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Touted by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, the Milford Track is a truly spectacular walk. It is one of New Zealand’s most popular trails, with approximately 14,000 people walking it each year. Bookings fill up fast the winter before the season opens and the track tends to be fully booked through the peak of summer. During the walking season (from the end of October to the end of April), walkers can only walk the track in one direction – Lake Te Anau to Sandfly Point in Milford. Accommodation is restricted to specified huts (no tenting allowed), with a maximum of 40 independent hikers allowed each day.
We freedom walked the Milford Track with our kids and another family of four, making us a party of eight, the youngest being only eight years old. The walk takes four days and covers a distance of 53km, climbing from Lake Te Anau gradually up through spectacular waterfall terrain, then over the McKinnon Pass and down into Milford Sound. It’s a long walk but not an overly arduous one. However, for the smaller children and me (who was not as fit as I imagined) it was more challenging than we expected.
Walkers must spend one night at each of the three huts – Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling. There is no chance to linger, as the huts are fully booked each night and the next 40 people will arrive through the day to claim their bunks.
Fiordland is a water park with some of the heaviest rainfall in the world. It rains heavily and frequently. Even in the middle of summer it can suddenly be very cold. There are lots of creeks and rivers to be forded and it’s hard not to get your wet feet. Coming down off the McKinnon Pass, the side track off to the Sutherland Falls (an additional 1½ hours’ return walk) should not be missed and you can leave your packs at the day shelter. These are the fifth-highest waterfalls in the world and their energy is extraordinary. From 20 minutes away the noise was like the roar of a jumbo jet. We took the kids and climbed in underneath the falls. Getting in there felt like being in the fiercest storm of your life.
The early Maori of Southland and Otago travelled this track in search of pounamu (greenstone) from Milford Sound. Later pioneers followed the same route and established the Milford Track. The title The Finest Walk in the World first accompanied an article by poet Blanche Baughan, published in The London Spectator in 1908.
Freedom walking means you carry your own food and sleeping gear and stay at Department of Conservation huts. The huts are basic but clean, with communal bunk rooms with mattresses provided, shared cooking facilities (as in running water and gas rings but no pots or pans) and a central living room with fire and usually firewood. Ablution blocks are very basic, with flush toilets and wash basins (cold water only). It came as a bit of a shock to discover there were no showers – but for the hearty there are couple of swimming holes along the way!
The cost to freedom walk the track, including transfers to and from Lake Te Anau, is about $250 per person, compared to a cost of about $2000 per person if you take the guided walk. Guided walkers stay in more salubrious accommodation, have their packs carried for them and gourmet meals are provided. Their huts are staggered between the Department of Conservation huts so there is no chance of confusion.
The first hut is an easy 5km walk from the boat drop-off at the end of Lake Te Anau. If you want to treat yourself with a fancy meal, this is the time to do it. From here on, you’ll want your pack to be as light as possible. Provisioning for a trip like this takes a bit of planning, as you want enough food but not too much and it needs to be able to be produced with the very minimum of equipment. Everything, including your rubbish, has to be carried. Lots of trampers take dehydrated meals and of these the Back Country Cuisine range certainly offers the best quality.
For the first two nights we opted for our own homemade one-pot fare. Night one we enjoyed a very tasty one-pot smoked sausage and porcini risotto made with arborio rice, olive oil, dark smoked sausage and dried porcini mushrooms cooked with water and a couple of porcini stock cubes. Diced red pepper and zucchinis were added in at the end, along with a good shake of grated parmesan. A bag of 'chateau du cask' wine was the one thing we forgot. Day two’s dinner saw a simple pasta puttanesca made with a couple of packets of good quality Italian spaghetti cooked and tossed together with a bottle of tomato pasta sauce, a slug of olive oil, some olives, capers, anchovies, chilli flakes and parmesan. Putting all the flavouring ingredients in well-sealed plastic bags before we set out meant no cans.
Day three is the longest day on the track. Crossing the McKinnon Pass with the side trip into the Sutherland Falls saw us out on the track for nine hours. That night we were decidedly pooped and our final dinner was of the freeze-dried variety – honey soy chicken. Two serves weighs a mere 175g. The kids had fantasised all day about honey soy chicken. As newcomers to the dehydrated food experience they had imagined plump pieces of chicken in a tasty teriyaki-style sauce. They were horrified to find a greyish mix of rice and tiny cubes of what was actually chicken, but could have been anything. It was, however, entirely edible, filling and so easy.
Breakfast each day consisted of muesli, dried fruits, toasted flatbreads and bacon (a 1kg pack lasted us the trip). Daily lunches and snacks included chocolate, nuts and dried fruit (the classic scroggin mixture), cracker biscuits, salami, hard cheese, pouches of tuna and peanut butter.
Botanically, the Milford Track is stunning, and I would return just to see the plant life again. The wine berries were in flower in January when we walked the track, carpeting the ground with their glorious white cups in thickets. Up on the pass, mountain buttercup, Ranunculus lyallii, mountain daisies and snow marguerites were flowering. Descending down the other side of the pass you enter a lush green shrub land zone, including mountain three finger, the tree daisy Brachyglottis buchananii (with yellow flowers), and a native broom Carmichaelia grandiflora, which has sweetly scented mauve flowers. As you reach the lower Arthur Valley, where the climate is milder and wetter, the forest includes silver beech, kamahi, miro, totara, fuchsia and mahoe with lots of ferns and lichens around the track.
On the last day, it’s an 18km race out to meet the boat for Milford either at 2.15 or 3.15pm. Blisters, sore feet and smelly socks notwithstanding, a walk like this offers a pleasant sense of achievement. Hopefully I will be back one day to take in this glorious, unspoilt part of the world again.
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