Tramping the Milford Track

Tramping the Milford Track

A number of years ago, Bryan purchased a Lonely Planet coffee table book titled Amazing Journeys, Amazing Adventures, or something like that. One of the entries was titled “Tramp the Milford Track”, a world-famous multi-day hike which some people called “the greatest walk in the world.” He put it on his mental list of things to do.

Pre-Preparation

Shortly after meeting Lisa, Bryan began his efforts to train her for this endeavour. Lisa was totally on board with day hikes, but the problem was, we did not have time to try a proper backcountry trip before 2018 booking opened for the track. Lisa had done a lot of camping as a kid, and was fine with sleeping in a tent, but she hadn’t done any backpacking before, and generally liked the comforts of a campground with toilets, showers, and a well-stocked cooler with yummy camping snacks and beverages. She was also skeptical about carrying 40 lbs of stuff in a big backpack, during full days of 10-18 km distance, with some significant elevation gain. And what was the deal with dehydrated meals??

Lisa was highly skeptical about this.

Through a sustained effort over many weeks, Bryan managed to convince Lisa just enough that she grudgingly agreed to us making a booking for the track. The track is very popular and typically sells out in the first hours or days (depending on the dates) after bookings open. So right at 9:30 AM New Zealand time on June 19, Bryan went online, and by 9:34 had booked us a spot! At least one of us was very excited about this. Now came the real work – practicing in the backcountry and seeing whether Lisa liked it or not.

We started with an overnight kayak trip off Vancouver Island, then 4 nights kayak camping in the backcountry in Alaska, and finally a one-night overnight hike in Kluane National Park. Fortunately, it turned out that Lisa loved the backcountry. And having tested out the whole “hiking with your home on your back” routine, and making sure her around-the-world pack was comfortable for this type of application, the Milford Track got the green light.

Preparation

Fast forward 3 months, to Te Anau. We did our final preparations as we recovered from our vast array of sandfly bites, which mostly involved doing as little as possible during the day to help us recover and relax.

As we were travelling for a year, there was no way we were going to carry around camping gear for the whole time. Fortunately, New Zealand has a thriving outdoor gear rental scene (making the NZ backcountry much more accessible than the Canadian one). So, we arranged to rent two sleeping bags, camp dishes/cutlery, and two sets of hiking poles from Bev’s Tramping Gear Hire. But wait, you say! Where is the tent? Where is the camp stove? Where are the sleeping rolls, and the water filter? Well, that is one of the best things about the Milford Track – every night, you stay in a government maintained trekking hut, complete with a cooking area containing gas stoves, sinks with running water (that is safe to drink), flush toilets, and bunks with mattresses. Unheard of in Western Canada, this type of setup is common on New Zealand’s Great Walks. But all of this luxury doesn’t come for free – as a foreigner, you will pay $140 NZD per person per night.

As a side note, you can also do a guided walk, starting from $2130 NZD per person. This would provide you with the opportunity to stay in a luxurious private lodge with hot showers. All meals are also provided and you would not need to carry as much stuff (although we were pretty happy with already not needing to carry a water filter, stove, tent, etc). Obviously this option was way out of our budget, and to be honest, there is something gratifying about a little bit of suffering in the backcountry. Plus we feel like staying in what is essentially a luxury hotel in the backcountry takes away a bit from the sense of being immersed in nature. But hey, that’s just us, so it’s good to know this option exists and perhaps makes the trail a more accessible option for people who can afford it.

Anyway, now it was time to actually pack for our trek. Keep in mind, we had a bunch of stuff like Bryan’s underwater camera, which would be decidedly useless on the Milford Track (unless we experienced one of the track’s infamous heavy floods which Lisa had been reading about). Luckily we were able to rent a big locker at our holiday park in Te Anau, where we stored all the extraneous stuff while we were on the track.

So we unpacked and repacked our bags, which led to another classic Lisa and Bryan “discussion.” Our plans involved staying in Milford Sound at a hostel for 2 nights after completing the trek. There are no showers on the Milford Track (unless you’re a rich guided walker), so shampoo was unnecessary for the trek itself. However, after 3 nights on the track, Lisa knew she would really be looking forward to a nice hot shower and washing her hair. She decided it would be worth it to bring her little 100 ml travel bottles of shampoo and conditioner for this purpose. Cue judgmental tone of voice and facial expressions from Bryan, which did not go over well. 10+ lbs of camera gear – super-telephoto lens, two camera bodies, street zoom lens, macro lens, fisheye lens, and Gorillapod tripod – clearly these were all essential items. But 200 g of extra toiletries? Clearly, this was just a whim, a frivolous luxury.

There is no need to go into the details here, as we are sure you can imagine how the disagreement went down. Bryan, eventually seeing the error of his ways, did his best to patch things up, and by the time we got to departure day we were again on good terms.

Day 1: Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut

Distance: 5 km

A final civilized meal (Subway veggie delite sandwiches), a short bus ride, and a boat ride across the lake later, we found ourselves at the start of the Milford Track. As we disembarked from our boat, it started to rain, and we were met by a small greeting party of Fiordland National Park’s friendliest insects – SANDFLIES! But they were not nearly as bad as Doubtful Sound, so as other people exclaimed and applied bug spray, we just smiled and began our hike.

The first day was nice and short, walking through beautiful ancient stands of temperate rainforest, the ground covered in lush fern-filled undergrowth, and the trees coated in primeval carpets of moss.

The trail was wide and very nicely maintained, and we followed alongside a swift-flowing and cold-looking river. We traded back and forth with an extremely friendly Iowan named Steve, who kept exclaiming how amazing the forest was. Wow, look at this tree! Look at this moss! It is just so beautiful! It really was, and it was great having such a nice reminder of how lucky we were to be doing this.

We hiked in to Clinton Hut a bit wet and a bit tired, but in high spirits. We marvelled at the luxurious set-up of the hut. The dining area had several gas stoves we could use, sinks with clean Fiordland water, and plenty of space for all of us to sit and enjoy our dehydrated dinners.

Here we got to meet our fellow hikers – each hut has capacity for 40 people, and the days were fully booked, so we shared the dining area with 38 other hardy souls.

At bedtime, we got to try out our rental sleeping bags and sleeping bag liners. The sleeping bags were nice, but the liners were really something else. Not a good something else, but a terribly sticky, cloying, non-breathable something else. No matter how hot or cool it was, and how zipped up or unzipped the sleeping bag, being inside the liner was sticky. With the sleeping bag zipped up it quickly became hot and sticky. With the sleeping bag unzipped we cooled off, but were still sticky. There was no way to escape the stickiness. But at least we only had to do this for 3 nights.

Day 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut

Distance: 16.5 km

The next day, we woke up around 7:30 am, ready for our first real day of hiking. We made ourselves some oatmeal, coffee, and tea in the dining area, packed up, and set out. The sky looked moderately promising, and shortly after getting going we came across a very friendly and curious little bird.

Then, we trekked through a valley with some of the finest scenery either of us had ever seen. Snow-capped peaks poked through the clouds in the distance, while we were surrounded by steep, dramatic cliffs decorated with a variety of spectacular waterfalls.

Each twist and turn in the valley revealed more stunning scenes, and we made a lot of photo stops (these ones went better than the photo stops for glow worms or ferns).

As we reached the two-thirds point, the clouds rolled in, the rain began, and the trail began to climb. We continued to appreciate the dramatic scenery, but we also felt our heavy packs with every step we took. By the time we reached Mintaro Hut we were quite wet, thoroughly exhausted, hungry, and really excited about getting off our feet. The warm, sheltered hut was just what we needed, and we immediately got to work making tasty dehydrated meals. Then, it was back to the sticky liners for the night…

Day 3: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut

Distance: 14 km

This promised to be the most challenging day, with a 900 m climb up to the highest point of the track – the MacKinnon Pass, and then a relentless slog all the way back down.

We woke up feeling pretty good, and as ready as we could be for the day ahead. As we were getting ready to leave, the hut was visited by a few curious and cheeky keas! These alpine parrots are full of personality and known to be quite the troublemakers. In fact, we had to hang up our boots every night and always ensure doors were closed to protect our belongings from them. They hopped around the railings and tables outside, putting their beaks on whatever they could find (pipes, picnic tables, rafters, etc.),  and Bryan snapped some photos as they entertained us.

With that, it was time to get going. The sharp ascent went about as expected – it was long and tiring.

But we did get lucky with the weather, and had clear views up and down the valley from the pass. There was also a hut with a stove, and a toilet with the best view on the track – the window looked out over the valley.

Lisa was thrilled about the hut and decided we should stop and make ourselves some hot drinks with the stove. Bryan’s initial instincts were “NO! MUST KEEP MOVING!” but he gave in and ended up enjoying the little break in this beautiful setting. Not that he wants to make a habit of stopping for drink breaks, but… he will admit that it was quite nice.

Then it was time to continue on, all the way back down. And it was a looooong way. This was Lisa’s first time doing a long, steep descent with a heavy backpack. Luckily we had rented hiking poles, which helped out our quads and knees, but it was still pretty painful by the end. Toes bumping, quads burning, and shoulders aching, the downhill part never seemed to level out. Bryan kept telling himself that it wasn’t so bad, that the descent was only about one third of what he had done in the Grand Canyon… but that didn’t help at all. In reality, it was hurting him as much as Lisa, if not more, and this line of thinking just made him feel old, frail and weak, yearning for the “glory days” of his youth.

Close to the end, we arrived at a shelter where we could leave our packs (safe from the keas) while we did a 1.5 hour side trip to Sutherland Falls.

Although we were exhausted, we had been informed that the side trail was a must-do. At first, we felt delightfully light and unburdened from our packs, but the sore feet and weary muscles quickly made themselves known again.

However, the trip was definitely worth it – the falls were very impressive. Lisa got to experience their power firsthand when she went to stand in front of them for Bryan to take a photo. Just as Bryan was setting up a shot, the wind changed direction and she got absolutely drenched by the spray from the cascading water! It was like standing in a small waterfall. Bryan hid behind a rock, which did nothing to lessen Lisa’s annoyance at the unexpected soaking.

After waiting for some other hikers to snap their photos, and waiting for the wind to move in the right direction, we finally set up the shot Bryan had envisioned. It did not turn out as well as hoped, but we still had lots of fun enjoying the power of the falls. And as payback for the first time, the wind changed direction again, and this time Bryan also got blasted.

Good thing all our clothing was quick-drying!

After enjoying the falls, we walked back to get our packs, and continued the last little bit to our hut. It was not a very long distance, but it felt like eternity. Every step hurt our feet, our shoulders and necks were taut as drawn bowstrings, and our conversation ranged from inaudible grumbling to exhortations about how fantastic dinner would be, and how surely the hut was just around the next corner. One corner after another, we found our optimism misplaced. When we finally spotted the lodge, we were reaching the end of our endurance, both mental and physical. But it felt amazing walking up the final steps.

We had taken our time on the track, stopping frequently to admire the scenery and take photos, so we were some of the last to arrive at the hut.

All these fern photos meant we definitely didn’t break any records for speed on the track.

At this one, there were 3 separate dormitories, and we took a couple of the last remaining beds that we could find near each other. After dinner (dehydrated meals had never tasted so good!), we gratefully tucked ourselves into our rental sleeping bags on top of the hut mattresses with makeshift pillows made of extra clothing. We popped in our earplugs and put on our eye shades and sank into deep sleep.

But not for long, because as it was our last night on the track, and the evening looked fairly clear, we wanted to see the backcountry stars. Bryan set his alarm for just after midnight, at which point we both got up very quietly and snuck outside. The stars were out, and were beautiful.

As we returned back to our hut and tried to go back to sleep, we realized we were stuck in the room with all the snorers. One gentleman in the corner was making noises that sounded like a rickety old train in Myanmar, bumping along the tracks and threatening to derail at any moment. He was answered by another hiker’s best attempts to mimic a sawmill. The snoring symphony continued for the rest of the night, and even our earplugs could not drown it out. It was more like sleeping among a family of bears than a hut of hikers. We did our best to sleep through the cacophony, but it was a bit of a rough night. At least it was our last one on the trail.

Day 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point

Distance: 18 km

Again, we started the day with oatmeal and hot drinks, and then were visited by some more mischievous kea looking for trouble. Fortunately, everyone followed proper kea protocol and no one lost any belongings.

A funny weka also greeted us on our way out.

After the difficult last couple of days, the final day felt a bit like a victory lap. It was a long day, but very flat, and we covered ground quickly.

Our legs were sore and our bodies tired, but the kilometers passed quickly.

At least, until we reached about kilometer 13. Then our bodies got mad at us. Our feet screamed, our knees moaned, our thighs burned, our hips creaked, and our shoulders projected random shooting pains down to our backs. The relatively minor ups and downs of the trail began to feel like significant climbs. But we kept on trucking, and covered the final 5 km to reach Sandfly Point with lots of time to spare.

Milford Sound

A boat took us from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound, where we struggled for a while to figure out how to get to the lodge where we would stay the next 2 nights. Bryan (wrongly) thought there was only one lodge in Milford Sound. In fact, there are two. After getting wildly varying directions from different people, due to confusion around which lodge we were asking about (Bryan just asked – how do we get to the lodge?), we milled around in confusion in the boat terminal.

Finally, we learned that our lodge’s bus was not going to arrive for another 90 minutes, and that we could instead take a continuously-running parking lot shuttle bus that would drop us off at a parking lot near our lodge. Not near enough – we grumbled as we trudged along with our packs for about 10 minutes that felt much longer. We were staying in dorms here too, as the private rooms in the lodge were way outside our budget. The bunk beds were comfy though, and we only had to share the room with 4 other people, instead of the 30+ people on the Milford Track. Lisa had that long-awaited hot shower and had no regrets about bringing her shampoo and conditioner! Then we enjoyed a yummy, non-dehydrated meal and glass of wine for dinner.

The next morning we had a cruise booked to tour Milford Sound itself – we arrived and realized to our delight that we were somehow the only people booked on the morning trip! We had the whole boat to ourselves, and got all the attention of the captain and tour guides, who shared lots of interesting information about the area.

We admired the beautiful waterfalls (although apparently it had been quite dry compared to usual, so there were fewer of them) and some playful seals.

It was really fun, and definitely worth staying the extra couple nights in Milford Sound. The Sound is very busy and full of tourists during the day (when all of the day-trippers and tour buses roll in), but first thing in the morning and late afternoon/evening, the place is pretty quiet and tranquil. At times, it felt like just you and the sandflies. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon after our boat tour, and caught the bus back to Te Anau the next morning.

Then, after dropping off our rental gear, grabbing and repacking the rest of our stuff we had stored in the lockers, and hauling everything on foot across town, we took a bus to Queenstown. And what did we do in Queenstown? Take a guess. Starts with Ferg… ends with Burger!!!

And finally, we hopped on a plane and flew off to Sydney, Australia (after a last minute panic about visas during our last dinner in New Zealand – whoops! Luckily the approval process was online and basically instantaneous, and we had our visas in our email a whole 14 hours before our flight departed).

The Final Verdict on the Milford Track

Bryan: The track was hyped as the finest walk in the world. It was very fine indeed, with amazing primeval temperate rainforest through the entire hike, and absolutely spectacular waterfalls throughout the second and third days. Sutherland Falls was icing on the cake. But the famed view from Mackinnon Pass, which we saw in great weather, was mediocre when compared to the best views on hand in the Canadian Rockies. Overall, he would rank the track very highly on his list, which looks something like this:

  1. Inca Trail
  2. Grand Canyon
  3. (tied) Mount Robson/Berg Lake
  4. Milford Track
  5. Akamina Ridge (just a day hike, but a ridiculously good one at that)

Lisa: For a first multi-day backpacking trip, the Milford Track was pretty epic. The scenery was absolutely amazing, and overall this felt like a good way to ease into backpacking, with the hut set-up making it a little bit easier for a beginner. Lisa had expected hiking with a pack to be much more painful than it was (although it definitely was still painful). Now that she knows she can handle it, she is looking forward to exploring more of the Canadian Rockies back home!

The video below includes footage from our time in Fiordland, including the Milford Track and Milford Sound (plus Doubtful Sound, which we wrote about here).

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