The Great Walk, New Zealand: The Milford Track
Just a reminder that Jay and I are on a nine month, around the world trip, that includes many components. During this journey, there were a couple of events we had planned that were, for me, to be huge highlights of our trip. These were the multi-day treks we would do in Nepal, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. We completed the Nepal trek in December, which you can read about here, the Thailand trek (in January), and Australia's epic Great Ocean Walk (March), which you can read about shortly.
We have now just completed our last big hike, the New Zealand trek, so it is fresh in our minds and muscles and we are very excited to share our experience with you.
It seems like all the other treks we had done previously were a lead-up to this one. We started out last summer with our day hikes in the US national parks. In both the Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks, we did our first all day hikes, with steep climbs, and long distances to cover in one day. Hiking with Danny and Jeremy was great and we got some experience as to what it felt like to hike for multiple hours and to climb to higher altitudes. Read about those here and here.
The Mardi Himal trek in Nepal represented our very first multi-day hike (seven days), and it was an amazing experience to hike all day, go to sleep in “huts” (called tea houses) along the trail, and then get up and hike all day the next day, etc. It was a great success, and our guide, Ram, and our porter, Mandeep, made our trek manageable for us as we only had to carry our day packs (no food or supplies).
Thailand’s three day trek in the jungle had us carrying just our day packs, but we had to put everything we needed into those packs. We didn’t have to worry about food and accommodations as we slept in village guest houses along the way. Again, a success with Kalu, our guide, giving us the support we needed. You will be able to read about the Great Ocean Walk in Australia very soon… but for now…
The New Zealand trek, called Milford Track, was such a WOW, that we need to tell you about it now!
Here’s how it all went.
First of all, there was the preparation and anticipation.
The Milford Track is one of nine spectacular multi-day treks in New Zealand (NZ) that are known as Great Walks. On the Milford Track, on the south island of NZ, we were going to have to carry actual backpacks with sleeping bags, supplies, and our own food for four days. This was a new challenge for us.
We had long ago decided that there was no way we were carrying a backpack and sleeping bag with us on our round the world trip, so we found a gear rental place in Te Anau, the jumping off point for the trek, and rented what we needed.
After a trip to the lady’s house where she runs her equipment rental business, we now had a sleeping bag, backpack, gaiters, cooking gear, and waterproof pants. We hoped we were prepared for the over 200 days of rain the Milford Track receives each year.
We now had to figure out what food we should bring. We headed over to the supermarket and looked at all the ready-to-eat dehydrated meals that cost between $11-$14.00 per person per meal.
I was prepared to buy that stuff because it seemed like the lightest and easiest choice. I figured that after a long day of hiking, we were not going to want to actually prepare a meal, and anything extra we would bring would weigh us down. This was a great concern considering we had never carried a pack before. So I stood by the dehydrated food section to overhear conversations that other trekkers were having and asked questions to gain knowledge and insight into what we should do.
But Jay was not convinced in the slightest. He walked down the aisles of the supermarket looking at different items, comparing prices, looking at the weight of different things and finally comparing different meals he concocted and figured out how much they cost and weighed. To his credit, he found that we could eat meals that weighed just a tad more at a fraction of the cost of those backpacker meals, and so after THREE hours in that supermarket, we were outfitted with four days of meals and snacks. This included the one extra day of food in case of emergency.
Here’s what we had:
Breakfast: instant oatmeal and muesli, coffee, hot chocolate, powdered milk and sugar packs.
Lunch: wraps with peanut butter and jelly
Dinner: pouches of tuna and salmon, with pasta, with dehydrated peas and one pack of an Asian sauce for one day, and then one pack of tomato sauce for the other two days.
Snacks: granola bars and trail mix
We walked out of the supermarket with our purchases and realized that the bags were really heavy.
That evening as we packed our bags, I remembered that we had to have some first aid gear. We didn’t even have any bandaids left. So we hightailed it back out to the supermarket and picked up some bandaids and a thing of first aid tape in case we needed to immobilize anything. We also had to go back to the gear rental place because my gaiters didn’t fit properly.
I was starting to get nervous (an understatement). It was getting late and we weren’t even packed up yet. We returned to the hostel room and divvied up the food and filled our backpacks. The moment of truth occurred when we weighed our bags. I was at exactly 12 kilos. Jay was a tad over 12. It was the perfect weight that all the blog writers had said was what we should carry. This is just over 26 pounds. (the rule of thumb apparently is no more than 1/4 your body weight)
We couldn’t really sleep that night, I was absolutely petrified that we weren’t going to be able to make it. The bags felt way too heavy and I worried how could we climb up a mountain with that kind of weight on our backs. Jay was nervous also, and we both lay sleepless for much of the night.
That morning we were up early and on our way out the door to catch the early bus to Te Anau Downs, a 20 minute ride away. We walked to the Department of Conservation Visitors Centre and got on the bus with a few other people. The ride to Te Anau Downs was pretty silent. We were a bit relieved to see that there was a foursome of people that were in our age range on the bus, along with a few solo male travelers.
Once at Te Anau Downs we walked down to Te Anau Lake and got on the boat that would take us to the beginning of the track.
It was an hour boat cruise that was just spectacular. We relaxed a bit on the boat, now that we were actually on our way, talked to the other hikers and exchanged travel stories and tips that we had heard about this particular Great Walk.
The scenery was magnificent and I realized we were really in for a treat.
Also, this first day was an easy day, just an hour or so walking until we got to the first hut where we would spend the night.
The boat pulled up to a tiny dock in the middle of the wilderness and dropped us off. There was the sign that welcomed us to the Milford Track.
And we were on our way.
The weather was overcast and a bit chilly, but there was no rain, which was a great thing since it rains most days. We walked alone, with the solo travelers taking off ahead of us, and the more “mature” foursome behind us. It was a pleasant walk and the packs didn’t feel too onerous after a few minutes and several adjustments.
We walked and enjoyed the scenery.
We walked through thick beech forests,
where we saw lots of very interesting and friendly birds.
and before we knew it we had arrived at Clinton hut.
And then it started raining. Downpouring. The poor people who came after us had to walk in the rain. We were so relieved that we had been lucky with the weather.
The way the walk works is that 40 independent hikers start and end each day at the same designated huts. It is forbidden to walk beyond the designated huts, so you start and end the day with the same 40 people.
This is a great way to go because you end up meeting lots of like-minded people, hang out with them in the evenings, and you kind of keep your eyes on them each night to make sure no one is missing.
It was a relief to know that there was a ranger at each hut, and they did really strict, tight counts of people to make sure everyone was there. Each evening, the ranger gave a talk about what we could expect the following day on the hike and what the track and weather conditions were going to be. This all made Jay and me feel so much better about what we were doing. Even though we were considered independent hikers, we had 38 other people, plus the rangers, who would make sure we were ok.
Our group consisted of a few family groups, a couple of those including young children, a few couples, and a few solo travelers. The age range of the hikers ranged from 8 years old all the way up to people in their 60’s. There were men and women and boys and girls. Most of our group were New Zealanders or Australians, but there were also people from Canada, Germany, UK, Korea, Israel, and us from the US. That night, as we cooked our first dinner in the communal kitchen, with the rain pounding on the roof, I saw that Jay had been a superstar in picking our dinner. Some people did have those fancy backpacking meals, but many people were improvising with lots of other types of food that were lightweight and nutritious. Our first dinner was delicious. I was so proud of Jay for his common sense and ingenuity and creativity in planning this meal.
I went to bed very satisfied and ready for day 2 of our hike.
That night, as we lay in our beds in the bunk room with 6 other people, it was hard to fall asleep. There were snorers (including Jay), and we heard the rain pounding on the metal roof, but somehow, I was very snug in my sleeping bag. Despite the freezing room temperature, as there was no heat in the bunk room, I felt so cozy listening to the rain. It was really comforting and soothing. And it almost didn’t matter that I was not sleeping.
In the morning, we were thrilled to see that the weather had cleared up, but we were told we had to wait to get started. There had been some snow up on the mountain that night and if the people that were a day ahead of us weren’t able to move forward, then we wouldn’t be able to move forward either. We were a bit nervous about that because the weather forecast called for a storm front with heavy gales to move in that night and we were also concerned about snow as we were climbing to the top of the mountain the next day. We had heard stories of people being evacuated by helicopter at various points along the trail due to adverse weather. We speculated whether it would happen to us.
After an hour or so, the ranger gave us the go-ahead to get started on the day. The group ahead of us was moving forward. And so off we all went.
What a beautiful day. It was absolutely gorgeous.
We hiked along the trail through beech forests, with trees dripping with lichens and mosses,
and we saw many different types of birds and ducks.
We saw many, many waterfalls, which had formed due to the rain that had fallen the previous day,
and we just enjoyed the walk, the beauty of nature, and our own thoughts.
Jay and I hiked on our own for most of the day.
Every once in a while we would run into another hiker in our group and chat for a few minutes, and then moved on alone. It was peaceful and beautiful.
We just loved it.
During the last part of the day as we started to ascend the mountain we hit some snow on the trail, and the last kilometer seemed to go on forever.
We thought we should have been done for the day, but the trail kept going up and up. We were almost starting to get a bit anxious, wondering how we could have missed the hut. But finally, when we were quite exhausted and freezing after our 16.5 kilometers (10 miles) hike, we reached Mintaro Hut.
This was the hut before the big day of ascending to MacKinnon Pass, at 1154 meters (3786 feet).
We went into the hut, claimed our bunks, peeled off our clothing and put on our dry and warm “after hike” clothes. Jay climbed into his sleeping bag and passed out. I rushed to the kitchen to get warm.
Alas, we were all told by the ranger that we couldn’t start the fire yet. There was a shortage of dry firewood here and so we had to make do with warm clothes and warm drinks. We were very tired and were so thrilled to have our water boiling quickly so we could sit and have our hot drinks.
We were so surprised to find out that the previous day’s group did not walk out to the next hut as we had thought. They were actually taken by helicopter over the MacKinnon Pass, and dropped somewhere close to the next hut. So they got a free helicopter ride over the pass. This news led to conversations as to whether it would be more fun to have the adventure of climbing to MacKinnon Pass or to have a helicopter ride over it and forego the hike for the day. Could we say we had really “completed” the trek if we had taken part of it by helicopter? I, for one, would have been quite happy to be in a helicopter.
Anyway, that night I again got very little sleep. I was very nervous about the next day, the hardest day, in terms of ascent, and altitude, piled on with the cold front that had moved in and the prediction of snow and heavy wind. We would learn the next morning what the plan was for us.
We awoke with anticipation of what we would be doing. The ranger had us wait for an hour or so until a decision could be made. And then it was finalized. We would be walking. Yes, there would be rain and snow, and yes it would be cold, and yes there would be wind, but this is what we had signed up for, right?
"It will be quite an adventure" the ranger said.
And yes, it was POURING rain now, but we all had the right gear, correct?
We put on all our foul-weather gear and discovered a few of our comrades didn’t have appropriate clothing. The ranger went into her own hut and came back with some plastic bags that a few people put over their jackets. She advised us to “be kind to each other”, to look after each other, and to not hike alone, even though we were independent hikers.
And off we went into the pouring rain, totally emotionally prepared for hardship.
We don’t have many photos of this part of the day, as it was wet, cold, rainy and snowy for much of the day, and we couldn’t risk our phones getting wet. But I can tell you we didn’t see a lot. After a short flat walk in the rain, where we quickly learned we couldn’t avoid the water on the trail, we started the ascent to MacKinnon’s Pass.
We kept our heads down, walked silently, and climbed. After an hour or so, the water on the trail started getting slushy, and the rain started turning into snow. We were getting tired already, and had at least five more hours to go.
And then when we got to the end of the tree line, where we then walked on an exposed ridge along the mountain, it started to be a snow squall. I looked ahead at Jay, who was trudging on at the front of a long line of fellow hikers. As he reached the switchback and changed directions, and then continued to climb, I had visions of people climbing Mount Everest in the snow. The snow was getting deeper and it was harder to keep a steady foot on the path.
We couldn’t see the trail at all, but luckily a couple of the solo travelers had moved on ahead of us and had created a path for us to follow. Too bad they were pretty tall and had long strides, but at least we could see where to step. I fell a couple times in the snow, but pulled myself up and kept on going.
Soon the snow was over our knees and up to our thighs. There was a mom and her 8 year old daughter hiking with us and we kept pace with them for the most part, and made sure we were all ok. I thought we were crazy for doing this hike, but couldn’t turn back now. Too far and too dangerous. We had to just forge ahead.
With my rain trousers and rain coat on, I wasn’t cold at all, since I was exerting so much energy to walk through the snow. I wasn’t even wearing my winter coat. I finally put my gloves on, and even with them soaking wet, they kept my hands warmer.
Finally, finally, after two hours of this, we reached the MacKinnon Memorial.
It was time to take a photo or two.
And then we made a big push for the shelter at the top of MacKinnon Pass. As we walked along the open “saddle” of the pass, with the wind sweeping up behind us, we saw a ranger making his way towards us. He advised us to keep on walking as quickly as possible past the shelter, and to get to the tree line (much warmer down there) as fast as we could. He said with our sweating from the hike, if we stopped at the shelter to rest and cooled down, it would be very dangerous and we would get too cold.
At this point we could see the shelter, and despite his warning, along with everyone else, we filed in and dropped our packs. I was starving at this point, so I grabbed a couple of granola bars from my pack and started munching on one. It was frozen, so I chewed carefully, not wanting to break a tooth with all this.
My feet were sloshing around in my boots, as the rain had seeped in from the beginning, and with the walking, they were being washed in very warm water, as my body heat was warming the water that was flowing in. I started getting nervous (again) because I knew that if I started cooling down, my feet would be getting cold, and that would be a disaster. Hypothermia was not something I wanted to experience.
With thoughts of freezing toes running through my brain, I advised Jay that we needed to get moving as quickly as possible, and he agreed. Our mom and daughter duo hiking partners were also ready to go, and so we all picked up our packs, slung them on our backs, went back out into the cold and snow, and headed back onto the trail that would hopefully start descending the mountain as soon as possible.
And then it happened. We just turned a corner and the snow disappeared and the sun emerged from behind the clouds. We all stopped and pulled out our cameras and started snapping pictures.
It was breathtaking. We were still cold and wet, but now we were exhilarated and actually happy.
And then we continued our descent. Because the regular trail was closed because a major bridge was out, (I think because of avalanches or rock falls) we had to take the “emergency” route down the mountain. It was a very steep trail that followed waterfalls, and we found ourselves clambering down rocks and actually down into the steep waterfalls.
It was very slow going. The eight-year-old girl remarked that if this were truly an emergency route, the emergency (such as flood or avalanche or fire) would have overtaken us by now, as we were going so slowly. It was absolutely true.
But the views were stunning and the path down was quite adventurous.
With the sun shining now, and the temperature comfortably moderate we were all in a very good mood. We were actually jubilant. We had reached the highest point of the Milford Track, had successfully walked past MacKinnon Pass, and it was all downhill from here.
It was a long day, and a long, long way down. We were now taking loads of pictures because it was so spectacular.
And then we were done for that day. When we reached Dumpling Hut, we were quite exhausted.
Everything we had was soaking wet and the sun was starting to go down behind the mountains. We quickly claimed our bunks and started peeling off all the wet gear. My raincoat had failed epically along the seams and zippers. I had wet everything. But luckily I had reserved some warm clothes and socks and triple protected it against the rain and so everything in my bag was dry.
We hung up our stuff and hightailed it over to the kitchen and made up some hot chocolate and sat and relaxed. This hut kitchen was already warm from the stove fire the ranger had started, so we were toasty, relaxed, and happy.
Many of the others had taken a side trip over to Sutherland Falls, but we had decided not to do that, so there were very few people at the hut with us. We enjoyed the peace and quiet as we sipped our hot drinks and waited for the others to arrive.
There was a sense of relief that evening, as we sat at the tables and told each other stories of the ascent, and rehashed the dangerous parts. What an adventure, what an epic day we had all had. Everyone was exhausted but excited. The next day was the last day, and while the track was long, it was basically flat. At the end of the last day we had to catch a boat back to Milford Sound, so we had to be at the dock by 2:00. Or 3:00. People went to sleep pretty early so they could leave early to make it on time. Again that night I didn’t sleep well. Jay slept great! Sleeping in a room with 5-7 other people just wasn’t working for me. For the second night in a row I put my earbuds in and listened to music loud enough to drown out the snoring. It worked a bit, so I did get some hours of sleep.
Jay and I had signed up for the 3:00 boat because we didn’t know if we could make the 2:00 and I didn’t want to have the pressure. The only thing was that if we made it for the 2:00 boat, we could get on a 2:30 bus back to Te Anau. But if we got the 3:00 boat, we would have to wait for the 5:00 bus to Te Anau. Both of us were very ready for this to be over, so we decided we would try to make it for the 2:00 boat and pray that there would be room for us (it could only take 20 people).
We were on the trail by 8:03 AM. It was supposed to be a 5-6 hour walk, so we could make it by 2:00. And we were off. We began walking very quickly, feeling energized and raring to go.
Again, it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining brightly and we reflected how amazingly lucky we were with the weather. Yes, we had had a few tough hours the day before, but apart from that, we had not been walking in rain. With the sun, we had stunning views of the mountains and valleys.
We could see the pass that Quintin MacKinnon and Earnest Mitchell had found to get to the Milford Sound.
There were beautiful waterfalls,
but we barely stopped. We were so focused on getting to that boat by 2:00.
As we got closer we began meeting up with people who had left before us. And we realized we were going to make it and even get there early. I forced Jay to stop a few times to take a break.
At one point, Jay was right behind our young friend from Korea, looking at the backs of his shoes, following his footsteps, thinking, and focused on moving forward with only about a mile or so to go. He wasn’t looking up or ahead on the trail and ran straight into a tree trunk that was hanging over the track.
BAM! And down he fell. He had walked right into that tree head first. He popped straight back up, saying, “I’m ok”, but I made him stop for a few minutes to recover. This could have been a disaster. But no, not Jay, not a bump, not a scratch, no blood, not even a headache (for him that is)!
When we had only a half hour left to go, I insisted we stop so I could eat something. I was starving. Then off we went.
And then, all of a sudden, we were done. We had made it to the end of the Milford Track, at Sandfly Point.
One of the Great Walks completed. We had covered 33.5 miles of flat and rocky trails, amazing green and lush valleys, iconic snow and sun covered mountains, long suspension bridges, gorgeous and really loud waterfalls, snow up to our knees, and stream covered paths. We had seen in person more of nature's beauty than we could have ever hoped for. It had been amazing!!
And it was about 1:20. Or maybe 1:36. Or maybe 1:30. Who knows. All we knew was that we were on time for that 2:00 boat. We took lots of photos of the view:
and then relaxed.
The boat arrived,
and the 2:00 people lined up and filed into the small boat. When we got to the front of the line, we were thrilled to hear the boat captain say he could take four more people. We were on!!
The boat to Milford Sound, with 20 people aboard, with everyone’s packs, was crowded and silent. Hardly anyone talked. We were all just so tired. After a five-minute boat ride, we arrived at the boat terminal and made our way to the bus. Happily, there was room for us on the bus back to Te Anau, and we climbed on for the two hour ride. We had successfully finished our Milford Track adventure!!!