Milford Track: Sing if you want to pass go

By Marcus Tanner

Clean sheets, cream teas... if it wasn't for the glorious scenery, says Marcus Tanner, you wouldn't know you were on a five-day trek along the Milford Track.

There's plenty to keep the spirits strong on a guided tour of the Milford Track. Photo / Supplied
There's plenty to keep the spirits strong on a guided tour of the Milford Track. Photo / Supplied

It was when I heard we had to sing for our supper that I panicked. Why enrol on the luxury, guided version of the Milford Track in the Southern Alps if not to avoid unnecessary pain, I grumbled. I hadn't imagined that a compulsory bonding session was going to form an inescapable part of the first evening's entertainment.

It sounds corny, but the sing-song worked a kind of weird magic on all of us., Even crusty old me unwound and began to talk to my neighbours. And I was glad I broke the ice, because the scenery of the Milford Track was something I found I wanted to share.

Over 55km and five days, the course takes walkers through awesome landscapes and several micro-climates. We snaked across sun-baked savannah grassland, coiled up mountain paths to snowy peaks inhabited by kea and ducked down into steamy valleys, a world of frond, fern and dripping moss. There, our main companions were fantails, pecking at the insects disturbed by our walking boots.

The first European settlers did not map out the Milford Track until 1888 when Quintin MacKinnon pioneered the route from Te Anau across the mountains to Milford Sound. It remains as it was, a winding trail leading through an uninhabited landscape that constantly reminded me of the setting of Jurassic Park.

Peaks of volcanic mountains disappear into shrouds of dense cloud. At the base, they plunge into a dense green skirt of rainforest. I felt very far from my usual walking haunts in the Cotswolds, where pub and shop and bus are always there when the going gets tough. But I did not feel stranded. The joy of the guided walk is not only the knowledge that the guides are there to scoop you up if you fall over and break a leg. It is the promise of a hot shower, a three-course dinner, wine and a clean, warm bed in the lodge at the end of each day.

Liberated from bedding and cooking chores, I could concentrate on admiring the vast waterfalls that crash down the mountains and flow into the Clinton River, which meanders beside the path.

None of us saw kiwi, alas, though the increasingly rare national symbol certainly lurks in the dense bush. Nor did we see the elusive takahe. But there were other wildlife diversions. Huge trout lazed in the sun in the Clinton's clear water and New Zealand pigeons roosted up above. We saw weka pecking nonchalantly on mountain paths. We also heard the haunting melodic calls of tui from within the rainforest.

Coming from polluted Britain, it was a pleasure to dip my water bottle into the waters of the Clinton whenever I was thirsty. It looked perfect for swimming, too, until I discovered that it was freezing and that alongside the trout there were large and sinister-looking eels.

The demands of the track suit people like me who want a challenge but are only moderately fit; our party included several people in their 60s who had no serious trouble with the climb.

The initial hop to the first lodge is no more than a half-hour stroll. The second day covers 16km, but this an easy walk, too, almost entirely on the flat. It was only on day three that my calves and ankles faced their first serious test as I left the burnt-ochre grass plain for a zig-zag climb up the mountains across the snow-capped MacKinnon Pass.

Like many people who have not done much long-distance walking, I thought I had conquered the trail when I reached the peak. How wrong. The descent to Quintin Lodge in the valley below was much harder than the journey up and by the time I reached the camp I was almost too sore to go the extra loop to see the giant Sutherland Falls.

The fourth day was the longest stretch at 21km, but made for a relatively easy march through rainforest to Milford Sound. This is one of the wettest parts of New Zealand, and although our guides waxed lyrical about the sight of mountains so bathed in falling water that they appear to be covered in glass, I was secretly delighted that the sun shone solidly.

As we sailed into the sound surrounded by the towering peaks, the heads of numerous seals bobbing in the bay around our puttering craft, our little suspicions and rivalries as a group seemed to have dissolved. See the weka? How about those eels? What a symphony those tui performed in the valley.

It is amazing how a little dash of luxury can keep even the most fractious group in a jolly mood.

Thank God for the supply of cream scones, red wine and clean sheets. That's how I like to walk.

Further information: See milfordtrack.co.nz and purenz.com.

Marcus Tanner travelled with Ultimate Hikes.

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