The Milford Track…its breathtaking scenery mixed with an incredible history makes for one of the most emotional adventures we’ve taken.
One minute we are in the Air New Zealand Koru Lounge at Melbourne Airport drinking tea and eating toast, and just 3 hours later we are flying over New Zealand’s South Islands’ dramatic landscape of snow-capped Southern Alps. I have tears in my eyes at the beauty, and we haven’t even landed.
Our Milford Track adventure starts a couple of hours south-west of Queenstown, in the charming town of Te Anau. It’s the gateway to spectacular Fiordland National Park, and centered around Lake Te Anau, the largest body of water in New Zealand.
Te Anau is the kind of town where most people are walking around with backpacks on. They’ve either just finished a trek, or they’re about to head off on one.
Not far from town, but still on the lake, we meet our guide Shaun from South Island hiking adventure company Ultimate Hikes. We board the ferry that takes us on the 34-kilometre trip to where we will start the iconic Milford Track. The only company that takes multi-day guided groups, Ultimate Hikes organise your transport, accommodation at their private lodges, and of course provide you with expert guides.
The Milford Track is known as ‘one of the finest walks in the world’, and I don’t think it’s just the region’s obvious beauty that has made it so iconic. It’s the inspirational yet tragic story of the Scottish surveyor Quintin MacKinnon that goes along with it. We haven’t even stepped foot on the actual track yet, and we pass a significant landmark in the water. A cross marking the spot where he drowned, just four years after pioneering the tourist route to Milford Sound in 1888.
We get off at Glade Wharf, and Shaun leads the way, following in Quintin’s footsteps. Spending time with him, you can see he takes great responsibility in carrying on Quintin’s legacy. The track recently had its 125th birthday of welcoming walkers from all over the world.
“I am just one in a long line of guides who have come through and taken this track,” Sean says. “I hope I am making a bit of history as well by carrying on the tradition”.
The first stopover is just a few kilometres along the track at Glade House. At the foothills of towering mountains, with the sound of the river running alongside, we settle into the tranquillity. All of the lodges we stay at along the way are first class. They’re like an oasis in the middle of the wilderness. Incredible drying rooms for your gear, the smell of dinner cooking, a warm shower and comfortable bed, and of course the chatter amongst fellow trekkers.
An interesting fact to know before you come hiking in New Zealand is that on average it rains 200 days of the year in Fiordland, so come prepared. They say if you haven’t seen the Milford Track in the rain, then you haven’t seen her in her full beauty. And sure enough, our journey has begun with downpours overhead.
The resulting waterfalls are simply astonishing. The sheer power of them is overwhelming. They’re everywhere you look, hundreds of them, thundering down the sides of the rocks that dwarf you in the valleys as you pass through. If you come here, you must take the walk to Sutherland Falls, the highest permanent waterfall in the country. As Shaun so eloquently puts it, “it’s like mother nature gone wild”.
The most significant moment for me was climbing up over the MacKinnon Pass, the highest point on the track. It was a slog at times, and hard to believe Quintin and his team did this with no path at all and no shelter. After several hours of making our way up, we’re shrouded in cloud, apparently similar conditions for how it was for Quintin.
At the top, Quintin Mackinnon’s memorial greets us, surrounded by beauty. As a silence falls over us, the emotion of the place captures you. After sharing this with Shaun he agrees it’s not only the same for him, but everyone that passes through.
I am not sure if it’s the spirit of MacKinnon, the exhilaration of being surrounded by such magnificent scenery or in fact the camaraderie I felt with Shaun and our incredible film crew who I shared the journey with. One thing I do know is that I thank Quintin, and all of the guides since, who have not only kept this South Island hiking trail going, but who have looked after it with such care for the world to enjoy.
Have you tramped the Milford Track or done any other hiking in New Zealand? We’d love to hear your comments!