What makes a “Great Walk”? This question haunted me after reserving our spots on the Milford Track. Reputedly one of the world’s best hikes, reservations are required months in advice at the cost of almost $250 USD per person for the four day, three night, hike. What kind of public park hike requires you to carry all your stuff, cook your own food, and costs over $50 a day? After a year of traveling on less, paying that much to hike uphill seemed absurd. That said, having made the payment, we’d soon find out how great this Great Walk is.
After a beautiful boat ride to the trailhead the first day is lovably short hike through moss-covered forests.
A key part of the Great Walk system in New Zealand is the staffed huts. For a mere $52 NZD ($41 USD) a day hikers get dorm beds, drop toilets, gas stoves and “hut talks” from park wardens. The Milford Track is the only Great Walk that does not allow camping, helping maintain the trail’s stellar condition, but drastically increasing costs for hikers. As for accessibility though, the huts make trekking New Zealand’s best areas possible for those that camping doesn’t appeal to. Some of the huts even have entertainment such as enormous hula hoops for those that hiking didn’t tire out.
The second day brought us the weather that the Fiordlands Region is famous for: wet and unpredictability. Atop Mackinnon Pass (below) we were greeted with unseasonably cold storm which obscured what is supposedly the best view of the entire hike. Thankfully the Park Service has built a well insulated warming hut with gas burners at the top of the pass for worn-out hikers (like me).
The cloud covered Mackinnon Pass.
Upon descending from Mackinnon Pass the weather cleared to show us some of Milford’s spectacular views.
New Zealand’s second highest waterfall, Sutherland Falls, cascading 2,766 ft (843 M). The roar of the falls is deafens as the spray of cold water soaks those who approach it.
As we rested near the falls we were approached by LOCAVORista’s mother. Arriving calm but without LOCAVORista’s father, she quickly broke the news: she left him behind after he fell and believed he broke his ankle. LOCAVORista resisted the urge to hike back after they alerted a passing park warden, hoping that her father had stayed put. True to form though he had managed to get back on his feet and make it the remaining 30 minutes to meet us. Miraculous revival aside, he reiterated that he thought he had broken a bone, but was aided by ibuprofen in getting to us. After a quick consultation from the warden it was clear that a helicopter was the way out for him. Not able to walk out we learned that the Great Walk fee also includes complimentary helicopter evacuation. An unfortunate end to their hike, but an agreeable evacuation charge.
Roughly an hour after arrival, both of LOCAVORista’s parents were airlifted to the hospital. During dinner we were radio’d the news: his tibia was broken.
The final day brought sunshine and unforgettable views. Throughout the 18 km (11 mile) hike to Milford Sound we were greeted with calm reflecting waters, lush greenery and smiles by fellow hikers that were approaching their first shower in days.
Crossing our final swing bridges and following the rivers towards Milford Sound we were in awe. Due not just to the final day, but the overall variety of landscapes, flora and fauna that is contained in such a small area. This variety is what makes the Milford Track worthy of being called “great”. It is without a doubt worth the effort and money to see one of the world’s great wilderness preserves.
One of the hundreds, if not thousands, of waterfalls along the Milford Track. Each one is unique, from the towering Sutherland Falls, to the tiny spouts such as Mackay Falls (above). When the rains aren’t falling the valleys still resonate with the sound of falling water making it’s way towards Milford Sound. Below is one of the rivers draining into the Sound, sadly marking the end of the hike.
WHEN YOU GO:
- Book ahead. Reservations are essential and easy to make on the Department of Conservation Online Booking Site. Reservations are best made 6-9 months in advance to ensure the dates you want.
- Be prepared for bad weather. You will need waterproof pants, jacket and bagcover as it will rain.
- Stock up in Queenstown. There are larger stores, including grocery chains, in Queenstown making selection and prices better in Queenstown than Te Anau.