The night before we left for our big walk I sorted all of our food… much more, of course, than we needed. I packed my bag, which turned out to be much lighter than I expected – a welcomed surprise!
Not needing a tent or stove helped this cause, camping is not permitted on the track. You must stay in the DOC (Department of Conservation) huts. When we booked the track I thought this was odd, but as we arrived the constant rain, fresh waterfalls (can lead to flash floods) and persistent sandflies made it apparent that DOC knows their stuff and the huts were a very welcomed sight. The other great advantage to the huts was a tremendously fun camaraderie that developed over four days walking, cooking, eating, exchanging stories, and bunking with some 38 new friends.
As we boarded the ferry in Te Anau Downs I was eager to get to the top deck where we could see across to where we would start the trek. We met a few of the other walkers and toughed it out in a bit of mist until the wakes we were hitting started spraying us in the face – I decided I’d rather start off dry than with a view and I went below where there was hot tea and no spray or rain. We met a few people from the States which is common in this part of New Zealand. From what I’ve gathered, Americans seem to be more attracted to the South Island. We met a fun young couple from North Carolina and a man from an island in western Washington State who’d just retired; we later learned that he was a seasoned backpacker and captivating storyteller.
Once we got to shore it was a short 5K (3.1miles) walk to our first hut where we spent the afternoon hiding from sandflies and exchanging stories with the other travellers. As night came we had our dinners and the table next to us started applauding two men who walked up to the hut- one of them had with him a beauty of a rainbow trout. We listened to Ranger Sally’s short talk, she did not do any bird impressions. I was disappointed. Some of the walkers headed to bed but we stayed up for a bit and one of the ladies from the table over brought a plate with bits of the trout for us to try. It was delicious.
It rained over night. Ranger Sally had explained that we wanted this because it would cause temporary waterfalls to come down from the mountains. It rained all morning too. The New Zealanders on the hike with us, we learned, were a group of 12, six couples who had been walking together for years. The group had done seven of NZ’s eight great walks, one each year. Milford Track was their last great walk to complete four of the couples were in the huts with us and two were on what they called the “Posh walk” which is in other words a $2500/person guided walk (on the same trail) with catered meals, hot showers, private rooms, real beds and a cash bar. Anyway, the New Zealanders were all wearing shorts, Taylor was doing the same, I thought I might as well imitate and go in my running shorts even though it was pouring rain. I said something to Taylor about my boots not being waterproof and thinking my socks may get wet as a result. One of the men in the group laughed, it wasn’t a matter of if they would get wet, he explained, everything would get wet. I’d prepped my bag for this with an inner and outer liner since a soggy sleeping bag is probably worse than no sleeping bag but had neglected to think of anything for my feet. As it turned out I would have need to pack galoshes to protect my socks from the day ahead. Wet socks turned out not to bother me too much and I’m glad I switched to shorts since they dried much easier and it was less wet clothing to wear.
The walk started in beech forest. It was overwhelmingly green. The canopy overhead dripping, ferns and mosses grew all around from the ground up the trees. It often seemed the only things not green were the trail itself and the grey mist that sometimes shown in-between the trees. A few miles of this and a perfectly maintained gravel trail were pleasant and easy to walk over. The more we walked the more the spaces between trees grew. Sometimes a river or stream ran along the trail, always clear, you could see the rocks below with a crispness that is unique to NZ. The water is pure- clean enough to drink without filtering almost everywhere. Hypothetically, giardia could live in the water but it doesn’t seem to. No one boils it, no one gets sick. At times it’s hard to tell if there is a pool of water as it is so fantastically clear.
Eventually the mist pushed back enough for us to see the faces of the granite cliffs. Hundreds of waterfalls poured out over them. A steady roar of the waters echoed through the valley that the trail inhabited. I could hardly keep my eyes on the trail (which was necessary to keep my boots out of streams that periodically flowed into and over the trail) because there were so many stunning falls running off the cliffs above- it was truly awe-inspiring. We hiked some 10-10.5 miles that day before reaching Mintaro Hut. Most of the walk was in pouring rain or light mist, which I am so grateful for because the views we enjoyed were like nothing else I have ever seen.
We were glad to reach Mintaro Hut, to peel off our drenched socks and boots and get inside. As we reached the porch, we were warned not to leave anything outside as there had been multiple encounters with Keas, who would destroy or eat whatever we might leave out. A Kea is a nearly Macaw sized green and/or brown bird whose call sounds a bit like its name- a loud “keeeehyaaa” and there were about six of them around the hut. When we got inside a fire was already going, we placed our boots by it, hung wet clothes, picked out our bunks and returned to the fire to dry off. We met several more of the walkers, some from Germany, Czech republic, a few more from the US, a group from Edinburgh, and another group from Plymouth. It was a great time talking with everyone, exchanging stories of the day and of previous travels. All made dinner and eventually got off to bed with the Keas calling in the background.
The keas were still calling when we woke. The third day would prove to be the most difficult even though it was the second shortest distance we would walk in one day. It started uphill, under the canopy of trees again, we walked several switchbacks that would lead in an out of the forest, sometimes under flowering trees which had dropped countless fragrant white blooms on the path. Eventually the path lead entirely out of the forest and we could see the granite tops of mountains all around us. The sky was brilliant blue and clear. We walked the last bit of the uphill with one couples of the dynamic dozen (the group of New Zealanders) who were on the “posh walk” he had broken his back in an accident and couldn’t carry the pack needed to do the independent walk. True to New Zealand fashion, they were easy to get along with- warm and welcoming with a good sense of humor. We walked with them until we reached the top of Mackinnon Pass. We took off our packs and awed at the view.
Mackinnon Pass showed off expansive panoramic views of mountains, some topped with ice shelves and gushing waterfalls and lush valleys below. We hiked up towards the sheer cliffs for a bit to get an even better vantage. After a short break to eat our muesli (granola) bars and a bit more gawking at the view we set out to along the ridge before the long descent. Until this point, I had thought the trail was very well maintained and could have been traversed by most but getting down the other side of Mackinnon pass was another story. Many loose rocks covered the path and it was hard to tell which would be stable and which would give way. This, combined with the streams and water flowing across made it a physically challenging portion of the trail. While the miles were slower the scenes around us did not disappoint, we walked alongside creeks and falls through rainforest until Sutherland falls came into view. It is a magnificent 580 meters and is probably best viewed by helicopter or plane as it spills out from lake quill which is perched high above, unseen from the trail. The falls are beautiful from the track too.
The track steadied out, fewer rocks covered it and the last few miles of the day seemed like a stroll after the quick ascent and long descent. We reached dumpling hut, picked out a bunk and made dinner. The dinner hall was buzzing with conversation again, even more as everyone had seemed to become comfortable chatting with one another. Ranger Ian came in and gave us a short talk on the last bit of trail, he had just re-surfaced some of it so we would christen it in the morning. He encouraged us to take our time with the last 11.5 miles, as we would not want to arrive at Sandfly point too early.
I woke early on our fourth and final day, so I went to make breakfast and soak up all the time I could with our new friends. A few of us sat until almost 9:00, heeding the ranger’s advice not to arrive too early. I do not like sandflies. Elsewhere in the world they are called midges- they are small and not very fast. If you move, you are not likely to be bitten, but if you stand still (particularly in Fiordland) they descend on you from out of nowhere. So, like I said, we took our time leaving the hut. We walked the beautiful, and fairly flat trail at a good pace all morning, admiring the streams around and the fiords behind them which had started to rise up all around. It was misty but did not rain until afternoon.
We walked again with the NZ couple and eventually met up with the rest of the dynamic dozen and walked with the whole group for a time. Every minute of it was a delight, hearing the group explain how they’d gotten together- the women originally to stay healthy, and they had. They wanted more adventure so they started onto the great walks, the youngest of them was 57 and they could leave me in the dust if they’d wanted. The trail was full of laughter, which made the time pass quickly again. Before we knew it we were nearing the end.
Taylor and I stopped to let the group move forward without us. The final few miles we walked by ourselves, the rain started again and the sea was close. With the dropping rain around, the chatter on the trail and rushing water about I could feel the quietness of the past few days in the wilderness fading away.We came to the enclosure where we’d wait for our ferry. Only a few minutes later the captain came in announcing that he had plenty of room for all of us on the boat and we could all go.
Thirty-nine of us jammed inside. There was not plenty of room, but as we had been sharing space with everyone the whole way, we had little issue with squeezing in from the rain one last time. The ride was short and the rain was heavy and we arrived at Milford soaking wet, stiff, sore and very happy for the incredible experience we had.
Four days in the wild, the Milford Track was among the best experiences of my young life. We walked with incredible people from New Zealand and around the world. Rainforest full of green, misty mountains, a thousand waterfalls, views above the fiords and atop cliffs, tiny white flowers, and epic rock wall faces have left me changed and astounded at the beauty of this place. God’s glory reigns here whether we speak it or not. This is the creation that glorifies him through the ages.