Long wait to the Milford Track
That was it. We were finally there on the deck to the boat that would bring us to the beginning of the track. The Milford Track. One of the nine great walks of New Zealand. The Milford Track follows a valley up to a pass called the Mackinnon Pass and goes back down in another valley to the Milford Sound Fjord. Four days are needed to complete the track.
I was really nervous about this track from the moment we booked it ten months ago. (Yes, there is only 40 beds available so you have to book it in advance if you want your chance to do it – and you should book as soon as possible). I made a mountain out of it in my mind. For me, the Milford Track was this unattainable achievement that I would have to complete because I had booked it. There was no way out of it now.
This is where the helicopter lands to take what the huts need (food, products…) and bring back the trash and other wastes.
I had never done any hike like that one before. We did some in Norway but it was 10 hours at most. Not 4 days with a backpack containing 4 days of food. I didn’t even had a backpack for the Trolltunga hike! Alexis carried it, we had one for two. How was I going to make it with the bag? I have very weak shoulders and back problems even when I am not carrying anything.
The Adventure Starts Here
I am not the most fittest girl on earth and I was really terrified to not be able to do it or that I will suffer very badly. I trained, doing some crossfit for six months (very low level because I couldn’t carry a 2kg dumbbell when I started – not a lie), hoping to get stronger and ready. I don’t know if I got ready but I loved crossfit and I miss it a bit already.
On the morning of February 7th, we packed our bags, made our sandwiches and snacks for the next four days and headed to the pier of Te Anau Downs. It is not a huge one at all, there is nothing there except the parking lot. I felt a mix of excitement and anxiety. Going to the unknown, in a big adventure. No turning back after stepping into this boat that was for sure.
The boat was one hour long where we had a nice view over the Te Anau lake and some weird ducks called the great crested grebe.
Backpacks are ready!
Where MacKinnon’s ship is supposed to have sink.
Milford Track's hike profile
Day one on the Milford Track starts when you step out of the boat
I thought it was a joke when they told us that the berth was under water in the morning and it might still be. AHAH, no joking on the Milford. When they say it can rain a lot, it RAINS A LOT. You can even be stuck into one hut because of it. And in facts, the adventure started out of the boat. We had to remove our hiking boots, put our pants up and walk in the cold water that had taken over the berth. Yep, we were on the right track!
The first day was expected to be quite easy (only one hour and a half of flat land) but I was quite eager to reach the first hut and discover what was to see on the way.
The Clinton river we followed was as clear as the other rivers we saw in New Zealand. You can see the bottom of them, the trees that are sink into them and even the fishes.
We passed a big hut about half an hour into the walk and we learned that there was two kind of walk for the Milford Track: The Freedom walkers (like us) and the Guided Walks. We learned it in a hut but historically, the Milford Track has always been a guided hike until 1968 where it opened up to freedom walkers. The difference (except for the price) between the two is quite huge. Guided walked don’t have to carry anything except their clothes and their bottle of water. Everything else is included: food is carried by the guides for lunch, food is made for them at night, they have real beds like in hostels, they have hot showers with soap included and they have snacks in different huts. Oh and they have one more night at the end of the four days in a hotel on the Fjord.
The guided walks first hut
The walk was quite easy, going into a mystic forest, lighten up by the sun light on the trees. We went through a wet land which is when a lake comes to the end of its life and the moss takes over the ground and the trees grow on it later on. It was very pretty (very short detour).
The Wet Land
The Wet Land
The Wet Land
The Wet Land
The best part about the first hut was the ranger running it. He gathered everyone around by the end of the afternoon in order to take us through the forest around and tell us more about the vegetation (a pepper tree, poisonous berries), the birds (how friendly some are) and the history of the hut. Apparently only a few meters away, there is a part of the forest where you can see the glow worms. But you would have to stay up late to see them as the sun comes down late. It is also the perfect spot to see the stars on a clear night. Such a shame I didn’t bring my “stars” lenses with me, thinking we wouldn’t see them because of the clouds!
View from the Helipad
Around the hut
Around the hut
Around the hut
What I loved about this hut was the helipad. Every Wednesday, a helicopter comes in to bring what the huts need on the track and brings back with it all the trash (including the toilets one). The one on the first hut was the best one. It is a little bit out of the hut (walking a few meters) in the middle of the wet land, surrounded by the mountains. What a view. It felt in the middle of nowhere. There was only 39 people around us and the weather was such a delight. How lucky we were! Apparently summer has not been nice this year so far in New Zealand and the first day on the Milford Track was perfect (as the other days but I don’t want to say too much).
The Robin bird
Inside the hut
The dehydrated food. It looks weird when it's dry but it is actually surprisingly good!
Day two makes you walk the distance
We wanted to wake up early in the mornings in order to not be taken by time (I take a lot of picture and walk very slowly). We started the hike about 6:55AM. It was freezing outside but we though we would get warm quickly walking (possibly up). Ouh what a mistake. Two hours later, the sun was still not up in the valley (because of the mountains) and it was still very cold in the forest. I had to heat up my fingers by moving them very quickly before they start freezing!
I think there is a tree on the road
When we got out of the rain forest, the sun was starting to break through in the valley and it was the most amazing view we could have had.
Surprising red water
The whole walk through the valley was thrilling. Walking between those mountains on that historic path that they found while looking for a way to bring more people to see the magnifique Milford Sound.
What I loved about that part was all the birds we could see and all of those who climbed on Alexis’ shoes. Those birds are called the Robins.
They are very friendly and interested by the food you have on you (no, not the bread… The sandflies!). They will fly to your feet (if you can stand still) to eat the sandflies that are on your shoes or the mud that you have too. To tell another story, I almost got one on my head if I hadn’t screamed. I was taking a picture of this cutie.
When he stared at me for a minute (yes I swear he stared!) before flying towards me without any warnings. Of course I screamed and got scared! Poor bird. He just wanted to help me.
I told you he was starring! That was a second before he flew towards me.
A little trick if you want to try to get one on your feet is to move the ground next to you. By doing so, you will put the food they are after on top and they will fly right next to you.
The track was very flat during most of it until the last few kilometers when we started climbing up a bit, arriving near the Mackinnon Pass where the second hut was.
This section can transform in a big river when flooded. They even put emergency bridges but they also can be flooded.
We got there by 1:30PM and ate our lunch there. Once again, what a great spot! This time there was no wide opening like in the previous one where the helipad was. We were right in the middle of the mountains.
This hut had two helipads!
This hut has smaller bunk rooms which is way better because it means less noise (and less snores – true story!). The ranger (Laura) also gave us a little hut talk about the birds, what we were going to see the next day (the biggest day), some advice and some historic details about this hut too.
Can you spot the little bird?
Next to the hut, we could continue the path a bit to the helipad (which is a bit further) and you end up seeing river/lake (where they say you can swim) and the way we had to go the next day.
There it is! The MacKinnon Pass
Day three is the most demanding
Maybe it is not the biggest distance you will have to walk but it is the hardest because day three is the day to walk the Mackinnon Pass and go up to 1154m. If the winds or the rains come out, it can be quite tricky.
We woke up VERY early that day. It was not even 6AM, we could still see the morning stars in the sky. Because Yes! For the third day in a row (not seen this season yet) we were going to have a beautiful sunny day.
The hut is right in the trees on the right of this valley next to the lake.
Felling a bit chill though and not wanting to repeat the previous day, we put some more clothes, gloves and even a beanie. We left around 6:30AM and got hot very quickly. The path indeed started to go up quite soon and for a while (two hours). I thought it was going to be harder but the slope is less important than on Roy’s Peak for example.
Big strange flowers
I wanted to be up the Mackinnon Pass first. I don’t know why but I wanted to be up there alone (well with Alexis!) and see the sun rise over the Pass and the valley.
What a magical moment. We started by seeing the sun rise over the mountains and the valley. I had never seen something quite so beautiful before. I think I wouldn’t be able to give it justice by describing it though so I will put the pictures to speak for themselves.
We continued the path up until we finally saw it. Two hours later, the MacKinnon memorial. Oh boy. Wasn’t it beautiful to see the sun light move through the Pass up to the Memorial like that. I think it was the highlight of the hike for me and probably the highlight of all the tracks that we haven’t even done yet.
On top of the Pass, they build a shelter from where you can see the Valley we just came from. They also built the toilets “with the most beautiful view”. And there is.
Apparently somewhere in China, there are also some toilets like that, except that the door is at the back and there is no window or no wall when you are sitting on the toilets because you are on the top of a cliff so there is no way anyone can do a tour in front to see you.
The metro station they installed two years ago in order to have accurate weather conditions of the pass
That’s not a kiwi! It’s a weka. A bit like the Kea, they are quite curious and this one wanted to eat my bag!
Anyhow, after that Pass you start going down, and down, and down, and down. The slope is not too bad but the path is filled with rocks so it is quite hard on the knees and ankles. The rangers told us that most of the injuries happen during the down part.
The bridges with green hand rails are removed by helicopter during winter
We stopped in front of some beautiful “river falls” on the way down, the last part of it is the most beautiful one (about two hours down), before reaching the shelter in front of the third guided walk hut. Free tea, free coffee, free hot chocolate!
Can you see the Kea? Because he sees you (and your bag, and your shoes, and your jacket!)
This is a resting area where freedom walkers can let their bags in order to go see the Sutherland falls (580m, highest of New Zealand). It’s about an hour and a half return.
AH. If you weren’t already dying by the up and down of the Pass, this will kill your feet. I thought it was going to be a nice little walk to the waterfall but indeed you have to climb big stairs to get there (not all the way, not too much but still).
Take a raincoat with you because you can go pretty close to the fall and it gets wet! But it is so beautiful.
There is a crazy guy (Quill) that wanted to give his name to the lake on top of the falls that climbed on the side of the waterfall in order to reach the top. (Crazy guy!).
After that section, you’re in for a long walk down to the next hut. They say it takes only an hour to reach it. Let me tell you that it is the longest hour of the day. Oh my god. It was never ending! Tired by the eight or nine hours of walk already done we couldn’t see the end.
That’s a mess!
The walk was still pretty and impressive when you know where the floods can be and how high they can go but still.
The ranger told us there was a whole in the bridge so someone put a branch to help cross it.
We finally reached the last hut after a ten hour walk, feet hurting really bad. It was my least favorite hut, maybe because it had hundreds of sandflies. Damn, we were so good without them for the last few days. We even thought sandflies in the Milford Sound were a myth. AHAH. In the Milford Track maybe but the closest we got to the Sound, the more they were.
That’s how they build the road back after heavy rains
Day 4 made me cry
The boat was at 2PM, we had six hours to walk and it was supposed to rain heavily during the day. The ranger told us the night before that if we reached Sandfly Point from midday, we might be able to get on a earlier boat (but there was no earlier bus than the 2:30PM we were booked on).
We woke up as usual around 6:30AM and left with all our rain stuff on, prepared for a crapy rainy day. It rained a lot during the night (even waking me up) but when we left, it was not really raining anymore.
We walked quite fast, wanting to reach the boat before the rain poured. We stopped at a beautiful waterfall called MacKay waterfall. The story behind the name is that MacKay and Sutherland Falls (the highest waterfall), when they discovered this fall first, they played heads or tail to see who could give its name to it. I will let you find out who won! That is why the second one has Sutherland Falls as a name. Maybe the other one got the highest waterfall, but this one definitely got the cutest one.
On the same place that there is the waterfall, there is a rock called the bell rock because it is empty in the middle. You can go under it and stand in the middle. It was made by years of water falling in the rock, shaping it that way before somehow it got turned on the other side.
After that we mainly walked and walked, without stopping much for else than taking pictures. The weather seemed stable and the clouds and gray sky offered us some pretty nice views on the mountains of the Fjord getting closer.
I was eager for the walk to end at that point. My feet were hurting really bad, my shoulder was even worse and I wanted to make it to the end to prove to myself that I could do it. I could walk four days. I could carry my backpack for four days in a row. I could do adventure. I was not as unfit as I thought. I guess I really wanted to prove to myself something and I did.
Don’t trust them or you will walk the longest 100m of your life!
When we reached Sandfly Point, I had tears of joy in my eyes. Finally. We made it. I made it through this historical walk. We made it to Milford Sound. This Sound that I didn’t really appreciated much the first time we went there (by car) because of the number of people around and because you can’t really see the Fjord unless you are in a boat (contrary to Norway where you drive along the Fjords). I can tell you that I appreciate it way more now than then. Having walked the 56km from Te Anau Downs to it.
What an adventure. I loved every bit of it. The fact that you are surrounded by the same people for the four days makes you create a link with them. When we all reach the end, we were all congratulating each other like all of us had won something, like we had run a marathon (almost that). We were all supporting each other all the way to Sandfly Point. I think that is something that you can only experience in the Milford Track because on all the other great walks, you can go both ways.
Before closing the article, I have to warn you about Sandfly Point. They called it that because it is supposed to be the place where the goddess released the Sandflies. The story was that after creating New Zealand, the Gods thought that the Fjords were the most perfect creation they could have ever done. Also, they decided to released sandflies so people won’t be able to stop too long and they will have to keep moving (that’s exactly how sandflies feel).
And having been to Sandfly Point, I can tell you that I had never EVER EVER seen that many sandflies. WHAT A HELL. We left the shelter to get to the (small) boat that would take us back to the bus in Milford Sound, and the time we walked like ten meters, we had hundreds of them everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Even the spray wasn’t making any effect.
They say that you haven’t experienced the Milford Track if you get no rain. They say that you have to come back if you don’t get it. From my sunny experience, let me tell you that the Milford Track under the sun is so pretty and awesome. Even with not that many waterfalls. The Milford Track will stay in my feet, in my shoulder and in my heart forever.
How was your walk to the Milford?