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Back on the Milford

Image of the February 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
February 2021 Issue

Wilderness walks the legendary Milford Track days after it reopens to the public.

And then you see it. After months of anticipation, track closures, a lockdown, a flight, two shuttles and a water taxi, Glade Wharf emerges from the mist in the northernmost reaches of Lake Te Anau. It’s the fabled gateway to Aotearoa’s most famous walk, the Milford Track, and the anticipation is killing me.

It’s early December, and we are amongst the first few hundred trampers back on the track since the floods from last February flattened Fiordland. It’s my first time walking the track, and I don’t know what to expect.

Onboard the water taxi, two Chilean men float in a sea of buoyant Kiwi trampers – a sign of the times. My partner starts chatting to them in Spanish, and already I’m hit with the nostalgia of pre-Covid tramping, where foreign languages filled the backpacker lodges and huts of the south.

We set off from the wharf, and the day’s walk to Clinton Hut is laughably easy – a leisurely hour and a half stroll along the astonishingly clear Clinton River. In several places, the track reroutes around undercut and eroded banks. It’s hard to imagine the now tranquil flow in anger, and I wonder what became of the river’s many trout in February – their journey downstream must have felt like a hyperspace jump.

A view to Mt Pillans from MacKinnon Pass on the Milford Track. Photo: Matthew Cattin

The second day bears fewer signs of damage – I imagine the summer storm was nought but a sandfly to the glacier-carved Clinton Canyon. With a relatively fine afternoon, my brother and I drop packs at Mintaro Hut and climb to MacKinnon Pass Shelter – in case the weather clags in the following day, as forecast.

The beautifully graded stone track feels ancient, flanked like a runway with mountain daisies and Mt Cook lilies. It’s stunning, and thankfully still intact. The view from the pass is breathtaking – perhaps my favourite of any Great Walk so far – and if not for the gale winds ripping around my bare legs, I’d have stayed there for hours.

We return exhausted to the cold, dark Mintaro Hut, whose successor is being built a few minutes’ walk away – hopefully with bigger windows and better insulation in the bunkrooms. A tramper nearby says booking the Milford was like booking tickets to Glastonbury, and for the thousandth time this trip, I feel lucky.

Our afternoon efforts pay off the next morning, which is drizzly and thundery beneath the intimidating bulk of Mt Balloon. Five kea mock us from the deck beside a chewed-up inner sole – bad luck for a tramper, but we had been warned by the ranger. It rains as we set off, but a brief respite gifts us views at the top, and we arrive at MacKinnon Pass Shelter just in time for a whiteout.

On a rainy descent of the emergency track, waterfalls strike like lightning down the walls of Mt Elliot, and a pregnant Jervois Glacier cracks like thunder, dropping powdery avalanches from its perch. We frequently remark how dry the track is despite the deluge, though it gets softer underfoot on the final approach to Dumpling Hut, and signs of recent washout are apparent in the new bridges and boardwalk.

Climbing towards MacKinnon Pass from the Clinton Valley. Photo: Matthew Cattin

The final stretch to Sandfly Point still shows damage from last year’s storm. The bridge at Giants Gate Waterfall is brand new – its previous incarnation gone the way of the trout. The Dumpling Hut ranger said the nearby toilet floated off its foundations, held down only by wires. Nobody asks where the waste ended up.

The stony banks by the falls are littered with fallen beech – quite unlike the glossy track brochures – and impressive slips scar the landscape near Lake Ada. It’s humbling to stand in the rubble. We reach Sandfly Point, and my brother catches his first-ever glimpse of Milford Sound; what an incredible way to get there.

The next day, we take a cruise to the Sounds’ entrance, and there is just one other tourist onboard. I overhear boat staff discussing the now silent Piopiotahi – wondering when people will return this summer. Last February’s storm and the following pandemic did a real number on the region, and it’s easy to feel down about the current state of things.

But walking the Milford Track – steeped in history as it is – gives perspective. The track has survived more than a century, and its landscapes much longer. In years to come, today’s stories will be told by tomorrow’s wardens, and Covid-19 and ‘the flood of 2020’ will be just footnotes in the walk’s legendary history.