MILFORD TRACK - The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone

The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)


Southland, New Zealand

Distance: 53.5 km

Grade: Moderate

Time: 4 days

Blanche Baugham was born in Surrey, England, in 1870, the youngest of six children. She gained a BA in Classical Literature, became involved in the suffrage movement, and in 1900 travelled to New Zealand where she pursued her interest in poetry. In 1908, after having been published regularly in the London Spectator, she travelled to Milford Sound, and walked the Milford Track. Baugham later wrote an essay on her experience, titling it ‘The Finest Walk in the World’. It’s a title still used today. Why? Because this walk has all the ingredients necessary to be the world’s finest. The rest just depends on how well you argue it.

Milford Sound, crowned by majestic Mitre Peak which rises 1,692 m above its placid waters, is on the southwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the region of ‘Fiordland’, one of New Zealand’s last places to be mapped. Formed by tectonic activity over millions of years that built up mountains which were then pushed aside by the glaciers that had expanded to fill its valleys (technically making it a ‘fiord’, not a ‘sound’), it measures 16 km from the head of the fiord to where it opens into the Tasman Sea. During the last Ice Age the glaciers began to melt, gouging out the valleys and displacing the boulders you can still see today as you pass through the Eglington Valley either in your own car or on a pre-booked bus from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs (the bus is a more practical option, as the walk is strictly one-way). At Te Anau Downs a twice-daily boat service or on-demand water taxis will then take you to your starting point at Glade Wharf on the shores of Lake Te Anau - and into a world of temperate rainforests, waterfalls, lichens and a blanket of dense greenery fed by an annual rainfall totalling almost 7 m and where downpours of less than an inch an hour are dismissed by locals as ‘mist’. It is officially the country’s wettest inhabited place, with a rate of precipitation that led The New York Times to dub it ‘New Zealand’s Watery Wild’.

The Milford Track, part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site, leaves Glade Wharf and immediately immerses you in a beautiful forest of beech as you walk the banks of the Clinton River to Clinton Hut, a short 90-minute walk that leaves plenty of time to explore nearby swimming holes and takes the boardwalk through the surrounding wetlands and their understorey dominated by ferns, mosses, lichens and woody plants. A 16.5-km walk on Day 2 has you ascending along the trout-filled Clinton River through grassy meadows and past swamp pools before ascending to the river’s source at Lake Mintaro in the shadows of Mackinnon Pass (3,520 ft), the track’s high point. The walls of rock that tower above you on the approach to the pass are nothing short of inspiring as you move through the Clinton Valley and continue climbing towards your accommodation at Mintaro Hut, the landscape changing from temperate rainforest to a world of sub-alpine scrub, tussocks, and alpine herbs. Note: if the weather is fine you should continue on the 500-m climb up the head of the valley to Mackinnon Pass for the panoramic mountain views, because you never know what the next day’s weather will bring. After contemplating the view from Twelve Second Rock - that’s how long it would take for you to hit the ground if you fell off it - head back down to Mintaro Hut.



Photo: Alasdair W

A preponderance of rocks and tree roots can make the 950-m descent from Mackinnon Pass down into the Arthur Valley difficult on Day 3, and is generally considered to be the most challenging part of the track. But the views you have more than compensate for that - from the monstrously sheer walls of the west face of the pass down into the moss-laden forests of Clinton Canyon and down past the cascades of Roaring Burn. Immersed again in beech forests the sound of an approaching waterfall soon becomes a roar as you pass by the base of mighty Sutherland Falls, at 1,904 ft New Zealand’s highest waterfall, and on to your bed for the night at Dumpling Hut. An early start the next morning is needed to make sure you cover the final 18 km - along the Arthur River and the blue-green waters of MacKay Creek, and around Ada Lake to a grand view of Giant’s Gate Falls - to make the 2.00pm boat from Sandfly Point to the small settlement of Milford Sound, and the end of a memorable journey.

Numbers on this fragile trail are strictly regulated, and each of the three huts along the track must be booked and paid for in advance during the walking season which runs from late October to late April (the track is open May to September, but with reduced facilities, though it can then be walked both ways). All huts have 40 bunks with mattresses, water, flushing toilets, basins, heating, and cooking facilities, but there are no cooking utensils or showers. A maximum of 40 independent walkers are allowed to depart Glade Wharf each day, and camping along the track is not permitted. There are also three private lodges for use by guided walkers only, as well as four day shelters, and your itinerary must be iron-clad in order to maintain the carefully crafted ratio of bums to beds - so no skipping huts allowed!

The Milford Track is a designated ‘Great Walk’, meaning its trails are of a high standard, are well formed, and simple to follow - torrential downpours notwithstanding. If you’re an experienced ‘tramper’ and the weather is good, you’ll likely not consider it a particularly challenging experience. But the fact is that rain is likely, and even in summer there can be snow on its higher elevations. But you want the rain here, at least for a day, because when it rains a thousand waterfalls emerge all about you like silvery threads. And while heavy downpours can result in detouring to higher ground, the rain is a necessary ingredient here otherwise the track would not be what many say that it is - the finest walk in the world.