(Click here to see pictures of our Milford Track)
It only took us 4 flights (33hrs), 2 bus rides (3hrs) and 1 boat ride (1hr) to get to the start of the world famous Milford Track in Fiordland National Park in South island of New Zealand. Milford Track starts near the town of Te Anau and goes north around valleys and mountain passes for 33.5 miles (55kms) ending at the world famous Milford Sound. It is considered the ‘greatest walk in the world’. I had my doubts about this claim as I believed I had done some amazing hikes like the ones in Patagonia region in Argentina where we were surrounded by massive glacial valleys and pristine forests and couldn’t believe there was another hike that could ever take my breath away!
Image Courtesy: http://www.adventure.com.au
Image Courtesy: http://www.doc.govt.nz: Trail and hut map
The Milford Track is undoubtedly very popular and books out 6 months in advance. So, yes, even way before we were serious about thinking of leaving our jobs we knew would be in New Zealand in March 2012. We booked the track in October 2011. Funny enough, all of our round the world planning and schedule around leaving jobs had been based on the timing of this trek. I am sure some lucky bastards would have gobbled up our spots quickly if we had cancelled the trip.
New Zealand Department of Conservation only allows 40 independent trampers on the track and a few more guided trampers per day per hut. We did the independent tramping which includes staying in DOC huts ($50/pp/night), carrying your sleeping bag and 4 day-3 night food on your backs while walking 33.5 miles and not showering unless one had the guts to jump in cold, glacial waters (we did try that but before we could submerge ourselves completely in freezing water in the stream, the sand flies attacked us in hordes). The guided trek is more civilized and comes with – a guide who carries your pack, stay in heated lodges (not HUTS!- those are for independent trampers) and hot showers (with no sand flies), and dinners helicoptered in from the nearby towns (we saw a few helicopters near the lodges and we could only imagine that they were filled with steak, venison and delicious desserts). Of course, why do I care, when I’ve got my chocolate covered, protein filled granola bars and trail mixes to keep me energized and happy.
Independent Tramping in Milford Trek for a person: $200 + blisters + sand fly bites
4 star guided walk in Milford Trek for a person: $2000 + possible weight gain from over indulgence 🙂
Our gourmet food for 4 days on Milford Track..nuts, noodles and dark chocolate.
Highlights of Milford Track:
Day 1: Midday Arrival and Short Hike in the Rain
Milford is considered one of the wettest places in the world. It is not uncommon for it to rain every day on the trek. Guess what?! It started to rain as we arrived on the boat to the start of the trailhead. We learned along the way that it is often a blessing to have considerable rain while you are on the trek because it activates 100s of waterfalls along the faces of the mountains. The hut ranger on the first night said that 30min after the rain stops, 90% of the waterfalls disappear. It was exciting finally throwing on our packs and venturing down the trail for the first time.
Mist hung in the air, wrapping itself around trees and mountains. The forests were covered with moss and eerily quiet except for the rain pellets exploding on the tree branches and water puddles. The place was definitely straight out of Tolkien’s Hobbit world.
A short few hours of hiking brought us to our huts for the night, which were surprisingly comfortable given the remoteness of the place. The hut ranger gave a 45min talk about the trek, which was nearly as good as a professional stand-up comedy act. You could tell this guy had done it before, in fact for 25 years he’d been maintaining huts on various NZ treks. His favorite target during his act was the guided tour folks who wined and dined at the lodges.
On the first night, we met a lot of the people that we’d be hiking with for the next 4 days. There were young and old, Europeans, Koreans, Canadians, a few Kiwis and Australians, and us the lone American and Indian. We were amazed at the quantity and variety of foods that many of these folks were lugging around on their backs….we saw steaks, eggs, bacon, loaves of bread, heavy fruits, and even pots and pans. One dude even brought a 4L Platypus bag filled with wine (no idea why we didn’t think about this!) We think he realized his mistake and proceeded to drink the entire thing that night. He arrived at our Day 2 hut three hours after everyone else, so my guess is that he overslept and had a painful hangover. Although we were glad later that our packs were light, it was excruciatingly painful to watch other people buttering toast and slathering jellies while we settled on nut mixes and milk-less tea.
Day 2: Early Departure and 11.5 mile hike through beautiful valleys
We woke up to a little better weather, but still misty and cloudy higher in the mountain ranges. The air was so fresh and invigorating that it is so much easier to wake up and get moving early. This day of trek took us through the lower valleys between towering mountains and meandering rivers. On all sides we were surrounded by waterfalls and lush greenery.
The entire area is a sanctuary for birds, given that they have very few natural predators, although we learned that possums and stoats were introduced to the region at some point by visitors to NZ. The hike was long but not too strenuous until the last few kms, which we would learn is called the ‘Beginner Hill’ for the Day 3 climb.
Hut 2’s ranger liked to be called ‘Nachos’ because of his favorite food. He was a young, ex-military Kiwi, who also had a stand-up routine worthy of a NYC standup act. His favorite punch lines involved “taking the piss out” of the older hut #1 ranger. He gave us extensive background info on the famous Kea bird, the only alpine parrot in the world. He warned us that the Keas like to harass hikers by eating their shoe laces, ripping open backpacks, and many other forms of mischief. He told us that the same Kea that harassed you at the hut is very capable of stalking you all the way to the top of the mountain, so you can’t leave your stuff unattended even while taking a bathroom break at the top of the pass. Since we all left our gear to dry on the outside patio of the hut, after his speech we ran outside to save our gear from the arrival of the Keas.
Day 3: Climbing to the Top of McKinnon’s Pass, Waterfalls and Fairy tales
Wouldn’t you know it, we woke up to two Keas raising a ruckus on top of the roof of the hut. They appeared to be sharpening their beaks on the metal roof. Our shoes hanging on pegs didn’t appear that safe when they started swooping down and raising all hell. They were definitely cool, weird, and beautiful creatures.
After our morning breakfast, we started on our uphill ascent to the pass. The clouds still hadn’t lifted, there was a odd white veil hanging everywhere. You could really only see the paths that we were walking on. The climb was tough but we finally made it two hours later, but unfortunately at the top the weather had really turned for the worst. It was near freezing and the winds we probably 50-60 miles/hour. Shru nearly blew off the mountain….not really but it seemed possible given the strength of some of the gusts.
We waited around for a little while, but decided it was in our best interest to make our way down a bit to a nearby shelter. Some of the hikers that got out really early in the morning were huddled in the shelter, hoping that the weather would pass and they’d get some photo ops for what is supposed to be one of the greatest viewpoints in NZ. After waiting around for another hour, people started giving up and decided that it was time to start the long hike down the other side of the pass. We had a five hour hike still ahead of us. A few of us stayed behind a little while longer before we started to make our way down. Suddenly, a few tiny blue patches broke the clouds, uncovering the tip of one of the mountains. We had hope now!!! There was loads of excitement in the air.
The five of us wedged against a small ledge on the mountain waited patiently as the gusty winds blew away the clouds in fits and starts…giving a little ground and then taking it back, but slowly the entire set of mountain ranges and all the surrounding valleys unveiled itself to us in the matter of 30 minutes. It was one of the most surreal experiences in nature we’ve witnessed in our lives.
After taking it in for an hour and taking about a thousand pictures, which really can’t capture the moment completely, we continued our hike down. The rest of the hike was absolutely stunning. 15 minutes prior we were freezing in the high winds and here it was now at least 60 degrees, sunny, no wind, with clear blue skies. We were shedding clothes as fast as we could.
Along the way, we ran into numerous, large waterfalls filling pools of crystal clear waters. We got within 30 yards of the tallest waterfall in NZ and one of the tallest in the world, Sutherland Falls. The power of the falls was pretty awesome to witness that close.
Day 4: Enchanted Forests and Waterfalls and Introduction to NZ’s Sandflies
We had great weather on Day 4. Sunny and warm with great scenery along the entire trail. The forest walks were straight out of Lord of the Rings, with fairies and Elves around every corner. We saw a lot of waterfalls, but on this day we saw our favorite ones so far on the trek. One was a multi-staged waterfall with perfectly rounded rocks and pools with water cascading down through ravines. It was definitely natural, but it was almost inconceivably perfect that it felt like we were in a Disney theme park.
After enjoying a great day on the last leg through the forest, we arrived at Sandfly Point (aptly named due to the abundance of these ultra-small, vicious, bloodsucking flies that just will not leave you alone for a second). We would have many encounters later with these same horrible sandflies…the one thing about NZ that I could do without. Nachos, our day 2 hut ranger, said the sandflies in NZ are there for the purpose of keeping the tourists moving along the trails. They only bite when you’re standing still.
Overall, we would have to agree with Rudyard Kipling that Milford Trek is the greatest walk in the world. We are glad that we finally made it!