Milford Track (video) is regularly referred to as “the finest walk in the world”. And most people argue that it is New Zealand’s best walk. The trail begins at Glade Wharf, which you have to get to by boat from Te Anau Downs, and ends at Sandfly Point, in Milford Sound, where you take another boat to get back to the road. It is about 50 kilometers of suspension bridges, beautiful valleys and pristine lakes. As beautiful as it is in the sun, it is even more enchanting in the rain, when the steep mountain-sides are lined with waterfalls and clouds hug the peaks.
Most people complete this hike in 3-4 days, but I decided to do it in 2 long days. Primarily because I could only get accommodation in one hut due to the huge popularity of the track. The plan was to walk 20-ish KMs the first day to Mintaro Hut, then wake up early the next day and make it down to Sandfly Point for the ferry back to Milford Sound parking lot.
The morning dawned bright and clear. But the forecast said it was going to be a very wet next few days. After a huge breakfast, I caught my shuttle bus to the Milford Track trailhead. It goes alongside Lake Te Anau to Te Anau Downs, from where I would take a boat to Glade Wharf and begin the hike. The boat ride was pleasant and the reflection of the mountains on the lake were spectacular. It was hard to believe that the forecast called for rain. Indeed 2 hours after I started hiking, the weather went haywire and I couldn’t take my camera out for most of the hike.
The first day was a gradual uphill towards Mintaro Hut, through beech forests, alongside the Clinton river. This part of the hike is similar to the Routeburn track. And there are many places where one can relax by the river and go for a swim. Huge rockwalls towered over the Clinton Valley and if it wasn’t for the rain and the thick jungle, it would have looked like the Eastern Sierra mountains of California. After a few hours, I reached Mintaro hut. Then I tried to dry off my clothes as much as possible, cooked an early dinner and went to bed. Tomorrow would be a long day.
Today, I would be climbing up steeply up to McKinnon Pass (the highest point of the trail). I would then go downhill all the way to Sandfly Point. Most people break this hike into 2 days. Since a lot of it was downhill and I had packed light, I was confident of making it to Sandfly point in time for the boat shuttle.
After a quick breakfast, I left very early in the morning and started the slog up to McKinnon Pass. There was a brief respite in the rain and I could almost see some blue sky. I made it up to the pass right as the sun had managed to rise above the tall mountains. But dark clouds were creeping up fast. The rain from the previous day had resulted in hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the mountain side. And the early morning fog clinging to the mountain side, gave the place a very surreal place. As fellow hiker I met on the trail eloquently put it “I’ve been living in the clouds so long, I feel like a care-bear.”
At the top there is a memorial to Quentin McKinnon, after whom the pass is named. He basically discovered the first overland passage from Te Anau to Milford Sound and which is now the Milford Track. I spent a few minutes admiring the views of Clinton Canyon and Mintaro Lake, from where I had come and then started my downhill descent.
It’s mind-boggling how quickly the weather changes in this area. In just 20 minutes, the sky had gone from blue to pitch dark and it had started pouring again. There were a lot of impressive waterfalls along the way, the biggest of which is Sutherland Falls. It is definitely worth the short detour from the trail. After Sutherland falls, I stopped at Dumpling Hut for lunch (there were no dumplings). From there it is about 18 KMs to the end along a relatively flat trail, alongside the Arthur River, passing through an impressive forest. It took me about 5 hours to do this part, along with breaks and sight-seeing stops at McKay Falls and Bell Rock. If you are staying at Milford Sound, this part of the hike is possible as a day hike by taking a boat shuttle to Sandfly Point.
By the time I got to Sandfly Point, the rain had subsided from a downpour to a normal rain shower. But it didn’t matter at this point since everything I owned was wet. The silver lining of the rain was that it kept the infamous sandflies at bay. I could write chapters on sandflies, and how they can make grown people cry. Not me obviously, but you can just look them up. From Sandfly Point, I caught the boat shuttle back to the Milford Sound docking area. It was a very different experience of Milford Sound in the rain, compared to when I had visited with Karen, on a very nice day (was that just a week ago?). After witnessing the same sights in very contrasting conditions, I firmly believe you can not go wrong with Fiordlands, no matter if you visit in the sun or rain.
From the docking area, I caught a bus back to Te Anau, where not much had changed. I checked in to the same hostel, bought pizza and beer from the same restaurant and watched Lord of the Rings – Return of the King with the same bunch of people. Even though it had felt like I was out in the wilderness for a long time, I was only gone for 2 days and 1 night. And had missed out on first two parts of Lord of the Rings!