There and Back Again: The Milford Track
What a journey. Four days through the wilderness that is the Fiordland National Park of New Zealand. I had been wanting to do the Milford Track hike ever since discovering its existence three years ago when I first visited the Milford Sound. After a year of planning, it finally all came together two weeks ago when 16 friends and clients made the trek. I'll start by breaking down the daily recaps before going into the overall experience and scenery.
Two days before the hike, we had a group meeting to go over the gear and make sure
we were all prepared. Most of us had been training sufficiently, but I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page as far as what we needed to bring. We had discussed it several times during the preceding months but it was go time. Once we were out there, that was it. No stores, no cell service, we were on our own. The day before I left open in case people needed to make any last minute purchases or adjustments. Many had a good idea of what to expect but the meeting did help calm some nerves and gave others a few last minute ideas of some supplies to include and what to leave out.
Day 1: Intro to the Milford Track Hike
We spent much more time the first day of the hike traveling to the trail head than actually hiking. Having our base of operations in Queenstown, we needed to take a 3 hour bus ride to the dock at Te Anu Downs where we then boarded a boat for the hour long ride to the start of the trail. It was only about two and a half miles of relatively flat hiking in sunny weather. It broke us in gently and gave us time to get to meet some of the other people we wold be sharing the huts with over the course of the next few days.
The ranger at the first hut also did a short nature walk which helped introduce us to the flora and fauna of the area. With the sun in Southern New Zealand setting at well after 9 pm, we had plenty of time in camp to repack our backpacks to make them more comfortable for the much longer days of hiking ahead, cook dinner, and apply copious amounts of bug spray to combat the pesky sandflies which we were told wouldn't bother us the whole trail (we would later find out that was a lie).
Day 2: A Welcomed Watering Hole
The previous night I had told my group I wasn't going to set any strict time requirements on when they woke up to hike the second day and it worked out well. The weather forecast the ranger gave us was sunny and clear, the trail was relatively flat with slight incline nearing the end of the day. Everyone had signed up for the trip for different reasons and I didn't intend on micromanaging any more than I had to for the sake of safety. Everyone hiked at the own pace and all but one of us who went on ahead still managed to end up together at a glacial fed swimming hole for lunch. The water was clean, clear, and cold. It was perfect. There was a second, even colder swimming hole at the second hut which was a welcome sight after the trail did climb for the last two miles of the the 9 miles we hiked.
That night, the ranger confirmed what we already knew. The weather was going to be rough the third day which was already slated to be the most challenging. Storms would roll in in the afternoon so we would need to head out early to make it up over the high mountain pass safely before the 70 kph winds hit. I told our group we all needed to be up and on the trail by 6 am to make sure we got ahead of the storm.
Day 3: Into the Eye of the Storm
The storm had a different idea. It had already begun to rain before we had awoke. Starting to hike at 6 as some of us had done the day before was impossible as the cloud cover kept the any predawn light from illuminating the trail. We stood under the hut canopy and waited. Once daylight started to peer through we headed out into the blustery morning. The rain and wind intensified as we made our way up and over the pass. Once we actually reached the top, it seemed through some divine intervention, the rain let up. The storm didn't entirely dissipate, but pulled back just enough to let us descend the other side (the more dangerous side) with much less peril.
Most of our group made it to camp in surprisingly good time that day, with only one person who didn't train for the hike having issues.
At the end of the trail the next day there would be a boat that would carry us from Sandfly Point (a very aptly named location) to the dock at Milford Sound. There were only 3 different times the boat would pick us up, at thirty minute intervals. The ranger provided us with a chart which included landmarks along the trail telling us how far we were from Sandfly Point so we could gauge our progress to make sure we 1) caught the boat 2) didn't arrive too early and get eaten alive by sandflies.
Day 4: Lord of the Sandflies
On the fourth morning I made sure all of my group was up by 6 o'clock for a 7 a.m. departure.
Even though the ranger the night before had promised us this last day would be flat, we learned that all the rangers had a propensity for underselling experiences. The last day may have been flat in relation to the mountain pass the previous day, but it was far from flat. A group of us hurried along to the first few checkpoints of note on the trail, took pictures, then realized at some point we would be way ahead of schedule arriving at Sandfly Point. We pulled back the throttle, took in more scenery, and trekked on.
The ferry from Sandfly Point was only able to carry 20 people at a time, so we had to time it carefully. Arrive too early, and you sat around in a hut with no air conditioning waiting for pickup for hours or dare venture outside and get eaten by sandflies. Arrive too late, and you miss the cutoff and have to wait another 30 minutes for the next ferry. To complicate the matter, we were catching yet another boat, the Milford Wanderer, once we reached Milford Sound which was taking us for an overnight cruise in the fiord, so we couldn't take the last ferry or we would miss the connection.
Four of us made in time for the first ferry, including the two that started early while the rest of the group made the second. Getting in the ferry, rounding the corner and seeing Milford Sound open up around me with all of my group safe and accounted for, I let out a simultaneous sigh of relief and excitement.
Milford Sound is truly remarkable. for the first two and a half days you're hiking up a valley, then you cross a mountain pass before hiking through a fjord ending at the sea. We were actually grateful for the rain on the third day because it created hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the cliff faces around us. Even when it wasn't raining, the water was so pure we were able to dip our bottles in it and drink it. Pure, untouched glacial run off. Just incredible. A fellow hiker and I had only been on the trail about an hour and a half when two huge deer darted across the trail no more than 30 yards ahead of us. We saw and heard countless birds (a few of which I mistook for kiwis but later learned were waka, essentially a "New Zealand camp chicken"). I took hundreds of pictures and drone footage, but, as is always the case, it just doesn't do it justice.
Milford Sound Learning Lessons
Logistically, a lot of things had to line up to make this work and thankfully, it all did. The coordination of the charter buses meeting up with the boats (both to and from the trail head) worked and the choice of hotel was well received by the entire group. I opted to let everyone plan their own vacations pre and post hike and I think that was the right call. Also, I had made a decision back in September to remove someone from the group who I felt was going to be an issue and now with the trip behind me, I feel that was 100% the right decision.
Moving forward, I do feel however I have to be more emphatic when it comes to having people train for these types of trips. I was confident of the ability of everyone going except the one person who ultimately ended up being unprepared. I had taken them for a training hike once months before hand, and when they only made it a mile, I let them know they needed to really step up their training.
The reason I pick destination events such as this one is to help motivate people to increase their fitness level to prepare for it. Not only did this person not prepare, but it forced everyone else to pick up the slack by carrying his gear the final day and our doctor to hang back the whole time to ensure their safety. Luckily this time that difference was marginal, but it could have been much, much worse.
Would I do it again?
If you are asking would I do the hike again? I would be open to it. I would highly recommend it to anyone willing to put the time in to train and who loves the outdoors. There are several more Great Walks in New Zealand, and many other incredible hikes around the world. Currently I'm looking to plan a group adventure to Norway in summer of 2018 to help motivate my clients.