The Milford Track – without a surfboard

The most famous of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Milford Track was described in an article published in the London Spectator in 1908 as the “finest walk in the world”, a claim the Kiwis have repeated ever since. They do so with some justification. Glacier carved steep sided valleys with cascading waterfalls provide the background for a walk that runs through beech forests to up above the bushline providing spectacular views of the valleys below. The isolated nature of the track results in some of the best birdlife in New Zealand.

Closest town: Te Anau, recently voted by New Zealand’s ‘Wilderness Magazine’ as the best town in New Zealand for outdoor enthusiasts. Te Anau can be reached by flying into Queenstown and taking one of the frequent bus services between the two towns. All supplies can be bought in Te Anau.

Guided or independent: There are two ways to do the hike – guided or independent. Those walking the guided version stay in huts operated by Ultimate Hikes. They have the advantage of guides accompanying them during the hike, all meals prepared for them (which means they can get away with a lighter pack), showers and the option of a private room. All this comes at a cost – between$1950 pp and $2400 pp depending on the time of year and whether the private room option is selected. Independent hikers walk unguided, stay in Department of Conservation (DOC) huts and carry all food and cooking implements (except for gas). The cost per person for independent hikers, excluding food but including transport to and from Te Anau is $363. Notwithstanding the difference in cost the guided version may be a good option for those who were unable to secure one of the limited DOC bookings or inexperienced hikers who may be concerned with their ability to cope with the track in adverse weather conditions. We opted to walk independently.

Distance/Duration: 53.5km over 4 days/3 nights.

Bookings. The number of people who can walk the Milford Track independently is limited to 40 people commencing the track each day. The track can only be walked in one direction and you are required to stay in each of the huts as the next hut will be full with trampers who commenced the track on the previous day. The popularity of the track means that it will get booked out early. To ensure that you can do the track on dates that suit you, check the DOC NZ website from about January for the following November to April season.  The bookings website has opened in different months over the last few years. Even if bookings are not then open the website will provide information about when the booking period will open up. If you initially miss out on the booking keep checking the website on a periodic basis as spaces sometimes open up following cancellations.

Getting to and from the hike. Booking through the DOC website takes care of both accommodation in the huts and transport to the beginning and from the end of the track out of Te Anau.

Accommodation. There are three DOC huts on the track, but no camping sites. Each hut has bunk beds with mattresses, flush toilets, water and gas cookers.

Weather. It rains a lot in Fiordland – up to 10m a year. It can also snow on the high passes any time of year. As the ranger in our first hut put it “if it doesn’t rain here for a week it’s a drought.” This means the track or parts of it may be flooded or closed. Hikers may have to wait for flood waters to recede and/or be ferried across the flooded portion by a helicopter. There are several sections of the track where crossing flooded streams would be dangerous – a hiker was washed away and died crossing a flooded Pomplona Creek in 2014. If there is snow on Mackinnon Pass that part of the track will be closed, and an emergency track used. All hikers should carry extra food in case they have to wait out the weather conditions.

Best time of year: November to April. At other times there will be no hut wardens and bridges will have been removed to protect them from damage from floods and avalanches.

Mile Markers: In an acknowledgement of the history of the track DOC has marked the track with mile markers which provide a good guide for each days progress.

Day 1 Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut (5km, 1 -1.5 hours). Joined on this hike by our friends Kevan and Mary, the day started with a bus ride from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs (25km) and then a boat ride across the lake to Glade Wharf (1.25 hours). Along the way we passed the spot where Quintin Mackinnon’s empty boat was discovered in 1892. Mackinnon had found the pass providing an accessible route between the Arthur and Clinton valleys in 1888 which resulted in the track we walk today. He guided trips through the area until his disappearance and presumed drowning in 1892. The path from Glade Wharf is incredibly well benched and basically flat until Clinton Hut. Ten minutes after disembarking from the boat and we reached Glade House, the site of the first overnight stay for guided walkers. Just after Glade House we crossed a swing bridge over the Clinton River, from where trout and eels could be seen below. The path then followed along the banks of the Clinton River for another 50 minutes, before the turn off to Clinton Hut was reached. Two minutes up the path was the hut complex – two bunkrooms, a kitchen and dining area all connected by an extended wooden platform. The afternoon was spent with an informative nature walk by the incredibly tall hut ranger, Ross. After dinner Ross gave the hut talk, setting out what we could expect the next day, providing information on the birdlife in the area (complete with imitative whistles) and regaling us with tales of some of the more memorable trampers and days on the track. One of those included a tramper who had passed through a couple of days previously causing all kinds of difficulty for the rangers. He had not booked any huts, had inadequate equipment and was carrying a surfboard and skateboard, with the purported aim of paddling the Milford Sound at the other end. Ross had tried to turn him around without success and we were to get updated reports on his travels as we passed through each hut.

Milford Clinton hut
Clinton Hut Complex

Day 2 Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut (16.5km, 6 hours). The days walk was relatively easy – the track followed the Clinton River and gradually climbed most of the way, the incline only steepened towards the end of the day. Between the 4 and 5 mile marker, just after a prone beech tree cut to permit trampers to pass through it is an example of the history of the track – an old telephone box remains in the cut of a beech tree just off the track. Between the 5 and 6 mile marker we crossed a large open area formed by a landslide in 1982 which created “Dead Lake, so named because of the dead beech trees beneath its surface. A further 20 minutes and we arrived at the Hirere Falls Shelter – the lunch stop for guided walkers, but as they were not on the track as we passed through we stopped here for a scroggin break and watched the falls in the distance. A short distance on from Hirere Falls was the turn off to Hidden Lake, which can be closed at different times of the year due to avalanche risk. About a mile on from that point was the Prairie Shelter – as its name suggests a shelter in a large open area of the track. We decided to push on from here and continue on for a further 10 minutes up hill to the Bus Shelter, before stopping for lunch. This Shelter overlooks Marlene’s Creek and is primarily for trampers to wait out any flooding before crossing the creek. It should be noted that the creek area crossing is fairly extensive, not all of which is visible from the shelter. If in doubt, don’t cross until the waters recede. Two days before we did this part of the track, six independent trampers who had taken a bit longer than the others to get to this point found that by the time they arrived the creek was impassable. A guide from Ultimate Hikes radioed through to the rangers who arranged for those trampers to be transferred to the next hut by helicopter. Apparently the rest of the trampers already in the hut were disappointed that they had hiked through too early. Shortly after Marlene’s Creek is Pomplona Creek and the turn off to Pomplona Lodge (the guided walkers hut). From there it was about one and a half hours to Mintaro Hut, the incline on the track gradually increasing until the hut was reached. For those willing to brave the cold waters (ie Rob and Mary) there is a lake 5 minutes from the hut. The hut ranger, Tom, had further news on the surfboard carrying tramper. Apparently he had to spend two days dealing with him – time he could have spent more productively. He first had to move him out of the Mintaro Hut and then had to walk up to the emergency shelter hut on Mackinnon Pass to move him on from there – issuing him a fine at the same time.

Clinton Valley with waterfalls
Clinton Valley with waterfalls

Day 3 Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut (14km, 6-7 hours). Day 3 was the biggest on the track with an ascent of about 600m and descent of about 1000m. As the ranger at Dumpling Hut explained it – he gets to deal with the broken bones and sprains from the descent and the ranger at Mintaro gets to deal with the heart issues caused by the ascent. Woken up early by the Keas we were on the track shortly after 8am. With a deceptively benign flat start to the track it wasn’t long before the track started to zig zag its way up to the pass. After about an hour and a half the track came out above the bushline and from there it was another half hour to the Mackinnon Memorial. We were fortunate with the weather – bright blue clear skies and the section of the track between McKinnon Memorial and McKinnon Pass (1154m, 20 minutes on from the Memorial) provided sensational views over both the Clinton and Arthur Valleys.

After a short scroggin break and water refill at the McKinnon Pass Shelter we started our descent. Unfortunately part of the usual track was closed due to avalanche risk and we had to take the emergency track, a steeper and considerably less well benched track. Ten minutes after we started down the emergency track they opened up the closed section of track, but by then it was too late for us. Forty five minutes later and we were at the end of the Emergency Track and back on the main track, just over Moraine Creek. Once Mary and Kevan had caught up we continued down the track which at this point consisted of a series of boardwalks and stairs following the Andersons Cascades. At the end of the stairs and boardwalk was a shelter, where we had lunch in the company of a Weka and Kea. It was then another hour of zig zags down to the Quintin Lodge and Day Shelter. An optional side trip to the Sutherland Falls, the world’s fifth highest waterfall, was available from the shelter (one and half hours return). Kevan and Rob decided to take the side trip, whilst Mary and I continued on for another hour to the hut. The sandflies were thick at this hut – it was difficult to be outside for longer than a few minutes. The hut ranger, provided our last update on the surfboard carrying tramper – he had been charged double for each night in the huts, fined for the stay in the McKinnon Pass Shelter and the boat transport provider at the end of the track had refused to allow him on the boat until he had paid up.

Mackinnon Pass
Mackinnon Pass
MacKinnon Pass
MacKinnon Pass

Day 4 Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point (18km, 5 -6 hours). We were again woken early by Keas. This time they were not content to simply screech in the nearby trees, but added running up and sliding down the roof to their repertoire. We were on the track by 7.30 for a fairly easy, if less sensational, day’s hike following the Arthur River. Just over an hour and we were at the first landmark on the day’s hike – the historic boatshed. Sandlflies meant that we did not linger, but instead crossed over the river by the nearby swingbridge. Another 20 minutes and we arrived at MacKay Falls and Bell Rock where we stopped for a scroggin break (the breeze from the Falls meant there were no sandflies). A few miles on and we were at the Cutting – a steep section of path blasted through rock by track workers in the 1880s – the graffiti of one of the workers can still be seen today. From the Cutting it was a short walk to the Giants Gate Falls Shelter where we stopped for lunch. A one hour walk from the shelter and we reached the end of the track. A short boat ride to Milford Sound and a two hour bus ride and we were back in Te Anau.

So, the question remains – is the Milford Track the world’s finest walk? Not having the hubris of the editor who amended the title of the original article deleting the word “possibly” before the phrase “world’s finest walk” I can’t answer the question one way or the other – I simply haven’t walked enough tracks to make my mind up. It is, however, one fine walk. I know one thing for certain – it’s a lot easier to walk without carrying a surfboard.

For more information: see our A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in New Zealand post.

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