10/21 - 10/23 2022
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Before meeting Elena last winter, I had never heard of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Like many partakers in the outdoors, New Zealand had always been renowned to me for being Edmund Hillary’s home. After deciding the two of us would head halfway around the world for a month, she discovered that the Milford track would be walkable several days before the official season began. A chance too good to be passed up.
Due to a last-minute change in my work situation, I would arrive the day before our journey began. It would be a demanding schedule of 16 hours from Seattle to Auckland, followed by a night’s sleep, another flight to the south island, and then a 4-hour drive to a trailhead. After reading about the trail, I admit I was a bit nervous that I might pass out a km or two in, but I had to give it a shot.
The weather was perfect when we first arrived at the boat dock at Tea Anau downs. The boat ride went by like a flash, and before I knew it, we were on the trail.
The first section of the trail starts off meandering through the woods. There is little elevation gain, and, at least on this day, birds were singing wildly in the trees above us.
The first hut of the trip we passed at Glade hut a mere mile into the walk is where the views started to open up. The first thing that struck me was the Clinton river. It is clear as crystal and seems to shine with bright aqua color. It reflected the forest above like a mirror, and the entire scene of crossing the first bridge made me fall into a trance as we continued walking along the Milford Track.
For the next few kilometers, Milford track winds through the woods at a gentle pace. The best spot was a short tour through some wetlands to a beautiful view of the Clinton river valley and Mount Sentinel.
After walking a little further, we decided to take our first extended break of the day at Hirere falls, where there is a shelter, and eat lunch. Oddly enough, there was a sign pointing to the covered area announcing a lunch spot, so we threw down our packs and broke out the snacks.
While eating, I got my first dose of New Zealand’s bird population. A Weka bird was pacing around us nonchalantly, looking toward our pita sandwiches. It inched closer and closer, and all I could do was marvel at its lack of fear. The entire time we were eating, it hovered and, at one point, almost climbed onto my lap. It was odd running into a bird this fearless.
After lunch, we headed further up the Milford Track. Once the forest diminishes, the Clinton river valley’s views get better and better with every step. There are a few side hikes to some small lakes with waterfalls that were a nice break. Take your time to enjoy it before reaching Minataro hut.
Minataro hut was my first experience with a New Zealand camping arrangement. The large kitchen was excellent, and the fireplace for warmth was a welcome change from sleeping in a tent, but the sleeping part was a little bit tough. The night was a snoring competition between the other six hikers in the room. I could swear my bed shook at one point.
After multiple plane flights, jet lag, and a 20-plus kilometer day of hiking, I slept for a mere two hours. Not the best start to walking the Milford Track…
Day two started with Elena waking up late. I couldn’t sleep, so I was sitting and reading my kindle copy of “Training for the New Alpinism” when she woke. Other hikers had been slamming the doors all morning, making me lose faith in the idea of sleeping in huts with strangers.
From everything I read before the hike, day two was supposed to be one of the best stretches of the Milford Track. While the first short section is easy, it picks up pace and heads uphill for around 400 meters. By North Cascades standards, 400 meters isn’t much, but in my depleted state and with light rain falling, I felt like a zombie marching uphill.
Luckily the views start to open about halfway to the top of the main climb. From this perspective, the Clinton River valley begins to look immense. The steep, glacier-carved valleys and prominent peaks took my mind off the lack of strength left in my legs
At the top of the very steep hill, the trail winds along the ridge for a moment before reaching the shelter at McKinnon pass. From this location, the entire sprawling Clinton river valley is visible to the south and the Arthur river valley to the Northeast. The sea of mountains looks staggering and it was hard to believe many of the peaks are less than 2000 meters. They look like giants rising out of the valleys.
On this particular day, the wind at McKinnon pass was tough to walk in, and combine with the cold air being pushed over the hills it made staying there uncomfortable. Luckily there is a well-maintained shelter perched right near the high point to sit in and enjoy the view. No matter what I would recommend planning to stay here for a bit, eat some lunch drink a little tea and absorb the breathtaking views. McKinnon pass was a clear highlight of the Milford track. Soak it in while you have the chance
After the pass, the trail quickly descends into the Arthur river valley. After just a few hundred feet the wind subsided, the rain stopped and the sun came back out.
Since the official season had not begun there was a section of trail just below McKinnon pass where there is a break in the trail. The official sign said there was avalanche danger along the normal route and to take a small, barely noticeable, side trail to get down into the valley.
When we approached several other hikers were attempting the small side trail and it looked miserable. Elena and I both agreed that there was very little snow along the standard route and decided to bypass the fence blocking the trail.
Once down into the valley again the trail continues to wind along the river bank. There are multiple waterfalls to stop and gawk at, a hundred places for some selfies, and plenty to keep the mind busy. The trail is well-cut the entire way.
The trail up to Sutherland falls is easy to walk and much like the rest of Milford Track is very well maintained. While the trail is not that interesting itself, Sutherland Falls is worth the short trek. It is several hundred meters high and quite a sight to behold cascading down into the river valley.
Absolutely the worst part of day two was Quintin lodge. After checking out the falls we stopped to eat a snack at the lodge and tried to sit outside. I had heard about the sand flies from Elena and her friend Pavel but the experience of dealing with them was a nightmare. They are tiny and swarm you anytime you stop moving. Even the oil repellent Elena gave me seemed to do little to assuage them.
It did not take long before I was ready to leave and go anywhere else.
The next sleeping spot at Dumpling Hut was a fast walk and while it was not as luxurious as the previous nights, having a bed and a kitchen was still a welcome experience. By only my second night in New Zealand’s backcountry, I already felt going back to the Cascades style of tent camping was going to be a tough sell.
The second night had a lot less snoring, more sleep, and plenty of tea while watching the rain get started. We knew the third day was going to be rainy so it was nice to spend the evening warm and dry.
When we woke up it was pouring rain. Growing up around a rain forest I thought I had seen hard rain, but today I learned what hard rain is. I wish I could describe how intense it was but it was rough.
It was bad enough that despite the beautiful waterfalls that grew out of nowhere along the hillside we spent several hours essentially running toward the end of the hike.
By the time we reached the sand fly point pickup spot, there was nothing left on me that was dry anymore.
Once we were finally inside for the day, dry warm and staring out the window at the deluge of rain it was much easier to reflect on the walk.
The views along Milford track were incredible, and the wildlife (mostly bird) encounters were a fun experience. But getting out of that rain and watching the deluge of new waterfalls continuously spring up was one of my favorite moments of hiking ever. I will never complain about rain again…