The Milford Track has long been described as the ‘Finest walk in the World’ and is something Jase has long wanted to do. To me however, it sounded like the longest and most boring walk in the World.
Having now completed it, I have to hold my hands up and admit I was whole-heartedly wrong (yes, it does happen very occasionally). Jase was absolutely right to put the Milford Track on our bucket list.
It was truly spectacular.
The historic 34 mile hike from Glade Wharf to Milford Sound travels through the heart of the stunning Fiordland National Park. The trip was 5 days in total – 3 days hiking and a day either side getting to and from the track.
34 miles over 3 days may sound like a piece of cake, but the track goes up and over the rocky and formidable Mackinnon Pass which sits at 3500 feet.
Along the track is a handful of huts where walkers stay overnight, however spaces are extremely limited. With just 40 walkers permitted at any one time, Jase reserved our spaces over a year ago, before we even left the UK.
We set off from Queenstown on a coach bound for Te Anau where a ferry was waiting to take us across to Glade Wharf, the start of the Milford Track. We walked just 20 minutes to our first hut, Glade House, where we spent the night.
This is where we were introduced to our fellow walkers. These guys were the real deal, all sporting North Face jackets and Gore-Tex trousers while Jase and I were draped in Go Outdoors home-brand. Whilst we tried to convince ourselves that ‘hi-gear’ polyester is a perfectly acceptable alternative to merino wool, we knew we hadn’t come properly prepared, however it was far too late to change our minds.
Glade House - our first hut:
Our fellow walkers in their professional walking gear:
(ok so this is actually a photo of early Milford Track walkers at the original Glade House lodge, 100 years ago. Loving the hats!!)
We set off early the following morning on our 10 mile hike to Pompolona Lodge at the base of the Mackinnon ascent. We’d made it all of 50 feet before Jase made his first photo stop! To be fair to Jase, there was a picture postcard view around every single corner.
The beautiful Clinton Valley:
Friendly bush robins came to say hello on several occasions:
We followed the river through the magnificent Clinton Valley, with cliffs towering some 4000 feet above us on either side. With so few walkers on such a huge expanse of track, we could walk for several miles without seeing another soul.
Walkers arrived at Pompolona Lodge in dribs and drabs throughout the afternoon and evening, with us arriving somewhere in the middle. We were pretty pleased with our pace given that we’d made umpteen photo stops and completed every optional ‘side walk’ to see waterfalls, lakes and wetlands in addition to the Milford track itself.
Additional walk to visit the giant beech trees:
Endangered New Zealand wetlands:
Behind the scenes of Jason's photo's..... I'd be lying if I said this was a rare occurrence!
We were exhausted after our first day’s hike, so got an early night in readiness for the almighty Mackinnon Pass the following day.
A little sore but in good spirits, we set off at sunrise the following morning to begin our lengthy ascent. It was dark, raining, freezing cold and the whole valley was shrouded in low, dense cloud.
The view from the top of the pass is the single biggest reason most people want to walk the Milford track. However with the cloud as thick and low as it was, we resigned ourselves to the fact that sadly, we wouldn’t see it for ourselves.
Setting off at the break of dawn:
Calm before the storm:
120km per hour winds, zero degree temperatures and very poor visibility made the rocky climb up to the pass hugely challenging. We zig zagged up the steep mountainside, taking a rest every few minutes to rehydrate and rest our burning thighs.
Jase was carrying his heavy camera as well as his backpack, meanwhile I was cursing every extra item of clothing and toiletry I’d decided to pack. Damn that lip balm!!
After 5 hours, we made our way out of the covered forest and into the howling winds and freezing temperatures. We eventually saw the Mackinnon memorial appear through the cloud where we stopped for a quick photo before pressing on. With a sheer cliff face known as ’12 second drop’ hiding somewhere in the cloud just a few metres away, we didn’t want to hang around.
We quickly lost count of which zig zag we were on:
30 minutes later we reached Pass Hut, a shelter at the peak of our climb, where we could change into dry clothes and eat our lunch before starting our descent down the other side.
Arriving at Pass Hut - get the kettle on!!
Opposite Pass hut is an outdoor long-drop toilet, on the cliff edge facing back towards the Clinton Valley. It was recently voted one of the Planets best toilets in a ‘Loo with a View’ contest, held by the World Toilet Organisation (yes the WTO really does exist!) They suggest that walkers do their business with the door wide open to take in the magnificent views of the valley.
Sadly, we could barely see the toilet itself through the cloud, let alone any views over the valley. What with the sub-zero temperatures and vicious winds, visiting the toilet was a feat in itself.
It took us a long while to build up the courage to leave the warmth of the hut (all 10 degrees of it) and continue on our way in the freezing cold.
Warming through with a cuppa:
The descent down is steeper and tougher than the ascent and notoriously dangerous, made worse for us by the limited visibility. We set off at a steady pace using our walking poles to help us down the steep ridges.
After about 20 minutes of walking downhill, we watched in complete amazement as the cloud around us disintegrated within seconds. It was as though someone just blew it away, leaving us with the most phenomenal view of ice topped mountains and green valleys below. The sky was blue and the sun was shining – mind blowing!
As if by magic.....
What do you mean? I am smiling!!
We looked at each other and knew exactly what each other was thinking. We turned on our heels and headed back up the painfully steep track, to the hut we’d left 20 minutes earlier. We passed a few walkers coming downhill who thought we were insane, but there was no way we’d come all this way not to see one of the most beautiful and famous views in New Zealand.
We were speechless when we got back to the top – the view was breath-taking.
Awesome view of the distance we'd covered so far:
Jase started snapping away outside the hut while I headed to the best view point of all – the bog!! I plonked myself down on the cold seat, kicked open the door and sat there for around 10 minutes in amazement at the view back over the Clinton Valley. It was so rewarding to see the valley we’d spent the past 2 days trekking through.
The Mackinnon lavatory - best seat in the house!:
View from the loo:
The descent was long and tough but the warm sun stayed with us the whole way to Quintin Lodge, where we arrived by late afternoon wearing t-shirts again.
What a difference a couple of hours makes.....
Sunshine all the way down:
Relieved to see the 20 mile marker - just a mile left to go to Quintin Lodge:
I was deliriously tired, my legs were like jelly and I was looking forward to resting my weary limbs, however Jase had a much better idea.....
After a 9 hour trek over a mountain in the shittiest conditions known to man, what do you think his idea was? A hot tub? Bottle of wine? Massage perhaps?
Try a 90 minute walk uphill to go see a waterfall.
Of course I thought this was a seriously BRILLIANT idea. I could barely contain myself at the thought of dragging my sorry arse and creaking knees up-hill for another hour and a half, to go and see a few gallons of water dribbling over the top of a few rocks.
I have no idea where he gets his energy from, but Jase was full of beans and eager to crack on. Too tired to argue, I ditched my backpack and hobbled off with Jase to find Sutherland Falls.
It pains me to say it, but I’m starting to wonder if I should listen to Jase more often. All those hours reading National Geographic must have paid off as the boy knows his stuff – this particular waterfall was cracking.
The walk up there was more hellish than we'd imagined, but well worth the effort in every respect. Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s highest and the World’s 5th highest waterfall, boomed and crashed into a deep pool just a few metres from our feet. To give you an idea of scale, it’s over half the height of Snowdon!
After a good soaking, we trudged back to the hut with a smile on our faces.
We got back to the hut just before sunset. Before I could settle for the evening, I had to wash our walking clothes and get them in the drying room, ready for the following day.
I set off in search of the laundry room, looking high and low for the washing machine. After a few laps of the hut it dawned on me that the vintage mangle in the open fronted tin shed wasn’t for display purposes only.
You must be kidding…….
I scrubbed our clothes with a bar of soap and hard brush before winding them through the mangle. I was giggling away to myself at how Dickensian the whole thing was, until my fingers went numb and my knuckles were red raw. The fun wore off after all of 2 minutes so I enlisted Jason to help me with the mangling.
This may be extremely hard to believe folks, but manual labour isn’t mine or Jason’s strong point. We both accepted we’d be wearing dirty cacks for the rest of the trip as there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance we were doing this again.
Unsurprisingly, we both slept like logs. We woke the next morning with sore knees and tight calves but with just 13 miles left to go, we were on the home straight and got ourselves on the road by 7:30am.
The final leg from Quintin Lodge to Sandfly Point took us through the beautiful Arthur Valley. The first 5 mile markers crept up on us quickly – we were making good progress and having a laugh along the way.
Crossing the Giants Gate bridge:
We stopped at a shelter for a quick snack and were joined shortly after by another couple from our group, who were looking pretty miserable.
The girl’s walking boots hadn’t been broken in and she was in absolute agony. A number of unhelpful suggestions from her boyfriend as to what she could have done to avoid the problem in the first place had caused an argument and they were barely speaking.
I felt really bad that this once in a lifetime trip was being spoilt for them both, so I offered to swap walking shoes with her. She tried my shoes on and like a scene from Cinderella, she smiled from ear to ear quickly followed by her boyfriend. Harmony was restored!
She commented that they were a 1 or 2 sizes too big for her but comfortable, so she accepted my offer and skipped off happily hand in hand with her boyfriend. I was happy for her of course but just a little surprised that she didn’t wait to see if her shoes fitted me.
I was like one of the ugly sisters, trying to squeeze my big ugly feet into her child sized shoes.
I hobbled along the remaining 8 miles trying to ignore the painful blisters that were quickly forming on my toes. Suddenly the mile markers seemed to be getting further and further apart.
Mile markers - our best friends:
It was a bit of a slog but 3 hours later, we reached Sandfly Point, the official end of the Milford Track.
One for trade descriptions - this sign is actually at 33.9 miles!
Cinders was already there, celebrating her success, before noticing me and shouting over cheerily “Hey, what took you so long!?” If I had the energy I’d have shoved her miniature boots up her ass.
Despite our aches and pains, we had an awesome time and were really quite sad it was all over. We had a hot cup of coffee before taking a boat to Mitre Peak lodge directly on the banks of Milford Sound. Mitre Peak was a proper lodge with heating and a bar – woo hoo!
The impressive Mitre Peak in the distance:
Everyone went to their rooms for a hot bath and a sleep except for us. We went straight to the bar for a few pints to celebrate our accomplishment, while watching the stragglers make their way into the lodge over the next few hours.
By 10pm however we’d completely run out of steam and hit the hay.
We woke the following morning to a torrential rain storm coupled with 100kmph winds. We’d planned to take a 2 hour scenic cruise across the Milford Sound however assumed (and quietly hoped given our hangovers) that it would be cancelled due to the horrendous weather.
However it takes more than a spot of rain to keep the Kiwi’s down. We wrapped up warm and donned our waterproofs before boarding the huge cruise ship and setting sail.
The wind was so strong, it was almost impossible to open the door from the passenger lounge out onto the main deck. The conditions on deck were pretty extreme but being within a stone’s throw of waterfalls raging from the rain storm was exhilarating.
Huge cruise ships completely dwarfed by towering cliffs:
Braving the elements to get some shots:
After being battered by the elements from every angle for 2 hours, we had to sit in our soaking wet clothes for the 5 hour bus journey back to Queenstown. Yuk.
Despite a few days of highly changeable weather, we couldn’t help but be surprised at what awaited us back in Queenstown – Snow! Before we left just 5 days earlier, we were enjoying al fresco lunches in t-shirts.
An Antarctic snow storm had arrived and taken everyone by surprise. Within a matter of hours the snow was ankle deep, the mountains were white and road closures were being announced throughout the south Island.
Queenstown before we left:
Queenstown 5 days later!
There was only one thing to do – book ourselves into a swanky hotel and spend 2 days in a Jacuzzi bath.
It’s the hard knock life, eh?! :-)