Story and Photos by MaryAnn Gerst
At 72 years of age, I decided to do New Zealand’s world-renowned Milford Track with seven hiking friends, all from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Previously, I had walked Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route and hiked the Tour de Mont Blanc (touching on Italy, France and Switzerland) with several of them. Importantly, I was comfortable that we had compatible hiking styles. Ranging in age from 55-68 years, five women and two men made up a delightful, fun group of people to travel with.
We arrived in the small South Island town of TeAnau after spending two nights in Queenstown to recuperate from our long journey across the Pacific. On February 6 in New Zealand’s late summer, we boarded a small boat at Lake TeAnau that took us to the trail head of the Milford Track. We had four days of backpacking ahead of us, stay-ing in 40-person huts along this 33.5 mile trek, generally rated as of medium difficulty. Our total ascent would be 3,500 feet, returning to sea level on the last day. Hopefully our training in New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains, hiking a couple of times each week, would pay off.
Day 1 -Clinton Hut
It had been steadily raining for the previous two days and it was still pouring when we got off the small boat at the trail head, Glade Wharf. My backpack weighed 17 pounds, as I only packed essentials, including a light weight sleeping bag, rain gear and an assortment of freeze dried food. I had purchased some mid-calf rain boots, but decided to leave them behind in my suitcase since I didn’t want the extra weight in my pack. With all the rain, I was really kicking myself for not bringing them and envious of everyone who stopped to put on their boots.
Suddenly the rain was making deeper and deeper puddles and we found the water up to mid-thigh in some areas with a raging river on one side of us. “Where’s the trail?” I screamed to my companions as I watched them sway in the deep water and ever-growing current. “Keep moving,” they yelled back, “we only have a short way to go!” Luckily, it was only three miles to our first hut and after two hours we were there, totally soggy. “Why did we ever put these boots on?” my friends wailed. “They just weighed us down and water flooded over the tops?”
Dinner was freeze dried in a bag, not very appetizing, as we watched a small group making a gourmet meal in a large pot with fresh meat and vegetables! After putting our wet boots, socks and rain gear by the wood stove in the kitchen area, we crawled into our sleeping bags pondering what tomorrow would bring.
Day 2 – Mintaro Hut
I woke up to a person standing by my bunk asking in a loud voice, “Who was doing all the snoring?” I knew it was one of my hiking companions, but I played dumb!
After another unappealing freeze dried meal for breakfast and dousing myself with bug spray, I was ready to hike the 12 miles to our second hut. The rain was gone, the trails had magically soaked up the extra water and I found myself bathed in glorious sunshine. Being the oldest of my group, I informed everyone to not wait for me, as I had my own pace – “slow and steady”. I truly enjoyed hiking alone with the occasional contact of other hikers, as we passed each other on the trail. It gave me the time and space to take pictures at my leisure and thoroughly enjoy the scenery. I felt totally safe, as there are no predators on this track.
The clear day allowed me to see the most stunning array of mountains covered in lush rain forest foliage, and crystal clear mountain streams with deep blue pools. I felt like a kid again crossing numerous suspension bridges that bordered thundering waterfalls. Now this is why I came here – paradise!
I was tired by the time I got to the second hut and my finger was sore from taking so many pictures. Every bend on the trail gave me a new sense of awe. I passed signs that read, “Don’t stop for the next 200 meters – Avalanche Area”, evidenced by huge uprooted trees scattered around like pick-up sticks and boulders that I had to scramble over to find the trail. I made it to Mintaro Hut mid-afternoon and enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow hikers, most of them 50-60+ in age, coming from China, Germany, Australia and the U.S.
I can’t say dinner was better than before and the snore patrol person was still on the lookout – actually shaking the bunks of offenders during the night – but it felt good to curl up and sleep.
Twenty-eight liter backpack, a lightweight sleeping bag, and inflatable pillow.
Each hut supplies gas burners, but independent trekkers must bring their own lightweight food, a pot to boil water, cutlery and a bowl or plate.
Rain clothes, three pair of socks, hiking boots, silk underwear,a down coat, lightweight gloves.
Insect spray, sun screen, hat and sunglasses, and hiking poles.
Hut water is fine for drinking and filling water bottles before setting off each day. But I brought an optional water purifier for re-filling the bottle in streams along the route.
Day 3 – Dumpling Hut
This was my most taxing day as I climbed 2,000 feet over Mackinnon Pass. The trail was steep and rocky, hiking through steep-sided valleys created by repeated glacial action over the past two million years. Full sun made the vistas below spectacular! At the top of the pass, I was rewarded by a shelter serving hot chocolate, cookies and juice.
“WOW, this is really nice!” I exclaimed. But I was told “Sorry, you entered the guided tour section of the shelter. The independent hiker section is next door!” (See Follow Up Facts for guided tour option.)
After a brief calculation of what I had saved by choosing the “poor man’s” option (NZ$162), I ate my granola bar, drank fresh stream water and started the long descent to my third hut.
On a whim, I decided to take a three-mile side trip to see the highest falls in NZ, Sutherland Falls (1906 feet/580 meters high). As I got closer to them, the sound was deafening! I’ve never seen such a powerful surge of energy crashing down a sheer cliff!
After hiking almost 11 hours, I arrived at my hut at 7 pm to the cheers of my fellow hikers. I was too tired to even boil water and happily ate someone’s second serving of a freeze dried dinner. “This is absolutely delicious”, I raved and scarfed it down!
Day 4 – Sandfly Point
Once again, we were greeted with beautiful sunny weather. According to the locals, getting three straight days of sunshine is almost unheard of in one of the wettest spots on earth with 292 inches of rain per year!
It was a gentle, 13-mile hike down to Sandfly Point, appropriately named, as we swatted flies, sprayed more repellant and tried to cover all bare skin. We all boarded the one o’clock boat for a 20-minute ride to the Milford Sound Lodge, an extra expense, but we each had our own private accommodation. That night as I lay in my double bed with four pillows and no snoring as background noise, my thoughts were packed with the beauty, excitement, funny stories and memories I had of the Milford Track. I’d do it again, Mate!
The Milford Track is within Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island. Individual camping along the track is not permitted. The “Great Walk” season is late October to early May, but outside that season you may also tackle the Track when hut booking is not necessary.
Independent Tour: With only 40 bunks at each hut per night, make reservations a year in advance for one night in each of the three huts. Cost = NZ$162 per adult for all three nights; youth/children ages 5 to 17 are free. Pay separately for transportation to Te Anua and to the trail head (by boat). You may book huts and transport online. Once you finish the Track, I suggest staying at a hotel in Milford Sound, as well as booking a scenic Milford Sound Cruise before bussing back to Queenstown.
Guided Milford Track Tours are five days/four nights, www.ultimatehikes.co.nz, offered between November and April. Cost = NZ$2,080 to $3,215 per person depending on choice of accommodations (multi-share to single). It includes backpack, rain gear, meals, snacks, comfortable private lodging, guide and transportation to/from Queenstown.
Based in New Mexico,U.S.A, MaryAnn Gerst is a retired Public Relations professional after a 30-year career in the utility industry. MaryAnn is a member of the Albuquerque MeetUp Hiking Group and enjoys hiking several times each month with her hiking companions.
For her next challenge, she is looking at hiking Peru’s Machu Picchu.
We recommend more of MaryAnn’s adventurous feature articles in our publication’s Travel Article Library: Colorado’s Pike’s Peak or Bust, A Trekking Tour of Europe’s Mont Blanc, and Trekking Africa’s Highest Peak Mt Kilimanjaro.