Mighty Milford

New Zealand’s Milford Track is billed as “the finest walk in the world”. It could also be called the friendliest walk in the world. Three days hiking in the wilderness with 38 strangers from around the world proved an inspiring experience.
Our group of “trampers” came from various American states, from Japan, Germany, England, New Zealand and Australia with a shared purpose, to conquer the famous Milford Track in the South Island’s Fiordland National Park. The 55 kilometre track runs from the head of Lake Te Anau across the mountains to Milford Sound.

It’s poetic licence to talk about “conquering” the Milford Track, for this is no ice-bound Himalayan expedition. And by opting for the guided walk we softies were guaranteed hot meals each night, comfortable bunk beds, a drying room for sodden clothes, lightweight backpacks carrying only bare essentials, and immediate first aid and guidance along the way.

Despite these creature comforts, the Track still presents a real challenge to anyone who is not a regular hiker. Aching feet and sore shoulders are par for the course. Poor footwear and a general lack of fitness can significantly increase one’s woe. But all this can be, and was, overcome by good spirits and a dash of willpower.

Harold, a 60-year-old doctor from Aspen, Colorado, limped the entire 55km track on a damaged, stiff ankle, the legacy of an old basketball injury. Lynne, a nurse in her 50s from Phoenix, Arizona, struggled along bravely for the last 16kms, toes rubbed raw by ill-fitting boots. These two stalwarts were the most apparent sufferers, but everyone in the group broke some pain barrier along the way, either physically or emotionally. Even, I presume, the sextet of diminutive but doughty Japanese ladies who set a cracking pace from the outset.

The Milford Track is tackled in three stages, the first day covering 16.5 kms from Glade House near the lake to Pompolona Hut, following the Clinton River up the valley. The trail adopts a gradual gradient that allows walkers to find their own pace and come to “love their backpack”, as instructed by our guide.

Much of the track is shaded by lush beech and kamahi forest canopy. There are regular enticing glimpses of snow clad grey peaks ahead, and the opportunity for rest and reverie beside the river, watching fat brown trout idle in the limpid water.

Even in this patch of Eden there is extensive evidence of the sudden, destructive power of Nature. Swing bridges carry hikers over avalanche-ravaged creeks strewn with huge granite boulders that have been washed down by floods. The average annual rainfall in the Milford region is 7500mm. A recent deluge of more than 300mm in one day had flushed great slips of mountain into the valley, instantly remodelling the landscape.

Weather is the biggest single factor influencing the Milford Track experience. We enjoyed ideal sunny weather, which was most unusual. A previous group of hikers was airlifted out when it became savagely inclement. Most trampers expect to trudge at least one day in incessant rain. In such conditions thermal wear is essential and the whole adventure more arduous.

Gigantic glacial rifts

On the second day we negotiated Mackinnon Pass, a zig zag 1154m-climb up beyond the tree line to a windswept, chilly summit, and on to the warm comfort of Pass Hut. Sublime vistas spread out before us from these heights, vast and unforgettable panoramas encompassing both the Clinton and Arthur valleys, both gigantic forested glacial rifts bathed in shifting, rippling purple shadows as clouds periodically obscured the sun.

Formidable granite peaks, their tops shrouded in mist, tower over the narrow saddle of land that constitutes Mackinnon Pass. Yellow mountain daisies, white eyebright, pink snowberry, foxglove, the occasional Mt Cook lily and mountain gentian spray pinprick splashes of colour among the tussocks of stunted alpine grasses. Close to the hut a white, woolly clump of rare South Island edelweiss was the focus of everyone’s cameras.

After lunch we tackled a descent of 900m into the Arthur Valley, heading for our overnight haven of Quintin Hut. The 3.5km descent is steep and rocky, and soon began to take its toll on our knees and legs. Once down, those with any reserve energy made a 90-minute round trip from Quintin Hut to the Sutherland Falls, which spills in three narrow flumes from Lake Quill, a spectacular 580m plunge that makes it the world’s ninth highest waterfall.

Beware the kea

The third day consists of a 22km hike, tracing the river along the Arthur Valley to Lake Ada and on to Sandfly Point, named after the tiny but ferocious insects, which are the curse of the Milford Track and certainly the most merciless wildlife encountered during the hike. Walkers carry plenty of Dimp, an effective local repellent.

More benign encounters along the trail include the putangitangi, or paradise shelduck, the flightless weka bird, and many perky, inquisitive robins, silvereyes and tomtits. Beware however of the keas, rapacious thug-like mountain parrots that hang around in gangs hoping to steal either your lunch or carry off your camera.

The Arthur Valley is arguably the most beautiful part of the walk, and pays handsome dividends for those who dawdle. Wooden walkways and the occasional bridge cross shady forest creeks filled with a tangle of vegetation, a profusion of giant ferns, mosses and liverworts, orchids, fuschia and fungus.

The magical, picturesque Mackay Falls provides a perfect spot for a meditative pause, while a lazy lunch is usually eaten on the rocks in front of the Giants Gate Falls, about 5km from Milford Sound. Sandfly Point is the end of the track. From there walkers are transported by boat to the Milford Hotel for a celebratory evening banquet.

Dawn revealed the magnificence of Milford Sound, a phenomenal sheer-sided fiord ringed by mountains, with dark waters 300m deep. Such a sight was a fitting finale to our adventure, or so we thought. The real climax, however, came during our morning cruise, when a large pod of dolphins swam into the Sound and began to frolic in the bow-waves of our boat. Close encounters simply don’t get any better than that.

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