Blast from the past: The Milford Track

In March 1997 we walked The Milford Track, which is arguably one of the most beautiful tracks in the World. The Department of Conservation limit the number of walkers on the track to preserve the outstanding natural beauty and delicate environment. Hence, everything we took in had to be brought out to avoid any potential change to the ecosystem (even the decaying banana skins at the bottom of our rucksacks!).

The walk of 54 km takes four days (three nights), starting from Lake Te Anau and finishing at the appropriately named Sandfly Point near Milford Sound. The route follows the Clinton and Arthur Valleys which are seperated by Mackinnon Pass (1073 m). These U-shaped valleys were carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age.

We were transported to the start of the track by boat, taking a scenic journey across Lake Te Anau. The day we started out there was mist and fine drizzle in the air, which gave the forest and mountains surrounding us a spiritual presence. We felt any tension ease off us as we got closer to the start of the track, a feeling of leaving behind ‘civilisation’ and entering a world where the senses could be revived (and the wallet remain untouched!).

The first day of the walk only consisted of a few hours through dense vivid green forest and a beautiful variety of vegetation in every shade of green imaginable. Through the trees the Clinton River sparkled in the the occasional ray of sun escaping from the mist and the scent of fresh vegetation, wet by recent rainfall, brought our senses alive. This area is renowned for its heavy rainfall – over 8000 mm of rain annually has been recorded!

The over night accommodation was in huts with gas for cooking up something warm and three tier bunkbeds with thin foam mattresses to rest our limbs upon. I was pleasantly surprised to find flush toilets, which were a real treat from the long drops enroute!

The second day of the track winds through beech forest along the banks of the Clinton River, following the river to its source at the base of the Mackinnon Pass. The track crossed many small and a few large streams which can require bush-craft river crossing skills if the weather is inclement but we were blessed with sunshine on our second day. As we drew closer to our second night’s accommodation the vegetation changed to become more varied as higher altitudes and higher rainfall regions were reached. The track became narrower and rockier. We were advised to set off early on our second day so as to reach the Mintaro Hut early and make the most of the fine weather to climb the steep track to the top of Mackinnon pass. It took us around two hours to reach the top of the pass and our efforts were greatly rewarded with breathtaking views down over the valley we would walk the next day. In every direction glacially carved valleys and snow peaked mountains stood strong and majestic against the blue sky. We lingered here, feasting our eyes on the view and bottling up the scene in our minds. The feeling of freedom is never greater than after a climb to a view such as this, and we let our minds float in the wind.

On the third day we set off once more from the Mintaro Hut and climbed up towards Mackinnon pass. Making the effort to climb up to the pass the day before had been well worth it as sadly the cloud had rolled in over night. When we reached the top of the pass we couldn’t see past the person in front as the pass was immersed in cloud. At the top of the pass there is a small hut which we all huddled into and enjoyed a brew from the small stove. After a good break we ventured on and embarked upon the 8km descent down off the pass. The track traversed a wide variety of interesting scenery from alpine meadows to the valley floor.

We made a side trip of about an hour and a half return to ‘The Sutherland Fall’s’ where we had the best natural power shower I have ever experienced! After three day’s tramping in the bush we certainly needed it! The falls are the highest waterfalls in New Zealand and are amongst the highest in the world. They plunge 580 metres in three successive leaps down the sheer rock face from their origin, Lake Quill. We timidly walked behind the falls, watching our footing on the slippery rocks and boulders, and as we looked out through the curtain of water we were blinded by a thousand rainbows as the sun shone in through the sparkling water. This and the view from the top of the pass were the most memorable moments of the walk.

The last day of the walk, from Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point, took about five and a half hours tramping. The 18.5 km track follows the Arthur River and Lake Ada down to Milford Sound, crossing the river once at Boatshed. The track lies through high rainfall forest with special treats at Mackay Falls and Giant Gate Falls. Some sections of the track are on boardwalks to bridge the swampy patches below. The Falls are especially beautiful due to the bright green moss that has collected on the huge boulders that the water runs over. The water was crystal clear and perfect for resting tired feet in.

We timed this final section of the walk so as not to be waiting too long at Sandfly Point for the boat to arrive. It is named, ‘Sandfly Point’ due to the sandflys that swarm this area, no doubt knowing that tired, smelly walkers gather here providing juicy targets!

And the boat trip back was simply breathtaking. We were looking forward to a real shower and a decent feed, but sad to say farewell to such dramatic remoteness.