While researching our trip to New Zealand, Katie and I were definite about one thing: We were going to do some overnight hiking trips. We had the wherewithal, and were finally embarking on our dream trip; nothing was going to stop us from enjoying the natural beauty of New Zealand to its fullest. As it happened, New Zealand is extremely backpacker friendly and well known for its "Great Walks." Milford Track is one of these great walks and has been described as “the finest walk on earth.” So, despite it being located in the Fiordland (one of the wettest places on Earth) we chose Milford Track as our major hike of New Zealand.
You have to book hiking Milford Track far in advance to be guaranteed a spot, as they only allow 40 people a day on each leg of the trail.
Milford Track can only be walked in one direction: From Glade Wharf to Sandfly Point (located on Milford Sound). There are three huts trampers must stay in along the trail, as there is no camping allowed. Each hiker gets their own bunk, so no tents are needed.
From start to finish the track is 33.5 miles (almost 54 kilometers), and each tramper must complete it in four days. There's no staying two nights in a row, as each bunk is spoken for every day of the week.
Day 1: Just over 3 miles (5km) from Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut
Having packed the night before, we awoke early to finish up a few final details before heading to Te Anau. Our packs were fairly small, which was great for our bodies but bad for long overnight hauls since it limits what you can bring. For this particular trip they worked well because the huts along Milford Track provided bunks and stoves. This substantially lightened our load. Strangely enough, though, our packs were still full! Yes, there was room for a few more items if we cared to jam them in, but what if we had needed our tent? I wasn't going to fret about that. It was a worry for the future. For now, we were packed and ready to go.
First, we checked the weather for the next few days at the information center. Today called for rain. Tomorrow, light showers followed by rain. The next day, drizzling with a side of rain. And finally: a storm. Well then, this should be a fun hiking experience!
There was enough time for us to grab a quick bite to eat before our bus arrived at 9:45 A.M. to take us to Te Anau Downs where we caught our boat. One hour across the lake later, we were finally at the start of the Milford Track. This hike is probably one of the most well known in New Zealand and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. Soon, we’d be finding out if this was true.
Rain was falling lightly upon departure, so we zipped on our coats and threw up the hoods. Others were wrapping their packs up in water-tight seals, but we didn’t feel the need for that quite yet. The first day’s hike was only three miles, and with the rain being as light as it was, we thought it likely our packs could take it till we reached the first hut.
A river flowed alongside most of the trail, and at one point we crossed over a suspension bridge to reach the other side. Before the bridge, we passed another hut that we were not destined to stay in. This was a hut for “guided” walkers. Let me explain… There are two ways you can hike Milford Track: independently and guided. We were independent walkers, which meant we carried our own food, water, sleeping bags, clothing, etc., and stayed in three huts over four days on the trail. The guided walkers only carried day packs and had all their food carted ahead to the huts where meals were cooked for them. They had guides along the trail talking to them about the terrain and serving up hot cups of soup and tea. Also, they had one extra hut along their trek, so their 33.5 miles were stretched over 5 days instead of 4. So, if you have a few thousand bucks sitting around and care to walk the Milford Track, I suggest the guided tour. It’s the only way to travel.
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yes, the river…
The water was very clear and radiated a cool green color like a pale emerald stone. Despite the rain, the river was low, but forecasts called for a foot of precipitation overnight. That modest flow could well be a torrent, come tomorrow. There was even potential we could be wading through flooded trail on our second day of hiking. It wasn’t uncommon on this track, and we knew it.
Moss coated the vegetation like fur, cloud-capped mountains peeked over the forest, and birds flitted about without worry – and that’s no exaggeration! Instead of caution, curiosity patterned their steps. You could see it in the way they danced upon the branches, cocking their heads before drifting in closer and closer. In fact, we were treated to a beautiful and friendly sight along our trail: two North Island Fantails. They were adorable, hopping their way across the leaves and fanning their tails with flare. I was transfixed. I stuck my finger out like a statue, wanting a fantail to land upon it; a hopeful Snow White. At one point it flew right up to me but, sadly, didn’t make a landing. I guess its interest in me couldn’t outweigh its survival instincts. Unfortunately, our little friend moved too quickly for Katie to snap a picture, but we’ll always have the memories.
Before we knew it, we were at Clinton Hut. This was to be our home for the rest of the evening. There were multiple buildings: two bunk huts, a dining hut, and the bathrooms. They were all well made and clean. At this point, I wasn’t surprised to find the accommodations excellent. No, they didn’t have electric blankets waiting for us, or hot showers flowing, but considering we were tramping through the mountains, they were top notch. I’ve learned at this point that New Zealanders have a great respect for the natural beauty of their country, and they enjoy sharing it. Every time we've boarded a bus or boat we've received loads of information about the land, and recommendations on the best way to experience it. It's rather delightful and endearing.
Once Katie and I chose our bunks, we quickly decided to don our rain gear again (minus packs, of course) and head back for a short hike off the main trail. The Wetlands Walk had us traveling through an unearthly bog of varying colors. Reds and yellows and oranges sponged up the falling rain. Beech Trees encircled us. Waterfalls swerved their way down the mountains while a canopy of green dripped and swayed. We stood still, each breath clouding our view before dissipating in the breeze. It was a magical place.
So magical, in fact, that Katie was drawn to the allure of the bog. Those “Dead Marshes” called to her. She clutched her chest, drawing nearer and nearer until I had to pull her back at the last second. She’d almost fallen in, acting as though she were in a trance! When I asked her what was going on she simply stated, “It’s my burden to bear,” and clutched her chest once more. How strange and curious…
On the way back to Clinton Hut we stopped at the "swimming hole," denoted by a handwritten sign. On a hot summer day it would’ve been too good to pass up. But today? We decided we were wet enough. Katie did, however, spy an unusual looking bird sitting in a tree across the river. It was big and still, so we got some nice clear pictures of it. We later tried to research what it was but came up empty. Not until I spoke to the hut warden did I get my answer: A shag or cormorant bird. He said it was a common bird, lots of them in these parts. We were slightly disappointed that it wasn’t unique, but either way it was still a beautiful bird! We were happy to have seen it in the wild.
The rocks around the river were so lovely it was tempting to nab a slew of them before leaving the area, but, seeing as we still had three days of hiking ahead of us, it didn’t seem like the wisest thing to do. Katie found a small black rock with an orange band around it that she picked up, then she pointed out a small green one for me. I laughed and said, “That’s a leaf.” She responded, “No it isn’t.” I still thought she was teasing me until I knelt down and grabbed it. It was a rock, it just looked like a leaf. I quickly tossed it in my pocked and decided it was my new “Milford Track Lucky Leaf Rock,” and I carried it with me the rest of the way.
Being that our first day of hiking was such a short one, we had a lot of time on our hands back at the hut. People busied themselves in the dining area where there were long tables and a wood burning stove to warm by. For dinner we cooked up some couscous and added green curry tuna for flavor and protein. An odd supper, to be sure, but it was actually pretty good and it definitely filled us up. With the stove burning and all the hikers stuffed into one building, it got hot in that room. So hot, in fact, that Katie went outside to eat under the awning as the rain poured down. I, of course, thought the temperature was just right.
People dined and played games while I sat and wrote in my all-weather journal and Katie read on her ipod. Before long, we were both bored and wishing we’d at least packed a deck of cards. Luckily, some good conversation popped up with a couple new friends: Frances from Germany and Susie from Arizona, both traveling alone. I played Hangman with them on some discarded cardboard before a German couple took pity on us and loaned us some cards.
The rain was coming down full force by the time everyone turned in. The sound of it pounding on the rooftop coaxed us all to sleep. Well…almost all of us.