Where: Milford Sound, Fiordland
Distance & Time: 53.5km (excluding side trips), four days/three nights
Take: Camera, sunscreen, hut gear for three nights, sturdy boots, water, rain jacket, lots of insect repellent, togs, walking pole(s)
Amenities on route: Three huts with mattresses, gas cooking, bathrooms, and a resident ranger at each hut over the summer months.
Cost of the walk: The huts are $70 each a night (there is no camping on the Milford Track). Plus you will also need to pay for your boat transport from Te Anau to the start of the walk, and return from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound at the end. There are various transport providers you can choose from, you can also drive and have your car relocated, or take a connecting bus from/to Queenstown. We chose the option to take a 30 minute scenic flight back from Milford Sound to Queenstown at the end of our hike, great way to finish our incredible experience! For a bus from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs, boat from Te Anau Downs to start of walk, boat back from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound, and scenic flight back to Queenstown cost us NZ$543 per person.
I’m highly tempted to suggest that this is the most well-known walk in New Zealand, and the one that almost without fail will have people saying one of two things: either 1)” I’ve done that and absolutely adored it” and they will then tell you all about their experience or 2) “I so want to do that walk but I’ve never had the time/been able to book it”
With our borders currently closed to international tourists I knew that summer 2020/21 was a golden opportunity to finally book and do this walk. The morning that DOC (Department of Conservation) opened the bookings back in August 2020 I was sitting on my laptop ready to book for the five of us. Four minutes later I had my confirmation that we were in, and not only that, for the dates that we wanted too!
The Milford Track isn’t a loop, but there are several options for transport to get you to/from the start + end of the walk. You have to get a boat from Te Anau Downs to the start of the walk, and returning from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound at the end, there are options for leaving your car at the start and having it relocated to meet you at the end, to bus either way, or to take a flight out at the end which is what we did!
Amy’s Advice – take insect repellent. Use it every day and reapply it constantly. The sandflies are everywhere and while you’re walking you will barely notice them but once you stop they are everywhere. Impossible to avoid so all you can do is make it slightly harder for them to get to you.
The first day started in Queenstown where we caught the bus to Te Anau to pick up our Hut tickets from the DOC Office, then hopped on another bus for a 20 minute drive to the boat ramp to get our boat to the start of the walk. The boat trip took approximately an hour before it was dropping us off at the jetty to start our walk. We took the standard photo in front of the DOC sign and then we were off.
The first day of walking is only a 5km stroll to the first hut, and it is really a stroll. It’s flat, and mostly meanders alongside a crystal-clear river for most of it. I don’t know if you can describe a river as luxurious looking, but that’s actually the word that comes to mind when looking at this river! It was incredibly clear, cool, and refreshing. We constantly caught sight of trout swimming along it during our days walking alongside it, and dipped our feet in a few times.
Huts on the Great Walks are always pretty well set up. Clinton Hut has two sleeping quarters, and of course we managed to get the one that had the notorious snorer (there’s always one!) in it. Because we arrived with plenty of daylight left we made the most of being able to head down to the river for a paddle and to relax on the giant deck of the hut, even indulging in a bit of hula-hooping with two home-made hula hoops that were at the hut.
Each night the warden of the hut gave a welcome speech and talked about a few points of interest. Thankfully they made them fairly early as I’m pretty sure most people were tucked up in bed by 8.30pm!
The warden recommended that we all try to be on track by 9am the next morning as the guided walkers were in a hut 4km behind us and we didn’t all want to be walking together.
The second day followed the Clinton River most of the way, so it was relatively easy going. There were a few obvious points to stop and have a snack break on route, which we did, but it was a 16km+ day so we didn’t want to linger too long. There were a few cool side tracks today too, all of which I recommend you do as they don’t add too much time on and they are totally worth it as you see something a little bit different to the views from the main track. We had our lunch break today off a side track at a small lake that had formed at the base of a valley cliff. It was gorgeously still and sunny, there were some sneaky weka around, and we took our boots off to have a wee paddle in the lake, following a well-tread path that many previous hikers had also done, as you could see the path in the lake that was clear of weeds.
The track was fairly easy going today but there was a small bit where I got my hiking pole out for balance, when we had to cross up and over a rock/water fall. It was clear to see where in winter/spring all the melted snow + ice would come down to the rivers from.
Arriving at the hut this evening we headed down to the river again for a swim, and while I stuck with my paddle to soak my feet (and try and avoid the sandflies as much as I could) a few hardy souls went for a full swim in very, very cold water – good on them! Mintaro Hut in the process of being replaced, so by the time you walk this you will likely be staying in a brand new hut. Apparently quite a few previous hikers had heard and seen kiwi around the hut but unfortunately that was not to be the case with us.
The next morning was our day of going all the way up a mountain just to come all the way back down again. The third day is when we crossed Mackinnon Pass, and you’ll hear all about this route and the work that went into not only finding it, but making it, when you stay at the huts along the Milford Track, so I’m not going to repeat it here. All I will say is that they did a sensational job and the guys who had the role of building the monument to Mackinnon at the top are perhaps even more impressive!
I found going up actually quite easy going, considering how much scaremongering about this part of the walk I had read about prior to the track, and the way some people on track were talking about it. It was mostly switchbacks but the track was well-made and it wasn’t stairs (I think we can all agree that walking up stairs rather than a path is much harder!) Admittedly we did stop a few times on the way up to de-clothe and to admire some of the incredible birdlife (pretty sure we spotted a few rifleman, which was very cool).
At the Mackinnon monument everyone took a breather from walking up and to take in the incredible views. Admittedly we had to wait for a break in the clouds to see the view but it was worth it! After all the up it was now time for the descent. Oddly enough, this part of the track was my least favourite. Yes, the views were great, and being able to fill up my water from melted ice/snow was delicious, but going down, and down, and down, and down again is just hard work on my knees and toes. And I may have started to get a wee bit hangry too! I knew I wanted to do the side trip to Sutherland Falls, and even though we glimpsed it while going down (thankfully there’s a sign that tells you to look as it’s the first sighting of the falls), it seemed to take forever to get there. I did think the stairs following a waterfall down were pretty spectacular though, and I admit I much preferred walking down them rather than up.
We got to the turn off towards Sutherland Falls and decided to make the side trip, approx 45 minutes total. But first, a tea break as the hut for guided walkers at the start of the side track had kindly built a wee shelter and left tea + coffee provisions for the self-guided walkers and it went down an absolute treat. Plus it was a good spot to get away from the sandflies, and somewhere to leave our bags while we went up to the Falls. I had made the decision that I was going to swim in the pool at the bottom of the falls so I spent pretty much the whole time confirming that decision to myself. There were so many weka on the walk up to the falls, including lots of baby weka following their parents along, which was very adorable.
We got to Sutherland Falls and before I could second guess myself I stripped down to my sports bra and undies and walked in. I dunked down to my shoulders and then I was straight back out again! It was very chilly but super refreshing as well! If I did it again, I would definitely wear my sandals in as the rocks were a bit sore on my feet but apart from that it was fun! And make sure you keep your dry clothes away from the falls as the spray travels quite far!
It didn’t seem to take too much longer from the falls to Dumpling Hut, having the short dip in the falls definitely helped with my mood and energy levels, plus most of the downhill was over with so it made for relatively nice walking to the hut. The hut was again near a river so most of us headed down for a swim, I took my sandals this time so I could actually traverse up the river bed, which was actually quite cool. I couldn’t get over just how clear the water was!
I was one of the first to bed this night and I had the best sleep I’d had on the track so far. Was so deep in my sleep I didn’t even hear anyone else come into the dorm, or the laughter from the two guys who decided to use this trek to listen to the podcast “My Dad wrote a porno”! We had been wondering what in the world these guys were cracking up at each evening while listening to something and we ended up asking and they told us what they were listening to. It was kinda entertaining listening to their random giggles in the evenings.
Our last day on the track had an extra reason to walk faster as we needed to make sure we were at the wharf by 2pm to catch our boat into Milford so that we could catch our flight back to Queenstown. We were all amped for our helicopter trip back into Queenstown!
The last day has a couple of short side trips we did and would highly recommend – a random rock that you can crawl under and then stand up inside in, and more glorious waterfalls! So. Many. Waterfalls! We had our morning tea break at one of the falls – would recommend not sitting at the shelter as that was sandfly central, and instead cross the bridge to sit by the river to eat. This is where people who do just a day hike in from Milford walk to before turning around – it gives them a taste but you really have to do the full thing to experience it properly!
We got to the end of the track with plenty of time to spare and thankfully were able to get an early boat back into Milford which meant we had time to head down to Milford Lodge for a drink and some food before our flight back. At the teeny tiny airport I was on the lookout for our helicopter which I’m sure I’d booked. The time I’d booked for came and went with no sign of any helicopter. I was starting to get quite nervous and kept rechecking the booking email when a van from the airline pulled up with some other passengers and the pilot popped out. She checked our names and it turns out I’d booked us on to a small plane instead of a helicopter! Ah well, it was still a flight but we’d all been so amped for a helicopter trip!
It was one of those small planes where you could literally reach out and tap the pilot on the shoulder from the seat behind her, which always gives me a wee bit of the heebie jeebies, but our amazing pilot gave us the choice of two flight paths back to Queenstown, either following the Milford Track so we could see from the air where we had just walked, or along the glaciers. We chose the glaciers! Being able to get up so close to them in the small plane was pretty incredible and thankfully we had smooth day for flying so there wasn’t too much turbulence. It was an absolutely stunning way to end our Milford Sound adventure (the other option was a five hour bus trip back to Queenstown), as the flight only took 30 minutes. You just get to see so much more from the air, including the multi-million dollar residences that you would never be able to see from the road. Upon landing at Queenstown Airport we jumped straight into the courtesy van to be dropped back to our door. Easy as!
I would like to come back and do the Milford during spring, when the waterfalls are supposed to be incredible. In so many places on the walk we could see where they normally were but it was just too dry for them. I also think it would be an incredible place to kayak the rivers on, but I’m not sure how easy that is to do, or even if you’re allowed to. Will look into it!
The photos were taken by Paul + I!
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