With its steel-blue waters and soaring mountains, Milford Sound in New Zealand draws 500,000 visitors a year, travelling by boat and car. The best way to see it is on foot, hiking the Milford Track
The Milford Sound has some of New Zealand’s most stunning scenery and provides amazing photo opportunities for the half-million or so visitors who make the trip up the Milford Road each year. Seeing it from the road is just half the story. To experience its real beauty, you need to walk the Milford Track.
My usual lack of enthusiasm for exercise made me wonder if I would manage the 53.5km trek, including three nights in a bunk bed and four days walking with the bare minimum of my worldly goods on my back. I’ve never been so grateful for going against my first instincts.
Walking the track in December (the main season is October-April) meant I did it one-way only, taking four days. Each day ended at a hut, where I could enjoy the company of the 39 other walkers following the same route. Facilities were basic, but welcome after a long day's walking. Sharing the experience with my partner made it all the more enjoyable, and I was grateful for the company when on some days I saw only five other walkers in the entire day.
If you prefer to live in luxury, sleeping in a good bed and eating something a bit more palatable than freeze-dried food for four days, you can take the more expensive option: a guided tour that takes five days, staying in better accommodation.
Before leaving Te Anau for the track, it's advisable to have some accommodation booked for your return. Located in the Darran Mountains, the Milford Sound Lodge provides a range of accommodation with beautiful views of the Fiordland National Park. Its staff can arrange trips for you, ranging from further day walks to cruises. If you wish to head back into Te Anau, the Te Anau Great Lakes Holiday Park offers tent pitches, backpackers' accommodation and en-suite units and is a clean and comfortable home for a few nights' rest and recuperation.
Leaving on a boat from Te Anau Downs and sailing into Glade Wharf provides some spectacular views even before you have set foot on the track. The first day eases you in gently with a 5km walk alongside, and crossing, the Clinton River and ending at Clinton Hut. There you are free to entertain yourself for the evening. Enthusiastic rangers provide a briefing every night, and some run nature walks. A nearby swimming hole in the river provides relief for those brave enough to test the waters on a hot day.
The second day comprises a 16.5km walk through sections of forest and avalanche paths. There are 56 of these paths and, being subjected to 18 days of rain per month, the scenery around them can change within minutes. The Dead Lake and the side walk to the Hidden Lake can provide glimpses of local, and sometimes endangered, wildlife including blue ducks. Walking over dried-up river beds and streams and over swing bridges, the last hour or so of Day Two is an uphill climb to reach Mintaro Hut.
Day Three is probably the hardest – a 14km walk beginning with a tough zigzag climb taking about two hours. A few brave souls made the climb in advance, arriving at the end of a sunny Day Two to take advantage of the the world-famous "Loo with a view" at the Pass Day Shelter (1,069m) on the Mackinnon Pass. Those of us who didn’t were slightly disappointed. The rain, which had set in the night before, continued throughout the day – meaning the view was non-existent, obscured by rain clouds, though using the toilet was still an experience!
After the shelter (at which you take a well-earned rest), the track drops steadily down more than 970m over rocks and uneven ground. If anything, the constant rain served only to enhance the scenery for us and meant we were challenged with a few mini waterfalls and fast-flowing streams to wade through while negotiating steep drops to one side. Just a few miles before the next hut is a shelter stocked with tea, coffee and hot water. From here you can make the optional trip to Sutherland Falls, taking about 1½ hours return.
Having spent the night at Dumpling Hut, we walked an impressive 18km on Day Four – the greatest distance we achieved in 24 hours, but much easier than Day Three. Leaving the hut early gives you time to stop and take photographs or reflect on your experience. The first few hours involve a gentle walk through rainforest, followed by good views of the MacKay Falls and Bell Rock. After walking along the Arthur River and past Lake Ada, you reach a shelter ideal for your final rest before the last stretch taking you to the aptly named Sandfly Point and your boat back to the Milford Sound. There is, of course, a final obligatory photo opportunity by the end-of-the-track marker.
As long as you take plenty of food and protective clothing with you, and are prepared for extreme weather, hundreds of sandflies and walking for up to seven hours each day, you will find the Milford Track unforgettable. Even the most reluctant of walkers will enjoy the Milford Sound at its best.