Is Milford Track really the finest walk in the world? You’ll have to judge that for yourself. But it is one New Zealand’s Great Walks (a designation given by the New Zealand Department of Conversation for comfortable, multi-day, walking trails). And if New Zealand says it’s a Great Walk, it’s probably a great walk. Every town I went to in New Zealand was guaranteed to have two things;
1) A public bathroom that was so clean you could eat off the floor (I didn’t, but seriously the bathrooms in New Zealand were cleaner than a lot restaraunts I’ve been to.)
2) A designated hiking route which winds through beautiful scenery.
New Zealand is basically a hiker’s paradise. But at the time I went, I was pretty out of shape for hiking. Was I up to a 53.5 km, four day hike with a pack on my back? There was only one way to find out. So I went for it.
Travelers wanting to hike the Milford Track should book with the Department of Conservation well ahead of time. Of course, I didn’t. Instead, I got off the plane in Christchurch and slipped into an opening four days later. One of the advantages of traveling solo.
The Milford Track starts from Lake Te Anau (in Fiordland National Park), climbs up to MacKinnon pass and finishes at Sandfly Point in Milford Sound. On the way the trail passes waterfalls, meadows, Alpine pools and suspension bridges. Hikers spend three nights staying in pre-booked huts, thus you need to carry a sleeping bag, food and water, but not a tent. The total cost including the huts and transportation to and from the trail head came to about 400 New Zealand Dollars.
Not having known whether or not I’d be able to get in, I was not carrying all the necessary equipment. But everything needed could be purchased in Te Anau. (Warning: I got a severe case of indigestion from some of those dried-reconstitute-in-water-meals. I would plan my cooking better if I did it again.) And it was also possible (and recommended) to lighten your load by leaving some unnecessary items behind, to be retrieved after the trip. Even more so than regular traveling- the lighter you pack, the happier you’ll be.
Every morning a friendly ranger would tell us what to expect on the trail. The briefing included telling us about amenities, like potable water and bathrooms, as well as what to look forward to wildlife-wise. Being New Zealand, the Milford Track offered plenty of bird watching. Keas were ubiquitous and they are not shy. “They can open zippers and they know where you keep your chocolate,” a ranger warned. Clever birds.
Day Three almost killed me. It began with a couple of hours zig-zagging up switch backs to get to the summit of MacKinnon Pass (1,154 meters). But the hard part for me came afterwards. The long, though totally beautiful decent turned my legs to jelly. Not wanting to miss out on seeing New Zealand’s highest waterfall, I added the hour and half long side trip to Southerland Falls. What a relief to reach the boardwalk, which indicated the last segment of the trail for the day.
Laying in my bed before dawn the next morning, I heard kiwis. Get up! I told myself. This is your chance to see kiwis in the wild. My legs protested. I’m sorry to say, I literally couldn’t do it.
The only thing I didn’t like about the Milford Track, was the only thing I didn’t like about New Zealand – sandflies. (Note that the track ends at “Sandfly Point”.) These are small, nasty, biting buggers. They seemed to be totally undeterred by DEET (I’m not sure it doesn’t attract them) and the only thing that seemed to help was to wear a coat of repellent so thick that they’d get stuck in the ointment. Oh well- there’s always something.
Sitting with other hikers as we waited for the boat at the end of the track, a woman commented, “The pleasure’s over.” We all laughed. We would miss the beautiful scenery that we’d enjoyed for the last four days, but were looking forward to other pleasures – like a hot shower.
I have a lot more hiking that I need to do before I can declare any trail to be the finest walk in the world. But based on my experience so for, Milford Track is definitely a candidate.