Read part one and part two here.

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Along the Arthur River, on the fourth and final day of the Milford Track

The river valleys and fiords of the central west coast of New Zealand’s South Island have carved the surrounding ultra-hard granite rock into deep (some 4000 feet high), stunningly vertical fissures by millions of years of river and glacier action.  And because it rains here 180 days and 268 inches a year, these vertical walls gush with waterfalls and are covered with a thin skin of lush greenery somewhat reminiscent of a Dr. Suess story – an entire forest community unique to this part of the world.  In places the green “skin” has sloughed off, leaving stark scars on the cliff face.  This is the visual extravaganza offered up all along the Milford Track, the most iconic extended walking trail in New Zealand.

The same geology that forged the area’s recalcitrant granite also shaped the Milford Track’s history, by depositing a gem known to the local Maori people as Pounamu, and to the Europeans who came later, as greenstone.   Considered a taonga – “treasure” – by the Maori, these stones increase in prestige as they pass between generations, and some have known histories going back many generations. For centuries the Maori traveled roughly along the path of the current track to Milford Sound in search of Pounamu. In 1888, two European explorers and surveyors – Donald Sutherland and Quintin MacKinnon – were commissioned to cut tracks up the Arthur and Clinton River Valleys, Sutherland discovering a 1,904 foot high waterfall along the way that now bears his name. MacKinnon finally crossed over the narrow pass separating the two drainages late that year, the first known European crossing. Now the 3800-foot pass, near the geographic halfway point of the track, bears a monument to MacKinnon and carries his name. Mackinnon became the first Milford Track guide, and for years Sutherland ran a hotel near the end of the track.

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Reflections in the Clinton River, Milford Track. Day 2

Our group of 13 adventurers was walking the Milford Track in mid-February 2013, the heart of summer and prime hiking season in Fiordland National Park, and just kicking off a three-week immersion into NZ “tramping” on several of its best trails from south to north. Our Milford adventure started from the relaxed little lakeside town of Te Anau, with a bus ride to a dock at a place called Te Anau Downs, followed by a boat ride across blue-green, multi-armed Lake Te Anau to Glade Wharf and the mouth of the lazy, meandering Clinton River where the track began. For two days, the trail slowly climbed through native evergreen forest of spreading silver beech, majestic rimu and tree ferns along the Clinton, serenaded with the melodious voices of the country’s native songbirds and the sound of waterfalls tumbling off the steep sides of the valley. The Clinton Hut at mile 3.1 and the Mintaro Hut at mile 10.3 were full to bursting with an excited, chattering, international clientele, and their adjacent warm swimming holes, spacious common area and great nature talks by knowledgeable hut wardens made for a very positive start to our experience.

Suddenly, at the start of day three, we ran out of valley and found ourselves at the base of the steep Clinton headwall with MacKinnon Pass looming above on its north side. It was energizing to finally have some topography to push against, winding up the switchbacks above treeline into the subalpine scrub and flowers.   However, our temporary weather luck was running out, and thick clouds pushing up the river valleys on both sides were racing us to the top. There was only time for a brief glimpse and a few photographs of the MacKinnon Memorial before we were enveloped in mist and rain. A short way down the other side past some small tarns was a small spartan shelter, a welcome escape from the rain nonetheless, and our party plus several others shed our damp outerwear and huddled there in hopes that the weather would abate. But no, our patience dried up before the rain did, and we set out again….only to drop below the clouds and back into the warm sun within a half mile below the shelter. Like lizards we basked, and our clothes steamed along with the rock wall beside us.  Finally, body heat replenished, we descended nearly 3000 feet down innumerable boardwalk stairs along the rapids of the Roaring Burn River, with the visages of Mount Balloon (6058’), Mount Wilmur (5609’) and Mount Elliot (6527’) above us ghostly in the fog.  The side trail to Sutherland Falls near the bottom had sadly been obliterated by a rockfall and was closed, so we had to content ourselves with views from a distance, but its foaming quarter-mile drop from Lake Quill above was still quite impressive.

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Giant’s Gate falls and lunch spot, Milford Track, day 4

It wasn’t far now before our trail returned to a more placid neighborhood, again wandering the moss and forest along a placid meandering river, this time the Arthur. Our fourth and last day on the trail was totally tranquil, walking a bench alongside the crystal clear river, interrupted only by the roar of Mackay Falls and Giant Gate falls both dropping right beside the trail into swimmable – if frigid – pools. The river opened up into broad Lake Ada before finally ending at a dock at aptly named Sandfly Bay on the shores of Milford Sound, where we caught yet another boat to the other side, and a shuttle to a hotel in Milford Village with much awaited showers, laundry facilities and restaurant food.

The next morning we embarked on a 2.5-hour boat cruise from the village all the way out to the Tasman Sea and back, getting close-up views of fur seals on the rocks and dolphins and crested penguins in the water, all the while soaking up the emerald lushness of the sheer walls around us and the backdrop of high, glaciated peaks just behind.  The soaking turned literal for those on the bow when the boat nosed in under Stirling Falls, the water forming geometric patterns on the surface where it landed and rainbows in the air as it caught in the wind.  Definitely a fitting culmination of an experience which, if not the most visually stunning or physically challenging of the tracks we would, was definitely a rich meal for the soul.

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2 View up the lazy Clinton river from Glade Wharf

The Milford Track Huts: The jewels in the crown of New Zealand’s backcountry hut system, the huts along the Milford Track are large, bustling, and filled with a lively international clientele. As with the huts on all the major tracks in New Zealand, these had filtered water, gas cooktops, and plenty of bunks in various configurations, generally large communal rooms with 12 to 20 bunks per room. On the Milford Track, all unguided walkers must go in the same direction and stay in the same sequence of 3 huts – Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling – which meant getting to know one’s fellow travelers (and who the snorers were so as to locate in a different bunk room!).  And the knowledgeable hut wardens, through nature walks and sharing of local endangered-species-recovery stories, began what would turn out to be one of the most moving and surprising aspects of our trip:  a dawning understanding not only of the ecological richness and uniqueness of the country, and the seriousness of the threats their ecosystems were facing in the here and now, but also the absolute focus, passion and dedication that the New Zealanders were putting into protection and recovery of their unique species and places.

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Clouds pouring up the Clinton Valley from the trail to MacKinnon Pass

Milford Track Standouts:  The peace and serenity of the forest walks along the slowly meandering Arthur River under tree fern forest;  sheer granite walls rising thousands of feet above and carpeted in rich green;  waterfalls tumbling down around you everywhere you look;  staggering water-and-cliff views,  emerald-blue colors and sea-life on the Milford Sound.

Booking Your Spot on the Milford Track

Advance bookings are required for track transport and huts, and hut space during the prime season (mid December through mid February) fills up early, so start checking the DOC booking page at 8-12 months before you plan to travel.  Book a hotel in Te Anau for the night before you start, for the most convenient transport logistics.

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Milford Track Map

Milford Track Statistics:

• 33.3 miles, 4 days, 3 nights

•Nights at Clinton, Mintaro, Dumpling Huts

• Day 1: 3.1 miles, 150’ ascent

• Day 2: 10.3 miles, 1800’ ascent

• Day 3: 8.7 miles, 1600’ ascent, 3240’ descent

• Day 4: 11.2 miles, 250’ ascent, 500’ descent

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Milford Track Elevation Profile
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New Zealand South Island and location of the Milford Track
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