One of the boxes I wanted to check off while in New Zealand was completing the Milford Track. This 4 day walk through the Fiordland National Park in the southwest of the south island. This trek has been rated as one of, if not the most beautiful walk in the world. Each year over 14,000 people complete the track and I wanted to be one of them.
With Dan visiting, I thought it would be a perfect time to do the walk, and since the track had just opened the week that Dan arrived, it ended up being perfect timing. Booking a time to go can be tricky. They only allow 4 people to start each day, which guarantees everyone a bed in the 4 lodges along the way. The track pretty much books out for the 6 months it is open within a few weeks, and people will book months ahead to get a spot.
I booked late, only a few weeks before we wanted to go. The next two months where already booked out, but for some reason there where multiple spots open for the opening weekend of the track, so with some luck, I was able to get us 2 spots.
In the winter, the track can only be walked at your own risk. To get to the start a chartered boat needs to be arranged, and there is no cooking fuel or rangers in the station, and avalanche danger is a major concern during the wildly changing weather of the west coast, New Zealand weather. It is worth waiting for track to open, avalanche danger is monitored, along with track flooding around the rivers. The lodges have cooking stoves, water, and beds ready so that is another benefit. Each lodge has a safety ranger in each as well. There is a regular ferry to the start of the track, and a ferry at the end to take you the short ride to Milford Sound and the end of the track. The benefits of walking the track while open are offset by a pretty hefty price tag of $275 NZD/ $206 USD.
It was great to have Dan come along, he has done a fair amount of trekking and had a good idea of what types of gear and food to bring. I haven’t done very little tramping (this is what kiwi’s call it) and needed some guidance on what type of gear to bring. I was able to borrow a large pack of a friend here, and bought some rain gear. We went for a shop the day after Dan arrived and stocked up on high carb, high energy foods that were easily packed and carried. When walking everything is about weight, some thing the I struggled with as I accumulated all the gear I was to bring. The main problem with this particular pack up was what clothing to bring, since the weather can change so drastically on this area of the country. It can go from summer to snowy winter, to cold downpour all within a series of hours.
This path was developed by the Maori long ago in the search for greenstone (Jade). The path is through thick, mossy, fern covered rain forest, how they ever found a passable root is amazing. It was lost for many years until two English hikers set out to rediscover the route at the turn of the century.
At 12:30 p.m we boarded the ferry that took us along Lake Te Anau to the start of the track. The first day was short, only 3 hours to the first hut. The weather was beautiful, clear and sunny, and at night there was a near full moon.
The next days walk was spectacular weather. It was warm, hot actually, and blue sky. We walked for about 7 hours, around 11K, around 7 miles. At the second lodge we sat on a deck built as a helicopter pad and looked up at Balloon Mountain, that seemed to teeter over us. It was like being at the base of a skyscraper looking straight up. We sat and watched avalanche after avalanche pop and flow down the rocky slopes. Each time one would break a loud gun shot sound would occur, POP! We would then strain our eyes and search wildly along the mountain face to find where the snow was falling. From our distance it looked like a waterfall flowing down a mountain side. It was once of the most profound and natural moments of my life, like the mountain was actually a being that was dynamic and moving. It was humbling feeling so small, around such raw power. At those moments one realizes just how insignificant and fragile we are.
The ranger came over to us and said that the weather the next day was going to turn and cloud up the pass, so if we wanted to see the view we should probably head up. It was about 4:30 at this point. We knew it stayed light to around 8:45, and the ranger said that the trip up the pass was about 1:45 minutes long. Neither of us really wanted to climb 1000 vertical feet after walking all day, but knew that this was the pinnacle view on a walk rated the most beautiful in the world. So with weary legs and feet, we threw our boots back on, grabbed a flashlight and tore up the pass.
By the time we got to the top, we were both completely spent. We didn’t eat before we headed up, and didn’t take water, which was stupid. But the view was completely worth it. I have said in the past that I wouldn’t talk about life changing moments and self discovery crap, but this spot was profound. It had an energy and power that I could feel through and through. I think it was the pure scale that I felt, these massive mountains all around, rising from sea level. I could look down from the pass, right to the valley floor, and then straight up to the sharp, jagged peaks right on top of us. We stayed up on the pass until sunset and watched the light change. We were surrounded by glacial pools of crystal clear water, and high altitude grass.
Right at dusk we began the decent back down. We made it back to the lodge by about 9:30 and made a meal in the dark. Everyone else was asleep, and we crashed out for the night, both is sever pain and fatigue.
The next morning we slept in, and took off late to go back up the pass. The weather had moved in and it was spitting rain. The pass was completely fogged in, and once to the top, the winds where howling sending icy rain sideways. I felt so bad for all the other hikers because they saw nothing at the top of the pass, just got a foggy view and icy temperatures.
We descended the pass, and spent the rest of the day walking downhill. The weather was crap, and it was just a day slugging through rain forest trying to get to the lodge and keeping our minds off of blistered feet, sore legs and knees and full body fatigue. I’m disappointed that this was the bad weather day, as it would have been the day of the most spectacular views.
At the end of each day, we were basically hanging out with 40 other people cooking food and relaxing. The sleeping bunks where in several rooms, and would get smelly and humid each night. But the absolute worst part was the sand flies. These little buggers are like a mixture between a black fly and a mosquito. They munch on everything from moss to blood. When they bite, it hurts 10 times more than a mosquito and the itch stays around for twice as long. They where so thick in spots that I couldn’t open my mouth, and they where crawling into my ears and nostrils. I guess nothing this amazing comes without some price.
The final, and longest day started out cloudy but cleared up as the day progressed. It was a long walk through rain forest and we saw about 300 waterfalls. We finished the day around 2 p.m. and caught the ferry to Milford Sound. After catching a bus back to take off spot of the initial ferry ride, we drove back to Queenstown and got a massive burger, then headed back to my friend Ed’s house to relax…..finally.