Milford Track

Back in October, Caroline and I visited Milford Sounds and were amazed at the stunning beauty of this place. That night I booked a spot on the Milford Track. There was just one spot for one person available for the entire season.

I have always wanted to walk this famous track, but getting a spot as an independent walker is not easy, as the track gets booked out within a few minutes of reservations opening. Things are a little different during COVID times, and a rare spot was snatched up.

The weather forecast for the 4 days was not looking good. It was looking a lot wetter than normal, and wet is normal for this track. My boots are known not to be very waterproof, so I was expecting wet feet on this trip.

After landing at Queenstown airport and waiting several hours for my bus to transfer me to Te Anau, I got a call. The bus was stuck in Te Anau and the road to Queenstown had been closed due to a landslide. They were not sure when the road would open, and suggested that I take a hotel for the night in Queenstown.

Fearing the worst, that the bus would not come and combined with the torrential rain that was still ongoing, I worried that this would lead to more road closures and me not getting to the track in time for my reservation. So decided to have a backup plan and looked at helicopter and car rental options. I was still at the airport, and the rental desks were open for the next 30 minutes or so. The brochures for the helicopters were not encouraging, with prices looking expensive. So instead considered a car rental for the following morning if the bus had not turned up. The first desk, no cars. The second desk, no cars. The third desk, cars but quoted at $1200. The next desk had the sort of option I was looking for, a tiny car at $300 for the 4 days. I immediately decided that no further backup plan planning was needed, instead the backup plan became the plan. Although the road was still closed, there was another road which went the long way around. I would arrive late, but I would get there.

Even the long way around had issues, and twice I encountered further flooded and closed roads. But after 5 hours I made it to the wee town of Te Anau, happy and hungry. Very pleasantly surprised to find The Ranch open and serving food at 10pm at night. Most importantly, I was where I needed to be to start the track the following day.

Day 1 – Te Anau to Clinton Hut

Te Anau is nice. Not the craziness of Queenstown, and still with some charm. Breakfast at the Hollford Cafe and some shopping at Outside Sports, where I managed to get the elusive CB08 Homer Saddle topo map.

Checked into DOC, and got my paperwork in order. We reviewed the latest weather report, it would be wet but the track was open. The third day was looking the wettest, which unfortunately is also the day I’d go over MacKinnon pass.

The shuttle took me Te Anau Downs, where the track and adventure formally starts. And where I started to track my journey with the inReach tracker. A very pleasant 75 minute boat ride to the Glade House wharf. Also on the boat where about 10 other independent walkers and about 20 guided walkers. The boat ride was a good reminder of just how beautiful this part of the world is.

This first day doesn’t involve much hiking. Once we disembarked, it was a short 5 kms to Clinton Hut. I travelled through amazing native forest, which always impresses me. Glade House was for the guided group, and looked very inviting. We would continue another 2 miles to our more modest lodgings. I made the side trip to the wetlands interpretive walkway. There was no rush and I was soaking up the surroundings. Arrived just in time to secure a bunk bed and ready for the 5pm Ranger talk, which provided an excellent overview of the area, flora and fauna. Hut talk at 7pm was quickly followed by getting into my sleeping bag and falling asleep. It was good to know I was on the track and wet weather of the last few days didn’t mess things up. The actual weather was not as bad as the forecast and day 1 was more of a drizzle than actual rain. As always, don’t always trust the forecast.

Day 2 – Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut

Up early to be away early. Heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon. My porridge was much better than my failed attempt on the Tongariro Northern Circuit tramp.

Another day walking up the Clinton valley following the river. Like the previous day, and the days to come, I walked alone and only occasionally met others for just a few minutes. And never saw the guided walkers once we left them at Glade House wharf. This solo walking was perfect, and while I hoped to keep my own company, I thought the track would be too over crowded to achieve this. Glad to be wrong.

The forest continued to amaze. The pace was gentle, the track was very well established and significant points were nicely sign posted. Stoat traps littered the track, clearly indicating a significant effort to reduce Stoats and bring back the native bird life. Apparently the program is working, with noticeable bird song in the early morning. Saw a small gathering of sizeable fish in the river, and wondered how easy it would be to catch them, given how clear and pristine the water was. The weather held all morning, and arrived at the hut around 1:30, just as it started to rain. As always, listen to the weather forecast and plan accordingly.

I never planned what happened next, but after lunch and a cup of tea, I decided since there were 6 hours of good sunlight left and it was not raining too hard, I would head up to MacKinnon pass. This proved to be a wise decision, as the weather was good, and the following day it was not. Also, although the climb was up, it was very pleasant without a backpack. Great views down both the Clinton and Arthur valleys.

Early to bed again, as another early start. The forecast was not great and best to get over the pass early. Boots secured from the Kea before turning in.

Day 3 – Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut

This day it rained and I finished the day soaked. The wet weather gear did not perform as expected, and I was pretty soaked. My new boots are certainly not waterproof. Then again, this is the second wettest rain forest in the world, and the rain was quite substantial.

All this rain meant the waterfalls were pumping. Especially on the western side of the pass. The 2 mile detour to Sutherland Falls was well worth it. With these falls being the tallest in Aotearoa.

MacKinnon pass was socked in with no views. The wind created a little exposure, and the shelter at the top was much appreciated. With gas and a stove top I was able to make myself a cup of tea. The trip down into Arthur’s valley was beautiful and the glacier face was awash with waterfalls. It was nice to return to the tree-line and some relative protection from the wind. At the bottom, water and tea was made available by the guided walk company, very nice.

At Dumpling Hut half the kitchen was converted to a drying room. The ranger gave us a nice talk about the floods from the previous February that closed the track for 6 months or so.

It was a good day, with the alpine pass section adding a mountain component to the trip. Once dry and in the hut, the wet weather was quickly forgotten.

Day 4 – Dumpling Hut to Milford Sound

The timetable for the day was dictated by the 1:30pm departure of the boat ride from the track end to Milford Sound. So, up early and away by 7:30am.

The walk out was pleasant, strolling through the native forest and admiring the waterfalls and river crossings along the way. The destruction of the floods a year ago were quite evident showing the force of Mother Nature. Also saw a wee Weka family on the track, which was nice. The constant drizzle kept the sandflies at bay, at least until I got to sandfly point, which is aptly named.

The 10 minute boat ride had us back in the real world of the Ferry Terminal and ready for the bus ride back to Te Anau.

More rain and thunderstorms was in the forecast for the flight back to Wellington, so moved my flight up a few hours to avoid the worst of it. This trip will certainly be remembered for its weather. Being able to compete the Milford Track was “sort-of” on my bucket list, now it is definitely on the list and ticked off.