GREAT WALK: MILFORD TRACK
The Milford Track is the most famous of the Great Walks, traversing the wild scenery of the Fiordland National Park in the remote south west corner of the South Island over steep-sided rainforest-cloaked mountains and past thundering waterfalls.
The 53.5 kilometre 4-day walk starts at the head of Lake Te Anau and follows the Clinton River into the mountains, climbing up and over the Mackinnon Pass and alongside the Arthur River to Milford Sound.
The track was once one of the main trails used by the Maori people to gather pounamu (greenstone or jade). The translucent greenstone found near the entrance to Milford Sound was particularly sought after, transported by backpack over the Mackinnon Pass and down the Clinton River to the head of Lake Te Anau.
The track involves boat trips at both ends: from Te Anau Downs, 30 kilometres north of Te Anau, a launch takes walkers to the start of the track at Glade Wharf at the head of Lake Te Anau; and at the end of the track at Sandfly Point, boats ferry trampers across the water to Milford Sound.
The Milford is the most highly regulated of any of the Great Walks, and only 40 walkers may start the track each day in the summer season (late October to late April). Bookings open on July 1 each year for the following season, and it's a good idea to book at least a couple of months in advance. The Department of Conservation has booking desks in Queenstown, Glenorchy and Te Anau, and bookings can also be made online. You can download a copy of the Milford Track brochure from the DOC website, and buy a copy of the Milford Track map from the visitor centres, or online from Craig Potton Publishing or Clearwater Tarn.
Many people choose to do a guided walk on the Milford Track, a much easier, albeit more expensive option, where you need only carry your clothes and personal items. Tourism Milford is the only operator to conduct overnight guided walks on the track.
Fiordland lies in the Roaring 40s, so you must prepare for cold temperatures, snow, strong winds and heavy rain at any time of the year - it rains in Milford on a staggering 180 days a year. A good raincoat is essential, as is a plentiful supply of insect repellent to deal with the copious clouds of annoying, biting sandflies.
In the summer season, the Milford can only be walked as a four day/three night package in one direction, heading south to north.
Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut (5 kilometres, 1.5 hours): After a 75 minute boat trip from Te Anau Downs, there is a one kilometre walk to Glade House, the first overnight stop for guided walkers. Independent walkers continue on the track for another hour, through beech forest and along the banks of the trout-filled Clinton River to the Clinton Hut. There are good swimming holes near the hut, but if you want to fish in the deep pools you need a fishing licence.
Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut (16.5 kilometres, 6 hours): It is a gradual climb up the Clinton Valley as the track follows the Clinton River to its source at tiny blue Lake Mintaro. There is a turnoff to Pompolona Hut where guided walkers will stay the night, but independent walkers have to tramp another 90 minutes to the Mintaro Hut at the base of the Mackinnon Pass. If the weather is clear, you can leave your pack at the hut and head up the pass to see the sunset.
Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut (14 kilometres, 6-7 hours): The third day is a long tough day, with a strenuous climb up past the bush line to the Mackinnon Pass, where mountain buttercups, mountain daisies, and snow marguerites flower in early summer. The Mackinnon Memorial offers superb views down the valleys, before the final climb to the highest point of the track at The Pass Day Shelter at 1,069 metres. The eight kilometre walk from the pass to Dumpling Hut is downhill all the way, dropping 970 metres steadily over rocky, uneven terrain, for many the most difficult section of the track. The track leads around Mount Balloon, across the evocatively named Roaring Burn and down to the Arthur River and Quintin Hut, where guided walkers will spend the night. Independent walkers can leave their packs here for the walk up to the base of the beautiful plummeting Sutherland Falls (90 minutes return), named Te Tautea (the White Thread) by the Maori people, the highest waterfall in New Zealand. From Quintin Hut, it's another hour to Dumpling Hut.
Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point (18 kilometres, 5.5-6 hours): You must make an early start to meet the early afternoon boats out from Sandfly Point. After rain this is a spectacular walk, with the valley walls streaming with waterfalls. From the hut, the track gently descends, following the course of the Arthur River to the Boatshed shelter before crossing the river on a long swingbridge and leading inland to the MacKay Falls and the curiously hollowed out Bell Rock. The track follows Lake Ada, and about half way along its shore you reach the Giant Gate Falls, best viewed from the swingbridge at their foot. From here it is a 90 minute walk to the jetty at Sandfly Point and the boat to Milford Sound. Independent trampers can choose to spend the night at Milford Sound, or take the bus back to Te Anau.