I’ve probably mentioned before that essentially the only things that Brett and I had booked before leaving on our trip were three bucket list hikes: the W Trek, the Inca Trail and last but not least, the Milford Track. The Milford Track is consistently ranked as not only the best of New Zealand’s 10 “Great Walks,” but also as one of the most beautiful multi-day hikes in the world. This, combined with the fact that only 40 independent walkers are allowed to start per day, make it pretty competitive to book. (As an aside, more guided walkers are allowed to start each day, but only after shelling out over $2000 dollars.)
With several backpacking trips already under our belts, you’d think I’d have been more confident than ever, but the ice-cold rain showed no signs of stopping leading up to our departure. We had ponchos, we had hand warmers, and I had extra socks just to wear over the top of my gloves, but I knew my Reynaud’s-plagued fingers and toes were still going to suffer. I must have done something right in the world, because as soon as we unloaded from our drenched bus onto our boat, the rain let up. And it didn’t start coming down again until 3 days later, shortly after we finished the hike.
The one-hour boat ride over Lake Te Anau was a spectacular preview for what was to come. Once we got to the trailhead, we all had to scrub down our boots to prevent the spread of didymo, which is frequently – and accurately – referred to as “rock snot.” It’s plaguing several of New Zealand’s lake and river beds, and after this hike we saw signs warning against it everywhere. Day 1 was short at only 3.1 miles, so Brett and I had time to hang out on the crystal-clear river and attempt to dry out our soaked shoes. Unfortunately, basking in the sun was not an option because the sandflies attack anything sedentary with a vengeance. We got settled into our hut and got to know some of the other 38 people hiking with us. That night’s sky was super clear, so we had some solid star-gazing and got to see the nearby glow worm grotto located just off the trail. The temperature fell at night to below freezing and our new sleeping bags were not up to the job of keeping us warm. Luckily, Brett filled up my canteen with boiling water before bed and I clung onto that thing all night like my life depended on it.
On Day 2, we set out fairly early for Mintaro Hut, situated just at the base of Day 3’s steep incline up to McKinnon’s Pass. Since it was such a clear day, and Brett and I made great time, we decided to head up to see the view. Without our packs, it wasn’t too challenging until we reached the tree line and the path became a slick layer of ice. My hiking poles were confiscated in Bolivia, so I was falling all over the place. I felt deeply regretful that every step up was a step I’d have to take a second time down, and then a third time back up the next day. We reached the pass right around the golden hour, and it was a sparkly, winter-wonderland. The snow was deep at the top, and we heard that just a few days before, a hiking group had to be helicoptered over due to poor conditions. While that would have been cool, I can’t really complain about the views with my feet on the ground. Brett and I had started to feel a little jaded about all the natural beauty we’d seen so far on the trip, but that time at the pass was unlike anything else. When we got back to camp we were exhausted from completing 12 miles, and just had enough energy to take down our dehydrated dinner.
On Day 3 we retraced our steps up to McKinnon Pass, which felt surprisingly easier the second time around. Even with my pack on, I found my footing better and knew what to expect. From the pass, we had to hike up a little further to a long-drop (porta-potty) they call the “loo with a view,” and then start the 6 hour descent to the valley below. The way down was brutal. We had to take the steeper, emergency track, and it was rough on the knees and never ending. A highlight along the way was a detour to Sutherland Falls, which – fun fact – is New Zealand’s tallest waterfall. The weather actually warmed up enough for my boots to dry out, and my toes were very thankful. After about 12 miles we made it to Dumpling Hut, which I think everyone expected to be as cute as its name. Instead, it was a normal two-bunk hut, and I did not learn why it has such an adorably misleading name. Brett and I unwound with some cards, and spent a long time talking to two different groups of people from Portland. One of the girls worked for Airbnb on the crisis team and told some crazy stories about bad situations people have encountered. (Like, ones with dead bodies involved.) It was the kind of stories that really put you to sleep!
Our last day was also our longest day with 18 kilometers of almost entirely flat trail. There were various sights along the way: even more aquamarine waterfalls and swimming holes, destructive mountain slips, and rock-carving graffiti from the 1800s. But the trail kind of dragged on, and Brett and I were very happy when we finally saw Sandfly Point in the distance. We had about an hour to wait in a hut before a boat took us to the Milford Sound pick up point, so we read about the storied history of the trail and said our goodbyes to all the lovely people who had trudged with us.
By the time Brett and I got on the boat, the rain had returned in full force, but luckily we had tickets straight onto a bus, and got to enjoy the warm, dry trip back to Queenstown. While we were hiking, four of our friends from San Diego had arrived in New Zealand, and that night marked the start of a week traveling with them! Even though we hadn’t showered in four days, they still allowed us to hug them (that’s love) and seeing their beautiful faces was the best. More on that next time!
But real quick – two Milford-related stories: (1) Maori legend has it that sandflies were introduced to New Zealand to keep humans from settling there; a god believed the land was so beautiful that the best way to protect it was to unleash millions of tiny, biting gnats on the land. (2) The Milford Track is measured in miles instead of kilometers because of the immigrants from the UK involved in building it. And the first (and now last) mile of the track was actually built in the 1890s by a prison gang, but they worked too slowly and quickly were moved back to prison.