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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

The Milford Track: Into the Rainforest‏

March 21st, 2010 · 2 Comments

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When I set forth to tramp the Milford Track on Wednesday, I thought that I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has comprehensive guidance to this four-day hike that I had studied carefully. But I came in for a couple of surprises.

This 33-mile hike is in the heart of spectacular Fiordland National Park in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island. The track starts at the head of Lake Te Anau and finishes at Milford Sound. Lake Te Anau is the country’s second biggest lake in surface area and the biggest in the volume of water that it holds. I stayed in the pleasant lakeside village of Te Anau on Tuesday night.

Hiking the Milford Track requires both bus and boat transportation to and from both ends of the track. During the peak season we can hike the Milford Track only as a four day/three night package.

The lake runs due north from Te Anau, and the bus took me half way up the lake in half an hour. Then in an hour a boat took me to the start of the Milford Track.

The Vessel that Took our Party of 40 to the Start of Milford Track

The Vessel that Took our Party of 40 to the Start of Milford Track

Click on the picture above to enlarge

On board, a couple from Sydney, Australia, Steve Longhurst and Thi Thuy Hugen (Christine) Tran, and I struck up a conversation and soon became friends. This was a fateful event in my life.

The Milford Track is one of the wettest places in the world. It gets from 275 to 472 inches of rain each year, depending on the location and year. While March is the driest month, I knew to expect at least one day of rain while on the track and packed accordingly. I was lucky to get a waterproof liner for my backpack at the visitor center.

The Milford Track is perhaps the greatest — certainly the most famous — of New Zealand’s nine “Great Walks.” I notice the different form of English that they use in New Zealand. To my American ears this is certainly a great hike — not a walk — and the Milford Track would be the Milford Trail and tramping would be hiking.

The track came into existence in 1888 when Quintin Mackinnon discovered what is now known as Mackinnon Pass, elevation 3,520 feet. It provided the first route to the sea from Te Anau and its lake, which is at 663 feet.

Tramping from the lake to the sound started almost immediately. For more than a century has been known as “the finest walk in the world” for its lush rainforest scenery and steep mountains. My Lonely Planet guidebook to New Zealand’s South Island rates the Milford Track as the only “easy” one of the Great Walks (page 80). I won’t take issue with calling this the world’s finest walk, but it certainly is not easy.

Just after disembarking we all gathered around the Milford Track sign to record our visit photographically. Here I seem a bit wary. Not smiling, I must have had a premonition of trouble ahead.

Wary at the Start

Wary at the Start

Click on the picture above to enlarge

A maximum of 40 independent hikers may start the track each day because everyone who overnights on the track must stay in a hut, which have only about that many bunk beds. Up to fifty more guided hikers stay in separate huts. Guided hikers get meals prepared by cooks, but the big difference turned out to be that they don’t have to carry a heavy pack with all their food, clothing, and sleeping bag.

Day hikers are a third group. They go only about as far as Clinton Hut, where those of us who were independent hikers spent our first night. What is known as Clinton Hut is actually a collection of several buildings, including two unisex bunkhouses, a common area for cooking and eating, and outhouses. Even though the huts are “off the grid,” they have electricity and running water, including flush toilets. Rather than using noisy and expensive fuel-operated generators, solar panels generate all their electricity. I find this fact remarkable, considering how wet and overcast this area usually is.

Since everyone has to travel both by bus and ship to get to the trailhead, the first day’s hike is a short one. Clinton Hut is only 3.1 miles from the dock. Fortunately, we had a picture-postcard perfect day of brilliant sunshine, warmth, and no wind. We walked along the Clinton River all day.

The Clinton River at the Start of the Milford Track

The Clinton River at the Start of the Milford Track

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Crossing one of many bridges over streams that flow into the Clinton River, I got my favorite photograph of the day. I had seen the bird called the New Zealand fantail before, but this shot shows how it deserves its name.

A New Zealand Fantail has a Fantastic Tail

A New Zealand Fantail has a Fantastic Tail

Click on the picture above to enlarge

I arrived late at Clinton Hut after many stops for both rest and photography. But even this short and beautiful hike I found to be hard going. At the hut, Steve told me that he was concerned about my ability to carry my heavy load and offered to take part of it the next day. I demurred, perhaps unwisely.

Steve and Christine also shared some of their dinner and boiled the hot water that I needed for my freeze-dried dinner of chili. Steve is a surveyor for the city of Sydney; Christine is a computer expert.

After dinner, hut ranger Ross Harraway gave an informative talk about what to expect and what to look out for on the trail. One of the attractions that he described was a nearby colony of New Zealand’s legendary glowworms, so before turning in, Steve and I walked a bit up the trail with the help of our torches (flashlights) and found them in the dark.

My first day on the Milford Track was harder than I expected. But I saw some wonderful country unlike anything I had ever seen before. And I made some reliable friends.


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Posted in: New Zealand

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Laurie D // Apr 16, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Oh oh – if you had trouble on the first day how did you make the rest!!!

    Hey – you didn’t find my sunglasses did you? I lost them my first day to Clinton Hut!!!

  • 2 David Mendosa // Apr 16, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Dear Laurie,

    Finding your sunglasses would be too much of a coincidence on top of the coincidence of our meeting in New Zealand. But I can give you the Clinton hut ranger’s email address, if you want to write him.

    Best regards,