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The Milford Track

The Milford Track
 
   
   
   
   
 
 

Day 1

THE BOAT pointed towards the distant mountains towering out of the northern end of Lake Te Anau. With jagged peaks clawing at the clouds dissipating from the clearing rain, they led the way towards the most remote corner of the lake where the trek will start.

Lake Te Anau

Lake Te Anau

Eventually in the still waters of the northernmost part of the lake, the spectacular mountains parted to reveal our starting point at the tiny Glade Wharf.

Glade Wharf

Glade Wharf

The forest here at the lake’s edge was absolutely pristine, covered in thick sphagnum moss freshly charged from yesterday’s rain. We followed the wide track passing the mouth of the Clinton River and heading upstream for about half an hour before reaching a large clearing at Glade House, tonight’s hut for the guided walkers.

Glade House

Glade House

Here about two thirds of the walkers stopped, settling into their accommodation for the night where food would be provided for them. The rest of us continued up the track. We were the independent hikers, something only allowed since the 1950s when the track was upgraded and new huts were built for independent walkers. The guided walkers have their own huts separated at least an hour’s walk from the independent hikers’ huts.

Crossing the Clinton River

Crossing the Clinton River

I crossed a swing bridge at the top of the Glade House clearing. Once across the river the track continued upstream through dense forest for a couple of kilometres close beside the pristine river flowing over large boulders. The track followed the ancient forested valley floor with towering mountain ranges rising nearly vertically on either side.

Mountains and river

Mountains and river

After an hour and a half of leaving the wharf, the forest suddenly thinned at a junction and after a couple of minutes following the side track I arrived at Clinton Hut, the first of the independent huts where I was staying the night.

Clinton Hut

Clinton Hut

After settling in the ranger took us on a tour back towards the river. Following the tour, I returned a few hundred metres back down the track and took a side track up to a large swamp that had once been a lake but had over thousands of years become completely filled with sphagnum moss. Looking closer at the moss it had a very interesting ecosystem of carnivorous plants and other swamp plants growing on the peat.

Boardwalk through the swamp

Boardwalk through the swamp

I returned to the camp where the sun set and brilliant stars came out in the dark moonless night as I went to sleep in the large bunk rooms.

Day 2

Awaking early a little before sunrise, it was fine and cold outside. A thin haze of mist covered the swamp and a few parts of the valley.

Morning mist

Morning mist

Following breakfast, I left the hut continuing to follow the Clinton River upstream following alternating stretches of cascading rapids and calm patches. The moss-covered trees stood tall in the shelter of the giant walls of rock concealing the valley on either side.

Spectacular forest

Spectacular forest

A green marker was placed at every mile along the track. They now listed the kilometres under each mile, but were positioned with one peg for each mile drawing us back into time back when Mackinnon first explored the elusive Maori greenstone trail from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound in the late 1880s, establishing the guided walks a couple of years later, at a time when distances were measured in miles.

Mile marker

Mile marker

It was not long before the river and valley split into two under Mount Sentinel which I had seen from the hut. The track followed the left-hand branch of the river continuing to gain altitude. The mountains on either side grew higher and steeper as the sun finally rose above them sending bright shafts of light through the dense forest.

River reflecting mountains

River reflecting mountains

Eventually the track cleared above the forest reaching a rising slope upon which a couple of small lakes stood mirror still. Each lake had a small waterfall tumbling down the face of the mountainside keeping it full of crystal clear water.

Pristine lake

Pristine lake

I continued heading upstream passing more areas of bush and tussock, reaching a few small streams tumbling down from ice fields perched in relatively flat terrain over a kilometre above the valley. The ice was melting in a series of waterfalls plunging over the rock faces and joining together into the main streams tumbling down their steep valley of boulders. The track would wind its way into the valleys and cross over the strewn rubble of boulders towards the other side.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

After crossing bridges over a few of these streams, the track moderately rose towards the back of the valley towards Mackinnon Pass, a saddle hundreds of metres above the back of the valley where I am supposed to traverse tomorrow. Just as the valley swing around to the left the track reached a junction with a short path through the trees to Mintaro Hut, my destination for tonight.

Lake Mintaro

Lake Mintaro

After settling in the two storey Mintaro Hut, I headed a little further along the track to Lake Mintaro, the permanent source of the Clinton River under Mackinnon Pass. A dry gully continued for another kilometre or so into to a large cirque at the head of the valley. This part of the valley was almost completely surrounded by kilometre high vertical walls of rock making me feel very small.

Day 3

I left Mintaro a little after sunrise, starting the long climb towards Mackinnon Pass. This was the big day with a five hundred metre climb to the saddle, followed by a nine hundred metre drop down the other side to Dumpling Hut. The huts were only about two kilometres apart as far as the crow flies, but the spectacular terrain would ensure a much longer walk today. This was going to be by far the most challenging day of the four-day hike.

Mintaro Hut before sunrise

Mintaro Hut before sunrise

The forest gradually thinned as I gained altitude crossing backwards and forwards across the steep slope along the track, narrower and rougher than it had been. Finally, the forest ended to be replaced with tussock with the occasional clump of Mount Cook Daisy which was still showing its large white flowers near the end of the season.

Cirque

Cirque

At one point the track doubled back towards the sun which had just risen over the towering peaks. It was not much further to the top of the pass where the impressive stone Mackinnon monument stood lonely in the tussock. Beyond the monument the gently rounded saddle dramatically dropped off into a kilometre-high cliff plunging into the valley far below.

At Mackinnon Pass

At Mackinnon Pass

From the monument, the track rose following the low hills across the top of the saddle, eventually reaching the highest part of the track at 1140 metres above sea level. From there it moderately descended to the Mackinnon Pass Shelter at the base of Mount Balloon, a spectacular monolith clawing the mist blowing over it.

Tarns and Mount Elliott

Tarns and Mount Elliott

Following a rest at the shelter, the track began a long descent to drop nearly a kilometre down to the valley below. Initially, the track sidled across the steep face of Mount Balloon eventually reaching the bottom of a stream cascading down the valley. A bridge crossed the stream and the track turned to follow it downstream into the bush. Here the track followed a boardwalk above the stream cascading down spectacular waterfalls along the long descent.

Waterfall

Waterfall

The track finally reached a clearing where it crossed the stream, now quite a substantial river, to Quinton Shelter. Here we rested for a while before continuing downstream towards Dumpling Hut. On the way, I stopped with a good view out to Sutherland Falls plunging in three stages over six hundred metres.

Sutherland Falls

Sutherland Falls

The track continued a moderate descent until reaching the flats below the towering mountains. It was late afternoon when I finally reached the large complex of Dumpling Hut.

Day 4

The final day on the track consisted of an eighteen kilometre walk along the bottom of the Arthur Valley towards Milford Sound. The previous days had all been sunny, but today was overcast and threatening to rain. I followed the valley downstream through the dense forest under the mist enshrouded mountains, eventually crossing the river over a wide swing bridge. Rain started falling but only lasted about ten minutes.

Looking down the Arthur River

Looking down the Arthur River

Once across the river, the track continued for a few minutes before reaching a stream. A short side track led up to the tranquil Mackay Falls, where the white water tumbled into a pool of some of the bluest and purest water I have ever seen.

Mackay Falls

Mackay Falls

From Mackay Falls I continued with some of the group I had gotten to know at the huts following the track downstream through the ever-thickening jungle, very lush from being in some of the wettest places on Earth. Here is rains on most days all year round. The valley gradually widened and occasionally blocked into lakes by huge landslides that had slid down the sides of the mountains.

Lush rainforest

Lush rainforest

We reached another waterfall, the Giant’s Gate Falls. This was an even more magnificent waterfall tumbling out of the dense forest into a deep blue pool before cascading down into the Arthur River.

Giant's Gate Falls

Giant's Gate Falls

From the waterfall, the track quickly improved almost into a road, part of a construction by prisoners to construct a road up the valley, but it was abandoned. I followed the gentle road through the tall forest passing Lake Ada, the largest lake in the river created by a large landslide. With a final gradual descent, we reached Sandfly Point, where a shelter protected us from the worst of the clouds of sandflies.

The boat at Sandfly Point

The boat at Sandfly Point

We had reached the end of the track, 33.4 miles from Glade Wharf. From here a small boat arrived picking us up and taking us out of the entrance of the Arthur River into Milford Sound. The clouds were closing in over the mountaintops, but the lower kilometre of mountains were still showing, their vertical faces dropping straight into the sea.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

We headed around the forested headland deposited at the mouth of the Cleddau River, reaching the main harbour terminal after a few short minutes completing our journey from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound following the traditional Maori greenstone trail.

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22-25 February 2017

 

Fiordland

New Zealand

 

44°50'S
167°50'E

0 - 1140m ASL

 

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