/night), the Milford Track requires boats/bus transportation to the track. These costs are hidden on the DOC website until you go to book. They caught us by surprise. The buses aren’t required, but you would need to arrange other transportation in advance of the hike. The rates when we went were as follows;
- Bus from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs (optional): $25/person
- Boat from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf (required): $81/person
- Boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound (required): $45.50/person
- Bus from Milford Sound to Te Anau (optional): $47/person
The Huts: The track provides three overnight huts along the way. It is required that hikers travel in one direction on the track, book, and stay in all three huts . (Some of the other Great Walks allow you to skip huts, camp, or travel both directions along the track). A park ranger is stationed at each hut. They will give a quick safety talk and provide some insight of what is to come the next day each evening. They all check in all of the hikers to make sure no one is lost on the track.
What the huts provide:
- Bunk beds with mattresses
- Gas camping stoves with fuel (during the peak tramping season)
- Cold running water which is drinkable (kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks, and toilets)
- Electric lights in the common area each morning and evening for a few hours. (There are no lights in the bathhouses or bunkrooms).
What you should bring:
- A sleeping bag
- All of your food and snacks for the trek
- Cooking pots, plates/bowls, mugs, utensils, matches/lighter
- Flip-flops or slippers to wear in the bunkrooms
- Playing cards, books, or other entertainment
Along the trail: Shelters to escape the weather and take a break are located along the path. Most days there were at least two shelters. Additional chemical toilets were also placed along the path. Only the shelter at Mackinnon Pass had a stove and heater.