New Zealand has 9 Great Walks featuring some of the country’s most spectacular hiking, or tramping as they call it. The Department of Conservation (DOC) owns huts on all of the walks since these are multi-day walks. Freedom walkers, people who go by themselves, must book a bunk in the hut months in advance since camping is not allowed on most tracks. I wanted to walk the Milford Track (33.2 miles over 4 days), one of the 9 Great Walks, but since dad didn’t want to pack all of our own food, water, and equipment (aka bed sheets, blankets, hiking poles), we decided to go on a guided walk. Ultimate Hikes is the only licensed company to take groups on walks on the Milford and Routeburn tracks, and they sure do hiking the posh way. Ultimate Hikes owns their own huts, complete with giant drying rooms for hikers to dry our clothes after hand washing them. They also have a hot room to dry our boots. (These drying rooms were my favorite feature of the Ultimate Hikes huts.) We also had three course meals at the end of the day (they use helis to restock their huts once a week and to take out the trash), electricity from a generator, hot water…Ok, but enough about Ultimate Hikes. Let me jump back to the beginning.
Day 1 (1/1 mile)
Our group of 45 (plus 4 guides) boarded the bus in Queenstown and left for Te Anau (pronounced Tee OW-now or Tee OW-noo, depending on who you talk to). From Te Anau, we transferred to a boat, which took us across Lake Te Anau to Glade Wharf, the start of the track. As we got off the boat, we walked through recycling bins filled with disinfectant to clean the soles of our boots. (New Zealand takes preserving their nature seriously.) We had a short 1.9 km walk to the first hut, Glade House.
After dropping off our packs, we went on a nature walk. I saw several fantails and bush robbins, which are extremely friendly birds. One even stood on my shoe and pecked at my laces. Bush robbins eat worms and insects that are kicked up by walkers’ shoes, so they like to hang around shoes. Our guide Lydia also let us smell stinkwood (yuck) and celery pine (smells like mangoes) leaves. We also chewed on pepper leaf, which left our mouths slightly numb. One of my favorite flowers we saw on the walk were Easter Orchids, which are tiny orchids that grow on the side of trees. They bloom around Easter, hence their name. The nature walk took us by a stream running down the side of the hill. The water was cold and fresh. My favorite drink in the entire world! We also saw a bear in the woods.
After the walk and dinner, I meandered around the outside of the hut. The riverbed across the hut was calm and I could see all the stones at the bottom. It was picturesque, like something out of painting. I loved being unconnected, but still in luxury with electricity, hot water, and clean sheets. In the woods, everything feels calmer and more serene. There’s no nonsense like social media to preoccupy one’s brain and time.
Day 2 (2.1/10 miles)
It had rained all through the night and was still raining when we got up at 7:00. We were ready to go by 8:00, but we were told our departure time was delayed till 9:00. Then 9:30. 10:00. 11:00. 11:30. Then we were told to eat our lunch. The reason for the delay was farther down the track. The group on Day 3 of their hike was supposed to cross Mackinnon Pass. However, due to high winds (>100 kph), the DOC wouldn’t let any walkers walk over the pass. Ultimate Hikes had tried using helicopters to fly their walkers across the pass to the other side, but it was too windy for the helis. Since the walkers further down the track couldn’t move forward, neither could we.
During this time, I read about NZ birds and walked around Glade House. We started getting cabin fever and had a planking competition.
Finally, at 12:30, Ultimate Hikes HQ decided all groups would stay at their lodge for the night. This was the first time in 9 years a group would have to stay at the same lodge. To pass the time, we went on a short 2.1 mi walk to Clinton Hut, the DOC hut. The track was muddy and wet, with some parts completely flooded. We also walked through the Fiordland wetlands, which are extremely different from FL wetlands. I saw coral lichen, which is a fluffy looking, white lichen. On the walk, we saw so many waterfalls. These waterfalls had all appeared overnight due to the heavy rainfall. At Clinton Hut, we met some of the freedom walkers. We learned that they also weren’t allowed to move forward.
Back at Glade, it was wonderful to peel off my wet socks and take a hot shower. I read in the evening and fell asleep to the sound of rain on the roof.
Day 3 (6.5/9 miles)
It was still raining when we woke up in the morning. Thankfully, the wind wasn’t as strong, and helis could cross Mackinnon Pass. But since we were all a day behind schedule and the tour company had a schedule to keep, we were helicoptered over part of the track. The plan was to fly to Mintaro Hut where we would start hiking the Mackinnon Pass. We would finish as scheduled at Quintin Lodge.
We were split into groups of 6 for the helicopter ride. As we boarded the helicopter, we handed our packs to a guide, who loaded them into a side compartment. Walking underneath the rotor blades is incredible. It’s extremely loud and you feel the force of the wind generated from the heli pushing down. I sat in the front with Kate, an Aussie. Once we were all on board, we took off. We saw so many waterfalls jutting off the sides of the mountains. We landed on a small wooden dock that looked like the size of a wooden grocery store pallet. Like the ones we used as the base for our tents in Kville. What would’ve taken us 5-6 hours to walk took the helicopter less than 5 minutes to fly.
By the time we got out of the heli and sorted out our packs, we were already soaking wet. Five minutes into the hike, we stomped through our first big “puddle” which was about shin deep. We climbed Mackinnon Pass. All around us were magnificent waterfalls. There was a major confluence of waterfalls into the Clinton River in the base of the valley. It looked like a wet Rivendell. The path we walked on also became a waterfall. We walked across waterfalls, up waterfalls, down waterfalls. There wasn’t a dry moment.
At the top of the pass, there were huge gusts of wind. Priscilla, one of our guides, said up to 85 kph. The rain felt like hail and I was thrown off balance several times by the wind. We stayed at the summit for a few brief moments before we started our descent. At the lunch hut, I filled up on Milo, which is like a mix of ovomaltine and hot chocolate. After lunch, we descended to the other side of the valley. I loved looking at all the transient waterfalls and splashing through the flooded track. Normally when I see mountain streams I at least dip my fingers to feel the cold water. Well this time, it was as if the whole track became a stream and I got to stomp through it all!
We got to the lodge in the early afternoon, which meant we had enough time to visit the Sutherland Falls, which is the highest waterfall in NZ. Since we were already soaking wet, we decided to go straight to the falls. We came across some stairs and the stairs had also become a waterfall. The closer we got to Sutherland, the louder it got. The wind was so strong and that I could open my mouth and get great gulps of water blowing straight off the falls!
It was an AWESOME day. Couldn’t have asked for anything better!
Day 4 (5.5/13 miles)
Our last day of hiking was supposed to be the longest, at 13.5 miles. We got up at 6:15 and were ready to go by 7:30 when we got more bad news…we had to wait for track condition updates. Due to the rain, the river levels were way above normal and some of the river crossings would be too deep (chest to shoulder level, depending on your height). By 9:00, the river levels were still too high, so some of us went to Sutherland Falls again. By the time we came back, we found out we would take a helicopter to Posiedon Point to pass the river and hike the rest of the way to Sandfly Point. We mostly hiked through wooded areas, but the scenery was still gorgeous. I was disappointed that we missed the iconic Mackay Falls. We finished at Sandfly Point and took the boat across the water to the Mitre Peak lodge. When we got to the lodge, I felt a little disappointed that we didn’t hike the full track, but I took solace in the fact that we had tough conditions, got to see way more waterfalls than normal and also got 2 helicopter rides. While NZ may brand Milford Track as ‘the finest walk in the world,’ I will always know it as ‘the wettest walk in the world.’
On our last day, we took a cruise of Milford Sound. The weather FINALLY cleared up and we had lovely crisp air in the morning. We even saw blue skies! On the cruise, we saw waterfalls (as if we hadn’t seen enough) and seals. It felt really special to be on the Milford given the past several days. I will be back to hike the Milford again!
Some other thoughts:
- MVP (most valuable possessions): rain pants, wool socks
- Other rainy hiking essentials: pack liners and ponchos (wish I had a poncho on this hike)
- Wool socks are the best because they still feel comfortable when wet. They feel like dive booties and are pretty comfortable as long as you keep stepping in water.
- Kiwis call trailmix “Scroggin”
- My passport, which was on the top of my pack and not inside the liner, got SOAKED. I tried drying it off in one of the dry rooms but it’s still wonky.
- Sarah was an Ausise celebrating her 50th birthday on the track. She brought along 10 of her Aussie girlfriends to celebrate with her. I loved this idea of doing a big hike on a birthday and I would love to make this a tradition. One big hiking trip for each decade!