Escape into the New Zealand wild on the four-day Milford Track exploring lush prehistoric scenery.
STRETCHING 53.5KM, AND WENDING its way through the valleys and mountains of New Zealand's Fiordland National Park, the famous Milford Track is a must-do. The four-day journey boasts breathtaking alpine scenery and comfortable hut accommodation, explored by the 14,000 people who complete the track each year.
Not all of these trekkers are lucky enough to see New Zealand's iconic bird, the kiwi, but there are plenty of other distinctive species to observe. One of the most notable is the blue duck, an endangered waterfowl that has no close relative anywhere else. Unique species of sparrows and robins are plentiful, and keas are abundant along the journey. When Trek and Travel employee Su-Lin Tan trekked the Milford in April, she had a close encounter with one of these alpine parrots.
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"They are highly intelligent and they pick at everything, including your backpack," she says. "The keas are notorious for stealing your shoes, boots, packs, and whatever gear you leave lying around."
The scavenging birds are a minor annoyance on an otherwise simple journey. The terrain along the well-marked Milford Track is generally flat and smooth, making it perfect for people with relatively little alpine experience.
The most physically demanding leg of the journey is the trek up MacKinnon Pass from Clinton Valley to Arthur Valley on day three. "You start at about 120m, and you climb all the way to 1000m, then back down 1000m in the same day," Su-Lin says.
Camping along the Milford is illegal, so trekkers can lighten their loads by travelling tent-free. Three well-equipped huts along the track provide basic necessities, such as fresh water, toilets, and bunk beds.Su-Lin recommends bringing along a stove and some fuel to facilitate tea breaks between huts. Clinton Valley, about 10km from Glade Wharf, is a particularly spectacular place to stop for a snack. "It's a beautiful valley where you can see the mountains flanking left and right," she says. "There are little hidden pools and waterfalls all along the valley wall."
Crowd control on the Milford Track
Su-Lin made the journey during the October-April peak season, when additional restrictions are in place to help accommodate the increased number of trekkers. The limited availability of hut beds means only 40 trekkers are allowed to start the route each day, and they must spend no more and no less than one night in each hut.
Intrepid hikers might feel limited by this strict schedule, especially considering the first day's walk from the trackhead to Clinton Hut is quite short.
"It's almost embarrassing for regular hikers," Su-Lin says. "You get off the boat, you smile, you take a picture at the sign that says 'Milford Track', and then it's literally only a 5km walk to the first hut. I would probably just skip the first hut and go on, but during the peak season you're not allowed to skip the first hut, because the next group of 40 people are in the second hut, so if you went along you would take their space."
Although the trek may be brief, there are still plenty of activities to occupy adventurers on the first day. Su-Lin recommends arriving at Clinton Hut early in the afternoon to catch an educational talk by the hut ranger, who explains where to find different flora and fauna along the track. Another highlight are the glow-worms.
"There is a low-hanging cliff and all the glow-worms sit under that cliff," Su-Lin says. "It's literally a five-minute walk from the hut. You go at night, after dinner when it's really, really dark, and then you get to see the worms -and the stars."
The next morning, early risers have the opportunity to enjoy the distinctive sounds of the Milford Track. "The birds are just fantabulous," Su-Lin says. "There are sounds you do not ordinarily hear in your regular Oz backyard. In New Zealand, the morning chorus is just a splendid way to be introduced to the marvellous Kiwi animal kingdom. It's quite remarkable."
Off the beaten track in New Zealand
For Garry Judd, who also trekked the Milford in April, the track's drawcard was the spectacular scenery. Because the journey is not too physically demanding, he could focus on enjoying the views.
"One thing that's quite nice about the Milford Track is it's so easy in terms of a hike," he says. "It's quite nice having some energy left at the end of the day."
Garry, an avid hiker who has completed four of New Zealand's multi-day treks, said the Milford was one of the best in New Zealand. The one and a half hour boat ride across Lake Te Anau to the track head makes visitors really feel like they are leaving civilisation behind.
"You do feel like you're walking in the wilderness proper," he said. "That's what makes Fiordland so special: it's unspoiled and untouched."
Getting there: Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Air New Zealand fly to Queenstown from major Australian cities. From Queenstown, Tracknet runs a bus service to Te Anau, then a ferry from Te Anau to the track head at Glade Wharf. At the end of your trek, a ferry will take you across Milford Sound (the sound) to Milford Sound (the town), where you can catch a bus back to Queenstown. Visit www.tracknet.net.
When to go: Conditions are most favourable in the peak season of late October-late April. The weather is unpredictable even in summer, so expect at least one day of rain. The track is significantly less busy in the off-season, but avalanches sometimes render the path impassable. Only attempt the trek in winter if you are very confident in your outdoor survival skills.
Accommodation: Three huts provide basic accommodation along the track. During the peak season (26 October- 27 April), Department of Conservation (DOC) huts are equipped with gas cookers, cold water, lighting, some heating, and flush toilets. A three-night ticket costs $154 for adults and is free for children under 18. Advance bookings are required. Try to book at least four months in advance because huts fill up quickly during peak season. They're open for use - and significantly less crowded - during winter, but not all amenities are available. Off-season hut passes cost $16/night for adults. Visit www.doc.govt.nz for more information and to make a booking.
Essential gear: Sandflies are a major pest on the Milford, so make sure you have a good-quality insect repellent, with a high DEET content.
Guided treks: You can easily walk the Milford Track on your own, but guided options (where trekkers stay at more luxurious huts, separate from the DOC ones) are also available. Ultimate Hikes is the DOC-approved service for peakseason guided treks along the track. Visit www.ultimatehikes.co.nz.
More information: www.trekandtravel.com.au