Having been famously dubbed “The Finest Walk in the World” by an article run by the London Spectator back in 1908, it has since gained international notoriety and brings hikers from around the world to behold the breathtaking scenery and to bask in the serenity of the 34-mile long track.
When preparing to hike the Milford Track, there are two main options – you can either go with a guided group (which includes carrying your bag and cooking all meals) or you can DIY, which is commonly referred to on the track as Freedom Hiking. With the hefty price tag of over $2000 per person on the guided tours and the fact that the trail is incredibly maintained, Kevin and I easily chose to take matters into our own Freedom Hiking hands.
The absolutely outstanding New Zealand Department of Conservation maintains the trail and all huts along the Milford Track (think: cutting away debris, trapping possums and rats that meddle with the native wildlife, staffing the huts with rangers, monitoring weather for hikers, and so much more!), and therefore all hikers must book through their website. I wanted to share the DOC promo video (below) to show their incredible aerial shots of the Milford Track.
In our over-eager excitement last January, we immediately set out to book our hiking dates, but unfortunately the bookings don’t open until mid-May for the following spring/summer (November-March).
So we waited. And waited. And waited. I’d like to say patiently, but I think it’s pretty evident it was not the case…
We decided Christmas time would make the most sense for our schedules since we knew it was one of the only times of year we would both absolutely have off work. On the morning the online bookings were set to open, Kevin decided to work from home to ensure we had our spots reserved correctly and for our preferred dates. I don’t think either of us have ever done this much preparation for booking anything ever before.
The mandatory Milford Track booking includes a half-hour bus ride from the tiny town of Te Anau to Te Anau Downs, a ferry from Te Anau Downs across the lake to Glade Wharf, then three nights at the consecutive DOC huts along the track (these huts accommodate around 40 people each).
Since you have to select each one individually from the site, you can run into issues if you don’t book them in the correct order and for the correct days and times. During the booking process, Kevin said the site crashed eight different times and when he called the head DOC office, the phone line had been disconnected. Hello, did we mention this is a world famous hike!? But like the true legend he is, Kevin got us our spots and headed back to work after the nail-biting two-hour emotional rollercoaster.
Milford Track, here we come!
We flew into Queenstown where we hired a car and drove onto the small town of Te Anau. Our hostel there, aptly named Te Anau Lakeview Backpackers, was perfect for our brief stay. When we arrived and opened the door to our room, we were met by a stunning vista, as well as the surprise that we even had our own viewing balcony! Unreal.
The following morning, the scheduled day of our departure, we woke up around 7 AM and set to work getting our things in order, the most important of which was going to be picking up our sacred tickets. Kev walked to the nearby DOC office to collect them, while I finalised packing our backpacks for our much awaited adventure.
A few minutes later, Kev returned and told me that our schedule had changed because of the tickets we received from the officer. He seemed adequately convinced by the DOC ranger that it was normal and we should arrive at 1 PM instead of our previously arranged 9:30. Sounded good to me, so we relaxed and intended to read our books and hang out in our room until it was time to check out. Until my phone rang at 9:30…it was the DOC wondering where we were and letting us know that the bus was going to leave without us.
Kevin had left the room to make a cup of tea, so I quickly explained to the DOC ranger what I knew to be the situation based on our brief discussion.
She politely asked me for our ticket numbers, and as soon as I reached for the tickets I saw the issue – neither of our names is Guy Barnett.
INSERT MASSIVE GROAN HERE.
Although in other situations we would have immediately panicked, the DOC ranger was helpful in quickly fixing ‘the’ (read: ‘their’ according to Kevin and obviously ‘our’ according to the DOC; let’s just stick with ‘the’…) issue and had us booked for a noon departure. Just enough time for one last real coffee before our long hike!
Once our tickets were corrected, we continued our day’s adventure with a quick bus ride from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs, where we took an hour-long ferry across the lake to Glade Wharf, the official beginning of the Milford Track hike.
The ferry ride was relatively calm and the scenery was beyond beautiful. One of my favourite sights along the ride was an entire island of pōhutukawa trees, locally known as Kiwi Christmas Trees for their bright red blooms appearing each year around Christmas time. Quite a festive beginning to our holiday hike!
Once we were dropped off at Glade Wharf, the crew waved goodbye to the Freedom Hikers while the prissy guided hikers were corralled together for what I can only imagine was a quick pre-hike body massage and inspirational speech. Just kidding! But they wished us luck and off we went.
The spectacular views, ever-fluctuating temperatures, array of sounds, and depth of delicious forest smells offered a true sensory overload during our four days on the Milford Track. While going through my photos in attempts to narrow down my favourites for sharing in this article, I was struck by how many unique landscapes, climate zones, and gorgeous days we had during our hike. I decided to put together our favourite snapshots with a perfectly paired song. If you have two minutes, check it out!
In addition to being surrounded by stunning scenery throughout the four day hike, our Milford Track experience was made even better by the outstanding DOC facilities, both at the huts and the sporadic drop toilets (permanent, environmentally friendly port-o-potties) located along the trail.
Although we had to carry our food and sleeping bags, the huts had gas cooking facilities for our use. Our mobile pantries were stocked with apples, nuts, tea, tortillas, crackers, cheese, canned beans, bags of pre-cooked flavoured rice, and biscuits.
Our ration of wine and chocolate was consumed out of excitement on our first evening while chatting with other hikers, and made for slightly lighter bags from there on out. Shockingly, we packed just a single bag of rice more than what we consumed – pretty good for our first track!
A consideration while hiking the Milford Track, or any trails in New Zealand, is the DOC Golden Rule: pack it in, pack it out. This means your time along the trail can result in zero wastage left behind.
It makes life easier for the DOC rangers and results in the best kept tracks I’ve ever experienced. We have been hiking numerous times during our time living in New Zealand, and I can honestly say that I have not seen a single piece of litter, including an “it’s fine because it’s biodegradable” apple core. It’s easy to follow this rule when you see how incredibly maintained the trail is, preserving its beauty for fellow hikers and future generations.
Each afternoon we would arrive at our hut and immediately sign in. We were then free to pick our bunks, nap, read, explore the surrounding areas, make dinner, or just chat with our fellow hikers.
The DOC rangers who live at the huts during the high season spent their days maintaining the trail, hiking their portion of the trail to check on arriving hikers, and simply relaxing at the hut. Each evening they would double check that everyone on their reservation list arrived at some previous point (another nod to DOC – everyone was always accounted for during the time on the trail), and conducted a hut meeting each night around 7:30 PM.
In these hut meetings the rangers would discuss weather updates, brief information about the hut and its history, and any other information they deemed worthy of our attention. In one of our huts, we had an older woman who must have been a teacher in her previous life. She gave us an incredible lecture on the extensive history of the Milford Track as well as a list of chores and rules for her hut. Another hut ranger reminded me of a perfect concoction of The Magic School Bus’ Ms. Frizzle with equal parts of the main character of Into the Wild.
They were all incredibly kind and obviously passionate about environmental conservation, which is always inspiring to see for me. As my above video’s song reminds listeners, we have a seriously wonderful world, and I believe we should respect and look after it.
The huts were always impeccably cleaned (a nod to both the previous nights’ hikers and the DOC hut rangers alike) and had bathrooms with flush toilets and toilet paper(!!!) provided for us.
Although we couldn’t shower, there were nearby streams that Kevin and I attempted to use for bathing purposes, but when we felt the glacial temperatures we quickly decided that we loved each other enough to smell bad together without catching a cold. But this tradeoff meant we were quite natural by the end of our time on the trail…
On our last day, we set off later than most hikers and made it to our destination, Sandfly Point, by around lunchtime. From Sandfly Point, we waited for our short ferry ride from the end of the trail into the port at Milford Sounds.
If I could have hoped for perfect weather at any point of our trip, this was it. The entire day and final ferry ride were straight out of a photoshopped brochure. The scenery in this part of the world is truly breathtaking. But then again, so was our stench.
If you are interested in hiking the Milford Track or learning more about this experience, check out the information at the NZ DOC site for fees, booking, and other FAQs. If you have any questions for me, just drop me a line!