Last fall, I vowed to write more hiking-related entries. My travels have given me the opportunity to check several multi-day hikes off the ever-lengthening “bucket list.” The third long hike in this series (you can also read about Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Backbone Trail of Southern California) was completed in February of 2009 – six years ago!
One Month in Middle Earth
My first trip “Down Under” – to use common geographical slang marketed to the U.S. by the likes of Paul Hogan, Qantas, and Fosters – was to Australia in 2003. I loved Australia and had long yearned to return to that region of the world. “Across the ditch” from Australia lies New Zealand, a bastion for backpackers and nature lovers. The success of the “Lord of the Rings” films, shot there, effectively priced me (and many other backpackers) out of the market, and it wasn’t until the end of that decade that things went down in cost…and even then only marginally.
The Fiordland region of New Zealand’s South Island is blessed with pristine natural beauty, verdant greenery, Norwegian-style fiords, and more than the island’s fair share of waterfalls. The country’s hiking trails are renowned as being some of the greatest in the world, and many of them are appropriately marketed as such, under the name “Great Walks.” On the North Island you can hike around – and to the top of – what moviegoers know simply as “Mount Doom,” via the Tongariro Crossing. (Mount Doom’s real name: Mount Ngauruhoe.) Three multi-day Great Walks are in Fiordland. Arguably the best of these – and certainly the hardest for which to obtain permits – is the Milford Track.
The Milford Track is a four-day hike/walk/tramp (depending on your vernacular of choice) that starts on the shores of Lake Te Anau, then travels through temperate rainforest along the Clinton River and over Mackinnon Pass, depositing hikers at the appropriately-named Sandfly Point, in Milford Sound. Although only a bit over 33 miles (53.5 kilometers for my non-American Loyal Readers) in length, it is a tough hike nonetheless, as you must pack your own food, cooking equipment, and sleeping gear.
Mother Nature is especially unfriendly in this corner of the South Island. It rains two out of every three days, and the trail is effectively closed for seven months of the year. (Technically its open, but most bridges are removed during the winter months and I imagine river fordings to be just short of impossible.) As such, permits are sold out literally the day they become available, which is one year in advance of a person’s desired hike date. I have had success getting Phantom Ranch accommodation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon by scoring a bed from someone’s last-minute cancellation, and I decided to try that approach here. I called in mid-January to inquire about any cancellations for the Milford Track. The person with whom I had spoken said that she processed a cancellation for a single person exactly one month later, so I snagged the spot and booked my airfare! Total price to book the hike: less than $400 USD!
I didn’t have an exact plan except to be sure I was in the town of Te Anau Downs (where the hike kicked off) the morning of my Great Walk. I had 10 days between my arrival in Auckland and then, and I made the very best of it. An early highlight involved riding the ferry to the volcano island of Rangitoto, across the harbor from the Sydney-esque port city of Auckland. After Auckland, I flew to Christchurch and rented a car for a few days of scenic driving en route to Te Anau Downs. I remember climbing the tower of Christchurch Cathedral – a tower that has since collapsed, in a 6.3 magnitude 2011 earthquake (one of three quakes to hit during an 18-month period). At press time, it still has not been rebuilt. Here is a photo of the exterior façade taken during my 2009 trip:
I would ultimately make three more stops before arriving in Te Anau Downs. The first stop was in the quiet seaside town of Greymouth, where “fush-and-chups” is the food of choice and where many backpackers stop for the night on their way down the coast from Nelson, half-a-day’s drive to the north. I did visit Nelson on the same trip, and also hiked/kayaked a portion of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, but that happened later. From Greymouth I drove south to the town of Franz Josef. I stayed three nights here and explored the glacier of the same name, Franz Josef, as well as nearby Fox Glacier. Nice place.
From Franz Josef I continued to the über-backpacking town of Queenstown, affectionately known as “the adrenaline capital of New Zealand.” I remember passing an idyllic scene on my way to Queenstown: a pasture on my left, filled with hundreds of black-and-white cows and a snow-capped mountain as the backdrop. I pulled over to snap a pic. As soon as I got out of my car, the cows panicked and high-tailed it…right out of the frame! I guess that says something about how few people live on the South Island of New Zealand. 🙂
It didn’t get dark until 10 pm in Queenstown, and that’s about when I arrived in town. I stayed just one night, dropping off my rental car the next morning and catching a shuttle to Te Anau Downs, another two hours down the road. I would ultimately spend several additional nights in Queenstown after my Great Walk, dealing with camera problems. The city is a busy but unspectacular place. More on my camera situation later.
I spent a day in Te Anau Downs, which exists for the sole purpose of the tourist trade. It is a peaceful place, on the shores of iceberg-cold Lake Te Anau. Each evening you can take a boat ride to Te Anau Glowworm Caves. I am told that glowworms are unique to this part of the world. The excursion was expensive but fun – and certainly more interesting than the name alone would suggest. During daylight hours, there isn’t much to do in town except play mini-golf.
I checked in at the ranger station for the next morning’s hike and spent the afternoon repacking and making sure I had enough provisions. I had to buy enough food for four days, as well as utensils and a pot for cooking. I had originally imagined that pots, pans, and silverware were readily available in the hut kitchens that I would stay in along the way, but was informed by the ranger that this was not the case. She also recommended that I buy a waterproof rain cover for my backpack. This was a wise purchase and, in the longer term, has served me well on my travels over the six years since then.
Hiking the Milford Track
Most people have never heard of the Milford Track. This may seem at odds with what I wrote earlier about the difficulty obtaining permits, so let me clarify: Just 60 people are allowed on each section of the trail each day. Twenty lucky walkers/hikers/trampers do a “catered” hike in which they need only carry a day pack; they sleep in luxurious huts under plush blankets and eat hearty meals prepared by hired hands. The rest of us – just 40 in total – carry our own gear and sleep in bare-bones huts. I had originally assumed – erroneously, as it turns out – that this was the only option for hiking the Milford Track. I would still choose the self-catered option were I to do the hike again – it wasn’t unmanageable, and in fact it fosters a respect for the terrain.
You can only hike the Milford Track in one direction, and must stay in one of the huts. You can book online or read the fine print by clicking on NZ’s Department of Conservation webpage. The rest of my detailed write-up will highlight my day-by-day Milford Track experience.
Access to the Milford Track is via Glade Wharf, on the opposite side of Lake Te Anau. Hikers gathered at the Te Anau Downs Ranger Station, where permits were collected and shuttle vans transported us to the boat. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was a perfect 70 degrees Fahrenheit. After a smooth crossing, we disembarked at Glade Wharf and were asked to rinse our boots off in a tub of soapy water, lest we transport a certain species of invasive mud snail from other parts of NZ into snail-free Fiordland itself.
A pleasant, 90-minute walk along the Clinton River led us to our first night’s lodging, Clinton Hut. We passed Glade House, where the catered walkers would stay, after just 20 minutes. Several footbridges traversed the river, and the water was crystal clear. I kept an eye out for endangered blue ducks, said to nest near here, but saw none.
I arrived earlier than most other hikers and had my pick of bunks. Mattresses were bare and I used a sleep sheet and fleece throw as blankets and a stuff sack as a pillow. I retraced my steps to a nature boardwalk near the hut. The formidable mountains of Mackinnon Pass loomed in the distance, but the sky was blue, with just a few white clouds. I noticed a sign with the words “swimming hole” stenciled on it, and took a dip. The waters of the Clinton River were calm, clear, and very cold. Sandflies – a menace in certain regions of the South Island, descended on me en masse the moment I doffed my top, so I basically kept my entire body underwater for the duration of my swim.
Post-swim, I braved the swarming insects and ran back to the hut as fast as I could, still collecting exactly 567 sandfly bites during my 45-second sprint to the hut. By this point the 39 other hikers had arrived, and we all settled in for the ranger’s talk (this would be a daily thing, and was always interesting).
We learned about the flora and fauna in the region. The aforementioned blue ducks are a protected species, and their regional avian cousins include the parrot-like kea and the cantankerous weka. All three bird species are stalked by stoats, small, weasel-like mustelids (a categorical genus, like rodents) that are generally considered feral and unwanted. The ranger asked us to be alert for stoat traps, which are boxes that capture stoats so that they can later be “humanely killed,” an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one.
We received the weather report for the next day (chance of rain: 100%), and were then told what to do in the event of flash flooding. Apparently, low, marshy stretches of the trail that wind closely alongside the riverbed can flood to waist-high levels, bringing a literal river of eels onto the trail. The cliffs on both sides become de facto waterfalls. It sounded simultaneously exciting, daunting, and unpleasant. It appeared that I would find out firsthand the next day.
We were abuzz with excitement as we each prepared our dinner. The kitchen had gas stoves and cold water but no soap, matches, or other amenities. I had bought a large bag of pasta in Te Anau Downs, along with a pouch of powdered cheese. (When it doubt, remember: everything is better with cheese.)
I got to know my fellow walkers. I struck up a friendship with Stuart and Diane, an elderly father and his grown daughter, both of whom hailed from Australia. They were walking to celebrate the dad having beaten cancer. Not one to slouch, Stuart would ultimately take just a single day off after completing the Milford Track before embarking on another Fiordland Great Walk. Fuck cancer!
Not long before bed, we set off after dark in search of glowworms, and found them off the trail after less than five minutes of walking. As it so often is in the mountains, the night sky was clear, the stars bright, the air crisp but refreshing. I started to doubt whether or not it was actually going to rain.
I awoke early, as I often do when sleeping in the midst of such wilderness. Packing as light as possible, I had to forego my usual cup (or three) of coffee, but I enjoyed an apple and an energy bar. I set out and took the trail as it continued to follow the Clinton River at a more or less level elevation. It was a bit overcast, a bit cooler, and a bit more humid as well. But not raining.
After perhaps ten minutes of walking, I passed a solitary toilet to the right of the trail – all that remained of a hut that was literally blown off the trail one stormy night several years prior. The trail passed a bog that looked like something from the darkest bowels of Middle Earth. I wonder if Peter Jackson ever hiked the Milford Track?
The first of several waterfalls, Hirere Falls, appeared on my right, a gentle cascade down one of the Fiordland mountainsides. The valley through which I was hiking widened, and the straight-ahead views of Mackinnon Pass – Day Three’s obstacle – were impressive, even with clouds rolling in. I later learned that a snowpack atop one peak on my left was actually the remains of a glacier!
The trail passed a few more waterfalls, then climbed in earnest. I joined Chelsea and Cindy, a husband and wife pair of Canadian walkers, for lunch on the rocks along the river. The bridge that spanned this stretch of river was tiny, and dangerously close to the rocks below. No wonder the park rangers remove them at season’s end (typically late April)!
The sky grew darker and I stepped up the pace. The foliage grew more lush and properly rainforest-like. I passed the entrance to Pompolona Lodge for those lucky catered walkers, and knew that my own shelter, Mintaro Hut, had to be close. Sure enough, just after sighting wispy, two-tiered St. Quintin Falls, Mintaro Hut came into view. I hung my boots and stepped inside. A torrential rainfall materialized out of nowhere literally seconds after I arrived.
It was only one p.m., and turning cold (I was in shorts and a T-shirt). Most hikers were still on the trail, and there was nothing to do but read. I grabbed a book and kicked up my feet under a skylight. The others slowly arrived, drying their wet socks in front of the fireplace. The rain eventually lessened in volume, but it never completely stopped.
The rain continued through the night, and no one was keen on trudging through the mud towards our next hut. We took our sweet time getting up, but were still on the trail by 9 a.m. The grade steepened immediately, as we left the Clinton River behind and ascended switchbacks to the top of Mackinnon Pass. The trail was blasted into rocky earth, and the rocks were slick. I was halfway up the Pass before realizing that I forgot my trekking poles at Mintaro Hut. Oh well. No turning back.
I rounded a switchback and heard a nervous pecking chirping sound. The noise came from just off the trail. A tiny cave, big enough for a chihuahua perhaps, served as shelter for a kea and her babies. This sighting was something of a thrill, and I shared it with just one other hiker. We didn’t linger long so as not to disturb the birds. The driving rain grew heavier as we crested a particular trying hill and make it to the top of Mackinnon Pass. A stone memorial topped with a cross stood in honor of Quintin Mackinnon, the explorer who discovered a way over the pass in 1888 but drowned in Lake Te Anau four years later.
Several hikers stopped here long enough to re-secure their packs from the elements. I remembered what the ranger told us during the previous night’s chat: Mackinnon Pass backs onto a cliff face known as the “Twelve-Second Drop.” If one were to misstep and fall over the side, it would take 12 seconds for his or her body to land. Who was the lucky soul that got to test this? I wondered.
Visibility was lousy. I continued on, and Pass Hut, a shelter and “loo with a view,” appeared momentarily out of the fog like a mirage, although they were swallowed by the low-hanging clouds just seconds after I first spotted them. Several hikers headed for the shelter to wait out the elements, but I chose to keep hiking. The sooner I could descend from this miserable pass, the better. As it happened, I should have stopped and waited along with the others. The rain stopped and the clouds lifted within ten minutes. I now had to descend a series of wet, rocky steps almost for almost 3,000 vertical feet. Water flowed across portions of the trail as runoff from the last 20 hours of constant rain. I passed a helipad, one of several along the trail. Later, I encountered a sign warning hikers not to stop walking as they were entering an avalanche zone…and stopped to snap a photo anyway.
The trail curved around the back side of Mackinnon Pass as it descended. Lindsay Falls roared past my right in a series of cascades, and was crisscrossed by several footbridges and hundreds of stairs. I appeared to be the only hiker that hadn’t stopped at the shelter atop the pass; I hadn’t seen a soul for a good hour.
The trail reached the floor of the Arthur Valley and leveled out near Quintin Lodge, Day Three’s accommodation for the catered walkers. A pot of freshly-brewed coffee was waiting for anyone who passed by. I dropped my pack, helped myself to a hearty cup, and sat in the sun for a few minutes, waiting for my fellow hikers to arrive. A cheeky weka was bopping around the grounds, and allowed me to take his picture before darting into the woods.
The trail split in front of the lodge. A fork on the left lead a short distance to Sutherland Falls, the tallest waterfall in New Zealand. No more than five minutes of walking deposited me at the base of the 580-meter (1,903-foot) falls. Water poured over the lip in a roar; the uppermost of its three cascades was the tallest. I asked a fellow tramper to snap of me in front of the falls, and then I did something really stupid.
I secured my camera inside a Ziploc bag and stashed it in a hip pocket, then scrambled over logs and into thigh-deep water to soak up the spray as close to the base of the falls as possible. I was drenched in seconds. I slipped and fell into the natural pool on my way back. I landed in such a position that my camera did not go under, but it didn’t matter. The moisture seeped through the bad like humidity, and little did I know that the damage was already settling in. It didn’t matter that I set the camera in the sun to dry once I returned to the lodge. Too little, too late.
I continued the last half-mile to the un-sexily-named Dumpling Hut. It was hot and sunny outside, and there was little evidence that it had rained at all. I hung my boots and windbreaker to dry in the sun, then headed down to the trail-side swimming hole. I enjoyed a quick plunge, then laid on the gravelly “beach,” just enjoying the day. It usually takes a long time for my mind – always awash with thoughts – to stop racing, but I slipped into relaxation mode with quicker ease than normal. I barely even noticed the sandflies. Maybe I found a moment of peace?
The idyll was short lived. Others soon showed up, starting with a carefree British hiker who dropped trou (“You can look if you like,” she warned me) and entered the water with such a thunderous splash it sounded as if a humpback whale was breeching. I took one last dip and headed back to Dumpling Hut for dinner. I wolfed down a portion of pasta and immediately followed it up with a second helping!
When the ranger arrived for her daily lecture, she took attendance and came up one person short. We were concerned until one person mentioned that the missing walker, a Spaniard, hiked from Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut without stopping, then decided to head back up to Mackinnon Pass and see the view without any lingering clouds! He – Pedro,I’ll call him – finally arrived just after nightfall and passed his camera around. Nice shots!
This was our last day on the Milford Track. It was a straightforward – but long – walk to Sandfly Point, where we would be met by boat for ride back to the end-of-the-earth-town of Milford Sound. We could wake up before dawn and shoot for the early boat, which departed at noon, or sleep in and catch the later boat at three p.m. I hoped to catch the early boat, as I had pre-booked a scenic cruise on Milford Sound for one p.m. that same afternoon.
My camera dried out overnight and appeared to be working. I posed for a pic alongside my fellow early birds and set off. There was nary a cloud in the sky, and I knew that it would be a great day for hiking. There wasn’t much of scenic note on this hike, at least not compared to Days Two and Three. One early highlight was seeing the mirror-like reflection of a faraway peak in a small lake just off the trail.
Bell Rock also merits a mention. This enormous boulder, which came to rest alongside a cliff-side waterfall, is hollow. You can crawl inside, where a smaller boulder rests. This smaller rock resembles a bell’s clanger. A few inconsiderate hikers carved their initials on the clanger, and there was food garbage inside Bell Rock as well. New Zealand is perhaps the cleanest country that I have ever visited, so this was disheartening to see.
There isn’t much elevation gain or loss on Day Four, but this final leg of the Milford Track is the longest. Not long after taking a peek at Bell Rock, I hit the proverbial wall. My backpack weighed a ton, and it seemed like an eternity before I hit the “Mile 33” sign, a marker indicating that there was just one quarter of a mile remaining to hike. I raised my camera to take a photo of the sign…and nothing happened. The camera didn’t so much as turn on. I put in my spare battery…and nothing happened. It seemed that yesterday’s encounter with Sutherland Falls – Ziploc bag or not – was too much for my Canon G7 to handle.
I was disappointed but not devastated. Chelsea and Cindy of Canada offered to take a picture of me and then email it later. Together, we walked the last distance to Sandfly Point, a one-dock pier at the mouth of the Clinton River. Pedro, the tireless Spaniard who hiked to Mackinnon Pass twice the day before, was already here, swimming in Milford Sound.
The boat arrived and the ride to the settlement (so small it doesn’t even have a name) at the end of the road back to civilization was 20 jaw-dropping minutes. Glacial-carved pyramidal rocks towered out of the sea. A waterfall cascaded down a cliff face near the pier. Seals barked from the rocks nearby. In other words, it was one of the most jaw-dropping vistas I’d ever encountered…and I didn’t have a working camera with which to capture such a scene.
We docked, de-boarded, and exchanged contact information. I had just enough time to duck into a gift shop and purchase a disposable camera for my 2 p.m. Milford Sound cruise. The boat, docked a few slips over from the small schooner that transported us here from Sandfly Point, was a proper cruise ship, and dwarfed everything else in the harbor. It had just 12 passengers on board – not a very environmentally-friendly choice of boats, in other words. I headed for the top deck and promptly ran into Chelsea and Cindy! Good people.
The cruise was spectacular, of course. We sailed to the end of the sound, where the waters meet those of the Tasman Sea. My reservation that night was for a dorm bed at Milford Sound Lodge, a 20-minute walk from the harbor. I checked in and enjoyed a three-hour shower. On the way back to my room I ran into Stuart and Diane, the father-and-daughter hikers from Australia. They had set out for Sandfly Point at the same time as me but walked at a slower pace and caught the second boat. We agreed to meet for burgers and beers later. I would run into Diane one more time – in Queenstown, three days later, while I was camera-shopping and while her father was hiking the Routeburn Track. ‘Tis a small world.
The Milford Track remains one of the best multi-day hikes I’ve ever done. Pound-for-pound, it’s prettier than the Marangu Route to Mount Kilimanjaro, greener than the Backbone Trail of Southern California, and easier than Colombia’s rugged Ciudad Perdida trek. If I’m ever back in New Zealand, I’ll surely consider one of the other Great Walks. Check out the country’s official Parks & Recreation website for more information about all of NZ’s Great Walks.
When people ask me what is my favorite country, I don’t always have a quick answer for them. The truth is, it’s always changing. At the end of my 2000 Eurotrip, it was Germany. Following my first trip to Mexico City, it was Mexico. After three weeks of island-hopping in the Aegean, it was Greece. It also depends on what you’re looking for. If you asked me to name the most fascinating land of ancient civilizations that I’ve seen, I’d say China. About wildlife? South Africa. Food? Probably Turkey.
For friendliness, for ease of travel (an underrated factor), for hostels, for clean air and clean cities, for unforgettable nature, it’s probably New Zealand. Definitely New Zealand.