Milford Track, New Zealand November 2012

My latest trip is a quick getaway to hike the “finest walk in the world” (coined by a British walker in 1908) – The Milford Track on the south island of New Zealand.  The hike is 55km over 3 days through glacial valleys to the mouth of the Milford Sound (more correctly a fjord) where it opens into the Tasman Sea on the west coast. Evergreen beech forest blends with rainforest ferns and mosses and is crowned by alpine pasture and wildflowers where the trail climbs over a mountain pass.  I was blessed with glorious sunny weather the entire trip (no mean feat for an area that averages 9 metres of rainfall a year)! I based myself in Queenstown, the adventure and ski capital of New Zealand, for a couple of days either side of the hike.  I’ve included some trail notes to give you a taste of walking one of the great treks of the world.

Day 1

A wire suspension bridge carries us over the Clinton River – pale emerald green at its deeper reaches, its clarity is just astonishing. The day-long walk up the Clinton Valley (we would take the west branch) begins in shaded corridoors of mossy, ancient beech trees.  The path is soft under foot with a mulch of red beech leaf litter, borders glistening with delicate moss.  The forest is awakening with the twitter and sweet song of finches and mountain robins.  Your eye is drawn upward to the direction of soft filtering light – the giant arms of mountain beech trail wispy lengths of ‘old man’s beard’ lichen and their trunks shine with a rich tapestry of goblin moss.  Ferns uncoil new tendrils and spindly lancewood juveniles cast spiky purple leaves towards the earth. The river babbles and burbles nearby as the latest group of Milford Track trampers add their footfall to the century-old trail.

The group meanders off a side path to a Wetlands protected area.  Beech trees and a dark canopy give way to boardwalks over open moss pastures.  Scrubby bog pines barely as tall as a man’s shoulder belie century old trunks.  Sphagnum moss in reds, golds and yellows carpets the sodden ground.  I kneel down to bring my face close to a tuft – hundreds of perfectly formed tendrils and fronds create a forest in miniature.  The colour and texture make me believe that the field has been woven from strands of a sunset.

Later in the afternoon a detour via Hidden Lake, an avalanche ‘tarn’ (lake) at the base of the sheer sides of the valley reminds us of the renewal on the trail. The open prairie brings us into full sunlight and brilliant views of the permanent snow caps on the peaks lining the Clinton Valley and the saddle of the Mackinnon Pass which lies ahead.

Day 2

The track meanders through the last of the beech and mountain holly forest at the northern reaches of the Clinton Valley before beginning to climb. Switchbacks carry us up into alpine grasses and delicate white petals of the Mt Cook lily flutter in the breeze.  The snowcapped peaks of Mt Hart and Mt Balloon frame the gateway of Mackinnon Pass above.  Within 2 and half hours I have crested the top. 360 degree views stretch behind to the two branches of the Clinton Valley and ahead to the Arthur Valley, still dwarfed by Mt Hart and Mt Balloon and Jervois glacier on a further northern ridge.

We pass by a couple of small mountain tarn amid alpine prairie before a steep descent into the next valley dropping down next to the tumbling glacial blue waters of ‘Roaring Burn’.

Day 3

Another clear day dawns and our path is flanked by the steep walls of Mt Pillans and Mt Elliott.  The Arthur Valley is mostly beech forest heavily carpeted with moss and delicately garlanded with old man’s beard, but also now a greater diversity of ferns.  Statuesque tree ferns reach for the top of the canopy and delicately coloured groves of ferns glisten with the morning dew – burnished oranges, ambers through to purple and green.  We crisscross the Arthur river and some of its branches over suspension bridges – the waters startlingly deep and clear.  Spring melt feeds a number of steep waterfalls along the path – topaz waters cascade over dark granite and rush to join the Arthur River. Open stretches of grassland punctuate the last few miles of the trail along the ever widening river that delivers us to the terminus of Sandfly Point.  A short boat ride takes us to the head of Milford Sound with towering Mitre Peak 1600m above the fjord silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky.


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