We signed up for The Milford Track about 6 months before we left Korea, 100% on our must do list. Billed as the greatest of all the great walks in New Zealand we paid the extortionate price tag and began the process of getting thoroughly over-excited. The DOC (Department of Conservation) only allows 40 walkers on the track every day which winds it’s way through the beautiful Fiordlands.
But is it really that ‘great’?
Admittedly we didn’t do all that much research before boarding the boat from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf, the start of the walk, and one glance at the track brochure told us we’d actually only be walking 5 kms on the first day. With this in mind we ambled our way through gorgeous rainforest towards the first hut, Clinton, crossing the first swingbridge and then stopping regularly to munch through all of our supplies.
Greeted by the ranger at the hut, a grizzled Kiwi called Bruce and expert in all things bushy, we were told that there would be a ‘hut talk at 8pm’. Hut talk? Fair enough. The hut was in great shape, clearly our many hundreds of dollars go to good use, and all 40 walkers grabbed a bunk, cooked up whatever delights they’d hauled along and gathered for the briefing. After the usual safety stuff; don’t leave the gas on; don’t put your hand inside the stoat traps; don’t drink so much Drambui that you end up passing out in your sleeping bag in the middle of nowhere (true story), he gave us an idea of what we could look forward to on Day 2 and a few renditions of the bird calls we might hear. Then early to bed and ready for a full day’s walking.
An early start, a quick breakfast and out onto the track which follows the glacial valley, Clinton Canyon up towards the Mackinnon Pass. Today would be a ‘test’ day, if you like, to see what sort of pace we could keep. All was well until about 13 out of the 16 kms when Ruth’s shoes decided enough was enough, it was time to torture her. Three uncomfortable kilometres later we arrived at Mintaro Hut for some R & R and some much needed treatment to Ruth’s poor feet. What we didn’t expect was another hut talk. Lucky us. 40 minutes of safety advice later; don’t walk the track barefoot; don’t sleep on the helicopter landing pad; don’t wander off alone aimlessly and miss the hut completely causing panic all round (true story), we were beginning to feel like we were on a PGL weekend. For those not in the know, PGL was (and probably still is) one of those centres parents send their kids to on a school trip to get rid of them for the week, abseiling, archery and falling off ponies.
The track, by the way, was stunning. Ferns everywhere, the Clinton River as clear a stretch of icy water as you’ll ever see and mouth watering views up and down the valley. The waterfalls are a particular highlight which can be found everywhere along the track. I guess we were lucky with the weather having not one drop of rain, though we were informed by many that the track is at it’s most amazing after a good downpour.
I woke with a start and immediately fumbled around for the ring that I’d been trying to hide for the past few days. It was still there, so I slipped it into my pocket ready for later and tried to act nonchalant. Another quick breakfast and onto the path for the most gruelling part of the track, a 500m climb followed almost immediately by a 1000m decent… with a proposal thrown in in the middle. The view from the top of the Mackinnon Pass is a beauty and immediately the aching legs are forgotten.
We stopped briefly at Quinton Hut for a cup of tea and a sandfly fest and made the tough decision not to visit Sutherland Falls, the tallest waterfall in New Zealand. Ruth’s feet were in a bad way so we headed on, leap frogging the rest of the group and arriving at Dumpling Hut first.
I’m not sure if this is acceptable behaviour in the green hiker’s code but who cares? We’d just got engaged and why shouldn’t we skip the hour and a half trek to the waterfall at the end of a tough day and instead pull out a bottle of Moet to drink with the swarm of sandflies surrounding us? The rest of the troop turned up half an hour or so later.
We made a plan for day 4. For 2 1/2 glorious hours on the 4th morning we had the track totally to ourselves well before most of the others were even awake. Even the US school group being marched through at an immense pace by their teachers (a body builder and personal trainer) didn’t pass us. It was lovely. Ruth’s feet held up aided by some handy first aid and an awkward prayer from a family who’d disappear every evening for ‘worship time’.
The final part of the track that leads you to Sandfly Point is nice and flat, and we were told was rebuilt by a local prison workforce. Job well done we thought, until we found out they did such a terrible job that it had to be replaced a few years later. Plus, two prisoners attempted a daring escape through the rainforest. They made it an impressive distance before turning up at the only town for miles around (rookie mistake, tut tut tut) to be hauled back in by the police.
Whoever named the end of the track Sandfly Point really wasn’t kidding, but we were so glad to see the sign signifying the 33.5 miles was done. Stand outside for more than about 15 seconds and you’re covered head to toe in the little buggers, trying to get a good share of your blood – it’s only the females who suck the blood you know, make your own conclusions. The males kick back by the river, work done.
The moment I had been waiting for finally arrived after the short boat ride to Milford Sound, home of Mitre Peak and one of the sights I’ve longed to see for as long as I can remember. Mitre Peak, though world famous and photographed a million times over, is breathtaking up close. I managed to get a couple of snaps with the weather finally closing in. Hopefully I’ve done the place justice.
So, is The Milford Track really that great? Well, in a word, yes. It’s stunningly beautiful, a photographer’s dream, a dendrophile’s wet dream. Is it worth the NZ$350 (£160) price tag? I’m not so sure. It’s a little frustrating that DOC can charge that much but I guess they just can, it is after all one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ and it was long known as one of the world’s best hikes. In places the track just seems a little too maintained for my liking, you don’t feel like you’re quite in the wilderness that you’d wish for and since the track is one way, you end up spending the day leap frogging the other walkers feeling as though you’re on a conveyor belt. Don’t let me put you off though, it was incredible… and plus, Ruth said ‘Yes’!