This track has been on our radar for a long while, ever since I read a book over twenty years ago in which the Milford Track was listed as one of the top ten walks in the world. I wonder what the others were? I am pretty certain the Inca Trail is another and so is a trip down the Grand Canyon so there is a good chance I have done at least three of them.
I had never been south of Queenstown before this trip so the left turn at Franklin was exciting in itself as we passed under the Remarkables and headed for Te Anau. The weather was still stunning after a week of sunshine in Akaroa and the entrance into Te Anau was gorgeous. Blue skies, a mirror calm lake and the hills of the Kepler Track in the distance. There was a huge sense of immediate peace.
That was disrupted rather the next morning when we had driven up to Te Anau Downs and we managed to argue a little as to whether to leave the car by the boat ramp or more securely at the lodge. As we had a Rent-a-Dent heap we left it by the boat ramp and jumped on board the boat. There were 50 walkers with Ultimate Hikes with us as well as a few freedom hikers so it did not seem much of a wilderness trip. Even so the trip up the lake was stunning and very reminiscent of Norway, if warmer and quieter.
Carol and Marcel were on the trip with us and it was nice to head off up the track and leave the hordes behind. The first day is only 5 or 6km to the hut, and the luxury hikers were left behind at their hut after 1 km or so. We quickly scooted up the track to find the first hut pretty full, and mainly with overseas visitors. Italians, Belgians, British and a few Kiwis filled all 40 bunks. The Italians were noisy, selfish and snored loudly. It was a disturbed sleep and we were all up early and ready to go by 7.30 a.m.
Day 2 is more of the same with a longish trek up the Clinton Valley. The weather had been so dry that the track was in great condition and the waterfalls rather empty. The sand flies came out to play but the bug spray kept them at bay. They were not as bad I had feared and they liked Gail just as much!
After a couple of km we came across an Israeli who had turned his ankle and was limping badly.
He had flown a long way and spent a lot of money to start the track so he was understandably unwilling to consider retreat. We strapped him up, took some weight off him and left him to hobble along on some borrowed poles. Later that day we discovered he had got in more and more pain and eventually been forced to give up and get a helicopter ride from the Ultimate Hike day shelter. The hut warden carried out the book we had carried for him and the last we heard he was with a doctor in Te Anau.
Somewhere along the track the top of the pass becomes visible. At the first signpost the cloud was still low but it burnt off as the morning progressed and the shelter was clearly visible. The second hut it is higher than the first and the evening cooled down rapidly. The kea came out to play, the sand flies went to bed and so did we, but the Italians continued to be noisy and snored heavily. I was tired the next morning.
Day 3 starts with a bang and a 500m climb to the pass.
The climb went surprisingly easily and in 90 minutes we were at the top. The sun was out but there was a strong wind and the temperature was barely above freezing. We had a cup of hot coffee in the shelter and headed over the other side. The views were stunning. The mountains are so steep and plunge from rocky tops straight into the valleys, heavily covered in bush as the valley floor nears.
The descent is tortuous, over 1000m in a couple of km, down a rocky uneven path which takes a heavy toll on your knees. The temperature warmed up as we descended but the wind continued to blow, taking my hat off rather unexpectedly. Eventually, we hit the bush and continued the descent down steps by the stream until we reached the shelter at the start of the path to the Sutherland Falls.
It was a relief to leave the pack behind and head for the falls. I rather expected it to be a flat jaunt but the path climbed steadily to avoid slips. Glimpses were visible as we neared through the bush. The foot of the falls is in an open meadow and brave souls, not me, ventured behind them.
We returned to the shelter, picked up our packs and headed down to the hut. We reached here early and found a room of eight that we kept free of Italian snorers.
The final day is a long gentle stroll down the valley. The bush is beautiful and the river gains in volume and power as you descend. There are several large waterfalls and many bridges.
At the end of the track, a small boat was waiting for us and we hopped on it for the short trip to Milford Sound. Thi s is a very busy place and the soul purpose seems to be to get as many bus loads of people through the terminal and onto boats as quickly as possible. It is stunningly beautiful but the sheer numbers depressed me after our four days of relative solitude.
The road to Te Anau is stunning.