TRAMPING THE MILFORD TRACK
The term ‘tramp’ can mean a few things; to stomp around loudly, or a person who moves from place to place, usually lacking employment and rather down on their luck. In New Zealand the term tramp means to hike. We do not go hiking, we go tramping. And no outdoors-person can say their time in New Zealand is complete without tramping the Milford Track.
To me the term hiking has always invoked images of new shoes, walking poles, and middle-aged businessmen out for a stroll with the latest in lightweight gadgetry. However tramping makes me think of tough, comfortable boots, the smell of the New Zealand bush, and the solid weight of a sturdy pack. I can feel the tired ache in my legs, the sting of cold wind on my face, and the smell of smoke from a campfire.
In reality, there is no such distinction and it is almost childish to feel this way. I also like watching cartoons about superheroes. So what? You’re not the boss of me!
DAY ONE: 1 HOUR – 5 KMS
The ferry pushed away from the pier at Te Anau Downs and the captain introduces the passengers to the boat, telling us life jackets are provided should they be required, and the emergency exits are basically head first over the nearest handrail. The very idea of entering the water seems stupid considering it is bloody cold, even sitting in the sun. If the boat were on fire and started sinking I would refuse until the absolute last moment and complain loudly about the inconvenience.
The captain maintains a running commentary as we glide through the dark water towards Glade Wharf. “Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in New Zealand by volume” he says. “Although Lake Taupo is larger in surface area, like most other things in the North Island, it is just a little bit shallow”. Chuckles all round, even from those of us who are clearly Northerners.
We’re unloaded at the wharf and before our packs are on our backs the ferry is backing away as if anticipating our sudden realisation that we’ve forgotten our slippers and hair dryers. Everyone makes their way to the sign marking the start of the Milford Track to get a photo taken with bright cheesy smiles. Everything is great. We’re all clean and our legs don’t hurt. This feeling won’t last.
The first day is an easy one. The well-marked trail meanders along the Clinton River, through the Clinton Valley, along the Clinton Wetland Boardwalk to the Clinton Hut. A leisurely stroll for an hour through a beech forest in dappled sunlight. The sun is warm and I’m in bright spirits when I get to the hut.
During the high season the DOC huts along the Milford Track are well maintained and quite comfortable. They are also essential as you’re not allowed to camp on the Milford Track. They are kitted with mattresses, heating, toilets, basic cooking facilities, solar-powered lighting and cold running water. You didn’t read hot showers and a buffet breakfast on that list because neither were on there.
In the late afternoon sun, the ranger from Clinton Hut turns up to welcome everyone. After one look I discretely nickname him the Big Friendly Giant. He towers over me and his open, friendly demeanor is so typical of Southern New Zealand I can’t help but like him. Ducking his head under the doorway, he invites everyone along for a tour of the wetlands. Striding along the boardwalk, lancewood walking stick in hand our small group struggled to keep up without breaking into a trot. He points out various features of the wetland, while explaining the simple complexity of the ecosystem. We return once late afternoon darkens to twilight and people sit around chatting in the dining hall until it is time to sleep.
DAY TWO: 6 HOURS – 16.5 KMS
As I tuck into breakfast, the B.F.G. ducks in through the door carrying a dead possum. He starts discussing the track and weather conditions while his deceased companion swings idly from one hand. People are mesmerised by the show, as if the swinging pest has hypnotised them. In all the business conferences I have been to where where I was forced to attend exceptionally boring marketing sessions as payment for the alcohol I would consume later in the evening, I have never seen anyone capture the attention of the audience like this man and this dead marsupial.
The weather in Fiordland is the wettest in New Zealand; possibly the wettest in the world if you ignore all the places currently underwater. The rainfall is measured in metres. 6.4 metres annually. Because of this, I have in my pack a brand new rain jacket. I am somewhat disappointed the sky is uncharacteristically clear, which according to the B.F.G. is set to continue at least until the following day.
The track follows the Clinton River to it’s source and, after several hours of walking, I get the first look at Mackinnon Pass. It seems a long way away. Perhaps a fifteen minute drive in a comfortable car with heated leather seats. Or maybe a twenty minute ride in a bumpy bus with a old, clanking heater. For me and my companion trampers, it is still hours of walking.
Shortly after this, I have my first real experience with one of the local residents of the Milford Track.
In the slow moving streams of the South Island’s West Coast, there breeds a small, flying asshole. Attacking in hoards, they tear open your skin with their small barbed heads, and drink your blood until they have enough to go off and create the next generation of blood sucking assholes. It is the New Zealand Blackfly, A.K.A. the Sandfly. They are prolific. They do not care about the season. While you are slapping one, ten more are feasting on you. And you may be interested to know, only the females bite. No comment.
Luckily, not all the news is bad. They generally don’t attack if you’re moving fast enough. They also dislike wind and rain. So when you want lunch, you can either keep walking, while waving your arms around, or stop in the middle of an open, windy field in the rain. I have learned a secret though: they prefer penguin blood. Unfortunately this secret probably won’t help you very much.
The sandflies are everywhere. As I walk across the ice fields I am forced to cover up. They bite my hands, fly into my eyes, and buzz in my ears. There is nothing to do but keep walking and try to avoid screaming or they will be in my mouth too.
The bush gives way to ice fields where ice and snow are falling from the surrounding hills in small avalanches and, eventually, I walk into an area where the wind is enough to drive the sandflies away, so I get a moments respite.
Of course the sandflies are watching and waiting. They know the wind will pass and they will be free to continue their assault. I keep walking, keeping myself as covered as possible. The path gets steadily steeper and I finally reach Mintaro Hut.
People are making themselves dinner with slightly less enthusiasm than the night before. The last of the walkers trickle in as the day draws to a close, with people yelling to keep the door closed. The ranger comes in to check everyone’s hut passes and realises two people are still walking. He heads out and eventually returns with them, safe but tired. Someone mentions the sandflies not being too bad this year. They are met with death stares.
The next day will be a long one and I plan on an early night, however I am awake long enough to hear kiwi calling out to each other in the nearby trees. It is an eerie sound, which fills the night until I fall asleep.
DAY THREE – 6 HOURS – 14 KMS
This will be the worst day. I knew it before I arrived. I was not wrong. The track leads up to Mackinnon Pass. It is steep, worn, and muddy. Switchbacks zigzag up the side of the hill and before I have forgotten the taste of my breakfast, I am stripping off my jacket and reaching for my water.
This is not an extremely difficult climb, but it is by far the hardest path of the walk. While enough to get your legs burning and have you adjusting all the straps on your pack, the views are incredible and, as I hit the snow line, the sandflies disappear. Looking down along the river, I can see where I was standing two days ago. It seems much closer from up here than it did from down there.
The path eventually levels out a bit and I arrive at the memorial for the Quintin McKinnon, a simple structure made even more interesting because there are several kea hanging out on it.
Kea are a wonder. These large, green parrots are New Zealand’s problem solving, tool using, trouble makers. They are well known in New Zealand for their curiosity and their intelligence. If you do not keep a close eye on them, they will open your pack, have a look through, then fly off with anything that interests them. They are also renowned for destroying things generally for their own amusement. You will notice all the huts have warning signs to bring your boots inside. Kea are the reason.
They are a lot of fun, but just a warning, they are wild and they may not react well to a human diet. Please do not feed them.
At Mackinnon Pass people stop for a rest, including a group of guided walkers. This group have their food prepared for them before they arrive and, while I prefer to be one of those carrying my own pack, I have a moment of envy when I see someone dishing out free coffee. I give them a look of haughty contempt anyway, because that is what you deserve when someone carries your stuff for you.
After some food, I make use of the Mackinnon Pass toilet. This toilet has a very large window facing down Clinton Valley. It is definitely a toilet with a view, and I take a moment to wonder if anyone down the valley is looking back at me. Of course everyone wants a turn, so there is no time to idle.
I take one last look around the pass, shoulder my pack, and start wandering down the other side. This side is much the same as the other. The path zigzags down to the valley floor, passing several waterfalls and crossing small streams. Along the way I pass flood water markers and I think of my rain jacket, still unused in the bottom of my pack. I’m rather unimpressed with the weather, which is still depressingly sunny.
The path follows the river, passing Quinton Shelter to Dumpling Hut. I have made good time so I relax outside the hut, idly slapping at sandflies which I have almost gotten use to. From the nearby trees a coppery bird the size of a chicken wanders into the clearing; a weka. These flightless birds are fairly common in this area, though they can be fairly shy. I have never seen one before, so I’m quite excited which I’m sure the bird can sense because it immediately runs around the side of the hut.
As I sit the ranger wanders over and collects my hut pass. We fall into a an easy conversation about the hut, the sandflies and the weather. I can tell it is a conversation he has had a thousand times before, but he seems happy telling it again. He tells me people are often removed from track by helicopter when the river rises too high. I would settle for a normal amount of rain, sufficient to need a good rain jacket.
DAY FOUR – 5 HOURS – 18 KMS
Best part about the final day is that the path is mostly downhill. The worst part about the final day is knowing I am walking towards a place called Sandfly Point where the ferry will pick us up.
The path continues along the river, passing by some very pretty waterfalls. I have always liked waterfalls and always find a reason to see them, though I’m not entirely sure why. I don’t, for example, care about fireworks as I find them rather mundane. Since I have seen one skyrocket, I feel have seen them all. Even if there were a hundred going off at once, it wouldn’t be much different. Yet waterfalls excite me. I’m as full of contradictory shit as the next person.
As we get lower, flat flood plains give way to rain forest where it finally starts raining. Though barely enough to be called a light drizzle, I triumphantly pull out my rain jacket and put it to good use. It works, of course. I am sufficiently satisfied.
I have to walk further today than the other days, and while the going is easy, I am beyond ready to take my pack off when I finally get to the sign marking the end of the track. 53.5 kilometres completed over four days.
I hang around chatting to the other walkers until the ferry arrives to take us back to Te Anau Downs, where the car is waiting for me.
The walk has been beautiful. The landscapes are amazing and really showcases so many parts of this naturally beautiful part of New Zealand. And I get to say I’ve done it. Mainly that part.
- Here is the Department of Conservation website with more information on how to book to walk the Milford Track. You must book the huts and over summer they do book out quickly, so get in quick.
- Here is a really informative brochure that will give you most of the information on the Milford Track including how to get there and how to book.
- There are a couple of options for walking the Milford Track.
- Independent walkers – carry their own packs and food
- Guided walkers – have someone else carry all your stuff.
- This is a medium grade walk. Day three is a climb both up and down. You should have a reasonable level of fitness and some walking experience.
Where to stay:
Before and after the walk, the most convenient place to stay is in the nearby town of Te Anau. However, there are other towns close by as well. Kingston, for example, is 1hr 45mins drive from Te Anau Downs. I can recommend staying in a place called Lakes End Lodge. The people who own and run this lodge are awesome.
Also, slightly further away is Queenstown (which I don’t really recommend).
- People are regularly evacuated from the track via helicopter or forced to remain in the huts. Take good wet weather gear. Just because it is raining doesn’t mean you have to be miserable.
- Kea – Large parrots. Curious, intelligent and troublesome. Do not leave anything out or risk it being inspected or possible stolen.
- Kiwi – Keep an eye out in the evenings for New Zealand’s national bird.
- Weka – Coppery brown birds, the size of a chicken.
- Fantails – You are sure to spot these friendly little birds. They eat the small insects people kick up while walking so they are often flitting around as you walk through the bush. There are two colour morphs in New Zealand, the pied fantail and the rare black fantail.
- Sandflies – You will see them. Good luck trying to stop them. Covering up is the best method.
- Blue Ducks (Whio) – These incredibly rare native ducks can be seen occasionally in the rivers.
- Lots of other birds – Including morepork, kaka, tui, bellbirds, native robins, riflemen, yellow-crowned parakeets, yellowheads, tomtits, fantails and wood pigeons.
- Trout – If you’re into fishing, carry your rod and try your hand. You will need a license to fish for trout in New Zealand.