“The finest walk in the world” – Milford Track
Known as “the finest walk in the world”, people come from far and wide to embark on the Milford Track so much so it’s just about impossible to book a spot at one of the huts during the summer season with all spots selling out within the first day of bookings opening. Popularity for this walk is ever on the increase, and with good reason, the scenery is simply sublime whilst the trail, a 53km 3-4 day walk is steady, easy-going and tremendously well- graded.
Glacial carved valleys, ancient forests and cascading waterfalls wherever you look, the Milford Track is the real deal if you’re looking for a track to tick off your bucket list. The weather in Fiordland is ever-changing and most likely offers some of the most unpredictable conditions New Zealand has. However, even the wettest and most overcast wont disappoint your journey along this famous trail, for the waterfalls grow more powerful and multiply in numbers on the sheer mountain faces; a sight to behold.
My journey began in Te Anau downs, where the Milford boat shuttle will take you on an 1hr 15 min boat journey along Lake Te Anau until you reach Glade Wharfl the beginning of the trail. An important factor to know about the Milford track is that it can only be walked one way, starting at Glade Wharf and finishing at Sandfly Point in Milford Sound.
From here we set out and immediately I realised how well the trail was graded, no doubt due to the hardworking DOC rangers who maintain the track. Walking through the ancient Beech forest which seemed an age old, moss covering every tree in sight yet ,an eerie quietness set about the place. Walking along the Clinton river, I can only imagine this is what New Zealand would have been like before man set foot here. A short 5 km stroll will bring you to Clinton hut, the first of 3 Department of Conservation huts you’ll find along the track. We stopped here briefly for a snack before we pressed on, our aim to get to Mintaro hut before nightfall.
Thus far, the weather had played ball, with blue skies greeting us as we had arrived at Glade wharf and remained for our short journey onto Clinton hut but with dark clouds closing in, it was only a matter of time before the renowned Fiordland rain was to fall. A consistent drizzle set in as we crossed avalanche paths, gradually climbing as we followed the Clinton river. Sheer fiords flanked us on both sides, looming over us like giants. No doubt the numerous avalanches that occur here are due to their vertical faces and the icy cold that sets in here during the winter season. A change in the vegetation told us that we were edging ever near to Mintaro hut, leaving the vast ancient beech forests behind. On our way we came across several lakes and shelters including ‘Hidden lake’, which sits at the base of a low-trickling waterfall.
As the rain became heavier, we were glad to see the hut in sight, sitting right below a looming peak a short walk away from Lake Mintaro, the source of the Clinton River. As we
had done the extra leg and not stayed at Clinton hut, we opted to stay at Mintaro for 2 nights, a great chance to check out the surroundings.
The following morning was clear for a brief moment, so we took our opportunity and wondered down to Lake Mintaro. From here you get a real perspective as to what’s around you as well as head of you. Sheer faces surrounding on all sides, my gaze moved toward a pass in the mountains, now known as Mckinnons pass. Discovered by Quinton Mckinnon in 1888, the pass offers a route from Te Anau over to Milford Sound. After observing some of the spectacular scenery at lake Mintaro we packed our gear for the day, heading back along the trail we had come here on to investigate some of the waterfalls that had formed as a result of the continuous rain.
We were glad we didn’t head over the pass that day as it was nothing but heavy rain all day, but as miserable as that sounds, it’s the rain that brings Fiordland to life. The dark clouds turn the Fiords into shadows and all around you can hear the cracking of huge volumes of water plunging down the faces of the steep peaks.
That night we got the fire going, dried out the days clothes and set about getting our gear ready for our early rise the following morning.
We set out at 6 hoping that if the weather would clear we might witness some majestic sunrise from on-top of the pass; it wasn’t to be. Atop the pass, the clouds teased us with views of the snow-capped peaks encompassing us, yet just as quick as they appeared, they disappeared. It was snowing when we came to Quinton Mckinnons memorial, a testimony to both him and Ernest Mitchell who trudged through this valley in 1888 and discovered this pass. The stone mason who built this memorial died a month later from what is believed the harsh working conditions he endured whilst building it!
We walked on, snaking along the pass until we came to Mckinnons pass shelter, a temporary/emergency shelter which in winter, provides a much-needed time out from the harsh conditions you can expect there. We waited here a while to see if the conditions would clear momentarily to no avail. We carried on moving, descending from the pass into a new valley just as sublime as the last. We once again met the tree line and before long we were following a new river; the Roaring Burn. This led us to Quintin shelter, where we ditched our backs and took a side track to visit Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s largest waterfall. Sourced from Lake Quill, Sutherland falls cascades 580metres off a cliff face, standing below it the noise was deafening, but a sight I’ll never forget!
Returning back to Quinton shelter, the day was fading away as so we made for Dumpling hut, reaching it just on dusk. It would be our last night spent on the track and so it was a good chance to reflect on what had been such an amazing trip so far as well as the vast terrain we had covered.
An 8 am start saw us leave Dumpling hut on the 18km last leg of the trip to Sandfly point where the track ended. The track very gradually begins to descend back to sea level, crossing heavy rock falls and avalanche paths before meeting up with numerous waterfalls. I was most excited to see Giants Gate falls, and the fact that there is a swing bridge right by it giving you a front row seat almost! We reached the Giants gate shelter by 11am and spent a bunch of time enjoying the falls before we set off again. Winding along a wide track through beech forest, this part of the track is very easy-going, and before long we had made it to Sandfly point, Milford Sound.
It amazes me to think this journey began on Lake Te Anau and finishing in the hub of Milford Sound. I wonder what the early explorers Mckinnon & Mitchell would have thought of this place back then, when there was no huts, no track and no boat pick-up at the start and finish? We were transported by boat to Milford to finish our journey and what an adventure it was. I was a bit conspicuous when I heard it called “the finest walk In the world” I must admit, but having now walked it, even in the conditions we did, I couldn’t agree more.
Definitely a trip worth doing, and although the logistics can be mildly difficult for this trip there's plenty of companies who are around to help.
Fiordland Outdoors Co. - A fantastic company specialising in trip planning in Fiordland, with years of experience providing groups and individuals with adventures of a lifetime. They assisted me with boat logistics, accomodation and great advice of the surrounding area. www.fiordlandoutdoors.co.nz
Easyhike - How is one supposed to walk from Te Anau, along the Milford track, arriving in Milford to then get back to their vehicle? Easyhike is an amazing car relocation company who can ensure your vehicle is in Milford Sound when you finish the track. http://www.easyhike.co.nz
Be sure to check into my Instagram page: @jackaustinphotography for all my photography content from in and around New Zealand! Thanks for reading!