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HOME AT FIRST'S-

NEW ZEALAND

THE MILFORD TRACK

 

"THE FINEST WALK IN THE WORLD"

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN AUTUMN 2009; LAST REVISED: 2014. EXCEPT WHERE NOTED, ALL PHOTOS © HOME AT FIRST.

 ARACHNOPHOBIA IN AOTEAROA 

          "Yeeeeeeoooooooowwwww!" That was me in New Zealand (Aotearoa in native Maori) last March doing my best Howard Dean primal scream while falling backward into a ditch. A huge spider had almost killed me.

Descending MacKinnon Pass on the Milford Track. Photo © Home At First.
Descending MacKinnon Pass
on the Milford Track.

          Well, not exactly. This was my third — and last — day on the Milford Track, New Zealand’s gold standard long-distance hike that shows up on the must-do lists of walkers world-wide. This last day wasn’t the steepest day on the Track (that was yesterday when we went up and over MacKinnon Pass with a total altitude change of nearly a mile), but at 13 miles it was the longest. My two heal blisters notwithstanding, day 3 seemed a relatively easy walk in the park.

PARROTS, PENGUINS, AND
PREHISTORIC PODOCARPS —

          Make that New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. In a country with more national parks than cities, Fiordland is New Zealand’s largest national park, and, arguably, its biggest tourist draw, best advertisement, and greatest treasure. Covering almost 3 million acres of convoluted land on the southwestern corner of New Zealand’s
South Island, Fiordland is mixture of glacier-carved deepwater fiords that fill remote valleys between snowcapped

 

mountains. The terrain is made more

remarkable by its remoteness (nearest major neighbors: southeastern Australia and Antarctica), the uniqueness of its plant and animal life (giant prehistoric fern trees; parrots and penguins in the same habitat), and its amazing rainfall (up to 29 feet per year!). Fiordland’s uniqueness stands out in a country full of remarkable regions. So astounding is Fiordland that it has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site.

 

SOME FLYING THINGS, & SOME THAT DON'T FLY —
          Wondrous Fiordland draws ‘em like flies. Make that like sand flies. Sand flies are the park’s only predator of human flesh and blood. There are no snakes, no lizards, no foxes, no wolves, no tigers, no bears. The only big mammals here were imported for hunting: elk and red deer. No sheep or cows or horses, either, inside of the park. There are stoats (think weasel) and Australian possums (think a marsupial that looks like a squirrel/raccoon hybrid) that have found Fiordland a paradise where food is plentiful and enemies few. The prey for these 3 introduced predators is, sadly, a threatened natural population of unique birds, including New Zealand’s national symbol, the flightless, hairy-feathered, long-beaked kiwi.
          And, oh yes, there’s the occasional spider. After two days in the New Zealand wilderness I had been lulled into a false security that the Milford Track penetrated a benign

Thanks to one of the world's wettest climates, tree ferns and podocarps line the lower portions of the Milford Track. Photo © Home At First.
Thanks to one of the
world's wettest climates,
tree ferns and podocarps
line the lower portions
of the Milford Track.

rainforest, full of the exotic cries of jungle birds. Tuis (TU-eez)

 

 

are the best known, if only because they help sell a

The kea, world's only alpine parrot. Photo © Home At First.

The kea, world's only alpine parrot

popular North Island beer of the same name. Bush robins — haven't they heard about the stoats? — were so friendly they would hop up to my boots thinking my laces must be fat worms. As for kiwis — well, I’ve been to New Zealand many times, and kiwis remain only a nocturnal rumor. It was easy finding the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea — it finds you. They wait near the lodges spaced along the Milford Track. When you arrive and hit the showers, they go to work, looking for the boots, clothing or knapsack left outside the cabins by unsuspecting or careless hikers. The kea — with the

 

height and weight of a middling penguin — hops

furtively sideways to stalk and ransack anything made of leather or that might contain a possible kea snack. Duck,  nylon, leather,  and, probably, Kevlar, are no match for the scimitar beak of the hungry, mischievous kea. My sense is that a kea’s culinary preferences are as unrefined as those of a billy goat. This trickster must be equipped with a cast-iron stomach. Unlike penguins and goats, however, keas can fly a little.
          Flying? We were flying along the immaculately groomed, spongy trail, making

fast tracks for the 33.5-mile post, the finish line of

 

the Milford Track at Sandfly Point. My companion was a 30-ish Aussie from Sydney, fit but new to long-distance trekking. Nick had left his fiancé at home in Oz, knowing that she wasn’t the type to put up with three days slogging through one of the wettest places on earth, while having to rough it for four nights in crude hikers’ huts with communal toilets, cold showers, and inedible food. Now, two-and-half days and three nights into it, Nick knew he had made a mistake. The weather had been perfectly dry, and each day offered sunny skies with low, billowy, cumulus clouds that reminded you the ocean was not far away.

"Claire might have complained about the 4-hour climb to the pass..." Nick reaching tree line on MacKinnon Pass. Photo © Home At First
"Claire might have complained
about the 4-hour climb to the
pass..." Nick reaching tree line
on MacKinnon Pass.

MACKINNON PASS —
          Claire, Nick's fiancé, wouldn’t have minded the flat sections that characterized Days 1 and 3, a total of 23 of the 33.5 total miles of the Milford. On both sides of the divide the track is a dream — mossy soft, four to five feet wide, and ditched to the right and the left to handle the drainage of heavy rains expected more than 200 days each year. Claire would have found Day 2’s big climb across MacKinnon Pass

 

challenging. This day the path is moderately steep,

"...but she would have been thrilled by the views of snowcapped mountains and the steep-sided mini-Yosemite Valleys that reward you at the top." Nick at MacKinnon Memorial Cairn. Photo © Home At First.
"...but she would have been thrilled by
the views of snowcapped mountains
and the steep-sided mini-Yosemite
Valleys that reward you at the top."
Nick at MacKinnon Memorial Cairn.

rocky, rooty, and, beyond the lower beech forest to the 3,300’ altitude, a narrow (2-feet and less) cutting through dense gorse, bracken, and scrub. Claire might have complained about the 4-hour climb to the pass, but she would have been thrilled by the views of snowcapped mountains and the steep-sided mini-Yosemite Valleys that reward you at the top. The descent from MacKinnon Pass is steeper and hard on tired legs — especially the knees. But once back in the forest the trail becomes a boardwalk tracing a fabulous set of cascading waterfalls that have scoured and polished the granite of these mountains into smoothly rounded kettles and funnels reminiscent of Henry Moore

 

sculptures.

LODGES AND OTHER TOUCHES OF CIVILIZATION —

 

          Nick really knew he had got it wrong when the finish of each day’s trek led to a comfortable, well-equipped lodge. Grab a shower, wash and hang your sweaties, then limp down to happy hour in the lounge, and the finest 3-course meals imaginable this far in the wilderness, featuring a choice of two entrées daily, with soup, salad, and dessert. Beer, wine, and canned soft drinks are the only extra-cost extras. The New Zealand beer was good, if a little warm due to limited refrigeration. The disappointment was the wine. New Zealand produces some world class wines of both colors. The stuff sold by the glass or by the bottle at the lodges was uniformly bad. The Aussies, Yanks, Brits, and Europeans on the walk drank it, but only the Kiwis seemed to drink it to excess. I was puzzled by the wine’s inferiority, but happy not to be hung over on any marching day.
        Hot showers? Yep — all the hot water you want. Private toilets? Yes, spic ’n span lockable stalls, flush porcelain

Guides providing a welcome at Glade House lodge for the first night on the Milford Track. Photo © Home At First.
Guides provide a
welcome at Glade
House lodge for
the first night on
the Milford Track.

fixtures, and, thankfully, air fresheners and splinter-free TP.

 

Rooms? Bunkhouse style dormitories (no mixed genders) with kids’ camp mattresses, blankets and pillows. For couples, higher rollers, and other privacy-challenged hikers, lodges offer a limited number of private rooms with private bathrooms and showers, but for a not-meaningless supplemental charge.

 

          In all cases, hikers must carry a sleep sheet

Lunch on the Milford Track means taking off the backpack for an hour. The sack lunch always tasted better with a scenic view. Photo © Home At First.
Lunch on the Milford Track means
taking off the backpack for an
hour. The sack lunch always
tasted better with a scenic view.

— a polyester cocoon that supposedly separates bodies from blankets, pillows, and mattresses. Not if you’re 6’1". Hikers also need to carry a pack with a change of clothing or two, a wash cloth, hut shoes or sandals, small digital camera, sun block, sun glasses, a hat, gloves, a heavy fleece, and, importantly, raingear. Total pack weight: 25lbs. unless you are like me and carry a heavy camera rig and collapsible tripod or monopod. We were advised to leave our toiletries (supplied at lodges), cotton clothing (heavy and heat-sapping when wet), and make-up (lipstick in the jungle? For whom, Tarzan?)

 

home. Most hikers complied with suggestions one

and two. Not one woman — there were 23 women in our group of 50 — took suggestion three and left the make-up home.

 

SUTHERLAND FALLS —

 

          If Claire had come along, Nick would have had much better company for 3 days and 4 nights in paradise than me. But he probably would not have laughed as hard. He laughed at me when I twice swam in icy waters — once a waterfall-fed pond by the edge of a cliff, and once in a crystal clear creek still swollen by the previous week’s record rains. We all laughed when a group of tiny women — prize winners of this trip from their company back in Japan — donned raincoats and paraded like ducklings into the roaring, frigid mists of the world’s fifth highest waterfall, Sutherland Falls. They were the only ones to use their raingear from our group. Ranging in age from 40-65, these little wan women seemed vastly out of place in the adventure in Big Nature. Still, they accomplished each day in good time, if always bringing up the rear with the last guide in tow arriving an hour or so after a fast group of young Aussies from a car dealership was already on its fourth beer each in the lodge lounge.

The raincoats come in handy at the world's 5th highest waterfall, Sutherland Falls. Photo © Home At First.
The raincoats come in handy
at the world's 5th highest
waterfall, Sutherland Falls.

AN INTERNATIONAL RACE ON A DRY TRACK —
          I don’t know if the laughter would have been less if the weather had been wet. The climb across 3,500’ high Mackinnon Pass would have been much more difficult in a driving, cold rain, or in snow — possible at any time of year. Certainly my encounter with the spider would have been different in the heavy rains the Milford Track expects

 

more than half the time. It was the middle of the third day

Milford Track attracts many couples, including some who are not regular walkers. Fitness helps, as it did this very fit Canadian/French couple photographed at Mackay Falls. Photo © Home At First.
Milford Track attracts
many couples, including
some who are not
regular walkers.
Fitness helps, as it did
this very fit Canadian/
French couple photo-
graphed at Mackay Falls.

when Nick and I were making a final push to reach the 2PM boat at Sandfly Point. We wanted to get to Mitre Peak Lodge at Milford Sound as early as possible, before they ran out of ice cold beer. We had already streaked past the Japanese ladies, and a group of 4 or so New Zealand couples who were taking their time. At the lunch stop we passed the Brits (from London, Wales, and Yorkshire), some other Americans (a couple of lawyers from DC, and a couple of doctors from MN), a terrific couple from South Africa via Australia, a nifty senior (oldest in our group) from South Africa via Switzerland, two French Canadian couples (one via New Caledonia), and several Aussies. Only the Aussie car dealers were between us and being first to Sandfly Point. It was a race for hot showers and cold beer.
          Nick has 25 years on me, and he was in the lead. But I had my trusty hiking poles out and was digging in, letting my arms propel at least 25% of my weight. Head down, I leaned into the poles, pressing their points into the mossy loam of the Milford Track. We were certainly doing 5mph. On a

 

winding section, when I looked up to get my bearings, there

it was, dangling in front of me at eye level, big as my fist, and hairy, and suspended by a single thread attached to some overhead branch or frond.

          The poles dug in. My blistered heals dug in.

 

The brakes went on. But I was top-heavy with a pack full of camera gear.
          "Yeeeeeeoooooooowwwww!" That was my primal scream while falling backward into the ditch.
          Nick turned, pale as a ghost, and raced back to find me flat on my backpack, convulsing in the dry but remarkably soft, lichen-filled ditch, convulsing with laughter. Nick thought the old man had had a high-speed heart attack. He hadn’t seen the spider. I’m not sure he believed by story about seeing the spider, something not expected, not even rumored, something as rare as a kiwi or rain on the

Nick hadn't seen the spider. I was certain I had. Photo © Home At First.
Nick hadn't seen the spider.
I was certain I had.

Milford Track.

 


 

.THE MILFORD TRACK

"THE FINEST WALK IN THE WORLD"

Photo © Home At First

IF YOU GO:

 There’s a good way and a better way to do the Milford Track.

You can walk the Milford

Track inexpensively and independently as "Freedom Walkers" with your own bedding, without guides, without support, with adequate but minimal lodging without catering, using the public hikers’ lodges operated by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC). Because of the popularity of the Milford Track — over 14,000 hikers make the trek each year —you must reserve lodging in advance year round (camping is not permitted), from mid-October through April you may walk only in one direction (northbound from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound), and you must do the walk in the required 4 days and 3 nights (independent) or 5 days and 4 nights (guided). Lugging 3-4 days of food and the cook pots to prepare it, plus a sleeping bag is necessary for independent hikers, and cooking, and washing up is part of each day’s independent hike on the Milford Track. Public lodges for independent hikers have

The finish of the Milford Track: Milford Sound. All hikers must exit via a water crossing by boat or kayak. Photo © Home At First.
The finish of the Milford Track: Milford
Sound. All hikers must exit via a water
 crossing by boat or kayak from
Sandfly Point to Milford.

dormitory sleeping for up to 40 persons
only — no private rooms, and no drying rooms for washed or soaked clothing. The lodges have cold water only and no showers — just cold water lavatories and flush toilets. Lodges are staffed with DOC employees who are helpful and knowledgeable, but very busy with the chores required by handling 40 new guests daily.
          Expect the total tab for an independent walk on the Milford Track to approximate NZ$500-NZ$900 per person, depending upon whether you are starting and ending at Te Anau or Queenstown and how much equipment you may need to rent.

For official information about "freedom walking" the Milford Track, see this .pdf
document at the
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) web site.

 

 

A better — if significantly

more expensive: NZ$1930-NZ$3085/person — way for hikers looking to trek the Milford Track with convenience, style, and support is via the 5-day, 4-night guided walk offered by Ultimate Hikes of Queenstown. Guided walkers pay one price for 5 days of activity including bus and boat transportation from Queenstown to the Milford Track trailhead and the boat and bus from Milford Sound back to Queenstown.

Boarding the boat for the hour-long cruise on Lake Te Anau to the Milford Track trail head. Photo © Home At First.
Boarding the boat AT TE ANAU DOWNS
for the 75-MINUTE cruise on Lake Te
Anau to the Milford Track trail head

          Three nights are spent in the

 

comparatively opulent private lodges Ultimate Hikes operates along the track. Each has hot and cold running water, showers, some private rooms, washing facilities and drying rooms, lounges with snacks and drinks, and catered dining. A fourth night is spent at the Mitre Peak Lodge hotel at Milford Sound. A fifth day begins with a cruise of dramatic, steep-walled Milford Sound, with the chance to see dolphins, seals and other exotica, and stick your nose into the frigid cataract of one last towering waterfall.

 

          For guided hikers on the Milford Track, carrying

Finally a reason for the raincoats provided free to organized groups. The last morning's included cruise on Milford Sound visits a waterfall at close range. Photo © Home At First.
Finally a reason for the
raincoats provided free
to organized groups. The
 last morning's included
 cruise on Milford Sound
 visits a waterfall
at close range.

food, beyond your favorite nuts, trail mix, or energy bars, is not necessary for guided walkers, because snacks, dinner, and breakfast are provided at all the lodges along the way. Guided walkers make and carry sack lunches from a buffet of sandwich makings laid out at the lodges before each mornings departure. Carrying more than 2 liters of water isn’t necessary either. Fill your water bottles with the water from any of the streams, waterfalls, ponds, and lakes along the track.
          One set of Ultimate Hikes personnel cares for the lodges, while another set (roughly one for every 10-15 persons of a group) serves as guides, traveling with each group. Typically, guides are young, fit, and enthusiastic outdoorsmen and women. Because Milford Track guests primarily speak English or Japanese, guides are New Zealanders and Japanese, but all guides cater to all walkers, and eagerly answer questions about the geology, history, flora and fauna of the Milford Track as well as concern themselves with the

 

safety and comfort of their charges.


For full information, or to reserve a Milford Track guided hike, contact Ultimate Hikes
or have
Home At First make your booking as part of your New Zealand trip.

 

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Home At First offers lodgings in regions across the length
of New Zealand. Our exclusive "New Zealand Activities
Guide" has hundreds of suggestions for things to see
and do when you travel with
Home At First to
:
NEW ZEALAND.

The MILFORD TRACK and FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK are easily reached
from HOME AT FIRST’s lodgings in QUEENSTOWN & FIORDLAND.

QUEENSTOWN & FIORDLAND are easily reached in NEW ZEALAND.

NEW ZEALAND is easily reached from HOME AT FIRST.

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