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Milford Track (NZ) Day 5, Nov 2010

Mitre Peak Lodge – Milford Sound Cruise – Queenstown

Ok – here’s the bad news straight up. There’s no hiking on the 5th day. Well, I say ‘bad’ news, but by this stage a lot of the group think it’s actually a wonderful thing! On the up side, here’s the view you could wake up to:

P1040195 Early morning Milford Sound

Mitre Peak from our room at Mitre Peak Lodge

The reason Ultimate Hikes make this a 5 day experience is because once you’ve walked all the way to Milford Sound, who’s NOT going to want to go for a cruise out on Milford Sound before going home? The bone of contention is when people realise the advertised 5 day / 4 night guided walk includes only 3 full days of actual hiking in the wilderness. But damn it’s worth it!

P1060663 Slightly later morning from room

The clouds that float around the mountains are fantastic. The many moods of Mitre Peak – we were lucky to see it in such spectacular form.

Everyone had packed an extra change of clothes in an overnight bag that Ultimate Hikes had sent on ahead from Queenstown on Day 1. Not having to wear the same hiking gear for the 5th day in a row – on the last day when we weren’t even hiking – was very nice.

Of course, you do have to do a wee bit of walking today – from your room to the bus, from the bus to the ferry, around the ferry while taking photos… you get the picture.

P1040275 Our boat

Our boat

Local Maori tribes used to visit Milford Sound, that they called Piopiotahi (after a now-extinct bird) to collect pounamou (greenstone) to make into tools and jewellery. They walked the same route through the mountains as we did, over what is now known as Mackinnon’s Pass. Read more here.

P1040218 Falls near pier 

The Lady Bowen Falls, a modest 162m

No matter who you travel with, there are a few things every boat operator on the Milford Sound will do. One of them is going right up to a waterfall cascading down the side of a cliff… one might even say under it!

P1060681 Shot of falls from further back on deck

Approaching the waterfall

P1060680 Under falls

Having a shower, Milford Sound style

P1060685 Shot of falls while exiting

Leaving the waterfall we were just under

The point of this ‘stunt’ is to prove that the cliffs continue down below sea level just as steeply as they appear above it. Milford Sound, and I believe all the other ‘sounds’ in the region, is actually a fiord (thus why the region is called ‘Fiordland’), which means it was (Ages ago) a valley carved by a glacier, not a true sound which is a ‘drowned river valley’. Because the fiord is extremely deep, even very large cruise ships can approach the cliffs without fear of running aground.

P1060689 Steep green valleys & rockey beach

Steep green thickly-forested mountain sides. One of the few stony beaches near the mouth of the fiord.

P1060695 Kayakers

Another way to see the sights – if you have time!

P1060690 Looking back down the Sound

Looking back down Milford Sound from the mouth

P1060698 Seals on a rock

Seals!

There used to be a sealing colony along the coast that was set up in the 1790’s. A sailor on good ole Capt’n Cook’s ship came back because he remembered there were so many seals here when they called by. It ran for 30 years until they ran out of seals to slaughter. So they turned it into a whaling station and repeated the story.

P1060699 Seals in clear water

These guys just have to watch out for the occasional orca pod (aka killer whales)!

Not only did we see seals (that’s almost guaranteed), but we were lucky enough to see a small pod of bottlenose dolphins and two rare New Zealand Crested Penguins!

P1060700 Penguins

New Zealand Crested Penguins

P1060714 dolphins

The dolphins were interested in feeding, not playing, so weren’t interested in interacting with us.

I was keeping my eyes peeled for whales – orca or otherwise – which are not common, but not unheard of visitors, but no luck this time.

P1040268 Falls re shot on water

Another waterfall shower

P1060702 Waterfall hitting water

The wind created by the falling water and the impact of the water itself create a  shattered glass effect on the fiord.

P1060706 Aquarium & mountains

Underwater observatory (bottom left) in Harrison Cove, with a view behind of Pembroke Glacier

We didn’t have time to stop at the underwater observatory today, but I have been before and it’s definitely a worthwhile stop.

Although I enjoyed the cruise, one thing I noted was an absence of commentary from the captain/crew/someone about what we were seeing. A few years prior I had booked the cruise through Real Journeys (we were also on a Real Journeys boat on this trip), and the commentary along the way was very informative.

After the cruise we were back on the bus for the long ride back to Queenstown.

P1060722 Road up to Homer Tunnel

The road from Milford Sound up to the Homer Tunnel

I was pleased that Stephen would get to see the Homer Tunnel – I’d been mentioning it quite a lot in the lead up to the trip. It’s about 1km long, straight through a mountain – a great engineering feat in my opinion. Done mostly by hand and dynamite, it took a while to complete as work was interrupted by WWII. They dug it from both sides at the same time and met in the middle – and were out by less than a foot! Can you imagine trying to work that out? It’s a phenomenal achievement!

P1060718 Cirque on Milford side

The cirque at the head of the valley on the Milford side of the Darran Mountain range

P1060724 Entering the Homer Tunnel

Entering the Homer Tunnel, Milford Sound side.

P1060729 Homer Tunnel so small in the mountain side

Looking back the Homer Tunnel exit, so small in the mountain side.

You can appreciate why avalanches and landslips close this road so often. The mountains here are just so steep and massive.

P1060731 The valley on the other side of Milford

Driving down the valley; it looks harsher than the Clinton Valley.

P1060735 Waterfall we didn't stop for

A waterfall we passed right on the side of the road – you can pull over here if you’re in a car and heading towards Milford Sound.

P1060736 River of snowmelt

I just can’t get over the water. It calls to me.

Despite the scenery, we were too tired to stay awake for the whole trip back. If you’re ever in the area and you have a chance to drive the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound – do it!! It’s a beautiful drive, and there are a few very worthwhile stops along the way that you just don’t get to do with a group. Definitely a case of enjoying the journey, not just the destination.

Oh, but remember – if you have to stop at the Homer Tunnel entrance, don’t leave your car unguarded to possible Kea attack!

We arrived back in Queenstown just before 4pm. We had a list of contacts (names & email addresses) for people in our group if we wanted to keep in touch… but we haven’t. Quite unlike our last infamous multi day hike, there wasn’t the same sense of group bonding on this trip. Not with the guides, not with the other guests. It’s hard when it’s a large group, when you’re not necessarily sharing a table with the same people each night, when you’re all wearing name tags and making more of an effort to find solitude and serenity on the walk than the opposite…

Don’t let me give you the impression that I have any regrets though! I don’t think we would do this as independent hikers, so Ultimate Hikes has allowed us – and so many others – to see a real jewel in New Zealand’s crown. I would recommend it to anyone who’s up for it!

We didn’t have a dinner reservation that night, but ended up at Wai on the waterfront. Top notch.

P1060746 View from Wai

Dinner on the pier at Wai, Queenstown. The TS Ernslaw is setting off for it’s evening cruise.

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Milford Track (NZ) Day 4, Nov 2010

Quintin Lodge – Sandfly Point – Mitre Peak Lodge

Another early start for our last day of walking! Today we had a long (13 miles; 21 km), if relatively flat, way to go to get to the ferry at Sandfly Point.

milford copy

Pretty flat compared to Day 3! Piece of cake…right?

Just like yesterday the lights came on at 6.15am. The first ferry would leave at 3.15pm, the second at 4.00pm. If there were still straglers, the boat would do an extra trip at 4.45pm. Sounded easy enough – 3km/hr would get you to there in time for the first ferry which also allowed for 45min of stops along the way… even so it felt like we had to walk at a pace just as fast as the previous day.

P1060496 Quintin Lodge lounge

Signing the guest register in the Lounge area at Quintin Lodge

P1060497 Quitin Lodge - making lunch

Making lunch at breakfast – Quintin Lodge

Thus it was with a few minor aches in our hips (thanks to the steep Emergency Track yesterday) that we set off, but as Stephen said, they either fixed themselves or got too numb to feel after a while!

Our packs weren’t feeling any lighter by this stage, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, as we’d chosen to bring our own larger packs we hadn’t felt so constrained about what we brought along – or rather, what we would have to leave behind to make necessities fit in. Not only was Stephen carrying a full shaving kit (not recommended), but also his iPad (definitely not on the kit list) and rechargers. I wasn’t carrying too much extra than my own phone and camera recharger. There’s no reception along the track, of course, but since the rooms were powered our plan was to take as many photos as we wanted each day, then load them onto the iPad of an evening and clear the camera’s memory card for the next day. Since we were carrying all our valuables with us (and the iPad, not long on the market at this stage, definitely fell into this category) it made sense to use it instead of having it purely as dead weight. It was nice to lie in bed and look at our photo’s each night on a decent screen, too. We didn’t ask if we were the first to bring an iPad along, but I’d wager we probably were…

P1040077 Started out dry

Ready for our last walking day – still dry here, but not for long!

Although we’d had wonderful weather so far, today was a more typical day in Fiordland; it was wet. The rain was falling steadily – more than a light rain, but not a downpour (which is not uncommon) – which continued until about mid afternoon when we finished walking.

P1060506 Photographer stephen

Photographer Stephen

P1060507 Sutherland falls, looking back

Looking back to Sutherland Falls

It was a hard day on our cameras. Despite being in a soft case in a pocket with a water tight zip, my camera got pretty wet. In the period when the rain slacked off a bit I’d carry it in my hand to help it dry out! Stephen’s wasn’t fairing much better, as the few splotches on some of our photos will attest. While the views were not as stunning as the previous two days, the clouds hiding and revealing the mountains and waterfalls, and the lush forest bordering the track were sights to savour none the less. We pushed ourselves again today; we weren’t the first out the door (we were hoping not the be the last ones actually!) so had ground to make up if we wanted to catch the first ferry.

P1060509 creek across track before bridge

Even a little bit of rain means a lot of water flowing across paths and into creeks

P1060510 rainforest track

Pretty easy walking to start the day

P1060517 DOC hut - dumpling hut

In this weather a comfort stop requires a bit more effort. Here we’re at the third DOC Hut – Dumpling Hut – and fortunately under cover.

P1060518 tree by track

Lovely big mossy trees and lots of ferns.

P1040100 Getting wetter

Pretty damp by now.

My water resistant (not water proof) pants were soaked after the first hour or so, and although I was wearing gaiters, the water eventually crept down into my boots, making the last half of the day’s walk rather damp (didn’t get squelchy, though if we’d had to wade many streams they would have).

It was 8.8km from Quintin Lodge to our morning tea stop at the Boatshed – which felt like it should have been a lunch stop. Lunch was still a further 7.2km down the track yet.

P1060529 Boatshed, morning tea

The Boatshed

The thing I remember most about this stop was the number of sandflies around the entrance. There were so many sandflies  today – whether they were out in increased numbers due to the rain, or maybe there are always more along the river in this valley – they are bloody annoying!

The shed doesn’t look like much on the outside but it’s not there to be glamorous. The inside is clean and a chance to take a seat and have a hot drink is most welcome at this point. There were fewer sandflies inside, fortunately, but the only way to keep them off is to keep on walking.

P1040105 D crossing Sus bridge

The rain wasn’t clearing any time soon

P1060535 S on sus bridge over clear river

Stephen crossing the Arthur River. I just love the colour of the water! It’s so clear!

P1060536 elevated boardwalk

This raised section must indicate the water can get pretty high through here.

Before lunch we came to the other notable waterfall of the Milford Track – McKay Falls

P1040115 S&D at McKay Falls

McKay Falls

When Donald Sutherland and John McKay were prospecting in the area, back around the 1880’s, they came across this beautiful waterfall. I think the story that the guides told us went that McKay was keen to have these most beautiful falls named after him, and Sutherland acquiesced. Not too long afterwards, they were astounded by the giant falls which, they thought must be the highest in the world! Taking turns, as is only fair, were duly named after Sutherland. Later they were measured and found to be the 5th tallest in the world at 580m.

P1060547 McKay falls, next to

The stream leading away from McKay Falls

P1060551 Track grassy further along

Passing through an open grassy section 

P1060552 waterfalls very close to path

Looking up at one of the many waterfalls fiordland is famous for. They get an annual average of 9m of rain on this side of the pass.

P1060568 ferns & rough path

The track starts getting increasingly uneven and rocky.

P1060569 Waterfall reflected in river

Oh look, another waterfall. That’s a surprise.

P1060576 Hand-hewn track from cliff

Steep and just a bit slippery; it wasn’t a just short section either.

This section of track, completed in 1898, was carved out of the rocky cliff with pick axe and dynamite. It wasn’t a short section; I’m not sure now how long it took, but it would have been back-breaking work.

Despite the relatively easy grade of the track overall, the distance and the increased risk of slipping due to the rain had me wondering from the start if the lady who came in last the previous night would make the final ferry. We were taking the above cut-out section carefully when we saw the helicopter from yesterday fly low up the valley; not carrying anything on a cable this time. When it came back again a short time later my first thought was that it had been called in to chopper that lady out. When I suggested this to Stephen he wondered if it was only her who was flown out…

We guessed that if a walker doesn’t reach a certain point by a cut off time, the guides know they aren’t going to make it and call in the chopper (it’s not something they like to mention). That’s why you don’t walk without travel insurance! I don’t know how much it would cost you if you didn’t have it… hundreds at least. The guides were pushing the option of a helicopter ride back to Queenstown instead of going by coach after the cruise on the last day. Sounded good, but you need to have at least 4 people willing to go for $500+ EACH (I think it was closer to $600pp). At first we thought they meant the total cost was ~$500 – when we realised it was per person – ah no, thank you. Spectacular as the flight must be, we’re not independently wealthy.

P1060578 Stoat trap with egg

A stoat trap baited with a chicken’s egg

I mentioned in an earlier post that feral animals are a huge problem in New Zealand. Their native vertebrate wildlife consists mainly of birds who have diversified to exploit all the niches that mammals would usually occupy. A number of these species are extinct thanks to humans; the introduction of european and Australian feral species has also had a devastating impact on native animal populations. Trapping of feral predator species, such as ferrets and stoats, in fiordland is done to help endangered populations of native species such as the Whio, among others. This trap is probably good for a smallish possum, too; another major feral pest.

P1060593 Rocky path & creek

Beautiful as it is, we were just looking forward to getting to our lunch stop.

P1060603 Giants Gate lunch stop

Our lunch stop at Giant’s Gate. Raining again. Unfortunately still 1h 45m from Sandfly Point.

P1060609 Giants Gate river

It’s a lovely stop that I think we would have enjoyed more on a sunny day and if we weren’t being ceaselessly attacked by sandflies.

P1060605 Giants gate Weka

The best photo I managed to get of a Weka.

Weka are often mistaken by excited tourists for Kiwi, however unless you go to a birdpark where kiwi are kept, you are extremely unlikely to stumble upon one in the wild. For starters, Kiwi are nocturnal and notoriously shy. Weka are also not as cheeky or destructive as Kea are! This Weka was happy to ignore us as it went about its business while we ate lunch, coming to within 1m or so of the tables.

P1040132 Waterfall

Giants Gate Falls

The last 5.6km seemed the longest, but we got to Sandfly Point at about 3pm. I couldn’t wait to strip off my wet clothes; fortunately the DOC hut was empty so I used that to change into dry clothing for the ferry ride to the Milford Sound wharf. Again the difference between the DOC and Ultimate Hikes facilities were noticeable. No screens to help keep out sandflies on the DOC huts, for instance. I was changed in just enough before we had to leave to get to the ferry.

There was a photographer from Magic Moments at the 33.5 mile finish sign to take a photo of everyone who made it. Photo packs were available for purchase later that afternoon – which include a CD of photos of the track incase you didn’t come away with any good ones of your own, possibly, due to weather or choice. Can you tell we prefer to take our own?

33.5 mile post

Our official Magic Moment photo at the end of the Milford Track, and my name tag.

The final sign post is large and decorated with discarded boots. One girl had bought an old, comfortable pair of boots – she had worn them at home to test them, and they were fine… until the first or second day of the track. By the end her soles were only barely held on with tape and spare shoe laces. I don’t think she left them on the sign because they were all she had!

It was a short  if somewhat unexpected walk to the ferry, and a pleasant if cold 20 or so minute ride to the wharf. At that point I was extra glad I changed out of wet clothes! Stephen was frozen.

P1040151 Getting on boat

Changed into dry clothes and feeling good!

P1040176 Long white cloud

New Zealand is also known as the Land of the Long White Cloud – here’s one looking like cotton wool.

P1040177 Waterfall near Milford Sound

Approaching Milford Sound – those small buildings to the right of the falls. That small white boat there is actually quite  large one.

Mitre Peak Lodge currently operates mainly for Ultimate Hikes groups, although there are a few rooms for other people. It’s a nice place – Stephen says it feels like a nice kind of 60’s-70’s style university science facility. Doesn’t mean much to you? Plain but comfortable and nice. And you certainly can’t say the view isn’t any good. Mitre Peak rising out of the water straight out the front, either mysterious in the mist and clouds drifting like smoke, or standing proud and magnificent in the clear skies. Amazing.

P1040276 Mitre Peak Lodge

Arriving at Mitre Peak Lodge – about a 2 min bus ride from the Milford Sound pier.

P1040206 Mitre Peak Lodge stairs

Inside the entrance of Mitre Peak lodge. Rooms above, drying room and gift shop below.

P1060638 Mitre Peak Lodge lounge

Lounge and bar area of Mitre Peak Lodge. The fireplace is made of greenstone – pounamou. These days (assuming you even had access to some) that would cost an absolute fortune!

P1060641 Mitre Peak Lodge dining room

Dining room in Mitre Peak Lodge

There was just one person who beat us there – the lady who was flown out. I felt sorry for her in a way – she had seen most of it and given it a go, but was it by choice that she was flown out? Should Ultimate Hikes be more strict about who they let start the walk? Again, I guess that’s what travel insurance is for. You set yourself a challenge and give it your best. And find out if you’re really prepared as what you hope you are!

Once everyone had had the chance to hang up wet clothes and relax in the lounge with drinks, bread and dips, we were presented with certificates to say we’d completed the Milford Track.

P1060636 Mitre Peak - mysterious

View of Mitre Peak from our room

Just a quick note if you’re planning to walk the Milford Track, there is a really informative booklet that you can buy that has notes about points of interest, shown on a progressive map where you flip over each page as you walk along the whole length of the track. We purchased our copy after we completed the walk. It’s more-or-less pocket-sized.

Kiwi footpaths

Fantastic guide to the Milford Track by Kiwi footpaths

We had finished walking the Milford Track, but the Ultimate Hikes Milford Track experience doesn’t end there: read Milford Track Day 5 to see photos from our cruise of Milford Sound.

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Milford Track (NZ) Day 1, Nov 2010

Queenstown – Te Anau – Glade House

The first day of every adventure is exciting. Day 1 of our turn to walk the world famous Milford Track had arrived and we were ready!

After a quick breakfast  headed down to the Ultimate Hikes office with our backpacks and an extra bag each of clothes and gear that would be sent  ahead to Mitre Peak Lodge for us. Browns very kindly allowed us to leave our luggage that we weren’t taking on the walk with them.

The maximum number of guests that Ultimate Hikes can accommodate in one group is 50, which makes for a lot of excited people milling around on the footpath waiting for the bus. We were going very early in the season and I think there were only about 38 guests in our group.

Day 1 waiting at the station

Ready for adventure! You can see the broad spectrum of hikers this walk attracts.

I’m sure we weren’t the only ones checking out the size of other people’s packs. I do remember there was one guest – a lady, mind you – who fit all her gear in a 25L pack! We’d both chosen to bring our own 80L  packs instead of borrowing a smaller one (40L) from Ultimate Hikes; mine weighed about 10-12kg and Stephen’s… well, let’s just say it was heavier.

The bus trip to Te Anau was about 2.5 hours. It’s not the most scenic drive in New Zealand – correction: the drive along Lake Wakatipu between Queenstown and Kingston is beautiful, but the rest is fairly unremarkable compared to the rest of what’s on offer in region. Sorry guys. All the same, I managed to take one classic New Zealand photo before the weather clouded over:

Day 1 passing NZ sheep

Sheep! In New Zealand! Who’d have thought?

 We had one stop at Mossburn for a comfort break and… icecream! There isn’t much to see or do there apart from those two things. It was overcast and not particularly warm, but just about everyone enjoyed a Tip Top icecream anyway. After all, why let the weather stop you?

Day 1 Ultimate Hikes bus, stopped at Mossburn

The Ultimate Hikes bus. 

Lunch at Te Anau was very nice – Ultimate Hikes has an office attached to a hotel on the waterfront. If you’re looking for somewhere to holiday that’s like Queenstown but quieter, Te Anau could be just the place for you. Lake Te Anau is New Zealand’s second largest fresh water lake by surface area, and Australasia’s largest freshwater lake by volume. It even has three of it’s own fiords feeding into it! How’s that for impressive!

On the side of the bus you’ll notice the quote ‘The Finest Walk in the World”, and you may think that it’s a fairly bold claim that a marketing company sold to them. Well, not quite. Just over 100 years ago, a journalist was invited to walk the track and it was the title of their review of the walk when they got back to England that lead to the world-wide fascination with Milford Sound. Of course, since the astounding Homer Tunnel was completed in 1954 thus enabling people to drive to Milford Sound, it’s certainly been faster and more convenient for the masses to get to the fiord without getting their feet dirty.

From Te Anau it was a short bus ride to the boat at Te Anau Downs for the 1hr trip to the north end of the lake and the start of the Milford Track.

Day 1 Unloading the bus at Te Anau downs

Unloading the bus at Te Anau Downs.

Day 1 Te Anau Downs, gettng on the boat

Our group plus a couple of independent walkers boarding the boat to the start of the Milford Track.

Day 1 on board the boat

Naturally everyone wanted to be on the top deck since the weather was nice and sunny again!

Lake Te Anau, land slip

The scar on the side of the mountain on the left is due to a landslide. There isn’t much soil on the sides of the mountains; the trees roots entangle around each other for support as they grow. Thus it only take a few to come loose to take out a whole lot.

Day 1 Cross on island

Memorial cross for Quintin McPherson Mackinnon

Quintin Mackinnon was the explorer who found the overland route to Milford Sound that we now know as the Milford Track. Several land marks along the way are named in his honour, including Mackinnon Pass (the highest point of the track) where there is also a memorial cairn, Quintin Lodge (night 3 with Ultimate Hikes), and Lake McKinnon. I believe it was Mackinnon who invited the journalist mentioned above  – he was keen to take guests along the track. He is greatly revered by the Ultimate Hikes guides and you learn a lot about him and what what conditions were like back then over the course of the hike, and get a really good appreciation for how much easier it is for us to do now!

The cross on that rock on that wee island in the middle of Lake Te Anau marks the place that Quintin Mackinnon’s (sometimes spelt “Quenton” and “McKinnon”) boat was found, wrecked after a storm in the last months of 1892. His body was never found so it is assumed that he drowned (apparently drowned people sink in fresh water). Given the lake extremely deep (the deepest point is 417m), a search – let alone recovery – was impracticable.

A summary of his life can be found here at TeAra.govt.nz – Quintin McKinnon

Day 1 snow capped mountains from boat

Anticipation grows – we’d be walking amongst these giants very soon.

Day 1 Clinton (?) Valley

The Clinton River entering Lake Te Anau; there is a jetty just to the right of frame.

Within minutes of landing at the official start of the Milford Track, we realised that we hadn’t put on insect repellent yet!! So instead of waiting to get our photograph taken with the sign marking the start of the track, we headed off – if you keep walking the sandflies don’t bother you (of course, it helps if you’re not all standing around in a big group, too).

Day 1 We're walking - gps works

GPS is working – we’re good to go!

Day 1 Milford Track start sign

The start of the Milford Track. We didn’t hang around to pose for a similar photo.

There were a few independent walkers on the boat who disembarked and headed off before us – they had about 1.5-2hrs to walk to the first DOC (Dept of Conservation) hut, named Clinton Hut as it is in Clinton Valley. A maximum of 40 independent walkers can start the track on any given day.

Ultimate Hikes is the only company that owns private accomodation along the Milford Track. Our accommodation that night would be at Glade House, a whole 20min walk away. That would be our official 1 mile (1.6km) first day section of the track completed!

A note on measuring the track in miles: From what I remember our guides telling us, Quintin Mackinnon was paid by the mile to blaze the trail to Milford Sound. He used a Chain (an actual one made of metal links that was ‘one chain’ in length) to measure out the miles. At each mile he’d send back to town for payment, which I think came back in the form of provisions. There is a post marking each mile of the track, that also shows the kilometre equivalent on the other side.

Day 1 The first of 32 mile markers

The first of thirty-two mile markers

After an easy 1.2km to Glade House (ok, not quite 1 mile on the first day), we dumped our bags and were almost late for the group photo! (which I’m sure I’ve got a copy of somewhere…) With the clear green Clinton River flowing in front of the house, Sentinel Peak rising beyond, and Dore Pass behind us, the view was pretty good!

Day 1 Glade House, arriving

Arriving at Glade House. Dore Pass is the grey part at the top right of the photo.

Day 1 Sentinel Peak

The location of our group photo with the Clinton River behind and Sentinel Peak in the background

We then split into two groups for a nature walk – the guides gave us a brief overview of the plants and animals in the area. It was very interesting. We learnt that along with Possums the biggest feral animal threat in fiorland are ferrets who are indiscriminate killers. New Zealand has NO native terrestrial mammals (except for a few bats, and counting seals as marine mammals). Other feral mammals include 3 species of rats, cats, stoats, weasels, goats, various species of deer, wallabies, horses, hedgehogs! No wonder the native birds like the kiwi and kakapo (a flightless parrot) are under such pressure!

On the upside, they don’t have ticks and leeches! Don’t know how that came to be, but it’s fantastic! The abundant sandflies almost make up for their absence though.

Day 1 introductory walk

Learning about plants we’re likely to see along the track and about New Zealand’s ecology

Day 1 intro walk

As short as this walk was, it gave some guests a much needed opportunity to get to grips with the walking sticks they’d encumbered themselves with.

Day 1 on bridge looking back to glade house

The Clinton River flowing past Glade House

After everyone had made it back from the walk and wandered around a bit, it was time to gather in the lounge room for afternoon tea, a ‘getting to know everyone’ session which wasn’t too bad, and the evening power point presentation of what to expect the next day.

Day 1 Glade House Lounge & dining area

The Lounge area at Glade Hut. The dining area is towards the back of the room.

It turns out about ¾ of the group were Australian (mostly from Melbourne/Vic and Brisbane/Qld); of the rest there were 4 Japanese, 2 Indian ( a couple on their honeymoon), 2 American, 5 Kiwi’s (one who has lived in Perth for years but still thinks of himself as Kiwi, and the 4 guides) and one girl from Norway(?).

Day 1 Glade House museum

Some of the museum pieces at Glade House celebrating the story of the Milford Track

Each night we had a choice of two main meals – they’d pass around a list the day before (or at our lunch stop back in Te Anau on the first day) for you to indicate your preference so they can call ahead to let the lodge staff know how much to cook. It took the surprise away, but I guess it’s efficient for them and possibly reduces complaints from fussy eaters. The portions were a little on the small side, especially after a long day’s walk (certainly not the case on the first day), but there was salad and plain rice provided that you could help yourself to. Still, a 3 course meal of real food (more than freeze dried veges and noodles) that you didn’t have to cook yourself is not to be sneezed at, and we polished it off!

Day 2 menu options

A map to show you how far you’d come (or how far there was to go) and menu options.

Our room that night had no view – I was happy enough that it was out of the way and people weren’t walking by our window!

Day 1 Glade House guest rooms

The rooms at the front are the multi-share bunk style rooms. Our room was at the back of these.

The generator gets switched off at 10pm; they recommend that you leave your light switched on, so when the generator is turned on of a morning the lights coming back on act as your alarm clock. Not a bad idea! Being able to recharge my camera battery was appreciated, but until it went off the noise of the generator spoiled the serenity somewhat.

I don’t know how eco-friendly or green the houses/lodges are. I guess they don’t have to worry about water since they get 7-9 metres of rain per year, but flushing loo’s, no time limit on showers, fresh linen each day (I assume they must either wash and dry it all on site or fly it out), big kitchens, a big generator, regular helicopters transporting stuff in and out – it’s very commercial and a bit wasteful, in a way. At the same time, I recognise that it’s only way they can provide a consistent, quality experience for each person in each group that arrives each day. So many people want to come and see this place – I don’t know how they would operate it differently and still make the track available to so many people of different abilities.

Day 2: We walk from Glade House up the Clinton Valley to Pompolona Lodge.

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Pre-Milford Track walk – Melbourne to Queenstown, Nov 2010

Milford Sound. The jewel in the crown of Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Renowned worldwide as a place of beauty and wonder.

Wilderness…waterfalls…wildlife…Mitre Peak…

You know – this place:

Mitre Peak

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?

Midges

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

Bedroom at Pompolona Lodge – Day 2 (it was neat when we arrived) – pretty flash compared to the public hut alternative

Ensuite at Pompolona Lodge

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…

Canterbury Plains, Sth Is, NZ

…don’t forget to appreciate their Braided River systems…

Braided Rivers, Canterbury Plains

…and over the mountains…

Snow-capped ranges, Sth Ls, NZ

…to descend into a valley…

Queenstown airport, decending

…to one of the most scenic locations for airports I can imagine:

Queenstown airport - plane & remarkables

A plane with The Remarkables in the background

Queenstown airport inside without DA

Inside Queenstown airport…

Queenstown airport, out the front

…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!

Browns Boutique Hotel - outside with skline

Brown’s Boutique Hotel with the Skyline Restaurant at the top of the hill in the background

Browns Bouticque Hotel, view of The Remarkables

View from our room at Brown’s of Queenstown and The Remarkables

Queenstown walking down stairs to main town

Walking down to the main shopping area

Queenstown waterfront

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 River & bridge

Shotover change & ride station

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 Skyline with cablecars

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!

Kiwi Haka photo

After the show

The view up there is spectacular (it is what you’re paying for, after all), and dinner (buffet) was also good.

Lake Wakitipu, looking west at Skyline

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.