Tramping the verdant heart of Fjordland on the Milford Track

The Arthur River, MilfordTrack

The Arthur River, MilfordTrack

Ah, the Milford Track!  For anyone who has dreamed of ‘tramping’ the wild backcountry of New Zealand, the Milford is the Holy Grail, the track that visitors and locals alike consider to be the quintessential New Zealand backcountry walk.   Our group of 13 adventurers was walking the Milford Track in mid-February 2013, the heart of summer and prime hiking season in Fiordland National Park, and just kicking off a three-week immersion into NZ “tramping” on several of its best trails from south to north.   Our Milford adventure had started that morning from the relaxed little lakeside town of Te Anau, with a bus ride to a dock at a place called Te Anau Downs, followed by a boat ride across blue-green, multi-armed Lake Te Anau – my face nearly pressed against the glass so as not to miss a thing! – to Glade Wharf and the mouth of the lazy, meandering Clinton River where the track began[1].

For two days, the trail slowly climbed through native evergreen forest of spreading silver beech, majestic rimu and tree ferns along the Clinton, serenaded by the melodious voices of myriad native songbirds and the sound of waterfalls tumbling off the steep sides of the steadily-narrowing valley.   The Clinton Hut at mile 3.1 and the Mintaro Hut at mile 10.3 were full to bursting with an excited, chattering, international clientele, and their adjacent warm swimming holes, spacious common areas and great nature talks by knowledgeable hut wardens made for a very positive start to our experience.

With 14,000 people walking the track each year, it would be at serious risk of being loved to death if it weren’t for careful management of the numbers on the track at one time.  Only 40 people are allowed to start the track on any given day during the main October to April season.  Everyone must walk the track in the same direction, and move from hut to hut between the start at Glade Wharf and the end at Sandfly Bay in the same sequence over four days.  No camping is allowed.  So though we seldom felt the presence of the other people on the trail with us, each night we became better acquainted with the diverse cadre of 27 other people staying in the huts with us (not to mention quickly sorting out the snorers so that we could hustle to choose bunkrooms away from those poor souls).

By late in the second day on the track, we began to see the features that made this walk unique. The river valleys and fiords of the central west coast of New Zealand’s South Island have carved the surrounding ultra-hard granite rock into deep (some 4000 feet high), stunningly vertical fissures by millions of years of river and glacier action.  And because it rains here 180 days and 268 inches a year, these vertical walls gush with waterfalls and are covered with a thin skin of lush greenery somewhat reminiscent of a Dr. Suess story – an entire forest community unique to this part of the world.  In places the green “skin” has sloughed off, leaving stark scars on the cliff face.  This visual extravaganza of steep green cliffs and omnipresent waterfalls pressed in close around us by the time we reached Mintaro Hut, and the sunset glowed all salmon, russet and gold off the high sheer walls of the upper Clinton valley wrapped around us, MacKinnon Pass looming above on its north side.    There was only one way forward, and that was up and over.

The same geology that forged the area’s recalcitrant granite also shaped the Milford Track’s history, by depositing a gem known to the local Maori people as Pounamu, and to the Europeans who came later as greenstone.   Considered a taonga – “treasure” – by the Maori, these stones increase in prestige as they pass between generations, and some have known histories going back many generations.   For centuries the Maori traveled roughly along the path of the current track to Milford Sound in search of Pounamu.    In 1888, two European explorers and surveyors – Donald Sutherland and Quintin MacKinnon – were commissioned to cut tracks up the Arthur and Clinton River Valleys, Sutherland discovering a 1,904 foot high waterfall along the way that now bears his name.  MacKinnon finally crossed over the narrow pass separating the two drainages late that year, the first known European crossing.   Now the 3800-foot pass, near the geographic halfway point of the track, bears a monument to MacKinnon and carries his name.   Mackinnon became the first Milford Track guide, and for years Sutherland ran a hotel at the terminus of the track.

Day 3 dawned clear and we were up and out early, faces turned eagerly upward to the pass in anticipation of seeing what was on the other side.  It was energizing to finally have some topography to push against, winding up the switchbacks beyond treeline and into the subalpine scrub and flowers.   We’d had amazing weather luck on the trip thus far, but now thick clouds pushing up the river valleys on both sides were racing us to the pass.  Once there, we had time only for a brief glimpse and a few photographs of the MacKinnon Memorial before we were enveloped in mist and rain.  A short way down the other side past some small tarns was a small spartan shelter, a welcome escape from the rain nonetheless, and our party plus several others shed our damp outerwear and huddled there in hopes that the weather would abate.  But no, our patience dried up before the rain did, and we set out again….only to drop below the clouds and back into the warm sun within a half mile below the shelter.  Like lizards we basked, and our clothes steamed along with the rock wall beside us.  Finally, body heat replenished, we descended nearly 3000 feet down innumerable boardwalk stairs along the rapids of the Roaring Burn River, with the visages of Mount Balloon (6058’), Mount Wilmur (5609’) and Mount Elliot (6527’) above us ghostly in the fog.  The side trail to Sutherland Falls near the bottom had sadly been obliterated by a rockfall and was closed, so we had to content ourselves with views from a distance, but its foaming quarter-mile drop from Lake Quill above was still quite impressive.

The head of the Clinton Valley and MacKinnon Pass from Mintaro Hut near sunset

The head of the Clinton Valley and MacKinnon Pass from Mintaro Hut near sunset


McKinnon Pass/Memorial

McKinnon Pass/Memorial

It wasn’t long before the track returned to its prior tranquil countenance, wandering the moss and forest along a placid meandering river, this time the Arthur.  Our fourth and last day on the trail was utterly peaceful, traversing a bench alongside the crystal clear river, interrupted only by the roar of Mackay Falls and Giant Gate Falls dropping right beside the trail into swimmable – if frigid – pools.  The river opened up into broad Lake Ada before finally ending at a dock at aptly named Sandfly Bay on the shores of Milford Sound, where we caught yet another boat to the other side, and a shuttle to a hotel in Milford Village with much awaited showers, laundry facilities and restaurant food.   The next morning we embarked on a 2.5-hour boat cruise from the village all the way out to the Tasman Sea and back, getting close-up views of fur seals on the rocks and dolphins and crested penguins in the water, all the while soaking up the emerald lushness of the sheer walls around us and the backdrop of high, glaciated peaks just behind.  The soaking turned literal for those on the bow when the boat nosed in under Stirling Falls, the water forming geometric patterns on the surface where it landed and rainbows in the air as it caught in the wind.  Definitely a fitting culmination of an experience which, if not the most visually stunning or physically challenging of the tracks we would, was definitely a rich meal for the soul.

The Milford Track Huts.  The jewels in the crown of New Zealand’s backcountry hut system, the huts along the Milford Track- Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling – are large, and bustle with a lively international clientele.   As with the huts on all the major tracks in New Zealand, these had filtered water, gas cooktops, and plenty of bunks in various configurations, generally large communal rooms with 12 to 20 bunks per room.   Through nature walks and conservation stories, the knowledgeable wardens at the Milford huts initiated one of the most surprising and moving aspects of our trip:  a dawning understanding not only of the ecological richness and uniqueness of the country, and the seriousness of the threats their ecosystems were facing in the here and now, but also the absolute focus, passion and dedication that the New Zealanders were putting into protection and recovery of their unique species and places.

Milford Track Standouts:  The peace and serenity of the forest walks along the slowly meandering Arthur River under tree fern forest;  sheer granite walls rising thousands of feet above and carpeted in rich green;  waterfalls tumbling down around you everywhere you look;  staggering water-and-cliff views,  emerald-blue colors and sea-life on the Milford Sound.

Booking Your Spot on the Milford Track

Advance bookings are required for track transport and huts, and hut space during the prime season (mid December through mid February) fills up early, so start checking the DOC booking page at 8-12 months before you plan to travel.  Book a hotel in Te Anau for the night before you start, for the most convenient transport logistics.

[1]  The buses and boats servicing the Milford Track are run twice a day from Te Anau and once a day from Queenstown by Tracknet,  Booking of track transport can also be done on the DOC website when you book your hut tickets.


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