Remote and rugged, magical Milford knocked our hiking socks off. I understand now why it is one of New Zealand's nine Great Walks, routinely touted as “the finest walk in the world” and has UNESCO World Heritage status.
A rare combination of ancient rain forests, rushing rivers and jagged, misty peaks, this 53.5 km trail journeys through the vast wilderness of the Fiordland National Park in the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. The scenery was so surreal, it felt like I’d stepped into JRR Tolkien’s imaginary world of Middle Earth – and, in fact, I had. Scenes from both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies were filmed there.
Imagine, if you will, a gentle path that passes through a thick rain forest of twisted beech trees dripping in feathery moss. The branches overhead join like crooked fingers to create a canopy above and, in the distant, you can hear a crashing waterfall. Cheeky little Bush Robins hop boldly around your legs, knowing your scuffing feet will uncover insects for their lunch. Their sweet birdsong blends with the buzz of cicadas and surrounding you - in that fifty shades of green - is the dank, earthy smell of forest. Honestly, it was so darn atmospheric I could have sworn the place was enchanted!
Each day in the trekking season, the authorities allow only ninety hikers to begin this tramp (Kiwi term for “hike”): forty independently and fifty as part of a more expensive guided group. The trail never felt crowded though. The Track is only one way, the scale of the terrain is enormous and the accommodations are spread out.
The independent walkers - mostly hardy youngsters staying in rudimentary dormitories (think: snoring bunk-mates and down-the-hall, shared bathrooms) - had to carry their own bedding, food and libations for the whole trek.
Sound like fun? We didn’t think so either. We’re getting a bit beyond the "roughing-it" stage. We chose the more civilized option - damn the expense!
Our group was a potpourri of nationalities. There was a lively, fun-loving bunch from Southern India who had lived in Auckland for the past twenty years. Another large contingent hailed from Japan and graciously shared their Saki over dinner. There were Americans, Koreans, an Aussie, a German and a whole passel of Kiwis. We were the only Canadians. Being part of a guided group didn’t impact our speed. Everyone travelled at their own pace and, for the record, I don’t think I was ever dead last – although it could have been close!
Our four guides were awesome. Their teasing rivalry (New Zealand vs. Australia) kept us entertained. In one evening briefing, while warning us about Keas (the world’s only alpine parrot), Kiwi guide Ella, said, “Don’t leave anything around. Keas are mischievous and will steal right out of your backpack. They are said to have the intelligence of a three-year old Kiwi child.” Smiling, she added, “…or a five-year old Aussie.”
Our lodges had no internet, phones or electricity, but we did have power produced by a generator from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm (sharp!). The gourmet meals were delicious and, every night at dinner, we could purchase a lovely selection of local wines (that we didn’t have to carry in on our backs).
We were always in a private room with an en-suite and flushing toilet – much more refined than the “New Zealand Long Drops” on the trail! And while the lodges were not the Four Seasons, they were warm, welcoming and, most importantly, dry!
Milford Sound is a place that’s all about the water and the dramatic landscapes it creates. With an average annual rainfall of 7 meters (that’s almost 23 feet in a year, folks!), it is one of the wettest places on the planet. We were lucky. We were on the Track for five days, three of which involved serious hiking, and had only one inclement day. Lamentably, that day turned out to be our most demanding.
An experienced, reasonably fit hiker would consider the Milford, at least in favourable conditions, not particularly challenging. But so much depends on the unpredictable weather. Oh... and add to that - the state of that hiker’s body parts. Many trampers finish with sprained ankles, but according to Guide Jodi, I have the dubious honour of being the very first to start with one. I’m also the first to carry a robo-boot in my backpack for the hike’s duration. In both instances, being first would not be my first choice.
So, here’s my Milford survival story!
Only Don attended the mandatory Pre-Track Briefing the day before in Queenstown. I didn't want the guides to realize I was injured and kick me out of the group before we even got to the trail.
On Day 1, we travelled 3+ hours by bus and boat to get to the remote trail head. After that, the hike to Glade House (our home for the night) was a mere kilometre - but that was a kilometre more than I’d walked since I’d hurt my ankle days before leaving for New Zealand (see: my last blog, She’ll Be Right, Mate!). For obvious reasons, I also gave the “optional” bush tramp that afternoon amiss.
The second day was flat and a good trail, but it was sixteen kilometres. Without the robo-boot, I was walking tentatively but I didn’t think anyone would notice. At lunch, Guide Jodi said, “I can strap that up for ya!” So much for my little secret. Her taping job worked its magic and I had no problems that day.
The next morning - when the lights came on with the generator at 6:00 am - it was torrential. Water poured off the roof of the mist-engulfed lodge. Repeating the mantra: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”, we donned our rain gear, again Jodi “strapped up” my slightly swollen ankle and Guide Ella dispensed anti-inflammatories and pain killers. We were off to conquer MacKinnon’s Pass - a 15 kilometre hike, with a climb to the summit and descent down the other side.
Nature amply compensated us for the soggy conditions. When it rains in Milford, waterfalls come out to play. It was like magic! Hundreds of them appeared, gushing down the granite cliffs high above us. Some started so far up the mountain, the silver threads of water were dispersed by wind into the mist before they hit the sea - an unforgettable sight!
With the turbo-boost from my morning meds, I scrambled up the trail and reached the summit feeling fairly chipper, even though the wind was howling and the incessant rain had turned to sleet at the top. After a cozy lunch at Pass Hut, we dragged ourselves back into the cold and started our windy descent. It was steep, rocky and treacherous in the wet conditions.
The footing was so unstable, I didn’t trust my injured ankle on the wobbly stones. To protect it, I continually led with my other leg - a classic case of compensation! By the time I limped into the lodge that evening, my “good” foot was raw, swollen, blackened and bloody. Only my little toe came out unscathed.
Before breakfast the next day (our last of hiking), I had two guides working on me. Jodi taping up my now very swollen ankle and Ella concurrently treating the black toes and blood blisters on my other foot. By that time, they were as invested as I was in getting me to the end of the trail. Helicopter extraction was the only other (embarrassing and expensive) alternative!
Thanks to my Medical Team (and good drugs), that final 21 km tramp was better than the day before…plus, the scenery provided a beautiful distraction. When we reached our destination, Sand Fly Point, the famous little blood suckers from which the place got its name, attacked all things uncovered. I can tell you from personal experience their voracious bites itch for days!
The grand finale occurred the next day and, thankfully, did not involve my poor feet. We sat back, relaxed and enjoyed spectacular Milford Sound from the deck of a ship, where we cruised the skinny finger of deep indigo waters to the Tasman Sea and back. Playful bottle-nosed dolphins rode our waves and seals basked in the sunshine on the rocky bluffs beside our boat. All the while, we were surrounded by sheer granite cliffs that soared above us for kilometres into the clouds. It was simply stunning! Photos don’t do the place justice.
So there you have it…New Zealand’s iconic Milford Track: CHECK!
Was it worth a bit of collateral damage? ABSOLUTELY!
That’s all for now, Mates! We just finished an incredible 9-day bike trip down the wild West Coast of South Island. In a belated attempt to be E-asy on my battered body, I exchanged my road bike for an E-bike., but SHHH.....don't tell my biking buddies - they'll tease! And please stay tuned, I have lots more stories to share! Cheers for now…