Milford Track

9‑12 May 2010

Twelve of us drove down on the Saturday, taking about nine hours, and stayed the night at Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park, recommended at $26 p.p.). Our drivers positioned the cars at Milford on Sunday morning, getting a ride back. This took about 3 hours so we had more than enough time to explore Te Anau. The big bonus was that we were able to see Takahe roaming freely in a large enclosure at the wildlife centre, close to the motor camp. We caught the 1pm bus to Te Anau Downs, then had a pleasant one hour boat ride to Glade Wharf, which was under water due to recent heavy rain. However despite the lake being 2 metres above normal, (down a metre from an 8 year high the previous week), our track was dry and mostly undamaged.

Glade House, the first night's accommodation for guided walkers, is just 5 minutes from the wharf. Clinton Hut, our destination, was a little further but still only 1½ hours easy walking beside the Clinton River. Each of “our” huts cater for 40 independent walkers. Guided walkers use different facilities at more luxurious huts.

Next day's walking was mostly on wide, level paths through nice beech forest with some quite huge trees. We followed Clinton River past the forks where North Branch swings away to the right and on to a smart lunch hut with covered BBQ area for guided walkers, where there are views of Hirere Falls. Gradually the near-vertical walls of this glacially carved valley closed in on us. Everybody eagerly took photos at the marked site of our first good view of McKinnon Pass; for us just a high misty saddle between higher grey mountains. Both Sunday and this day had been overcast with no rain. We got occasional glimpses of the sun through the clouds, which mostly stayed clear of the mountain tops. Hidden Lake, just off the main track was at the foot of a mighty, almost sheer rock face reaching up 1,100 metres before angling back out of sight. Somehow bits of sparse vegetation clung to the rock, creating a green wall with one thin waterfall angling down it. We walked on for another hour then had lunch at Marlene's Creek, just past the Bus Stop shelter. This stream flows from Castle Mount 2,122m above and often stops walkers during heavy rain. We could see where a mass of water had skewed the heavy bridge foundations, leaving the debris-strewn bridge on an angle over a mass of boulders—but today, no water! The half metre of rain ten days before had wrought its damage and run straight on.

The track was a little rougher from here, and started to push uphill, but was still easy. We passed Pomplona Hut just as a helicopter was taking off from its helipad but the grumpy warden would not let us in. St. Quintin Falls is 230metres high, yet looks smaller than the one we saw at Hidden Lake.

It took about six hours for the 16.5km from Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut. Again the inside water supply was shut off for winter and flush toilets locked up. The placing of winter water taps at both huts seemed badly thought out. Clinton's tap ran straight onto wooden decking creating a potential ice hazard. At Mintaro, lack of a drain caused a soggy standing area. Mintaro is a two storey hut which must rarely get the sun in that narrow canyon.

Day three was all we had hoped for. The weather forecast was spot-on with clouds disappearing as we zigzagged up towards the pass. The sign said two hours from Mintaro Hut, which it may have been to the high point of the track but we all made the pass itself well within that time. We had been walking mostly in shade with sunlit snow tussock getting closer above us. Then over a rise a cross quickly became the top of a stocky monument to Quintin McKinnon, the first European to discover this route. Looking back, we could see the chasm of Clinton Valley, dark and mysterious, whilst all around us were sunlit peaks.

Small tannin stained tarns dotted the tussock saddle, its pommel stretching up towards a great amphitheatre of rock, the source of the Clinton River and above, remnants of ice and snow on Mount Hart and Aiguille Rouge. The way forward though seemed blocked—just a vertical "12 second drop" not 20 metres in front of the memorial, seeming to stretch away to both sides until meeting the surrounding buttresses of Mount Balloon and Mount Wilmore.

Over-towering all was Mount Elliott, (1990m). Kevin wriggled forward on his stomach, and extending his camera on a pole over the lip of the valley wall, tried to capture the view below. The rest of us took more conventional photos in all directions. We played around for half an hour or so, revelling in this incredible experience. Several of our party had done the track before in poor weather and not seen a thing. Today was just exceptional in every way.

Finally, we moved on another 20 minutes to the high point of the track at 1,069m. The old shelter was being replaced and we were just a few days too early to see it completed. The views were fantastic but how were we going to get down? The track took us further east, until we reached the head of a broad gully sweeping up from below and we finally started down, quite steeply. The 8km walk to Dumpling Hut rapidly drops 970metres, following Roaring Burn which is fed by the Jervois Glacier. We walked until we ran out of sun, sitting down for lunch at 1pm. This was when we discovered one of our party missing. Kevin did all the right things but it still took some time to discover that our missing member had just carried on ahead. Our fears of someone inadvertently testing how long it really took for something to hit bottom, from the pass, were thankfully unfounded.

DoC has built a staircase down the Roaring Burn, allowing us continuous views of its numerous waterfalls. Blue-grey rocks, shot through with quartz, and worn into scallops, slopes, steps and bowls pour the sparkling water in endless cascades, all hidden in dense bush, except to we privileged few. It was hard to drag ourselves away and press on. Then suddenly through breaks in the trees we could look back and up to see the great wall of "12 second drop". The map shows a 500 metre sheer cliff. On, past Dudleigh Falls viewpoint to the side-track for Sutherland Falls. We crossed the swing-bridge, past the Quintin Public Shelter and guided walkers’ hut. It is impossible to describe the force a 580m waterfall creates crashing down on the rocks below. It's like walking into a storm, with spray billowing out, and up, wetness, noise, sodden tussock and exhilaration. Looking up, there was blue sky and white tumbling water. Turn around and it’s all sunlight and rainbow. Several folk from another group emerged from a scramble behind the falling waters, soaked and excited, babbling, frozen but not wanting to leave.

Back at the junction, Kevin counted heads before we headed off on the last hour’s walk to Dumpling Hut, or huts—named after Dumpling Hill across the valley to the west. It is a bit of a damp trudge from bunkroom huts to kitchen block and further to the "winter" long drop. I wonder how many get lost on the way at night. Fat wekas forage between the huts and even in them, given the chance. Our fellow trampers celebrated a 50th birthday and fussed over a 13 month old baby brought in from Milford by dad to join his mum at the party.

We were up early for the last day, keen not to miss our 2pm boat at Sandfly Point. The promised rain came on as we started walking but was never too unpleasant, just adding more life to the luxuriant forest. It is 18 km to the finish but again is very easy walking, though with plenty more swing bridges and board walks. We became almost blasé about the lovely waterfalls along the way. McKay Fails and Bell Rock still had us grabbing our cameras, though. Then, beside the Arthur River and around Lake Ada, the path followed a rock terrace blasted out of the cliff by prison gangs and contractors in the late 19th century. We walked there on the ruptured edges of vertical strata heaved from horizontal by unimaginable forces over the millennia.

Another hour further on, there is a shelter and toilet stop. The various parties we had shared huts with, but saw little of during the day before, all seemed to group there for a last lunch in the rain. Wekas competed with the baby for attention as we sorted through our remaining food for treats to avoid carrying them out. Then with mixed feelings we walked the last 90 minutes to Sandfly Point, not wanting to finish but also eager for real coffee and hot showers.

We had seen blue ducks and tuis as well as numerous tits, fantails and waterfalls, and had a great time. I would love to have seen kakariki too, but one needs a reason to return. Some of our group had planned to continue on to the Routeburn Track before returning to Christchurch, but the weather was not suitable so we all enjoyed a final night at Te Anau Motor Camp before the long drive home.

Everybody should walk the Milford Track—preferably before any more hand-rails and notices are added. It is easy walking, not too long, and still not too crowded. Those who can now cross it off the list, thanks to Kevin Hughes our very capable leader, are:

Margaret Clark, Pam Crosswell, Linda Gardner, Helen Harkness, Tim & Mary Hines, Mary McKeown, Yvette So, Trevor Blogg, Barry McKessar and Bill Hambidge. (BH)