Celebrating 125 years of the Milford Track

By Justin Walker September 11, 2014
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New Zealand’s Milford Track is touted as the finest walk in the world, and it’s no surprise since it’s been at the top of its game for 125 years

YOU NEVER FORGET the feeling that walking the Milford Track provides, being surrounded by an overwhelming immensity of wilderness – mountains, wild rivers, volatile alpine weather, a sense of timelessness and of separation from our crazily paced modern world.

Even though it had been 10 years since I had walked this famous track, being back on its well-worn path made me feel I was here only yesterday. Nothing much had changed except that this time I was also seeing it through the eyes of a genuine first-timer: a nine-year-old boy.

Lachlan Falley and his father Marcus were the lucky winners of the Australian Geographic Adventure/Tourism NZ competition to join me – and a group of former Milford Track guides and NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) staffers – on this 125th Anniversary Trek of the Milford.

Clinton Hut on the Milford

The days and weeks preceding the walk had been manic: we’d run the Milford Track competition over a very short period of two weeks and were swamped with more than 500 entries. Before we knew it, Marcus, Lachlan and I had landed late in Queenstown and were then shuttled to the the trek starting point of Te Anau the night before we were due to step onto the Milford.

There was a mad rush of packing food the following morning, giving us time to squeeze in an awesome jet boat ride with Luxmore River Jet. Soon after, we were steaming across Lake Te Anau, from Te Anau Downs to the track head at Glade Wharf.

We then had a leisurely 1.5-hour walk to the first DOC hut, Clinton Hut, where we had our first chance to relax and start soaking up the experience.

Marcus and I had divvied up most of the food to spare Lachlan a heavy load; then we had to watch as Lachlan scooted off ahead. Initially, I was concerned his fast pace would mean he’d miss out on the full Milford experience, but that was without taking into consideration the absorbent mind of a youngster; his ability to take in his surroundings – and any of the track’s history that was relived each night – was impressive, and far quicker than his, ahem, considerably older companions.

History of the Milford Track

When we’d first lobbed at the Te Anau DOC office to meet our bus transport to the Te Anau Downs ferry wharf, it felt like a time warp.

A number of members from our group had dressed in period costume, with the standouts being former guide Ray Willet, dressed as Quinton Mackinnon and who, at age 77, is still amazingly fit, and DOC Tracks and Heritage Ranger, Ken Bradley, who was representing the other main Milford historical figure, artist-cum-explorer Samuel Morton.

These two – Quinton Mackinnon and Samuel Morton – are credited as being the “fathers” of the Milford Track. Mackinnon was employed by the New Zealand government in the late 1800s to forge an overland route from Te Anau Downs to the majestic Sutherland Falls.

The falls had, at that time, only just been discovered, and the government was keen to transform them into a tourist destination. Mackinnon was, however, preceded by Morton who had spent months at a time in the Fiordland region area painting; it is claimed that Morton actually crossed the 1154m-high MacKinnon Pass years before MacKinnon and his partner, Earnest Mitchell plotted the track’s course through the wilderness.

Ray and some of the other period-attired walkers were also lugging old external-frame packs from the 1960s. A quick squiz confirmed what I had always thought of them: heavy and bloody uncomfortable.

Of course, preceding the European historical period, the Maori were regular travellers through the Clinton Valley. As well as searching for valuable greenstone for trade, this route was also used to undertake a seasonal search for food. The South Island’s unforgiving climate was not the best for long-term food cultivation, so the Ngai Tahu travelled through this region extensively in search of then-plentiful birdlife, as well as fish.

The Milford Track’s amazing mix of European and Maori history was recounted each night at the DOC huts during our walk. Besides the former guides’ many entertaining stories, we heard from Nga i Tahu representative, Dean Whaanga, and also from two life-long trampers – John and Robyn Armstrong – to whom all independent trekkers on the Milford owe a huge thanks.

Public access on the Milford

For decades, the Milford Track was a guided-only walk. Owned by the Tourist Hotel Corporation, the track was the domain of the slightly more affluent – right up until April 1965, when 28 members of the Otago Tramping Club, of which Robyn and John were members, started their “Freedom Walk”. On this 125th anniversary of the track, it was only fitting that Robyn and John Armstrong – two of those 28 revolutionaries  – accompanied us.

The club’s plan was simple: stage a walk protesting the fact the only way you could travel the Milford was if you joined one of the Tourism Hotel Corporation’s guided trips. At the time, this was considered quite an oddity, as the Milford Track was located inside the boundaries of Fiordland National Park it should, in theory, have been accessible to the public.

The result of this protest was that from the following year (1966), independent walkers could traverse the Milford Track, staying at what are now the DOC Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling huts – the huts our group was using.

A separate group of media-types was leaving a day later and staying at the guided trek huts – Glade House, Pompolona Lodge and Quintin Lodge – along the Milford.

They would walk only with daypacks (their luggage was transported by chopper to the next hut) and would have the luxury each night of a hot shower, hot food and proper beds.

It wasn’t long before some members of our group, loaded up with 20-25kg of gear, food and sleeping bags, good-humouredly adorned these walkers with the “soft” tag…

Independent walkers

The first day as an independent walker on the Milford Track is very short. Even at a leisurely pace, once the boat has dropped you off at Glade Wharf, you will reach Clinton Hut in about two hours (Lachlan demolished this section in a little over an hour).

Independent walkers pass the guided walkers’ accommodation of Glade House along the way, and it’s well worth checking out these more luxurious digs (and the small museum inside).

From here, it is just an amble across the swing bridge over the slow-moving Clinton River, before walking along its bank all the way to the first night’s digs.
The DOC hut experience on any of NZ’s Great Walks (or any other NZ walk for that matter) is brilliant.

The instant camaraderie between strangers from all points of the globe makes each night in these huts a fantastic social experience. The bunks are tidy and clean and the kitchens in the Great Walks huts are fantastic.

For Marcus and myself, our first night was totally focused on consuming as much of the weighty food we had in our packs as possible before we faced the next day’s full walk – a gradual climb to Mintaro Hut. We also had the first of our nightly talks by Ken, and our Maori welcome (and some cultural insight on the area) from Dean, with Ray finishing off the night with a poem.

Avoiding Milford’s avalanches

During the first two days of walking, the Milford Track makes its way steadily up the ever-narrowing Clinton Valley, with the day’s walk between Clinton and Mintaro huts encapsulating all that the Clinton side of the Milford Track has to offer.

The landscape alternates between dense, lush beech forest and grassy flats dotted with trees, all shadowed by immense mountain walls to either side.

The track itself is wide and well graded in most parts. It didn’t look like it had changed at all in the 10 years since my last trip, except where Fiordland’s notoriously volatile weather had employed a direct and dramatic hand.

The Fiordland region has an annual rainfall figure of around seven metres – yes, seven metres – and that amount of water has a huge effect on the landscape. One of our main guides – Hamish Angus – said that the Milford Track cops numerous avalanches throughout the winter and autumn, and the steepness of the valley walls – and the shallow soil depth on these steeper sections – contributes to a high number of landslips.

We saw firsthand the damage an avalanche can cause during our second day walking to Mintaro Hut; numerous slips had taken out sections of the track (and a trackside toilet!) with detours in place for the start of the 2013-14 season.

It was just after traversing the last slide-affected part of the track that Lachlan, Marcus and I found ourselves in the perfect position (i.e. far away) from which to witness an avalanche on the eastern valley.

We had just started our final climb to Mintaro Hut when the loud bangs and rumbles started, only small. From our viewpoint on the opposite side of the valley, it did look relatively minor, until we took into account the sheer size of the mountain it was falling from.

We were very glad we weren’t any closer…

Arriving at Mintaro Hut provided Lachlan with the opportunity to fulfill his major wish on the Milford: seeing snow and building a snowman. The building of the snowman, and the ensuing snow fight, was the perfect light-hearted finish to a big day of walking, albeit only a distraction before thoughts turned to the crossing of Mackinnon Pass.

As much as snow was welcome by us east coast Aussies, it also meant that the climb up Mackinnon Pass – and more importantly the descent down into the Arthur Valley – was in jeopardy, owing to the avalanche danger. Hamish planned to check the conditions in the DOC chopper early the next morning before a decision was made.

Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut

The 14km from Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut is the shortest of the full-day walks on the Milford, but it is by far the most punishing. It’s not only due to the early climb up the zigzag path that takes you to, firstly, the Quintin MacKinnon memorial, and then on to MacKinnon Pass proper.

It is the knee-destroying descent down into the Arthur Valley straight after you’ve just gasped your way to the top of the pass. After two or so hours of pushing up, your legs just do not want to cooperate when it comes to stepping downward.

A stop at the top of the pass for lunch can help weary legs, but it can also hinder; for some, keeping moving is the best way to keep stiff legs at bay. The rocky, steep descent to the valley is best approached with caution and a slow pace, anyway. After all, there’s really no rush to get to the next hut – not when you’re surrounded by terrain that is surprisingly different to that you’ve left behind in the Clinton Valley.

On the western side of the pass, the rainfall is even heavier; a fact reflected in the profusion of tree ferns (some of freakishly tall dimensions) and two impressive bodies of water: the Arthur River and the mighty Sutherland Falls.
We’d set off reasonably early for the pass, still unsure whether we’d be descending into the Arthur Valley on foot or by helicopter; the final decision would be made once we reached the top of the pass itself.

The ascent up the zigzag path was steady going. Snow started to appear in large patches from about halfway, and increasingly encroached on the path until, near the top, it had all but disappeared, replaced by only our footsteps in the snow as we followed the snow poles to the MacKinnon Memorial. It was the only part of the Milford on which Lachlan’s high-speed walking was curtailed as he struggled through the snow.

It wasn’t nearly enough to curb his enthusiasm however – the huge grin that had been present the first two days was firmly in place even on the steepest sections of the ascent.

Helicopter over Sutherland Falls

It’s hard to think what MacKinnon and Morton thought when they reached this pass. After struggling through the densely wooded Clinton Valley they must have looked despairingly down on the impenetrable forests and waterways of the Arthur Valley. Regardless of their uncertainty as to what lay ahead, there’s little doubt the 360-degree view from the pass would have left them speechless.

On a clear day you can see right back down the Clinton Valley to where the track starts; turn southwest and you’ll see a procession of steep, rugged mountains marching to the far horizon, bunched tightly with the Arthur River cutting a narrow path through them as it flows toward Lake Ada, then onto Milford Sound and the Tasman Sea.

Well, you can see that view on a clear day – our time on the pass was short, cold and a total whiteout. After a quick group photo at the memorial, it was a mad dash to the pass shelter for some warming brews and lunch.

Lachlan was shivering cold and Marcus and I weren’t much better; the stop at the memorial saw the combination of cold sweat and very cold conditions get the better of us and it was obvious just how easy it would be to get into trouble up there in adverse conditions.

We waited for only a little while before the news came through: we’d be flying off the pass by chopper, something that brought the grin back to Lachlan’s face – and his dad’s; both had never been in a helicopter before.

I have flown in a few choppers before, but never in one that had to fly in these conditions.

The cloud cover was near impenetrable; the pilot had to rely on radio calls from Hamish at ground level to spot the essential blue-sky holes in the white walls surrounding us. Our flight down to the valley floor was a two-stage affair: we took off, but then, after only 10 seconds, had to land on a tiny piece of terrain near the monument as our blue bolt-hole was consumed by cloud.

We waited for another five minutes as Hamish relayed info to the pilot before another gap in the clouds appeared and we shot through it, descending to the valley. It was brilliant – as was Sutherland Falls. At 580m, Sutherland Falls is ranked among the world’s tallest.

It is hard to get a true indication of its size from ground level but, as we slowly dropped down beside its three huge tiers in the chopper (the second tier is as tall as Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower), its incredible size was far more obvious.

Lasting memories of the Milford Track

When Marcus and Lachlan embarked on the Milford Track 125th Anniversary walk, their idea of what to expect was probably a lot different to how their adventure was panning out.

With every wish of theirs being granted over the course of the first three days – snowmen, avalanches, helicopter flights, spotting rare whio (blue ducks) – it was hard to think how they could improve on what was shaping up as perfection. That is, until Lachlan got the chance to be on New Zealand television.

One of our fellow trekkers was the NZ Minister for Conservation, Dr Nick Smith, who had sweated up and down the many hills with the rest of us (although I did notice him partaking in a bit of parliamentary privilege by utilising the hot showers in the DOC rangers’ huts each night, while we stewed in our own smells).

Small dig aside, Nick was great company and was kicking back enjoying the Milford experience to the full. His only ministerial duty on the walk was to officially open the new sidetrack to Sutherland Falls. The old track had been partially destroyed by a huge rock fall the previous year, requiring new bridges and track work to be completed before the 2013 trekking season started.

The opening of the new track was at Quintin Lodge, where we again got to check out how the “other half” (guided trekkers) was indulged.

The opening ceremony itself required a cutting of the ribbon for the benefit of the television crews in attendance and Nick called upon Lachlan to assist – a great sop for us poor Aussies who’d had to tolerate reminders of another Bledisloe Cup whitewash by the All Blacks throughout the trek – and an awesome way for Lachlan to finish what must have been one of his biggest days in the outdoors in his nine years.

The final few kilometres to Dumpling Hut went quickly – helped no doubt by the rumour of beers and snacks waiting for us. Definitely a rare occurrence for independent walkers on the Milford, sipping a cold Speight’s after our incredible day was the perfect way to celebrate our last night in the huts.

More speeches – including a fantastic one from Hamish on just what the Milford Track means to him personally – and dinner followed before our earliest to-bed night on the track. Yep, it had been an epic day…

The greatest walk

Whenever I’m asked what is the best Great Walk in New Zealand I refuse to name just one. Each of the nine walks is unique, from the ageless Milford and neighbouring Routeburn, through to the Kepler and the Tongariro Northern Circuit; it is impossible to choose just one.

And each day on each of these tracks is a uniquely separate experience, with the Milford Track’s last day (16km) being no exception.

Leaving Dumpling Hut, it is a mostly gradual descent to the finish at Sandfly Point. However, the Milford Track doesn’t let this last day slip from your memory – along the way, walkers get to experience some of the track’s most photogenic highlights: Mackay and Giants Gate falls.

Mackay Falls would have to be one of the world’s most photographed waterfalls, with its glacial green-blue water and moss-covered trees and ferns shrouding the falls. Giants Gate Falls are more open but the pool below is more easily accessed and, again, breathtaking.

There was no rush on our final day; the sense of time and place had changed significantly since we first set off from Glade Wharf. Even Lachlan had slowed his pace a bit – he had spotted a couple of whio the previous day, and was keen to find some more – and was, like all of us, trying to soak up as much of the experience as he could before we made the return to the hustle-bustle of civilisation.

The morning was still a blur though, punctuated only by a stopover for numerous photographs at Mackay Falls.

And even though the lunch break near Giants Gate Falls was before track’s end, the fact the 53.5km Milford Track is synonymous with spectacular waterfalls, made lunch with the roar of the falls beside us the most appropriate sign-off from our Milford Track adventure.

A couple of months since the trip I have often wondered what the most memorable moment on the Milford Track was. It’s a question I have struggled to answer.

For a trek to remain hugely popular for 125 years, there must be more than just one thing that appeals, and with the Milford there is indeed many.

From its history, to the landscape, to its accessibility for all ages, to the many ways in which it affects those who have walked it – or, for that matter, worked on it – the Milford Track’s multi-layered personality allows you to walk it – and walk it again – and come away enriched on a different level each time.

The essentials

Getting there: Air New Zealand offers daily flights between all Australian capitals to Christchurch and Queenstown.

The adventure: The Milford Track is 53.5km long and takes four days. It can be walked in one direction only. There’s a maximum of 40 independent walkers allowed to start it each day and you can only spend one night at each hut.

When to go: The NZ Great Walks season is late October to late April. For independent walkers, hut bookings open on July 1 each year.

Owing to the popularity of all the Great Walks, the best advice is to book as early as possible. The Milford, Routeburn and Kepler tracks are all incredibly popular and book out very early – especially for the summer holiday season.

Hut tickets can be booked online at www.greatwalks.co.nz. The hardy can walk the Milford off-season, but you must be adept at trekking in alpine conditions. There will also be no hut wardens on the track out of season.

What to take: The Fiordland region of NZ’s South Island cops some of the world’s most volatile weather. Regardless of the fact it is spring/summer (remember sunscreen), take plenty of warm clothing, a (minimum) three-season rated sleeping bag, outer shell jacket, and make sure your boots are worn-in and able to withstand rugged terrain.

You will need pots and cooking gear, but no stove – all Great Walks huts have gas stoves. And don’t forget some form of insect repellant, as the sand flies are murderous in the South Island.

More info: The township of Te Anau is the Milford step-off point and has a couple of excellent outdoor stores that can supply you with any gear you may have forgotten.

Te Anau also has some excellent pubs and restaurants – as well as other activities, such as kayaking and jet boating – and is well worth an extended stay.

For all the information you need on planning your New Zealand adventure go to www.newzealand.com/au