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“The Finest Walk in the World”: The Milford Track, South Island, New Zealand

by Suzanne Fluhr on April 30, 2012 · 20 comments


Map of Australia and New Zealand

In 2002, I went on one of my favorite “trailing spouse” trips when my husband, Mr. Excitement, asked me if I would like to accompany him to Perth in Western Australia for a mesothelioma research conference.  I hesitated less than a nanosecond before replying, “Absolutely.”

Perth, Australia is 11,602 miles from our home in Philadelphia, PA, USA “as the crow flies”.  Of course, crows do not actually fly from Philadelphia to Perth, so I had only two requests:  that we go for at least three weeks if we would be traveling that far and that we fly business class.  We were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary that year and I figured business class would be a suitable present to ourselves—especially since we only had to pay for my ticket.  As had become our pattern, Steve told me the dates he needed to be in Perth and left me to plan the rest of the trip.

A quick look at a map reminded me that New Zealand was on the way to Australia—bracketed by the South Pacific and the Tasman Sea, between the US west coast and Australia.  My father had passed along a yearning to visit New Zealand, so I started doing research about what the indigenous Maoris call the Land of the Long White Cloud.  Coincidentally, that weekend, our local newspaper ran a travel article entitled, “The Finest Walk in the World” about hiking the Milford Track (Trail) on the South Island of New Zealand.  (Factoid:  New Zealand is comprised of two islands.)

Mr. Excitement and I have traveled together extensively, so I knew that while he might be willing to “rough” it in a two star hotel, camping was out of the question.  The travel article directed me to the website of Ultimate Hikes.  Wait a minute.  Hikes?  What happened to the “Finest Walk in the World”?  It turns out that Ultimate Hikes only advertises guided “walks” on its website—and that walks in New Zealand are actually called “tramps”.  However, a look at the site’s photographs of  fit looking Baby Boomeresque “walkers” with backpacks, hiking boots, and walking sticks, gazing across stunning valleys from mountaintops, convinced me that I would not be able to ask my husband if he wanted to go “walking” in New Zealand with a straight face.  So, an honest description of what I was proposing was a 4 day (five night) guided hike in Fiordland National Park, sleeping in “lodges” along the trail with all meals provided.

With some incredulity at my proposal, Mr. E. agreed to our first multi-day hiking experience and I booked a November slot for our hike.  (November is spring time in New Zealand).  The website stated that the Milford Track was suitable for “moderately fit” people with broken in hiking boots.  It recommended doing practice hikes for six to eight weeks prior to arriving in Queenstown, New Zealand for the hike.  Off we went to a sports store where we purchased our first ever, waterproof, real hiking boots.  Our plan was to do our Milford Track practice hikes on weekends in the Wissahickon Valley Park, one of the true treasures in the Philadelphia Fairmount Park system.

Woody Allen famously said, “If you want to make God laugh–tell him about your plans”.   The practice hiking plan was derailed when my 92 year old grandmother-in-law broke her hip in late September, followed by my father breaking his hip in mid-October, five weeks before we were scheduled to leave on our trip.  Our “get into shape, break in the boots” hiking time was consumed by shuttling between hospitals and rehab centers. My father endured a “stormy hospital course”, so it was with no small amount of amazement that we (and our unbroken in hiking boots) found ourselves actually on an airplane on our way to New Zealand on the appointed day.  Dad, from whom I inherited my considerable wanderlust, threatened not to leave the hospital if I did not go on the trip.

Our first day’s travel involved four flights to cross the United States, the Pacific Ocean and from Auckland, (the largest city, but not the capital of New Zealand) on the North Island, to Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island.  We spent a few days recovering from our flight in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Garden City.  Christchurch was eminently walkable, with an interesting museum and an iconic cathedral, badly damaged by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.  It is also the jumping off point for scientific expeditions to Antarctica.  The International Antarctic Centre  near the Christchurch Airport is well worth a visit.  During our time in Christchurch, the days were cold, windy and rainy which caused some trepidation as to how it would be even further south in Queenstown (i.e. nearer to the South Pole).

Queenstown reminded me of ski towns in the Rocky Mountains in the United States.  It is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, which in addition to being beautiful, provides the venue for all types of water sports.  Rising from the water’s edge is the aptly named Remarkables mountain range.  Queenstown is a four season adventure sports resort town.  Although Mr. Excitement had to be talked out of way too exciting tandem paragliding, he was content to join me in merely watching the folks bungy/bungee jumping off the Kawarau Bridge.  (IMHO, you have to be an adrenaline junkie or doing serious drugs to fling yourself off a bridge with cords attached to your ankles.)

Our own adventure started at a pre-hike orientation during which the staff at Ultimate Hikes fitted us with loaner 40 liter back packs and raincoats.  Along with our unbroken in hiking boots, we had brought along the recommended long underwear and waterproof pants, but after seeing the photos of Milford Track hikers gamely trudging along in extreme weather, it did not take much to persuade us to also buy fleece jackets.

Crossing Lake Te Anau to Glade Wharf

The following morning we joined the other 38 hikers in our group for a 105 mile bus ride to Lake Te Anau through rolling green countryside dotted with grazing sheep and deer (venison farms).  New Zealand is populated by four million people and forty million sheep—give or take some of both.

After lunch, we boarded a boat to be transported to the beginning of the Milford Track.  The boat ride itself was special.  There was a sensation of leaving civilization for somewhere primordial as we headed into the mountains of Fiordland National Park and away from roads and motorized vehicles.

After disembarking at Glade Wharf, we walked a mile on a level path to Glade House where we would spend our first night.  This had me thinking that maybe our less than robust training regimen would not be a problem.  I was soon disabused of that notion. After being assigned rooms, we set off on a heart pounding “nature walk” up a small mountain.  Fortunately, there were stops to learn about the flora and fauna of the area—and to incidentally catch our breath.  For those of us accustomed to being on the lookout for venomous snakes and bears on hikes, the best news was that there is no dangerous wildlife on the Milford Track—other than larcenous alpine parrots (keas) who hang out near people to snatch any unguarded food or equipment.

View from the “drop toilet” at the top of  MacKinnon Pass.

Dinner at Glade House was quite good and after dinner our three guides engaged us in a “get to know you” session, so we could meet our fellow hikers.  In our particular group, we hailed from about five different countries and we ranged in age from twenty-somethings on their honeymoon to a 76 year old member of a British hiking club, The Ramblers.  Our group had three assigned guides who stayed with us for the entire hike.

Each of the three days of serious hiking started with a hearty breakfast and we were provided with provisions to make our own lunches and snacks to keep us fueled during the day on the trail.  (After our first real day on the trail, I realized that this was not the time to scrimp on calories).  Each evening after a three course dinner and wine for purchase, our guides talked to us about what to expect for the next day’s terrain.  We were all in bed by 10:00 P.M. when the lodges’ generators were turned off for the night.

Mckay Falls, Milford Track

The terrain we traversed each day varied from fairly level to rocky up hills and down hills, but each mile was a treat for all the senses. Although the final day covered the most distance, 13 miles, the second day was the most strenuous as it involved climbing up and over MaKinnon Pass. We found the down hill more difficult than the ascent, possibly because the regular trail had been closed by an avalanche, requiring us to descend via a very rocky, steep “emergency” trail.

Although we felt we earned our dinner and a good night’s sleep each day, the hike did not require any technical climbing and we all hiked at our own pace.  Indeed, one of the nicest things about the Milford Track is that you often feel alone in a beautiful wilderness, unaware of anyone in front of or behind you.  The trail can only he hiked in one direction, so you will not encounter hikers coming towards you and there are a limited number of hiking permits per day.  Even though our group was strung out along the trail, one of our guides was always ahead of our group, one stayed in the middle of the group and there was always one behind the last hikers.

Our guides had their hands full with one Australian hiker in our group who was afraid of heights and literally had to be coaxed along step by step at some points.  Mr. and Mrs. Excitement are not particularly fond of heights, but we did not find the hike scary at any point.  Well, maybe a little bit on a few of the higher pedestrian suspension bridges.

13 Miles in a Temperate Rain Forest, Milford Track

Weather in Fiordland National Park is know for its variability.  We had two blue sky dry days, but got to test all our waterproof gear on our last 13 mile hiking day.  It passed with flying colors.  The hiking part of the trip ends at the very aptly named Sandfly Point where we again boarded a boat that took us to our last night out at the only hotel on Milford Sound.  The following morning we enjoyed a ghostly boat ride on a fog and mist shrouded Milford Sound and were then bused back to Queenstown.  The rest of our trip was interesting and enjoyable, but we both agree that tramping the Milford Track was the highlight.

Ethereal Milford Sound

What’s your favorite hike from your travels?

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlotte Glauser May 2, 2012 at 3:27 am

Back in 1991 I spent 8 weeks in Australia and both islands of New Zealand. The only message about the Milford Track was “Watch out for the mosquitoes. They are incredible blood suckers.” Apparently your guides knew when to make the “walk”. My friend and I took every sort of vehicle: plane, train, bus and rented car and of course the boats on every lake we encountered. We didn’t make the Milford Track but we did do hiking in Tasmania on forest trails. Your experience sounds great. I’m afraid that I won’t make that “walk” in this lifetime so I’ll have to wait for some reincarnation. Milford Sound was lovely and so was the one next store. We had incredibly beautiful weather in addition. When you go back to New Zealand, let me know and I can send you my notes from the trip we made.


Just One Boomer May 2, 2012 at 4:11 am

From your comment, it seems you agree that those lands down under are beautiful places to visit. One doesn’t make the long trip from the US to visit great cathedrals and there is no New Zealand David or Mona Lisa, but the majesty of Mother Nature’s creation is evident. Thanks for the offer of your notes. I hope I will have the occasion to ask to borrow them for planning another trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud.


Jacqui Robinson May 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Just for a bit of one upmanship Suzanne, I did the walk pregnant!


Just One Boomer May 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm

OK, Jacqui, you win—but did you have broken in hiking boots?


Donna Hull May 4, 2012 at 3:17 am

My daughter and her boyfriend took this trek last year and raved about it. I would love to do it, although I’m afraid I might have to be coaxed along a few of the steep parts myself. Were there really sections that scary? I’m okay as long as I have a tree to hold on to.


Just One Boomer May 4, 2012 at 3:56 am

Thanks for your comment, Donna. My husband is kind of queasy about heights, but neither of us found the Milford Track particularly scary. There are some pedestrian suspension bridges traversing water and ravines that I found a little disconcerting. There is solid footing and sides to hold onto, but one does have the sensation of being, well, suspended. It didn’t help that my husband reverted to some schoolboy goofiness and thought it was fun to stand at one end and make the bridges sway even more when I was traversing them. The fellow who was afraid of heights had absolutely no problem with the bridges, but if there was a drop off next to the trail, he became unhinged. In my opinion, the trail was wide enough that I never had the sensation that there was any danger of “falling off”. We climbed Huayana Picchu when we visited Machu Picchu on our honeymoon. THAT was scary—2,000 foot drop off next to a very narrow path and an admonition to watch out for vipers. We felt well looked after on the Milford Track with Ultimate Hikes, so I’d say go for it! In our group, the 76 year old finished each day’s portion first.


Mindy Langer August 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Sounds inspiring! Perhaps we’ll see some of this on our trip next year.


Just One Boomer August 19, 2012 at 3:28 pm

All of NZ is lovely, but the South Island really was breathtaking. Let me know if you want some other suggestions.


Dan Meyers March 11, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Wow, this looks incredible! We’re renting a campervan for three weeks as we traverse the North and South islands, but we didn’t plan on doing any overnight hikes. We’ll definitely check this option out… sounds awesome!


Just One Boomer March 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Dan, I’m sure you’ll enjoy NZ. On the Milford Track, the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) only allows 40 guided and 40 independent hikers per day, so act fast because spots are limited. You can also drive to Milford Sound. Enjoy your RWT! Godspeed.


Leigh December 29, 2013 at 5:53 pm

I never did the Milford Track when I was in NZ though I did fly over it. On an extended 5 month trip to NZ and Australia MANY years ago I did backpack for 5 days the Cradle Mountain Walk in Tasmania and highly recommend it.

So have you done any sort of multi day hiking trips since this one to NZ?


Linda ~ Journey Jottings August 4, 2014 at 8:42 am

Wow! That is a stunning trip – and a stunning view from the dunny “drop toilet” at the top of MacKinnon Pass!
Such beautiful views and 5 days in that beautiful environment…. OK! I’m jealous 🙂


Jared November 9, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Sounds like an amazing adventure and brings back fond memories of my time spend in New Zealand. I didn’t hike the Milford Track but did get to do some ‘tramping’ around Abel Tasman Park, which was breathtakingly gorgeous, like it is everywhere in NZ!

What I love about NZ is that there are adventures for all levels and you are never really that far from civilization.


Suzanne Fluhr July 26, 2016 at 7:06 pm

And no bears or snakes!


Jo January 22, 2023 at 3:55 pm

Have just read your delightful post out loud in the car as we travel now away from Milford Sound and Te Anau to Dunedon. Both Dave and I really enjoyed it, and it’s made us keen to come back, spend more time in Fiordland and do some more serious ‘tramping’. You write so well! We were with you in mind and spirit.


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