The Milford Track is one of the most famous hikes in the world. Nestled in Fiordland National Park, this three-day adventure allows a brief incursion into New Zealand’s most inaccessible region. We would be tackling the track off-season, during the Spring. Despite being one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’, this can be a dangerous time to walk in an alpine environment, due to melting ice surging down from the mountains. Additionally, storms can hit this region with ferocious intensity at very short notice. However, we felt prepared in terms of our fitness and equipment, and the lure of exploring Fiordland national park at a time of relative quiet proved too strong for us.
Day One: Glade Wharf to Mintaro Hut
The clouds were dissipating in the early morning sun as we drove down the long, straight road from Te Anau. We would be embarking on an hour-long boat ride from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf, the starting point of the track. It had been a cold night, and our limbs were stiff as we strolled towards the boat. Lambs bleated and pranced in a paddock on our right, wildflowers around us appeared to be stretching outwards in the growing heat of the day. In the cold and mountainous South Island, the arrival of Spring feels like a rebirth, the earth casting off its icy shackles and once again embracing the sun’s warmth.
We were joined by ten other passengers on the boat. The Department of Conservation (DOC) limit the number of walkers who can hike the Milford Track at any given time. To a time-restricted tourist, these measures can appear unfair and draconian. However, this admirable policy limits damage to the track and reduces careless human interference to this most delicate of environments. With tourism increasing in New Zealand every year, the DOC’s moral stance will be tested in the face of external pressure and financial rewards.
Our captain gave a lively history of the area, regaling us with tales of Maori tribes, and the inevitable conflict that occurred when European whalers reached the area. After disembarking, we began the hike, initially slowly, but soon hit our stride. The beauty of the area is indisputable. However, the sensory delights experienced are somewhat tempered by swarms of the notorious sandfly. These opportunistic swarms feast on exposed skin whenever they can, often after a hiker has stopped for a short rest. To the uninitiated, their bites are incredibly itchy, and to be avoided. I had been advised to get as much Vitamin B into my system as possible before travelling to Fiordland, as this allegedly repels the unwanted sandfly attention most travellers receive. This had resulted in a largely marmite based diet in the weeks preceding the hike, and an ill-fated, marmite infused smoothie.
The majority of the day would be spent hiking up the Clinton Valley. Rivers can rise extremely quickly in wet weather in this valley, with gentle streams turning to powerful surges of water in a short amount of time. The western branch of Clinton River was on our right, running deep and fast. Streams flowed over our path, at one point a rope suspended between two lichen-covered trees was required to help us over a torrent of water. We were surrounded by towering peaks, visible in their full glory as the morning’s cloud burnt away. Capped by snow and flanked by dense forest as far as the eye can see, the mountains stood, symbols of prehistory, formed when the earth was young. After an hour we reached Clinton Hut, primarily used as a shelter in adverse weather conditions. A Black Robin hopped around joyfully, feasting on the sandflies that we had attracted.
We followed the path as it moved gradually away from the riverbank, and moved through dense undergrowth. We climbed up a steep rocky outcrop and reached a bridge that allowed us to cross another deep stream. Looking down at the river, the clarity of the water was stunning. Living in New Zealand feels like living in high definition, such is the purity of the elements and lack of humanities pollution.
Eventually, the gravel path led us out of the undergrowth, and towards the narrow head of the valley. Here the rock flanking us was sheer, with waterfalls cascading down from unimaginable heights. The ground began to rise the further we progressed up the valley. We would occasionally glimpse a walker ahead of us, but we felt largely alone. Gathering cloud behind us had begun to play on our minds. The speed at which the clouds massed together took us by surprise, and within minutes the temperature dropped appreciably. Pausing to add a warm layer, we turned to see the dark clouds rolling down the valley towards us. A storm was coming. I felt like Indiana Jones being pursued by a boulder, and reaching the shelter of Mintaro Hut at a faster pace was necessary if we were to avoid a soaking.
We made it to the head of the valley, and as we climbed higher into the undergrowth, a towering granite wall of rock was visible ahead of us. This would be tackled tomorrow, after a climb over the notorious Mackinnon Pass. After passing a private lodge, we reached what appeared to be a sheltered bus stop. This crude metal structure was located just before a torrent of water, tumbling from the peaks and down towards the Clinton River. Fortunately, the day’s rainfall had not been hard enough to render it impassable. With some difficulty, and at times walking through ice-cold water up to our knees, we reached the other side.
It was mid-afternoon, but darkness was beginning to envelop the valley. We climbed and climbed, fording streams and battling the overgrowth obstructing our path. A clearing containing a small campsite and woodshed heralded our discovery of Mintaro Hut, that was partially concealed amongst the trees. Thankfully, an early entrant to the hut was stoking a fire in the hearth. Avoiding the sandflies, we hurried inside, hoping our sodden boots and socks would dry before our ascent the next day.
Day Two: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut
This day proved to be a highlights reel of everything great about hiking in New Zealand. Mackinnon Pass was a blockbuster movie that lived up to the hype. I attempt to limit the amount I use my camera during a hike, trying to remain in the moment and take in my surroundings. On this day I had to constantly tear my eyes and my camera away from inconceivable vistas and secluded valleys.
The previous day’s storm had blown over during the night, and we left the hut early to a bright and cold morning. We entered a shadowy forest, our rocky path leading us higher and higher with every step. The gnarled, moss-covered trees were contorted and twisted, bent by uncounted years of wind and desperately stretching towards the sun. The climb to the pass was over 350 metres. The path zig-zagged back and forth, and occasionally a sign warned us of the increased risk of rock slides. We hurried on. Around one corner we abruptly bumped into a park ranger. He had been absent from Mintaro Hut the night before but cheerfully greeted us now. He carried a huge rucksack and walking stick, impressive considering he had only one arm. He undoubtedly knew what we were thinking, and exclaimed it was “one less thing to worry about” before bidding us good-day and strolling on.
Mercifully, the wind was becalmed as we reached the end of our climb. A band of cloud, weaving in and out the valleys had partially concealed our view. At the top of the pass, we were rewarded with incredible panoramas in all directions. Looking southwards, valleys stretched before us. Looming above us and dominating the skyline was the intimidating spike of Mount Ballon. To our north, and hundreds of metres below amongst the trees was Dumpling Hut, our destination for the night.
The main focal point on the pass is a large cairn crowned by a stone cross. This monument is dedicated to Quinton Mackinnon and Earnest Mitchell, who had discovered the alpine route in 1888. Assembling the monument had been an incredible, community-based effort. Members of the local rugby and sports club had painstakingly carried the heavy materials needed to the summit and assembled it in all conditions. It is a perfect example of New Zealander’s can-do attitude.
Both sides of the pass were incredibly steep, at some points a 500-metre drop to the valley floor. Wisps of cloud curled and arced over our heads. Despite the growing warmth of the day, an icy blast of wind being funnelled towards us from every direction slowed our progress. A pool of rippling glacial water perfectly reflected the snow-crowned mountains encircling us. We marvelled at our good fortune with the weather. Visibility was perfect, and with Mackinnon Shelter insight, we passed a plaque noting we had reached the highest point on the pass, at 1154 metres.
After the shelter, our path crept under the gaze of the imposing Mount Balloon. As a species, we enjoy humanising our natural environment. To anthropomorphize a mountain range, a geological marker that has stood for time incomprehensible to us is to relate it to ourselves and the journey we are on. On a day of adverse weather conditions, the surrounding peaks would feel like a malevolent presence, daring us to continue on our dangerous path. Yet today, under a bright blue sky and curling fingers of cloud, the mountains simply watched, mercifully granting us safe passage onwards.
The winding, rocky path jagged back and forth down from the summit. In heavy rain, this steep descent could prove to be treacherous. As it was, we made our way down confidently, often stopping once again to stare at the gallery of glistening peaks surrounding us. The path narrowed, and as we reached the dense bushline, tree roots crawled over the stone slabs, ensuring our whole focus was on our footing. Amongst the scrub, we first crossed a wooden bridge, then a long suspension bridge that swayed alarmingly as we passed. Water from melting glaciers had cleaved huge ravines and channels into the mountainside, and I wondered for how long had Mackinnon and Ernest spent searching for safe passage over. This section of the track is often closed, as it rests in the avalanche path of the glaciers high above us.
Lunch was greedily devoured once we entered the forest. Through gaps in the dense canopy, we could still see the pointed wizard’s hat of Mount Balloon towering above us. There would be one last spectacle for us to feast our eyes upon that day. We heard it before we saw it. Sutherland Falls is the highest waterfall in the southern hemisphere. A narrow path split off from the main track, leading us deeper into the woods. Our pace had slowed due to the heat of the day. Sutherland Falls spills down in three leaps from Lake Quill, 580 metres above us. We had caught up with some fellow hikers and dared each other to go nearer as we enjoyed the cooling spray. The blast of the falling water left our ears ringing, and as we turned away, back into the forest, the silence was palpable.
In the early evening, Dumpling Hut was discovered. The huts along the Milford Track can accommodate up to forty people during the height of summer. The mischievous Kea, the worlds only alpine parrot, made an appearance as we arrived. A foolish hiker had left his boots unattended outside, and a Kea set upon them with glee. A nut bar was nearly snatched from my hands as I attempted to escape a large swarm of sandflies. That evening, twelve of us co-inhabited the large kitchen area, preparing our evening meals and sharing experiences of our day’s hike. Leaving the warmth of the kitchen, we ventured outside to drink in the infinite cosmos that shone above us. The clarity of the constellations is something I had never seen before or since.
Day Three: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point
The warmth of the day, the closed canopy above us and dense undergrowth surrounding us gave our final day a hazy, ethereal quality. The two days previous had been challenging, and our unforgiving wooden beds had allowed little recovery for our aching muscles. Earlier in the week, we had tackled the Kepler Track in southern Fiordland, and I was now ready to rest, to put my heavy rucksack and boots to one side. We had 18 kilometres to cover, and a boat would be waiting for us at Sandly Point, for a mid-afternoon return to Milford Sound.
Thankfully the track was almost completely flat. A well-maintained path allowed smooth progress, and wooden boardwalks helped us over marshy terrain. The track cut through the Arthur Valley, with the deep and wide Arthur River flowing on our right. We reached Mackay Falls and stopped for a mid-morning snack. Some keen hikers had left the hut early, and we could see them dipping their feet in the cold water, and exploring the strange Bell Rock, in which you can squeeze into a rocky crevice. Being tall and gangly, I felt attempting a similar manoeuvre was only asking for trouble, so we strapped our rucksacks on and headed into the bush.
Light would occasionally burst through the thick canopy, illuminating the dark ferns and revealing every shade of green conceivable to the human eye. It was beautiful, and a privilege to behold such an ancient forest in all of its prehistoric glory. There would be a single boat leaving Sandfly Point that afternoon, and understandably our fellow hikers hurried along certain sections of the track, unwilling to miss it. We did not feel like lone travellers exploring the wilderness on this day, and walking and chatting to others felt like a novelty. Visitors ranged from Western Australia to China, a testament to the exciting reputation of the Milford Track.
Between 1890 and 1892, a prison labour gang constructed the last three kilometres of the track. The track was wide and smooth, and the dense forest began to relent, allowing us views of the river and peaks soaring above us. Tired, aching and dripping with sweat, I dropped my rucksack to the ground and slumped onto a bench. We had reached Sandfly Point. It was a small wooden dock, but no boat was moored there yet. Living up to its name, swarms of sandflies found us and drove us into a nearby hut. Grateful for the shelter, we waited with our fellow hikers, whilst rubbing cream onto our numerous bites.
At 3 PM we heard the welcome chug of an approaching boat. The swarms of sandflies had relented enough for us to walk rather than run to the waiting vessel. As the captain greeted us, I ungracefully bundled myself aboard. It had been a magnificent three days. Cruising down the Arthur River and onwards to Milford Sound allowed time to relax and reflect on our adventure.