I recently returned from New Zealand and a tramp along the Milford Track. (In New Zealand, to tramp is to hike, and a track is a trail). The Milford Track is described and promoted as one of the Great Walks, and great it is too.
While not particularly physically challenging to a fit person (hiking up to, along and down from The Great Wall was definitely harder), the weather presents challenges of its own. The area’s natural beauty is enhanced by hundreds of spectacular waterfalls that appear with the rain. And we had plenty of that. According to our guides, we had “above average” rainfall on our trip, but honestly it wasn’t that bad. The second day we set out in the pouring rain and waded through streambeds up to our knees, surrounded by those incredible waterfalls. But the rain stopped by 10 am and as we stood atop MacKinnon Pass, we were treated to clear blue skies and a spectacular view.
The track runs through some of New Zealand’s most breathtaking scenery and it’s also a trail through history. I had not realized before that the track was developed specifically for tourism and as a means of bringing visitors to Sutherland Falls, the world’s fifth highest waterfall. The falls were discovered in 1880 by Donald Sutherland, Milford’s first European settler.
In 1888 Quintin McKinnon and Ernest Mitchell found the route that connected Milford in the Arthur Valley to Lake Te Anau. By 1890, the initial track had been built. Today atop the aptly named MacKinnon Pass is a monument to the early explorer and guide. Because the area was set aside so long ago, it remains pure and pristine. No grazing, no sheep or cattle and therefore no giardia, which means you can drink the water directly from the streams. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do that!
Walkers stay in lodges and huts that have plenty of history of their own. Many began life as simple plank structures, such as Beech Hut, so-called because it was made of beech. The names remain the same though the structures have been replaced over time. The oldest original structure still standing along the track is the 1928 Boat House, which you reach the morning of the last day. The Department of Conservation recently restored it, though in truth they didn’t leave much original material. The Quentin Lodge is the newest, replacing the previous lodge which was destroyed by landslide in 1982.
Each lodge has displays of old photos, giving you a glimpse into the past; the first lodge, Glade House, even has a museum room filled with track and tramping memorabilia. Gazing at the photos, I admired the early adventurers, but, seeing their attire, silently gave thanks for Gore-Tex.
The route of the track itself has changed slightly over the years to accommodate changes to topography that resulted from landslides and to improve safety. The last segment, from Quinton Lodge to the 33.5 mile marker at end, features a section carved and scraped out from the rocky hillside by Irish workers. You can still see where they left their marks on history. They signed their work with “May 1898” carved in a hillside, the track’s only graffiti.