The second of our 9 Great Walks was the Milford Track, a hike we'd been wanting to do for a decade now. Before starting the 9 Great Walks in 9 Weeks challenge, it was probably the hike we were looking forward to the most. It's an iconic track and we've heard so many people say it is their favourite walk in the world.
However, we weren't quite so sure how much we were going to enjoy it when we saw the forecast...
Yep, that was a forecast of over 150mm of rain across four days. Turns out the forecast was childs-play, we were going to see half the annual rainfall of London in one day!
The Milford Track
The Milford Track was "discovered" (Europeans always liked discovering things which others knew about for centuries) in 1888 when looking for an overland path from Te Anau to Milford Sound. It quickly became very popular with tourists who initially had to walk all the way back as well!
Nowadays the Milford Track is a 53.5km track over 4 days. The trail was coined as "The Finest Walk in the World" by the Spectator and with the diversity of the track it's easy to see why. It's become so popular that a season's worth of hikes sell out in hours (we had to book at 9.01am the day the track went on sale to ensure we could get on it!). One of the people we met on the hike had tried every year for five years to get onto the track and had only just succeeded.
It starts from the far north of Lake Te Anau, following the Clinton River into the heart of Fiordland National Park, before crossing the MacKinnon Pass and then joining the Arthur River all the way to Milford Sound. If you/re interested in the logistics and practicalities of walking the trail, we've written a post on everything you need to know to hike the Milford Track.
Day 1: Te Anau - Clinton Hut
1 hour 15 (mainly because of photo stops!)
Apple Watch Says
We woke up excitedly on the first day only to see a deluge of rain out the window. So the forecast was correct, damn. As this was a short day we had booked on to the 1pm ferry crossing so there was time for a big brunch in Te Anau. We spend quite a bit of time in Te Anau and the Sandfly cafe was our fave if you're looking for a nice cafe in town.
As we hopped in the car to head towards Te Anau Downs it was still pouring but as we arrived at the wharf the rain gods looked favourably on us and the clouds parted for some beautiful blue skies! We left our car at the ferry terminal and hopped on the boat that would take us to the start of the trail in just over an hour.
On the boat we felt the full brunt of the wind that had cleared the rain and it kicked up the water from the lake soaking everyone who was outside. We headed downstairs to take in the stunning mountains that surround Lake Te Anau and would be a permanent fixture of our trek. With clear blue skies, it was the perfect way to start a track and there was a great vibe on the boat with everyone looking forward to getting on the world famous track.
Starting the Milford Track
After making it to Glade Wharf, we took one last look at the lake before heading on the trail. The first day trail is as leisurely as it gets on all of the Great Walks. A simple 5km walk along a very flat and defined trail. If you're thinking this is too easy and you'd like to skip it you actually can't, the Milford Track is the only one of the 9 Great Walks that you must follow the set route and stay in each of the three designated huts.
It's a beautiful way to start as you walk alongside the stunningly clear Clinton River, where you can see to the bottom of the river no matter how deep. After a kilometre we saw what we could have had if we stumped up the cash: the lodge of the guided walkers. For a hefty fee, you'd get a private room, ensuite showers, cooked meals and a pretty luxurious experience all round. Instead, we were headed to a 20 person dorm!
The trail meanders through beautiful forest before going up a small verge and arriving at Clinton Hut. We had a pretty leisurely evening, cooking dinner (can you call boiling instant noodles cooking?!) before heading out on the 5pm nature walk.
The walk is led by a ranger and free to join, it lasted around an hour and was a great way to learn more about the native flora and fauna. If you're thinking that an extra walk before the three big days coming up is too much, it's actually only around 500m walking, lots of the cool plants are actually very close to the hut.
Pretty much everyone heads to bed early on the Great Walks and this one was no different. Sadly, the evening chorus of snoring hikers made for little sleep! The DOC Hut sleep deprivation is something we're going to struggle with throughout the whole challenge. Ear plugs just don't seem to cut it. We also never seem to beat the snorers to sleep either, why do they always manage to nod off first?!
Day 2: Clinton Hut - Mintaro Hut
214 metres elevation
Apple Watch Says (Apple Watch had a hard time of it and died before the end!):
The night before, the hut warden had told us to expect a lot of rain that would be arriving after 9am and go for the whole day. We tried to leave as early as possible and for the first two hours we were lucky to have just a smattering of rain. We were hopeful that the forecast had been overstated.
The path started in the forest once more, a beautiful stretch of green vegetation with moss, ferns and beautiful trees that opened to the river every 100 metres or so. Soon we came out into the spectacular Clinton Valley, where you literally walk in between mountains roaring with waterfalls.
It was around then that the heavens really opened. We put on the rain covers on the bags and our wet weather gear, but it didn't stop rain getting through! (Top tip - use pack covers and pack liners, no pack cover can cope with Fiordland rain!)
It was a storm that was relentless in its intensity. Having broken our camera once already hiking in the rain in Mount Cook we sadly didn't take as many photos as we'd have normally done, but trust us it was spectacular!
The benefit to the rain was just how many waterfalls we saw, the surrounding mountains were funnelling all the water through and creating a scene that felt like strolling through Jurassic Park. We spoke to other people who have walked the Milford Track in dry weather and they didn't see any waterfalls on this stretch so silver linings...
The flip side to this beauty was that rivers were created, the lakes were rising and there was a risk of the path flooding. We soon had to take the emergency paths and bridges to avoid swollen river crossings. We picked up the pace to try and get to the forest areas for some tree cover.
A brief respite
We soon made it to Prairie Shelter, a small cover to take a break from the rain. By now our hands had pruned and our boots and socks were full of water (even though they are waterproof, the rain had streamed off our clothes and gone in through the top). The views were spectacular as the mountains were alive with waterfalls, but the hut had a resident we would soon become very familiar with: the sandfly.
For those who don't know, sandflies are tiny and they are vicious! Think of mosquitoes but they swarm in big numbers and leave bite marks that don't go away for over a week. These littler blood suckers will find any patch of skin left uncovered and if you have none then they go for the face! So we had the choice of going out in the pouring rain or staying in the dry and being eaten alive. A few snacks later and we were back on the trail!
From here the track starts heading uphill but apart from a river crossing or two, it was all in the beautiful NZ forest. You could see how this whole area flourishes from the rain with barely an inch of ground not being taken by some moss, tree or plant. The paths had turned into small streams and we saw how this whole area really was a place that embraced nearly nine metres of rain per year (it's one of the wettest places in the world!).
Getting to the hut
After five hours in the hammering rain, we finally saw the sign for Mintaro Hut. We both let out an audible sigh of relief that we would be in the dry, by a fire and out of the rain. I've never been so happy to see a hut in my life! despite wearing excellent gear by this point the flooded boots and socks were beginning to rub and blisters are the one thing you really want to avoid on a multi day hike.
The rain continued all afternoon and in the evening and the hut warden spoke the words you never want to hear when you have just eaten rather a big dinner: 'conserve your food, you might not be leaving here tomorrow'. This isn't uncommon on the Milford Track as you literally can't see the track when the rivers get to a certain level and it's just too dangerous to allow people to walk.
On the Milford if one part of the track floods then no one in any of the three huts can move. You all stay put until the whole track can be walked, whilst this would be a pain in the neck for us, it would be devastating for those who had booked to start the walk the next day and would therefore lose the opportunity to hike altogether.
We had plenty of time in the hut that day as we hadn't dawdled on the trail and we were entertained by lots of Weka all around the hut. Look out for these cheeky birds when you get to Mintaro. If you're stuck in the rain too, the hut also has a great book on the Milford Track right from its conception. Women actually used to hike this trail in heels, and the rivers weren't bridged! Imagine that!
Day 3: Mintaro Hut - Dumpling Hut (including Sutherland Falls sidetrack)
9 hours 35
Apple Watch Says:
The rain only got heavier overnight and was unlike anything we've ever seen. It didn't even have a brief break and the noise on the roof at least masked any unwelcome human grunts.
Everyone met in the kitchen at 7am to hear out fate. We all feared the worst. We could not believe it when the ranger said it was likely that we could continue the trail, and she'd be back at 8.30pm to let us know for certain. There had been 198mm of rain in the last 24 hours, yep that's 1/3 of London's annual rainfall! Double the expected forecast and this has a multiplying effect due to it all being channeled into the valley. Luckily for us the rivers rise at a rapid rate in Fiordland but they also fall quickly too, great news.
At 8.30am it was confirmed we could walk and everyone was keen to set off before anyone changed their minds!
Starting the track
After we had the all clear to go, we were staggered to find that the rain abruptly stopped 15 minutes after we hit the track, and even more astounding glimpses of blue sky appeared! We also found that our boots were still drenched and wouldn't dry out for the remainder of the track. You win some, you lose some.
The day started with a brief flat section before 11 switchbacks (with 6 mini switchbacks in the middle) and the climb to the MacKinnon Pass. This area is legendary in New Zealand hiking and it was this pass that was discovered to join the path from Lake Te Anau and the Arthur River (which leads to Milford Sound), thus creating the Milford Track.
Although it was never too steep, the path continued gradually up, passing through the newly formed streams and waterfalls and gave us better and better views of the valley we could barely see the day before.
Even the steepest part of the trail is not too taxing and before you know it you've reached the highest part of the track, nudging over 1,000 metres. We'd been expecting it to be a pretty hefty climb but it is definitely doable for anyone of average fitness.
The MacKinnon Pass
The view from the MacKinnon Pass is probably the most iconic view on the Milford Track and it's hard to really convey our elation that we'd got a brief window of sunshine for this view. We felt that being hammered by the rain yesterday was worth it to see this incredible vista of the surrounding mountains and valley below.
The fact that we expected to see nothing but cloud really made it one of those beautiful moments in life. It's something we'll never forget.
It's also home to a toilet with possibly the greatest view in the world. However, even this toilet wasn't immune to queuing! Leave the toilet door open for best results - everyone does this and it's completely shielded from all but the mountains. : )
The path then starts descending pretty largely on a rubbly track. It's made trickier after the rain and at one point we genuinely saw someone turn their ankle and fly off the path. Luckily this was a section that didn't have a sheer drop, so the hiker landed in the ditch next to the path.
With a bit of help they were back on their feet. This was the most challenging part of the whole walk due to very slippery conditions and for those who find steep descents tricky, we would definitely recommend taking walking poles.
After a brief stint across a bolder field (something no one likes), we were back into the forest and walking alongside the Roaring Burn. After a lot of rain, we could see how it got its name and the river thundered next to the path for the next few kilometres. The forest here is truly spectacular and will wow you almost as much as the huge mountain views. It is dripping in moss and ferns and gives the feeling that you are wandering through a fairy tale.
There's plenty of photo opportunities along this section and on this day in general. It is possibly the most spectacular days hiking we have ever done. Within a few hours you go from valley, to mountain pass, to a boulder field and ancient forest with roaring river. To say the Milford Track is diverse is an understatement.
Sutherland Falls (side trip)
The Apple Watch ticked over to 14km and we were feeling pretty exhausted by the time we got to the turn off for Sutherland Falls. For 10 minutes we stared at the sign that said:
The Milford Track
<- Sutherland Falls 45 Mins
-> Dumpling Hut 1 hour
We were really keen to see the tallest waterfall in New Zealand, but our legs were desperate not to add a 1 hour 30 minute detour to a day that had already been five hours long. It was so tempting to just hike to the hut and turn in for the night, but a couple who were scarily positive for this time of day, convinced us to go to the day shelter and chill for a while to see if it helped.
It was the best piece of advice ever, for more than one reason.
We arrived to find that the guided walking company had left tea, coffee and hot chocolate for the independent walkers to enjoy! At this stage of the day this was a sight for sore eyes. Boosted by caffeine, we temporarily ditched the packs and flew across the trail with a new lease of life. After three days with 15kg on your back, you feel like you can almost run along the path to the falls.
Just like everywhere else on the Milford Track, Sutherland Falls came alive after the heavy rain. Even from a kilometre away you could hear the roar of the falls, which sounded just like a jet engine.
As you approach, you get blasted by the water and blown away by the pressure. It was so powerful that you can only get close for a minute before being drenched from head to toe! It was also where we discovered the myth of the travelling rain coat is actually true.
There is a green Argentinian waterproof that travels up and down the track to the falls, each person passes it on when they finish and we were lucky enough to be the recipient, and boy do you need it!
After a sit down and a chat with some fellow trampers in the sunshine back at the shelter it was time to finish that last hour back to the hut.
Heading to Dumpling Hut
The cold water refreshed our spirits and exhausted legs, and we found that we were several times faster walking on our detour than on the trail. We picked up our packs and flew down the last part of the track to Dumpling Hut, another DOC hut set within a stunning landscape.
However, the sandflies were there and waiting. We still have the bites to show how much they enjoyed their feast... bring strong repellent and cover up.
Don't be surprised to see the water at this hut come out of the tap in a pale shade of tea colour, it looks odd but tastes great and it's apparently just the tannins. All the water on the track and at the huts is safe to drink and tastes delicious, fresh waterfall water is hard to beat!
Day 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point
4 hours 42
Apple Watch says:
The day started with all the return of the overcast skies and a persistent drizzle that reminded us of the UK. Sadly this didn't go away for the whole day.
The trail was as straight forward as they come. A really well formed path that was pretty flat for the majority of the trail. All the way we could see signs of just how high the river had risen in the last couple of days. It was this stretch of track that nearly held us all up two days previously as a lot of the rain funnels into this river and the path is pretty close to it.
By now the effects of hiking over 50km, mostly in soaking wet boots had hit. Not only were our legs hurting from the distance and our shoulders from the packs, but our feet were getting pretty sore and swollen. It's a shame, because we were so keen to get to the comfortable hotel we booked and get out our sodden clothes, that we seemed to speed through the final day. The dire weather added to this, but it's not the ideal way to finish one the best hikes in the world.
We soon arrived at the Giant Gate Falls, which was in full flow, blasting anyone within 100 metres. It was here that we got our first waft of Citronella as everyone was putting on the repellent to fight the deluge of sandflies. If you stand right near the spray then they won't get you but anywhere else you're fair game.
It wasn't long after when we saw the 53.1km marker: only 400 metres to go! However, this 400 metres seemed to actually be 1.4km... Strangely all the track measurements seemed to be incorrect as Sandfly Point took nearly 20 minutes to get to from this point. That's 20 minutes on very tired feet, I'm sure you could walk it quicker!
The end of the track is a bitter sweet moment. It's sweet because you can reflect on what you've done, a hike that is beautiful and a once in a lifetime experience. It's bitter because you're surrounded by a thousand sandflies while you wait for the boat (it's called Sandfly Point for a reason). There is a completely enclosed shelter but they will waft in as each person comes and goes. You make the final leg of the journey to Milford Sound by boat, which takes all of six minutes, albeit six very beautiful minutes. We definitely advise spending at least one night in Milford Sound as it's such a stunning spot. We felt sorry for the people hopping straight on a bus to Te Anau and missing this grand finale.
There is so much hype around the Milford Track that it was going to be pretty tough to live up to our expectations. But it did. It truly is a magnificent walk and the most beautiful way to really get a feel for the landscape. Four days in the wilds of Fiordland National Park is not something you will ever forget. I mean they call it the finest walk in the world after all.
It's also got the advantage that you stay in the huts with the same people each day because you can't walk the track any quicker or in the reverse direction. We had such a lovely group of people on this track and it really added to the experience that we got to spend three nights with them. You'll also find most people spend the night you finish the walk at the Milford Lodge (the only accommodation at Milford Sound) so you get to meet up again for drinks post hike. All in all this hike is going to be hard to beat.
If you're interested in other great walks in the area check out our post on the Routeburn Track.
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Have you ever had something you've looked forward to this much and did it live up to your expectations?! Have you done a Great Walk in New Zealand? Let us know in the comments below.