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           Home >  Regions  > Fiordland  :

Walking The Milford Track
Article and Photographs by Pat Whitman - 18/2/00

Pat Whitman
Pat Whitman

Have you ever admired those pictures of trampers walking through beautiful forest, or standing on a mountain top gazing over valleys or glaciers, and wished it were you? Well, just before Christmas, never having tramped before, it was me, on top of the Mackinnon Pass, halfway through walking the Milford Track.

A group of five of us in our 50s and 60s decided to do the walk. The adventure starts with a boat trip up lake Te Anau and short walk to the first lodge, Glade House.After that come three days of real walking and a boat trip back to Milford Sound at the finish. Our group was lucky weatherwise. We had a clear evening for an introductory nature walk, and sunshine for the first full day.

Trampers on the track to Glade House
Trampers on the track to Glade House

The walk to Pompolona Hut
This was a flat 10 mile walk on a good path beside the Clinton river, mostly through trees, with a calendar picture at every bend. (Hint: take plenty of film. I got through 7 x 24s) You are surrounded by a backdrop of huge mountains for the whole four days.

The Clinton River and Mount Anau
The Clinton River and Mount Anau
Click here for a larger version

There are lots of tiny side tracks to investigate and it is a nature lover's paradise. I was amazed at the variety of ferns and mosses, trees and birds. The river is pale green and crystal clear, with brilliant orange stones on the bed in some parts, and we drank from it all the way along. There are occasional beaches with sand and glinting pebbles interspersed with flakes of silver mica.. Towards the end of the day we came to a lake with a high waterfall. We had a long debate on whether we'd get our boots back on if we stopped to put our feet in the water, but we took the risk and it was wonderful. Some people even swam. It was pleasant to reach the lodge about 5 o'clock, but none of us was really exhausted, just pleasantly tired after a fantastic day.

Over the Mackinnon Pass
The second day is the hardest as it is a steady climb up to the Mackinnon Pass and down quite steeply to the valley on the other side. Again there is plenty to look at on the way with changing vegetation as you climb away from the valley floor and zigzag up to the subalpine regions.

On the zigzag to the top of the Mackinnon Pass.
On the zigzag to the top of the Mackinnon Pass.

I was taken by the colour and variety of the grasses and flowers. Several sorts of daisies, yellow spikes of Maori onion, red-tinged ferns and pineapple plants, wild carrot and a delicate white plant called ourisia. I'm sure as the seasons change different things bloom. We were sad that the Mount Cook lily was over and only post-flowering buttercup knobs were visible, but the leaves are cuplike and we drank rainwater from them.

Mount Cook lily and wild carrot.
Mount Cook lily and wild carrot.

The weather at the top was misty and quite windy but we could see where we had come from, right down the Clinton valley, and even more alarming, where we had to get down to on the other side. Dolls houses and a long white airstrip were vertically below us.

At the top of the Mackinnon Pass looking down at the airstrip.
At the top of the Mackinnon Pass looking down at the airstrip.
Click here for a larger version

I loved the flattish grassy terrain at the top with numerous tarns of slate-grey water fringed with tussock and rocks. The pass is at 1154m and here the mountains were even more obvious on every side, and the height and grandeur of them was very impressive, contrasting with the huge drop to the valleys on either side of the saddle. After a quick lunch we clambered downhill. Drizzle set in, but we forged ahead, through low alpine shrubs and ferns, with waterfalls roaring alongside as we got lower.

The Sutherland Falls
Once safely down to Quinton Lodge, the walk to the Sutherland Falls is a must.

The Sutherland Falls
The Sutherland Falls
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The whole track was opened up purely to give access to them. It was hard work and uphill in parts to get there, but determination forced us on to the spectacular sight of three giant leaps of water. The best advice we were given on the trip was not to worry about getting our boots wet crossing the stream to get right behind the falls, as they'd get drenched there anyway! We waded over and clambered between the cliff face and the massive curtain of water, with accompanying noise like a jet plane's engines, and strong wind and driving spray all the way. The footing under water was uncertain and we were glad of a walking stick to give a third point of balance. Certainly a unique experience. By the time we got back for our evening meal we were tired. No one was worried when the generators were turned off at 10p.m. as a lot people were asleep already!

Milford rain!
Overnight it poured and we woke to mountainsides of moving water in every direction barely visible through the rain. It continued to pour as we left and the path was a river. Why did I worry about putting on wet boots? They were underwater in the first five minutes! The rivers from the mountains gushed across the path and we were very grateful to the strong members of the party who lent a hand as we waded through them knee deep, with our feet not landing where we'd intended because of the force of the water. The torrential rain continued, but though we were wet to the skin, our polypro clothes kept us warm. The hardest thing was keeping the camera dry, but the lens got wiped with a wet finger every now and then and miraculously most of the photos turned out well.

Sunshine at the finish
After lunch the rain eased, the waterfalls were still spectacular, the roaring turbulent river became green and swirling and sun filtered through the dripping moss, ferns and trees. By the time we made it to Lake Ada and the final walk through a palm-lined avenue to the finishing post at Sandfly Point, we were in clear sunshine and the boat trip past the Bowen Falls to Milford was just perfect.

The guided option
Our trip was a guided walk and was extremely well organised with good jackets and packs provided. (You can walk independently more cheaply, but have to carry all your own food and gear, and sleep in different huts). The guides are wonderful people, full of information and always totally positive and encouraging. They are prepared to deal with all sorts of people, problems or emergencies and glow with the enjoyment of their job. Each evening they present a slide show of the next day's features so you can recognise the landmarks on the journey through. The people in the group bond in a special way, and addresses are exchanged at the end so you can keep in touch with, or just remind yourself of, those you walked with. Accommodation is in 6-bed rooms at lodges, with all meals and packed lunches provided. The food is excellent food, as much as you can eat, with plenty of fruit and salads too. One guide joked that if you managed to lose weight on the trip, they'd refund your money!

How fit must you be?
Can you do it? Yes, if you are prepared to practise beforehand. We did 2-3 hour hikes on uneven hilly terrain for several weekends beforehand as well as shorter walks most working days. The fitter you are, the more you'll enjoy it. If you have weak knees or ankles, it helps to hire or buy adjustable walking poles, or a stout stick. The sense of achievement when you complete the journey puts you on a high that lasts, and you relive the high points whenever you look at your photos and share your experience with friends.

For more photographs taken on the Milford Track click here.

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