Diary: Milford Sound Track

There are 9 ‘Great Walks’ in New Zealand. These are multi-day walks or “tramps” as they’re known locally which showcase the beauty of this country particularly well. We chose to walk the Milford Sound trek within New Zealand’s Fjordland area.

There are 2 ways to complete this walk: you can do it independently, booking the overnight huts yourself, bringing a sleeping bag, food, cooking utensils and everything else you might need for a 5 day trek whilst also accepting limited sanitary facilities. Or you can book a guided walk where pretty much everything is provided and organised for you. Of course the latter comes with the a price tag to match so we did look into both options.

Hiking or ‘tramping’ is highly popular in New Zealand with locals and tourists alike so these huts get booked up pretty early on. So much so that apparently within the first 3 hours of going live they’re gone.

Of course by the time we looked into this the huts were long booked up so our options were somewhat limited. We decided to book the guided walk with Ultimate Hikes, given we were likely not going to be back in New Zealand any time soon. Our expectations were mixed.

We looked forward to seeing beautiful nature, meeting the local wildlife and hiking amidst wonderful scenery. However, sleeping in overpriced bunk beds and eating canteen-style meals would only evoke memories of school days longs past and probably best forgotten. To our surprise only one of these expectations would prove truthful.

Day 0:

After spending a frosty night in Te Anau exploring the local Glowworms we drive towards Queenstown where we plan to spend the night at Alex’s old school friend Pete’s house.

We arrive in the town centre and soon it becomes evident why Queenstown is the ‘sports capital’ of New Zealand. Every other shop front offers outdoor trips, mountain bike rentals, sports equipment, sky diving, skiing and much more.

We arrive on time for our pre-meeting at the Ultimate Hike office aka shop where some time allowance for shopping had been built in before we get shepherded into a separate room for our presentation. The room is full with around 50 people who will all do the Milford Sound walk with us over the next few days. Presentation is given, questions are answered and then everyone is given the opportunity to pick up a backpack, raincoat, and other bits and bobs. We feel prepared and ready to start our walk the next day.

At Pete’s his lovely wife and cheerful kids greet us and we get to know each other over dinner, a glass of wine and drawings. Unfortunately, Pete himself was away for work but we felt very lucky to be the recipients of his wife’s hospitality and have a proper roof over our heads.

Day 1:

Meeting point is at 8.30am at the Ultimate Hike office in Queenstown central. We stop on the way to grab a quick breakfast and upon arrival meet our guides and our hike-comrades for the next 5 days. We are swiftly seated on a huge coach which takes us back to Te Anau, just where we came from the day prior. Plenty of lunch is provided after which we get taken on a boat ride over lake Te Anau where our walk should start. 1 hour and a nap later we arrive in the middle of a forest and walk on a wide and well maintained gravel track. A full 20 min or so later we arrive at our first lodge, Glade House, where we should spent the coming night. After this tiresome day biscuits are awaiting us upon arrival. We are shown to our rooms and are lucky to have an entire dormitory just to ourselves.

A bit later we all meet outside for a group photo and a nature walk. Our guide, Kelly, is extremely knowledgeable pointing out local plants and animals, telling us stories about the local history.

Arriving back at Glade House a cheese platter and anti-pasti nibbles are awaiting us which we wash down with a glass of wine. A rather decadent 3-course meal is served afterwards which we enjoy very much. After dessert, Apfelstrudel and ice cream, we’re completely full and ready to fall into a food coma.

A quick presentation tells us what to expect the next day and we give some group introductions to get to know each other a little bit better.

Day 2:

After the not-so-strenuous activities of the previous day we start the Milford trek ‘properly’ with 5-7 hours walk ahead of us.

We awake at 6.45am to prepare our lunch for the day. As you might guess by now, the full spectrum from cheese, cold meats, vegetables, sauces, wraps, bread, chocolate, fruit and nuts were on the menu.

Breakfast is similarly well catered with cooked and continental options. Today’s walk starts at 8:30 am and is 10 miles with a flat-ish profile, a perfect introduction to ease us into the Milford trek. The weather proves to be on our side with the light drizzle providing a natural ‘cooling system’.

The walk itself guides us through a lush forest where our screen-optimised eyes can explore the full spectrum of green. A thick carpet of moss has been laid upon the forest floor, stretching out over rocks, debris and up to the trees covering the whole forest like a fluffy green blanket. Beautiful, fragile strings of moss hang from trees giving an impression of pre-historic and untouched nature (excepting the massive gravel track). Huge tree ferns and low hanging clouds remind us of the rainforests of Costa Rica.

We get to our sheltered lunch stop Hirere Falls at around 12ish where a selection of hot drinks is on offer. At that point we’ve only got 3 miles left for the day and reach our Pompolona lodge by 1.30pm.

We blissfully discover that we have a room to ourselves again and enjoy a hot shower. Ensuring proper nourishment scones with butter, jam and cream are served from 3pm. Luckily no arguments break out about ‘jam or cream first’, in contrast to the outrage in the UK just a week prior…

Cheese, cold meats and anti-pasti are served before progressing to our 3-course dinner which includes creme brulée as dessert (!!).

Day 3:

Today is the most challenging walking day out of the lot and we’re up at 6am to get ready. The first few miles we walk up a ‘practise hill’ before the 700m ascent of the McKinnon pass begins. 11 hairpins of steady walking, including the occasional photo stop, bring us to the top where we receive hot nourishment in the form of tea, hot chocolate or coffee at the McKinnon memorial.

Today we are very lucky. By the time we reach the top the drizzle which has accompanied us until then has almost stopped allowing us to soak up the impressive views from the top. It is breath-taking and I feel very privileged to be granted this incredible vista. The heavy rain from the previous night, which was forecast to hang around a lot longer, formed amazing little curtains of water falling from the rock cliffs around us. A blue sky started to form above our heads pushing the remaining clouds away. It was magnificent.

After our lunch stop at the Pass hut near the summit and a couple of teas later, we embark on the 900m descent. By the end, we can feel our knees displeased about this unusual, additional strain we’re putting on them and we make it to Quintin lodge at about 1.30pm.

A coffee and a muffin fuller, but our backpack lighter, we make the little extra excursion to the Sutherland falls. At 680m it’s the 4th highest waterfall in the world and highest in New Zealand. Standing just a few metres next to it makes us appreciate its magnitude and the power that keeps crushing down the rocks. It also makes us extremely wet.

Speed walking back I can’t wait for my hot shower at the lodge. Later a group of us gather in the lounge and exchange stories with our guide, Kelly, who over his 10 years walking up and down the Milford Trek has accumulated quite a lot of them. His dry humour not only brings stories alive but also reminds me of home. After a few rounds of Shithead (the card game) with our co-walkers we gather for our next 3-course meal. As always the food is absolutely delicious and we feel over-nourished after finishing our sticky-day-pudding.

Day 4:

We awake again at 6am for an early morning start to finish the Milford trek. After 13 miles of mostly flat terrain, a lunch stop at the beautiful, and apparently most photographed, Giant’s Gate waterfall we arrive at Sandfly Point. The name proves rather fitting given the sheer amount of sand flies trying to eat you, despite serious amounts of insect repellent. Coffee and tea are being served up again and we await the arrival of the boat that should bring us to the other side of the river and to our home for the night, Mitre Peak Lodge. Here all guests enjoy a Twin or Queen-bed room with en-suite bathroom – pure luxury after living in a rather compact camper-van.

After another wonderful meal we all attend a little ceremony where everyone gets their certificate for completing the Milford Track.

I feel a little bit sad to have to leave the beautiful Fjordlands and go back to the ‘connected world’. During the walk we had no reception, no internet, nothing. It was refreshing and pleasant not to have the constant distraction of Social Media and news competing for your attention. It also allowed the group to get to know each other much better. Everyone made a real effort to join in a conversation or play cards rather than bury themselves in their phones.

For me the Milford Track was a wonderful experience: majestic scenery, wonderful weather, delicious food and fantastic people.

Day 5:

The Milford Track is lying behind us and shall become a source of warm-heartedly cherished memories. On our last day as part of this trip we’re going on a cruise on the actual Milford Sound (really it is a Fjord but the name is too well established for a name change).

We board the ship at 9am for a 1,5h cruise which reaches the Tasman sea before turning around again. The views are stunning and we are even lucky enough to be accompanied by a playful group of bottle-nose dolphins.

Back on land we exit one vessel and enter another. A 5 hour bus trip through Te Anau brings us back to Queenstown where we are lucky enough to stay again with Karen and Pete, whose hospitality knows no limits.

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