Reigning in the Rainforest
Our Track Story
The Milford Track is a bit like some grandparents. It has been around for quite a while, it is well respected and has a wealth of heritage deep in its head … but it is also as stubborn as they come.
I’m a fan of flexible tramping. I prefer to plan trips just days before based on the weather; sometimes completing tracks in reverse, back-tracking at times, skipping huts and occasionally approaching tracks from both ends to collect photos and GPS data for the Great Hikes App. This track offers none of these which makes trip planning refreshing simple and equally nerve-wracking. However, despite the track being so rigid, I am relaxed.
You see, with Covid-19 blocking international tourists from our shores I assured myself that the most overbooked track in our country would be a breeze to book onto. While I intend to make a Department of Conservation (DOC) reservation close to the track opening, to be sure I take a sneak peek six months early on the opening day of the booking system. This is when I begin to fret.
Within seconds of opening, the available green calendar date boxes for huts are turning red like sandfly bites right before my eyes. This is when I realise I need to change my plans and join thousands of others frantically tapping on their keyboard to secure a spot. Fortunately, I got in and a few moments later all 18,000 hut nights for the entire season are reserved. Wow! This is my first introduction to the Milford Track experience.
Some months later it’s early December and I reach the Te Anau Downs and board the Fiordland Outdoors boat to the head of Lake Te Anau. The lake is a bit rough due to pre-frontal weather with two heavy rainfall events due to hit during my trip. If the scenery is not dramatic I am sure the weather will make up for it. As soon as the boat meets the whitecaps we rock out of civilisation and are whisked into the wilderness. Just over an hour later we reach a secluded wharf and it all feels a bit surreal.
There are no buildings or welcoming party, no carpark, shelter nor emergency radio – it is a time when one nervously checks everything in the pack to ensure gear is not left on the boat that has now long sped away. With three GPS units in hand, a big camera around the neck and another in the pocket it seems I have at least got the important work gear with me. By now the larger Real Journeys catamaran has docked and several groups spill out, some making the same motions checking raincoats and phones before embarking up the Clinton Valley.
The first day of walking is really just an afternoon. It’s a gentle beech forest valley walk beside the clear waters of the Clinton River to reach its namesake hut. The weather is moody, brooding and the humidity is as heavy as my overloaded pack. There is a treat waiting for us at the hut - ranger Ross.
At 2m tall and 78 years old, this gentle giant is a stalwart of the Milford Track. For the past 17 years, he has often spent half of his time as hut warden for DOC up here. He seems enriched by the wilderness which visitors are blessed with each night here.
Most wardens just pop into the hut each evening for a few moments doing a hut talk … but not ranger Ross. As he does every night, he takes our group on a night-time nature walk up to the wetland, past the hut and down to the river edge to talk about the wildlife and plants that will be part of our lives over the next few days. His knowledge and storytelling are epic – he is a living legend going beyond his duty.
The next morning it seems like the sun has forgotten to rise. What rises is the river level as a result of the pouring rain and thunder and lightning that has just begun. Like myself, my hut companions are lingering, waiting for a break in the weather. There comes a point when we must all move on … they say the wet weather is great for waterfalls so I guess we are going to have a great day.
Out we trudge, the loud tapping of raindrops on my raincoat is only silenced by the sound of claps of thunder overhead. I am enjoying the rain. While it is a challenge to mark waypoints on the GPS unit’s heat-sensitive screen, it does warmly remind me of my time working for DOC at Fox Glacier and the thrill of undertaking safety checks in the glacier valley during heavy rainfall events.
While the tops of the mountains are shrouded in cloud the waterfalls appearing from the heavens come right down to my feet. After wading thigh-high through some sections of the flooded track we all arrive safely at Mintaro Hut and dry out beside the fireplace. This hut is currently being replaced by one under construction further up the valley. A DOC alert states that a severe earthquake could trigger a large rockfall onto this hut … I sleep well, despite not quite knowing where to evacuate safely to in the middle of the night in this impossibly steep-sided valley should the Big One hit.
The morning arrives, the hut remains intact and from the look of dawn’s darkness, it seems like it’s a weather repeat. The sky is the deepest shade of grey as we venture out to climb the pass. Near the head of the valley, we abruptly climb, as the rain starts to come down as we leave the rainforest.
Gaining altitude, rain turns to hail and is joined by its friends lightning and thunder. If there was ever a test for my new bright orange Earth Sea Sky rainwear it is now. The storm seems to be directly overhead, the drama and exposure of the climb rise like an orchestral track’s crescendo. My hill climb is alive with the music of the whistling wind, thunderous cymbal claps and the nearby roar of a handful of waterfalls.
As I reach the Mackinnon’s Pass the music stops, it’s like the conductor has, with one flick of his baton, parted the cloud and got the sun’s warmth to gently play. The weather break is peaceful and below the monument to Mackinnon is the forest-clad Arthur Valley making its way through Fiordland and out to Milford Sound. I wonder if much has changed in this view since Quintin Mackinnon first crossed this way over a hundred years ago? What is new is the nearby shelter which is the perfect refuge to dry my camera lens and warm up before heading down into the Arthur Valley.
I descend back into the rainforest. The track through the Arthur Valley has two outstanding natural features. At the outlet is the charm of Milford Sound while near the headwaters is Sutherland Falls. The falls, reached by a side-track, was at one time thought to be the tallest in the world. I was not going to miss this as I love nature’s grandeur on such an epic scale.
I head off down the waterfall track which is a pretty trail in itself. I hear the falls before I see them, and on getting closer they sound less like today's thunder and more like a full-throttle jet engine. Oh, and what an incredible sight to leave the forest canopy beside the falls and see the full glory of water cascading in three steps 580 metres down to me.
With the recent heavy rains, the falls are in full glory and draw me close to feel their full power and torment my new raincoat. I am amazed at how I could not even reach the plunge pool of the falls. My body is shaken uncontrollably - smacked by a horizontal blast of wet wind created by the falling torrent. It turns me into one of those orange inflatable waving men with wildly swirling arms. I should be on a used car sales yard, not here in the wilds of Fiordland! I and the raincoat survived the force but the seals in my camera lens took a night to dry near the fireplace downriver at Dumpling Hut.
The final day's weather is an improvement, as the sun comes out so too do the sandflies. Leaving these critters behind I venture again into the forest which is a lush green. The full extent of the massive mountains is now revealed. They tower above me and their scale exceeds everything I would expect from Fiordland’s grandeur. The track follows the river downstream crossing halfway down before passing another two impressive waterfalls on the track’s journey to meet the sea.
I am joined half by kiwis and half by internationals that are still travelling around our country despite the closed borders. We team up at times and chat our way down the valley, all stopping at the impressive viewpoints to watch waterfalls, rivers, lakes before arriving at the trailhead. At Sandfly Point we are fortunate to only have a short wait for the boat that makes a brief crossing to Milford’s settlement before bussing back to Te Anau.
The Milford Track has always been on my lifetime got-to-go list. The sheer scale of the landscape is what impresses me most when compared to any other Great Walk. While the mountains were shrouded in cloud the rain did create a mystic mood and genuine Milford Track experience. As for Sutherland Falls, I am unable to add any further words – it’s a case of having to be there I guess. While it is different for me accepting to walk on the track’s terms, it did mean that I could take more time to soak in the views, nature and of course the rainfall.
Should every outdoors kiwi tramper consider walking the Milford? I think it should be on one’s must-do lifetime list. For sheer scale of scenery few tracks can exceed it. If you want more personal space and comfort then consider a luxury guided walk and lodge. My Milford Track experience was a refreshing change from other Great Walks and it truly deserves its royalty status reigning high and overflowing most people’s bucket list.