The Milford Track Revisited

April 15, 2022
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The Milford Track, marked in black and normally accessed via a boat service on Lake Te Anau (at bottom), runs up the Clinton River, through the Mackinnon Pass and down the Arthur River to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, with a side trip to Sutherland Falls. Background map from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0, 2021.

AT THE BEGINNING OF APRIL, 2022, I decided to revisit the Milford Track, which I have blogged about already but without including a large number of photos ('Tramping the Milford Track and feeling very Scottish'). This time, as with a lot of my recent hikes, I've been on a deliberate exercise to gather more photos (and video).

The Milford Track is 53 km long or, in the old measure, 33.5 miles.

On Day One, as on my last trip, I caught the water tax to Glade Wharf at the head of the lake. As before, I drove to Te Anau Downs partway along the lake, which is a convenient place to park, and caught the boat at 2 pm.

The hike is a one-way one, and so you need return transport via the Milford Road, shown in orange in the map above, which as you can see forms a loop with the Milford Track. You also need the water taxi, unless you choose to hike over Dore Pass at the head of Lake Te Anau from the road (apparently, that's an epic).

I bought a return journey costing NZ $225 and including a Tracknet road shuttle back to Te Anau Downs. There are two boats that depart from Te Anau Downs, one operated by Realnz (formerly Real Journeys) and the other by Tracknet.

You can also catch the water taxi from Te Anau township if you prefer. And you can drive to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi and get the shuttle back there, as well.

If you departed from Queenstown on one of these return services it would be NZ $300, probably better value when you think about it, but then again you will miss out on Te Anau and the many attractions of the Milford Road if you just zoom right through to the track and the sound.

The mountains above Lake Te Anau

At Te Anau Downs, on Lake Te Anau

The Milford Track has long been regarded as New Zealand's greatest hike, even dubbed "the finest walk in the world" by the London Spectator in 1908. Until 1966, only guided tours were permitted, but in 1966, following a 1965 protest hike by the Otago Tramping Club, the New Zealand Government agreed to a dual system in which guided tours and ordinary trampers would both be allowed to share the track.

Like all the Great Walks, the Milford Track has a season in which it is safest and most intensively used. You absolutely have to book ahead for everything in the season.

A History of the Milford Track, at Te Anau Downs

On Lake Te Anau

Glade House: The first hut on the track, at the top of Lake Te Anau

Not much left now

It was an hour and a half into Clinton Hut (5 km). The guided walkers also do the walk. They stay at the more luxurious Glade House (above) which is right on the wharf. And they pay about NZ $3,000 for the trip, but you can understand why given all the things that need to be done to maintain the track, and given that the huts are really vast.

They have amazing hut wardens on the track. At Clinton Hut, the warden I met there talked about the mosses, the three different types of beech trees and the sphagnum mosses. She spent an hour on the helipad and then half an hour in the hut.

The hut wasn't double-glazed. The guided walk lodges, as they are called, including Glade House, are a lot posher.

There was a mixture of people in the Clinton Hut, about 27 to thirty people, mostly Kiwis. I can understand why a lot of people do the guided walks with the guaranteed accommodation in the posh lodges, as the ordinary huts are really hard to book space in.

It was seventeen and a half kilometres, about six hours, from the Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut, the last hut before the big climb over Mackinnon Pass, the great mountain pass that divides the Milford Track in two. The hike from Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut was a gradual climb along the Clinton River and then the Clinton River West Branch. We stopped at a couple of lakes including the Hidden Lake and another lake that created by a landslide. We stopped at the Hirere Falls, near the Hirere Shelter, and I got a photo and video of the Pompolona Icefield and the Bus Stop Shelter. And eventually, we went past the Pompolona Lodge, another guided tour stop.

It was a beautiful river and an excellent hike. I really loved the views along that river and of the river.

This is the fairly easy part, along the flats of the Clinton River

The beautiful clear, green, Clinton River. The track follows the West Branch after the river divides.

There were forty pairs of whio, or blue ducks, outside the Clinton Hut. There really is a lot of birdlife on the Milford Track.

Hirere Shelter, past the Clinton Hut

A lot of the terrain close to the edges of the valleys and toward Mackinnon Pass is amazingly steep. There is a risk of avalanches in the snowier times of the year, and there are signs warning of this. However, there wasn't much sign of snow, as yet, at the start of April.

The Bus Stop Shelter

Pompolona Lodge

The only problem is that by April, you are in shade so much of the time.

The current Mintaro Hut is a new hut. It has only been there for two years. There were three Māori carvings there of the type called pou, or symbolic poles. I have a discussion with a warden about the carvings and what they represent in my journey video, which I am saving for the end. This warden had been there for eighteen months and had a real passion for the birdlife as well. The birdlife was amazing; there were weka, tomtits or miromiro, kea (which we heard but did not see), kiwi (ditto), and a lot of long-tailed bats as well. The warden said that they had ten to twelve cameras up, and what they were doing was filming feral cats. There was a feral cat that they had seen, which had been killed and it was the size of a labrador. Feral cats are a big menace to New Zealand's rare native bats and to a lot of the birdlife, so this is an issue.

Pou outside Mintaro Hut

The new Mintaro Hut was double-glazed, and ironically, I was too hot. Mintaro Hut is one of three New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walk huts on the Milford Track, the others being Clinton Hut, and Dumpling Hut on the other side of Mackinnon Pass. Each of these three huts has forty bunks.

I met interesting people at Mintaro Hut. A lot of women in their fifties for example, mostly hiking by themselves. It's a comparatively safe place to do so. The Milford Track is not exactly easy and a lot of people do prior training, but eveyone's really good to one another.

The last of the Clinton River West Branch flats, near Mintaro Hut

The trail leading up to Mackinnon Pass

Nearer the pass itself

From Mintaro Hut to the Mackinnon Pass summit and Pass Hut is about two hours, uphill. It is about 600 metres up to the summit of Mackinnon Pass from Mintaro Hut, while the descent into the Arthur River valley, on the other side, is about 900 metres down. No doubt that is why people usually do the Mackinnon Pass from the Mintaro Hut side.

The pass is named after Quintin Mackinnon, a Scottish explorer who was engaged by the New Zealand Government to try and find an overland route to Milford Sound. Mackinnon did so along with some associates in 1888, and the past was named the Mackinnon Pass in his honour. Sadly, Mackinnon, who was by 1892 operating a mail boat service on Lake Te Anau, went missing on the lake in November of that year, presumed drowned. The Milford Track was already starting to become popular (Mackinnon was its first guide), and a great monument to his memory was then raised at the top of the pass by public subscription.

The name pompolona, as in Pompolona Icefield and Pompolona Lodge back along the Clinton River West Branch, refers to a type of scone that Mackinnon used to cook for his guests. This was apparently a kind of roti made from flour and mutton-grease candles and said (against all expectation) to have been delicious.

The monument to the explorer Quintin Mackinnon, after which so much around here is named, at the Mackinnon Pass

Another view of the Mackinnon monument

The landscape around Mackinnon Pass has something of the grandeur of the Rockies

It was just divine going up there with all the birdlife and the views, and then finally I made it to the Pass Hut, which was a good place to stop and rest, and look at some of the signs inside. The hut is also known as the Mackinnon Pass Shelter, implying some sort of emergency or life-saving significance. Indeed it is a fact that the weather can cut up very rough at this spot, so much so that this hut is the fifth hut to have been erected there, with no less than three previous ones having been blown down or even blown off the ridge. This one looks considerably more robust than its predecessors. In the event of a hurricane-force blizzard, I would certainly rather be inside than out.

The Pass Hut, at Mackinnon Pass. This is described as the Mackinnon Pass Shelter on New Zealand's official topographical maps, but it is a proper hut.

It's the fifth hut to be installed there. Three of its predecessors have been destroyed by gales.

Some of the country near the pass is a bit steep

Because the Milford Track has fairly easy approaches at either end, the Mackinnon Pass can be a bit of a shock for some!

Seriously, the Milford Track attracts a lot of first-timers who seem to think that it will be easy all the way through and overestimate their abilities, or for whom this will be the only real tramp they ever do. When I was on it this time, there was a group of three people who were all walking in rather flimsy shoes. Two of them rolled their ankles and did major damage to their knees. Others seemed to treat it as a race. By the time I got to the end of the hike, I was amazed at the level of blisters and hobbling among my fellow hikers!

I came across two waterfalls on the way down.

A small waterfall

And there were a lot of steps coming down.

Stairs down another steep bit

The trail is much more lush down here

I stopped at the day shelter outside the Quintin Lodge before making my way to the Sutherland Falls, a slight detour which is nevertheless a must-do.

The Quintin Lodge

580 metres is 1,903 feet

Pouring over the head of the Arthur River valley, with its flat bottom and two-thousand-foot high cliffs, the Sutherland Falls has been been likened to the Yosemite Falls in California

From a local information display, which gives a good view of the falls. They descend from Lake Quill, named after the young man in the Victorian photograph.

There are now understood to be many waterfalls higher than the Sutherland Falls in actuality, including the Yosemite Falls themselves. Still, the Sutherland Falls are pretty impressive, especially if it has been raining lately.

A closer view of the Sutherland Falls

At 580 metres (1,903 feet) there is simply no way that the camera does the Sutherland Falls justice

A peak above a swing bridge over the Arthur River, with a tramper crossing

The lower reaches of the Arthur River, near Sandfly Point

It was very dry in this area and you could see petrified-looking tree stumps in Lake Ada, near the end of the journey. Lake Ada was formed by a landslide about 900 years ago. Its level had dropped to the point where you could see the 900-year-old tree stumps appearing above the water.

There was a lot of country that showed signs of landslides, like in the next photo.

And so, I made it to the end!

Sandfly Point: The author at journey's end!

Finally, here is a video I made of my journey:

Further Information

DOC Brochure


If you liked the post above, do check out my book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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