Milford Sound. The jewel in the crown of Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Renowned worldwide as a place of beauty and wonder.
You know – this place:
Mitre Peak; possibly the most photographed feature of Milford Sound… when it’s not hiding behind clouds. We were lucky this day!
If you haven’t been, chances are that you know someone who has, and they probably went for a cruise along the fiord to the ocean and back. No one goes just to stand on the pier and get eaten by sandflies… do they?
New Zealand Te Namu aka Blackflies (aka Sandflies or Midges).
But how many people have heard of about the Milford Track? Maybe not quite as many.
The Milford Track first crossed our radar while we were walking the Overland Track (in Tasmania). An older couple in our group had completed the 5 day walk with Ultimate Hikes and talked about their experience. It sounded pretty full-on! Whole groups (up to 50 guests) being moved from one camp to the next by helicopter because of obstructions on the track, and due to the next group following 1 day behind, you simply can not spend more than one night in the one location.
It wasn’t the prospect of a helicopter ride that appealed to me though. A few years prior I had toured New Zealand with my mum and I was keen to revisit Queenstown and Fiordland – actually, pretty much any part of New Zealand! Stephen had not been to New Zealand on holiday before, so it would be all new for him. We were both keen to find another multiday walk similar to that offered by Cradle Mountain Huts – Ultimate Hikes offers an option of double/queen-sized beds in addition to hot showers each night and someone else to cook your food – how can you pass that up?
Bedroom at Pompolona Lodge – Day 2 (it was neat when we arrived) – pretty flash compared to the public hut alternative
Ensuite at Pompolona Lodge – not bad considering you’re in the middle of a National Park in the remote and rugged wilderness
We did our research on Google and You Tube. Everyone raved about the scenery, but we also read about groups who came back with next to no photos because it was raining the whole time. We saw the groups wading through hip-dep water covering the path, following the trail-markers. We stared, eyebrows raised, at the videos of the tracks up the mountain turned into waterfalls that hikers were trying to climb. We therefore knew we must be resolved to getting more than just our feet wet on this walk!
We booked to go in November, when the track opens for the season and before things get extra wet in the summer, although it is highly likely to rain heavily throughout the year (that’s when it’s not snowing). They’re not kidding when they warn about the rainfall – they get 7 to 9 metres per year! No point measuring downpours in millimetres over there.
The track is closed during winter due to snow, and in spring the Department of Conservation (DOC) clear the valleys the track passes through from risk of major avalanches by sound blasts or detonations. They also fly in (by chopper) the bridges that hikers will cross the streams and rivers on. There is a fair bit of preparation done for us hikers – or trampers, as Kiwis say.
The list of gear that Ultimate Hikes advises guests to bring is not long (Ultimate Hikes – Milford Track – What to Bring) – you don’t want to be carrying more than you need to – but essential for a ‘comfortable’ trek. We decided to take our own backpacks because they don’t get much use otherwise, and because they’d be doubling as our suitcases on the way home we’d need the extra room for our holiday purchases!
Not long before our departure date, our nice, convenient direct flight from Melbourne to Christchurch ended up being routed via Sydney. The only up side – if you can call it that – is that I can say I’ve departed Australia from three capital cities now. We arrived at midnight, got our hiking boots passed by customs – I think the guy was mildly impressed with how clean they were – and were asleep very shortly after getting to the motel, not far from the airport.
Christchurch to Queenstown
We were up bright and early for our flight to Queenstown. As I was checking out, Stephen saw a duck fly overhead which tilted both ways to look at him as it went. It became the standing joke of the trip that ducks in New Zealand say ‘queck queck’ instead of ‘quack quack’!
It’s a lovely flight to Queenstown, over the Canterbury Plains…
…don’t forget to appreciate their Braided River systems…
…and over the mountains…
…to descend into a valley…
…to one of the most scenic locations for airports I can imagine:
A plane with The Remarkables in the background
Inside Queenstown airport…
…and out the front.
We caught a cab to Brown’s Boutique Hotel – it has a fantastic Mediterranean feel to it (and it’s so close to home!), and since it’s in lovely location just up the hill from the main business area, the view is wonderful and it’s very convenient for shopping and dining, which we promptly went and did!
Brown’s Boutique Hotel with the Skyline Restaurant at the top of the hill in the background
View from our room at Brown’s of Queenstown and The Remarkables
Walking down to the main shopping area
Queenstown waterfront area
That afternoon we went on the Shotover Jet – no, not as part of a ‘combo’, which is an idea Kiwi’s seem to love with a passion (a bit like Tasmanians and buzzers*). Of course it was just as fun as I remembered it, and Stephen loved it too. We couldn’t have wished for a more beautiful afternoon, either.
Shotover River & bridge
Shotover Jet change station and boarding platforms
There was a pre-walk talk later that afternoon at the Ultimate Hikes office. Everyone gathered to meet our guides, and for a Power Point presentation overview of what each day of the walk would entail, as well as being talked through (as a final check) what we’d need to take – and what we wouldn’t need!
An overview of each day of the walk (and my following posts) are:
Day 1: Queenstown – Te Anau – Glade House (total walking 1 mile = 1.6km, plus an easy introductory forest walk after we arrived at Glad House and dumped our gear in our rooms)
Day 2: Glade House – Pompolona Lodge (10 miles = 16km) This was the easiest of the ‘proper’ walking days.
Day 3: Pompolona Lodge – Quintin Lodge via Mackinnon Pass (9 miles = 15km) I had thought going over the pass to be the most challenging day; it certainly was the most spectacular.
Day 4: Quintin Lodge to Mitre Peak Lodge via Sandfly Point (13miles = 21km) Despite being relatively flat, this was possibly the most challenging day, which was somewhat unexpected.
Day 5: Milford Sound Cruise, then back to Queenstown by bus (the finish post was passed yesterday).
A lot of emphasis seemed to be put on taking walking sticks, the selling point being that even the majority of guides wouldn’t walk without them! Stephen and I weren’t convinced and given that a) they weren’t a requirement and b) we managed the Overland Track fine without them, we were two of a very few number of people who didn’t bother to take at least one with us. They also had packs and other equipment available to borrow there for people who needed it.
Something good that they did have (that we haven’t found back home) is “Foot Fleece” – cleaned but otherwise unprocessed wool to put inside your socks where you’d be likely to get a blister. It works a treat and we picked up more from the DOC office (it’s a little cheaper there) when we got back from the walk to bring home with us. The DOC fleece is called “Trampers Friend”. It’s slightly coarser perhaps, but does just as great a job.
For dinner I had booked a Skyline combo (yes – a combo!) so we caught the gondola up the mountain to see their Kiwi Haka Show, and had dinner afterwards at their restaurant on top of the hill.
Queenstown from the Skyline complex
The show was much better than we had expected. Stephen volunteered to be Chief of our group (which involved accepting/passing their chief’s challenge) and later most of the ladies in the audience (myself included) got up to try using the ‘pompoms-on a string’, or “Poi”, that the Maori ladies use in their dancing. It was fun!
After the show
The view up there is spectacular (it is what you’re paying for, after all), and dinner (buffet) was also good.
It was an early-ish night because the next day would be an early enough start to Day 1 (of 5) of our Milford Track walk!
*Tasmanians and buzzers – if you’re not familiar with this reference, I promise I will write a post about it – please stay tuned.