Tag Archives: NZ South Island

Hiking the Milford Track


Track Information
Day 1 – Glade Wharf – Clinton Hut
Day 2A – Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
Day 2B – Mintaro Hut Mackinnon Pass to Mintaro Hut
Day 3 – Mintaro Hut to Glade Wharf

Track Information

Milford Track is located in the unique Fiordland in New Zealand’s South Island. It is considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Read about my hikes in Abel Tasman Coastal Track , Kepler Track and Routeburn Track in previous posts. You can also see my Milford Track photos

-an early European explorer described Firodland as “utterly useless except for mountaineers”. Hence, that’s why it is still so pristine –

For independent hikers, registration and bookings are made through the Department of Conservation, Fiordland National Park. Booking is not only essential, book early as it is popular particularly between December and March. Milford Track had been sold by NZ tourism and is extremely popular with foreign tourist. I suggest booking on the shoulder season – early November and April to avoid the crowd. All booking must be confirmed at the DOC offices either in Queenstown or Te Anau prior to starting the track. Transport can be organised by Real Journeys and Tracknet. The Fiordland weather is unpredictable. Be prepared for mainly for rain and gusty cold wind.

This is normally a one – direction hike over four days. However, due to exceptional high rainfall in February, parts of the track including bridges had been damaged. The only road into Milford Sound had also been damaged. The 53.5km Milford Track had been re-branded as Southern Milford – Mackinnon Experience (52.3km). This required us to trek all the way up to Mackinnon Pass and return the same way in three days.

Day 1 – Glade Wharf – Clinton Hut

Departed Te Anau at 0945. It began as a cloudy day as we drove to Te Anau Downs to catch a ferry to our starting point of the hike.

There had been no rain in the Fiordlands for three days and it continued today. One local man said it was a drought. It was indeed, being one of the wettest places in the world. The bus journey to Te Anau Downs passed through pasture and farmlands. The morning sun rose behind the Earl Mountains and cast a beautiful lime green light on the moist pasture grasses. On the west is the shimmering Lake Te Anau. Closer towards Te Anau Downs we passed through native restored bush covered with spiky golden tussock grasses.


Start at Te Anau Downs

After an hour’s drive we arrived at Te Anau Downs jetty – the launching point to hike the Milford Track. This is the midpoint of the 65km North – South length of Lake Te Anau. The views are stunning. With rolling hills and blue -green mountains on the east and west, beyond the deep sapphire blue lake, the Kepler and Murchison Ranges rose to over 1600 meters.

We boarded the 10.30am Fiordland Express catamaran with several other hikers and day trippers. It was still cool as we prepared to depart. With hot coffee and sweet biscuits, I settled in for the journey. Soon after we took off, the reality of the cold winds hit us. I quickly zipped up my newly purchased yet-to-be-tested rain jacket.

With the Kepler Ranges behind us, we forged forward to unknown mountain ranges. A few islands are dotted around this vast freshwater glacial lake. One of them had Mackinnon Memorial Cross planted. The captain slowed down for us to pay our respects. Quintin Mackinnon disappeared on Lake Te Anau in 1892. His body was never found and presumed drowned. A small iron cross marked the site of the wreck.

Distant bluish mountains became more pronounced. We passed fiords and scarred mountain slopes. The wildness of the Fiordand began to appear. Like the lake itself, these mountains are also carved out from glacial actions. They seem impenetrable. Yet, thanks to men like Mackinnon, we too can take a similar journey through these majestic and remote mountains. Early Maori first travelled this route to get to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) to collect greenstone (pounamu). After an hour plus, we arrived at Glade Wharf, the head of Lake Te Anau – the start of the Milford Track.

To protect the park, our shoes are disinfected at the jetty. With the obligatory pictures at the Milford Track signage taken, we set off. Today’s trek is short, just 5km to Clinton Hut. There was no rush. The trek immediately entered the beech forest. The walk, mainly under tree canopies, was soothing especially with the scorching sun. The ferry departed shortly after. The last of civilisation. The well laid stony track took us deeper into the forest. The familiar flora of the fiordland appeared – soft velvety ground spaghnum moss and hair-like lichens hanging from tree trunks and branches. I recognised totara, red beech, ferns and comprosoma plants. The filtered light through the hanging old man’s beard is striking. Parts of this forest still retained its primeval uniqueness. It is as old as in Gondwanaland.

Once we emerged out of the tree canopies, we entered a grassland. On the left is the slow flowing Clinton River. In the middle of the grassland – luxurious Glade House Lodge (used by hikers from the expensive guided walks) with mountains as the backdrop. Today’s short walk awarded us with plenty of time to wander. The shallow blue-green river flowed under a long suspension bridge. Trout thrived in these cold waters. A paradise duck just splash-landed on the water.

We crossed the first and long suspension bridge. Clinton River displayed several hues of colour ranging from emerald green to blue. Yellow algae on the rocks glowed in the shallows. The lush rainforest reflected in it’s crystal-clear waters. It was a serene setting. The bridge swayed with every step as we made our way across.


Clinton River

The river was absolutely stunning and inviting. It was cold though. The well laid track followed the bank of the Clinton River. Sunlight filteted through the beech canopy. Native birds like Tui, Robin and Fantails greeted us along the trek. I even spotted a Bell bird. At the confluence of Neale Burn and Clinton River, there were great views of Dore Pass – a range of mountains. Bare on top with lush vegetation below.

A side-track took us on boardwalks over a protected wetland. It is a fascinating place, with Mt Anau as the backdrop. Sphagnum moss covered ground is dotted with a reddish carnivorous plant – Sundew (Drosera genus). This is a fragile environment. Other bog plants include liverworts, shrubs, sedge, rushes and lilies. At the edge of the bog are a stand of juvenile silver beech trees.

Not long after, we arrived at Clinton Hut. It was a hot day. Like most trampers, once arriving at a hut, the first chore is to secure a bed. The hut warden, a lanky Ross, was busy doing maintenance work. He reminded me of Gandalf – the wizard from the Harry Potter movie. We decide to settle in with lunch and a wander around. The river is nearby.

Ross gave a talk on a raised platform behind the hut. The views of the surrounding forest, wetlands and mountains were outstanding. Ross, armed with a wooden staff, expounded his knowledge on the flora in the vicinity of the hut and river – including its medicinal use. It is one of the most interesting talks by a DOC hut warden.

The Clinton River flowed swiftly over rocks and moraines. I spotted a rare Whio (Blue Duck), feeding in the fast-flowing river, oblivious to our presence. The colour of the river is amazing. I was in disbelieve that this is Fiordland weather – blue sky, hot and clear day! A place which received over 200 days of rain. Judging the water level, the dryness of the track and surrounding vegetation, it had not rained for a while. Although it is not the best walking weather, Fiordland has a special beauty during or after a rain. Well, this is only day 1.

We tied the laces and hung the boots on hook outside the hut. This is to prevent the naughty Kea (alpine parrots) from ‘stealing’ them. There are no showers in these huts but toilets and running water is provided. Inside the hut, it is a hive of activity – pots clanging, steam and cooked food aroma filled the cosy room. More hikers arrived from the later boats. It was a mixed bunch of locals and foreigners. The hut was only 60% filled. Milford Track is highly sort after by foreigners since someone said that it is the “finest walk in the world”. Mass tourism, like in Queenstown, has its negative effects. Locals cannot be bothered to ‘chase’ the booking. Furthermore, there are other track options and less crowded. Milford Track has a reputation of being the dirtiest resulting from uncaring tourist. Although toilets are provided, they think it is permissible to ‘shit’ anywhere (understandably, in some cases unavoidable). This unwanted behavior has marred this pristine environment.

Like in other DOC huts, there is always a sort of camaraderie amongst the hikers. The groups and loners mingle with the experienced and novices. Everyone had a story to tell. Later in the evening, Ross returned to give the obligatory hut talk. He is a delightful character. With good weather forecast, inside information on ‘things’ to see along the way, he recorded our bookings. After our ready-to-eat Indian meals, we slept early. The stars were out. Nearby is a glow-worm grotto. I gave it a miss. Doors opened and shut; floorboards squeaked with heavy footsteps; bunks creaked as bodies turned inside sleeping bags and plastic mattresses. It is always uneasy for me being a light sleeper. I was quietly hoping to hear a Kiwi bird shriek in the nearby bush.

Day 2A – Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut

Breakfast is something to look forward to. Not only to prepare the body but also the mind on today’s hike. We left early around 7am, considering that it would be an extended walk. Today’s walk will cover 26.5km (including the return hike to Mackinnon Pass).

It was still slightly dark outside. I managed to check out the glow worm grotto. They still emitted light but barely visible. No Kiwi bird cries either. Snorers and ‘movers’ kept me awake. The track continued along Clinton River heading northwards. Ross mentioned to look out for an old telephone post. I missed it but managed to spot some insulators stuck into trees. These are the remnant of the old telephone system linking the huts. At this stage, the track was easy and under tree canopy.

Nearby mountains reflected on the emerald green water and evidence of uprooted trees can be spotted sporadically. The forest is a mixture of Silver Beech, broad-leaves and ferns. Just before the 5th mile, the North and West Clinton Rivers merged. The track moved west from hereon. More open area began to appear. A couple of Kereru (Pigeon), the affable Robin and Bell Birds made their home here. The mountains opened up further.

As we approached the 7th mile marker, the bush weaned, and an unexpected clearing appeared. A expansive view of the U-shaped valley opened up. This is the beginning of the Clinton Valley. On both sides of the track, mountains, some with snowy peaks, rose perhaps 1000 meters vertically into the blue sky. The half-moon was still in the sky.

We made good progress. However, the distance that lay ahead played in my mind. Always calculating if we had enough daylight to reach Mintaro Hut and press on to Mackinnon Pass and return to the hut. It was certainly an uneasy state of mind that is not warranted under the normal four-day hike to Sandfly Point (at Milford Sound). We pressed on. I imagined the number of impromptu waterfalls on the mountains if it had rained. Another unusually dry and sunny day in Fiordland. The track is now through scrub-land. The Clinton River was distant, closer to the mountains.

Ten minutes later, in the valley, we spotted still water that reflected the mountains. This included the Pampalona Ice Fields. Trees, including Silver Beech, had been washed away due to landslide. This created the normal flow to be disrupted and a Dead Lake was formed. The water is darker with organic matter leached from the dead trees. Trout and eels thrived here. Perhaps, someday, with heavy rainfall, this lake may re-invent itself.

Past the Dead Lake, we re-entered the beech forest. Beyond the bush line, on the slopes of a bare mountain, a series of cascading waterfalls – Hirere Falls (about 100meters). Due to the drier weather, the flow volume was low. It resembled a white shoelace. The Hirere Shelter and toilet is tucked under the trees. At the top of the mountains, a little snow. We approached a beautiful part of the forest – the bluish Clinton River with lichen covered forest. I spotted a Kereru (pigeon) and a Tui. It was serene and very primeval.

It is in places like Clinton Valley where rain would have transformed the view – literally with 1000 waterfalls on either side of the mountains. We must be contended with the few we have today.

A single Robin perched on a Silver Beech tree branch, kept us company. The trees here are slightly shorter. Around 10 am, we arrived at the first viewpoint of Mackinnon Pass. The beech forest thinned out and opened into a second canyon mainly with shrubs. Not far away, we arrived at detour to Hidden Lake. The views were stunning. Grasses grew on the sides of the track.


Hidden Lake

We don’t want to push too hard that we become tired by the time we reach Mintaro Hut and little gas left to hike up to the pass. If too slow, the danger is hiking in fading light.

At Hidden Lake, the mountain was half covered in shadow. A small volume of water, like a thin ribbon, cascaded down into a dark lake. The water is icy cold. A pleasant detour indeed. Looking back, we have come a long way into the middle of the valley. It is in places like this that one lingers longer. About 30 minutes later, another signage – Prairie Lake. All of us, wanting to get to Mintaro early decided to carry on.

The track seemed to pass through pockets of beech forest along the banks of the Clinton River. I heard some sound. Three rare Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) – Blue Duck, just landed on the bluish cold water’s surface. It was interesting to observe these birds in their natural environment. Whio are endemic to New Zealand, a vulnerable species and possibly facing extinction. Currently, the numbers are around 3000.

Lime green lichens hanging from tree branches, the turquoise blue river, the white pebbles and the lush multi-hued green forest were all very enticing. This is the magic of fiordland. Finally, the beech forest revealed a second valley. Here it is populated with grasses – like a prairie. It also presented fantastic views of the entire valley. Mountains rose to over 1000 meters on either side as we made our way through the grassland. A single duck foraged for food in a slow-moving stream.

We decided to have lunch in this scenic spot at Prairie Shelter. Unfortunately, the sand flies were furious here. Even with my repellent on, these nasty flies managed to find untreated spots. I hurriedly eat lunch and moved on. It is essential to bring insect repellent. A little Weka wandered around looking for a meal.

It took me almost two and half hours to cross Clinton Valley. Around 1145, we reached the Bus Stop Shelter. Beyond here is a very rocky climb over Marlene Creek. This is a dangerous crossing in bad weather. Best to stay in the shelter and wait out the storm or flooding. The climb can be treacherous. I crossed a movable metal bridge where only a trickle of water flowed in the creek. Red and green mould covered some of the rocks. The surrounding is littered with colourful wildflowers .

Some pest traps lay on the grass. We re-entered the beech forest and passed the Pampolona Lodge used by the guided walks. This is a great spot to see both the views towards Mintaro hut and the journey we had taken via the Clinton Valley.

The track ascended towards St Quintin Falls lookout. Beyond the mountain range is Mackinnon Pass. Heavy cloud descended upon the mountains near the pass. Above the fall, a small ice fields, mostly covered in clouds. As we progressed, we entered another valley. It was denser with vegetation and steep mountains. Clusters of ferns appeared on the sides of the track. It was a long walk as we passed the 13th mile marker. The day was still bright with blue sky.

We arrived at Mintaro Hut around 1320. We had walked 16.5 km so far. Our journey today had not ended. On the normal Milford Track, this is the end of Day 2. However, with the revised route, if we wanted to see Mackinnon Pass, we must do it today. I felt rushed. We sorted out our beds, chucked our packs and had a quick snack. After 20 minutes, we continued our hike. There were not many hikers here. Perhaps, they had all departed. Unlike my group of senior hikers, a group of young local hikers were in no rush. I was sure they will pass us soon.

Day 2B – Mintaro Hut to Mackinnon Pass to Mintaro Hut

We headed to the hardest part of the hike – to Mackinnon Pass. Mintaro Hut is at 700 meters and the highest point at the pass is at 1154 meters. Today’s hike will be about 500 meters height gain. The initial part of the track is through the rainforest. We passed a serene Mintaro Lake. Spring water appeared to fill the lake. There was not much time to explore. Such was our itinerary. We crossed a swing bridge over a dry and rocky Clinton River. Here, the river was not as majestic as downstream.

The track was well laid track through the forest. Someone was cutting grass with a trimmer. It turned out to be Andrea – the warden at the Lake Howden Hut on the Routeburn. After a steady climb, the bush gave way to an alpine terrain (at 900 meters plus). The gravel and rocks laid track gave way to stony uneven track.

The track zig-zagged up. I was slow at this point. Fortunately, I did not have my large backpack on me. I would be truly knocked out. With progressive ascending, the views evolved. The sun shined brightly and the sky blue. It was stunning. A rare occurrence in Milford.

Looking down, was the green Clinton Valley and in front a bowl-shaped valley – Nicolas Cirque. This valley had been gauged out by retreating glaciers. Very little pockets of snow and ice remained. One slope had heavy scaring resulting from a recent landslide. Several trails cut vertically on the slopes. These are left behind by streams during downpours and a rocky riverbed can be seen snaking out of the valley. This would then feed into the Clinton River. No wonder, the river we crossed earlier looked dry – no rain. Walking carefully on the movable large pieces of rock, we ascended.

Alpine plants populated the slopes. A curious Rock Wern (Piwauwau), one of the rarest alpine dwelling bird species, darted between the plants. This included the Mountain Daisy (Tikumu). I caught my first sight of Mackinnon Memorial, to commemorate Quintin Mackinnon, on the saddle. On my left is Mt Hart (1770m) and on the right Mt Balloon (1847 m). With a little more huff and puff, I made it to the pass. I was a relieved. The tiredness dilapidated with the surrounding sight. With the setting sunlight, it was stunning. Within minutes, the clouds moved in and cast a dark shadow. In Milford, some say there are four seasons not in a day but in an hour. It had not rained here for four days now. It is a drought by fiordland standards.

Imagine, besides a single road from Te Anau to Milford Sound and the Milford Track, nothing much had changed for ions. Fiordlands ancient beauty is here for all whom ventured. The views from the slope of Mt Hart towards Arthur Valley and beyond was exhilarating. The memorial blended with the surrounding grey mountains. There was no wind. The clouds moved rapidly giving Lake Ella, an alpine tarn, an organic black and sky blue appearance.

Incredibly, there was hardly any ice or snow on the mountain peaks except on Jervious Glacier (on Mt Elliot). Most of the other hikers were already resting on the opposite side of the pass. Beyond the edge is a very steep slope. I accidentally stumbled very close to the edge. My heartbeat jumped. There are no barriers. It can be very dangerous particularly in poor weather. On the left of Mt Balloon is the half obscured Mt Elliot (1984m). The evening light was incredible. From the edge, at the foot of Mt Pillans (1391m), l could make out Quintin Lodge, a airstrip and Arthur River in the green valley below. The original Milford Track continued through Arthur Valley to Dumpling Hut and eventually to Milford Sound at Sandfly Point. Not for us today though. We returned to Mintaro Hut.

Around 1630, we retraced our steps down the rocky switchbacks. High in the blue sky, I heard a couple of Kea’s high-pitched calls. The bright red colors under their wings visible as the flew past. Both soles of my feet started to hurt due to the pounding from the extended walk. We passed a playful Tomtit (bird) and varieties of sub-alpine and rainforest plants. Around 1800, a side-track took me to a picturesque of Mintaro Lake below Mt Balloon. In the stream nearby a duck foraged for food. Sumant, from our tracking group, was keen to have a swim in the cold water. He is a regular in these cold waters. Not me.

I was glad to return to Mintaro Hut. It had been a long days’ walk – 26.5km! I felt we were always weary of the time. We are not fast or strong walkers. The Milford Experience has been rushed. Today’s walk began with the thought of getting enough time to get to Mackinon Pass and return (before nightfall). Tomorrow’s walk will be chasing the 1630 ferry. This will also be an extended walk. From here to Clinton Hut and onward to Glade Wharf. For now, it was time to recoup, have dinner and rest at the hut. Lovely Andrea, hut warden, gave us the usual talk plus a fascinating story, amongst a few, about Milford Sound. It was Miso with noodles tonight. As usual, stories are exchanged. It wasn’t too cold today. Hopefully get some sleep.

the story –

“Milford Sound or in Maori, Piopiotahi was carved out by demi-god, Tu Te Rakiwhanoa. He was given the task of shaping the Fiordland coast. He started hacking the rocks with an axe, from the bottom of South Island west coast and worked his way north. With each creation, he got better and better. His final work, Piopiotahi – was his best and a masterpiece.

However, the underworld goddess Hinenui-te-po saw the fiord’s beauty, she feared that the visitors would never leave. So, she released sand flies to keep them away”.

Day 3 – Mintaro Hut to Glade Wharf

We got up early and prepared to leave around 0730. It is always tricky trying to leave early as some hikers are still asleep. I usually pack all my stuff in the evening and remove my stuff and packs into the kitchen for packing. There is a need to be considerate of others.

By a “natural selection” process – the early and late leavers, there is not much waiting time for the stoves. Everyone has their own rhythm of getting ready, breakfadt and packing. It is interesting to watch all these unique antics.

Today’s walk, 21km, is to retrace our hike not only to Clinton Hut but all the way to Glade Wharf in time to catch the 1630 ferry. They do not wait. Fortunately, my pack is lighter, and the soles of my feet less sore.

We entered the beech forest and retraced our track back through Clinton Valley. There was still no sign of rain. Quite extraordinary. Will climate change here sustain this magical landscape and diversity? There will be no rain forest without rain. Newer species of plants may replace the rainforest. Lichens and moss will likely be the first to disappear. We stopped briefly admiring Quintin Falls against the lush forest.

Just before Marlene Creek, I encountered a large group of guided hikers. It cost’s between $2200 and $3500. These hikers carried less in their packs as food and lodges are provided. Several guides inter-spaced between the high paying guest as the hikers scrambled along the track. I asked a guide at the back, “what happens with the slowest hikers? She sheepishly replied, ” that why I had to wait for them”.

Several of them could hardly move over this rugged terrain including on the flats. Even with walking poles to assist, the unfit struggled to move. Foreigners might join Ultimate Hikes to do the Milford Track without any thought of training and getting fit. Since we are in New Zealand, let’s do the most famous track. They were literally gasping for air and some hunched against the rocks. In my mind, I questioned, how are some of these, literally overweight and unfit “hikers” going to cross Mackinnon Pass? Then, scramble down all the way to Quintin Lodge? Fortunately, today’s hike will end shortly for them at Pampalona Lodge with wine, fine dining and warm beds waiting. In contrast, “total comfort provided in the last place you’d expect – in a wilderness experience!”. Well at least, they will cross over the pass and descend to see Sunderland Falls, pass Dumpling Hut and onward as they will be airlifted from Quintin lodge. Hence, the high cost.

Around 0900, we reached the rocky Marlene Creek. We crossed a series of bridges and scrambled over red and green mould covered boulders and rocks. Further up, we could see Clinton Valley. Lee Cheng and I briefly stopped at the Bus Stop Shelter. The great thing about these mountains in the Fiordland is, the water levels rise quickly and dangerously fast. At the same time, they subside rapidly as well. Sometimes waiting for a while may be detrimental to your safety.

I headed off on a sign posted detour to Prairie Lake around 1000. The others in my group continued (in order to get to the wharf on time). It is a stunning site. The exposed multi – coloured bare marble-like rocks reflected in the still clear but cold water. It is a small lake. Algae and lichens hung onto the steep slopes. Perhaps, during a rainfall, waterfalls may appear and feed the lake. Today, only a trickle of water fell. If not for chasing time, this would make a great lunch break instead of the dreaded, sand fly manifested, Prairie Shelter. I did not linger too long and re-joined the main track and into the Clinton Valley.

Traps are still deployed by DOC to exterminate introduced rodents that is killing our endemic wildlife. Along the track, one tree that attracted me is the Tree Fuschia (Kotukutuku) with its brownish-orange bark peeling off like a Eucalyptus. Having hiked three tracks in the Fiordland, I am just beginning to really ‘see’ the flora of this unique habitat.

The light on the lichen draped beech trees and crystal-clear Clinton River was stunning. The yellow algae covered rocks further enhanced its beauty. The impressive Pampalona Ice Field hung high above the green Clinton Valley,close to the Hirere Falls. We revisited the Dead Lake. With every major event like rivers bursting its banks or earthquake and, in this event, landslides – can alter the natural flow of rivers and re-shape mountains. Avalanches, are common in these mountains and can have huge impact on the track and landscape. However, they do create spectacular sights.

A couple of DOC contractors were having their tea break. These contractors maintain the upkeep of the tracks including repairing the gravel tracks. It can be back breaking job and thanks to them, especially after severe damage caused along sections of the track due to massive rainfall in February, we can hike today. Camera traps had also been set up to understand wildlife. I thought I saw a kiwi on the track in daylight (which is not common). It turned out to be an endemic and vulnerable cheeky Weka.

We reached Clinton Hut around 1300. The soles of my feet hurt again and was glad to have a break. Now, we were certain about the time to catch the only ferry back to Te Anau Downs. It is this uncertainty (timing) that made us walk quicker and sometimes miss the little things. I don’t like to be rushed and this track did exactly that. With my boots removed, and a hot cup of coffee and snacks, I was relaxed once again.

Some might say it is a different perspective walking the opposite direction of the same track. Well, not for me though. Today’s return walk to Glade Wharf is “similar” and quite uneventful. The major difference is the race to the boat and the light. We passed through the red beech forest and the interesting old telephone memorabilia. We arrived at the final bridge crossing of the Clinton River around 1445. The colour is an amazing azure blue to emerald green.

Lee Cheng and I were now relaxed and knew that there is plenty of time to get to the ferry. We sat on the small grassy field beside the swing bridge. We listened to the mellow flow of the shallow river, bird songs and the occasional rustling of the trees as the breeze blew. It was great. From here, the Clinton River made its way and drain into Lake Te Anau.

This track had been bitter-sweet. The Southern Milford – Mackinnon Experience is a little too long and saddened that we had not completed the full track although understandable. We had the choice to re-book to another date. The dryness of the fiordland environment may have contributed to a less “spectacular” experience particularly with rivers, streams and waterfalls. This is not synonym with the wet fiordland. However, getting to Mackinnon Pass and rewarded with spectacular mountain and valley vista was great. This is further enhanced by the fact that we had slogged, and feel “raced” to get there.

Again, I thought about the high paying guided walkers. Well kitted but unfit. Will they all make it unscathed to Quentin Lodge. Another 40 hikers from the same outfit passed us and rather looked fresh and excited. They were all foreigners. Some might have the idea this track is a walk in a park. I liked their enthusiasm though.

As I passed Glade House, the wine glasses on the table and waiters tending to guest made me wonder again – do we really want this kind of comfort in a wilderness place like this? With all comforts provided. I doubt any kiwi would resort to this. Perhaps, fear of being pampered and lost that ‘can do kiwi attitude’. If it is not pride, the cost will certainly deter most locals. Personally, to each his or her own – an opportunity to get into the interior and experience the magic of fiordland. We arrived at the wharf with an hour to spare. Today’s hike was another long 21km.

Some of the hikers arrived here in smaller water taxi boats. Ours was with Real Journeys, a catamaran. Looking at the size, I am glad we are in a bigger boat especially if the weather gets a little stormy, as they do in these parts. It was time to unwind, kick off the boots, smelly socks and soak a bit of the southern sun. I walked along the shore and soaked my feet in the water. It was warm but not enough for me to want to jump in. In the boat, with coffee in my hand we sailed passively back to Te Anau Downs. At the beginning of the hike – the mountains were like strangers. This time, I felt a satisfaction that Lee Cheng and I had done this track. I looked at the mountains and wondering which one we had walked past. It is like bidding farewell to an acquaintance. We arrived Te Anau Downs at 1730. A shuttle bus brought us back to Te Anau. Well done to our team on successfully completing the 52.5km Southern Milford – Mackinnon Experience.

This is a wonderful trek encompassing fiords and alpine sceneries. Was it the “finest walk in the world”? Not really, but still a decent hike. The lack of rain and the modified long trekking route, did not help. Perhaps, the track beyond Mackinnon Pass is much more scenic and rewarding. We won’t know!

Hiking the Kepler Track

Table of Contents

Track Information
Day 1 – Te Anau – Control Gates – Luxmore Hut
Day 2 – Luxmore Hut – Iris Burn Hut
Day 3 – Iris Burn Hut – Moturau Hut
Day 4 – Moturau Hut – Rainbow Reach

Track Information

Kepler Trek is in New Zealand’s south western corner of South Island – the Fiordlands. It is a 2 – 4 days hike. The 60km Kepler trek can be walked in either direction as it is a loop. The starting point is at the Control Gates near Te Anau. We decided to hike up to Luxmore Hut (in the anti-clockwise direction). This would tackle the hardest climb earlier and would give us a ‘gentle downhill’ trek for the following days. Plus, the views on day 2 in the morning at Luxmore Summit and beyond would provide the best views, weather permitting. In the opposite direction, one would arrive here late in the afternoon and high possibility of ranges drenched in mist and clouds.

the trek map

It is a stunning part of New Zealand and this trek has one of the most wonderful scenery created by glacial ice and water, weather permitting. It encompasses mountain ranges; high lakes or tarns; alpine tussock grasses; boggy and endemic wildlife including Kiwi and Takahe; boardwalks and wooden walkways; waterfalls and rivers; glacial cut valleys; large fresh water lakes and much more. However, in these parts, the weather is unpredictable, and all four seasons can appear in one day. Mountain paths can be obscured by dense clouds and mist and strong cold prevailing winds are common. This can be complicated with snowfall even in summer! A good selection of wind and water proof clothing is a must. Water proofing your pack and broken-in hiking shoes are essential. All rubbish must be packed and brought out back to Te Anau. The mountain huts have no facilities to dispose these.

All booking for the huts or camping sites must be booked through  Department of Conservation (DOC). Their websites give detailed information on all requirements. Cooking gas is provided but you must bring all utensils and food. Starting and finishing points is scenic Te Anau. Local transport to and fro the starting points can be organised online or in Te Anau. We used Track Net. Transport from Queenstown is easily organised by the same people. Storage facility is available at the Holiday Park near the DOC office for a small fee (Track Net office is located here as well). It is best to collect all your booking documents at the DOC office early before the trek pick-up.

When we returned, it was bliss when we soaked ourselves in a spa pool at our hotel. Time to reminisce on our experience in a stunning part of New Zealand – the Fiordlands.

Day 1 (01/04/19) – Te Anau – Control Gates to Luxmore Hut (13.8km)

walking over a boggy area

Two friends, my wife and I went on this trek. We obtained our booking tickets from DOC office around 0800. We had organized transport to pick us up from Te Anau to the starting point of the trek at the Control Gates. Left Te Anau at 8.30am and departed from the gates around 9am. It started to drizzle and the sky cloudy. Once past the Te Anau Lake overflow control gates, we entered the native Beech forest. The trek followed the shores of the Lake Te Anau. Under the canopy of the Beech forest, the drizzle was kept a bay. However, it was muggy and the forest floor wet. However, the trek was well laid. It was quiet, and the walk was accompanied with sounds of bird songs. Fantails came bravely close to inspect. Soon they lost interest and disappeared into the wooded forest. Sunlight struggled to penetrate through the canopy. Occasionally, when visibility improved, I could see Te Anau Township across the lake. The forest floor was covered in dense moss and a variety of ferns.

In open areas, I realized that the drizzle this morning had turned into light rain. We reached Brod Bay. To save a 5.6 km walk (about 1.5 hr), there is a water taxi service from Te Anau to Brod Bay. Beyond here, the trek began to ascend. A Kea bird hopped along the trek. It was not intimidated and came close to us. Kea is the only alpine parrot and native to NZ.  As we climbed through the forest, unexpectedly, the trek passed on a narrow ledge along limestone formations. Under one of these limestone bluffs, we stopped for lunch. There were uninterrupted views of the valley below, although through hazy weather. Later, we climbed higher along the trek assisted with a series of wooden steps. Lichen and old man’s beard appeared on tree trunks and branches. It created an eerie forest-scape. We emerged out of the forest and passed the tree line. I was taken by surprise but was ecstatic to see the golden tussock grass field. I felt uplifted as the sun shined amidst the light rain. Strong cold wind began to blow in this open field. Wind speed up to 80km per hour. Temperature plummeted to about 5 degrees C, I thought. As I ascended, Te Anau basin in the valley came into view. Another delightful surprise, a beautiful rainbow had formed. Lee Cheng and I felt like kids running around and admiring the beauty before us. The weight of the pack seemed to have dissipated. As we progressed, bog fields began to appear. The path turned into wooden board walks to get us across without getting our feet wet. After one final turn, we could see Luxmore Hut (1085m) perched on the hill. As we approached the hut, it began to snow lightly intermittently. Temperature further plummeted to below zero.

alpine tussock grass

I enjoyed the views of the South Fiord of Te Anau Lake and beyond it the snow-covered Murchison Mountains in the north. On the east – the Snowdon and Earl Mountains. Within minutes of arriving in the hut, it began to snow heavily. Some, including myself rushed out to feel it on our skins. It was probably the ‘icing’ on a ‘mixed’ weather today. Half an hour later, I was out of the cold wind but not the views of the wonderful golden tussock grass field. The dining room was a hive of activity with hikers having a hot drink, some getting into their dinner and like us, just wanted to rest a while. The warmth from the fire place aided to our well-being. We have had rain, sun, snow and icy wind. We had walked 13.8 km in 6 hours, as estimated by the DOC. This only day 1.

Luxmore Hut

 


 

Day 2 (02/04/19) – Luxmore Hut – Iris Burn Hut (14.6km)

I got out of the bunk bed around 0730. I did not bother getting my boots on. With a woolen socks and slippers, I ventured outside. It was freezing. However, the low clouds were bright and the sun still below the horizon. I walked away from the hut and climbed a series of wooden steps to get some elevation. The South Fiord of Te Anau Lake was gleaming like a sheet of glass with glowing clouds reflected off it. A crescent moon and a satellite glowed in the dark sky.  The Murchison Mountain was just a silhouette. Around 0815, the sun broke above the eastern mountains and the lit up the tussock grasses to a golden hue. The peaks of the faint lightly snow-covered Murchison Mountains glowed with a pinkish hue. The panoramic view was very uplifting indeed. Kea birds call could be heard when a couple flew past the hut.

sunrise at hut

After breakfast, we packed up. We decided to check out the nearby Luxmore Cave. I walked up the wooden steps and noticed that the water was still frozen. At the top of the mountain, the expansive views of greenish Te Anau Basin emerged with the Snowdon and Earl Mountains in the background. In the nearby valley, small water bodies, tarns, gleamed in the morning light.  It was wet inside the cave and only spent a few minutes. The walk here was the highlight.

Back at the hut, a helicopter had just delivered a few passengers and quickly returned to Te Anau. This is an expensive way to get here and save walking in the rain, snow and wind for six hours. Where is the fun in it? Our next stop is Iris Burn Hut, an estimated six hours away. The wind had died down and the weather promised to be good. I find that the wind and cold can be managed but the rain can be depressing. We left around 1000 and the walk was uphill but not steep as the day 1. The low clouds started to move upwards as the warmed up. The South Fiord and Murchison Mountains was still visible amidst the moving clouds. We came across a tarn surrounded by golden tussock grasses.

The trek now was cut on the slopes of mountains and ridges. Avalanche signage advice on the eminent dangers during the winter and spring (between May to October) seasons. I could see the trek snaking along the slopes on a golden carpet. However, the trek itself was well laid with crushed gravel. Orange markers indicate the trek paths. The winds started to pick up. Around 1130, we reached the base of Luxmore summit. We dropped our packs and climbed up a steep mountain with loose rocks and gravel. At the rocky summit (1472m), there were fantastic 360 degrees views of the lakes, glacial gauged valleys, snow topped mountain ranges including Jackson Peaks, Kepler Mountains and Murchison Mountains.  We seem to be floating surrounded by dense hanging clouds. Pocket of tarns reflected dimly on this partially clouded day. The wind here was cold and had a little bite, but manageable. Kea birds hopped around the base of the mountain fluttering their colorful wings as they flew.

The tops of the mountains were now covered with short golden tussock grasses and flowering alpine plants hugging onto the windblown slopes. Evergreen trees grew abundantly on the lower slopes just above a no name lake. Winds up to 20 km per hour began to blow. Today’s trek is quite exposed. This can be a dangerous area when strong winds and rainfall combined with snowfall. Particularly walking along steep slopes and high ridges. It can become extremely cold and poor visibility. We are lucky today. The views of the lake and surrounding mountains was fantastic. We reached Forest Burn Shelter around 1245. This is an emergency shelter and perhaps a good place for lunch. It was crowded and a little noisy for our liking. We continued and found a great spot on a rock overlooking a blue lake surrounded by evergreens and snowy peaks. Time, 1315, for some lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

From here-on, the trek was on narrow ridges with steep drops on both sides. The immediate landscape was mainly shorter tussock grasses complimented with small hardy flowering shrubs. The mountain looked like a beige and sometimes golden carpet, depending on the light. We walked with the ebb and flow of the mountain ranges.  From here-on, the trek now cut across narrow mountain ridges. I can understand why walking on the ridges with strong winds and poor visibility can be dangerous. We are completely exposed to the elements. Fortunately, today the winds were ‘gentle’. It was cloudy but no rain. The temperature however was still low. Information given by the ranges on weather conditions must be heeded. Turning back may be the only option sometimes. Again, the importance of proper gear.

At every turn, there were panoramic views of the both Jackson Peaks and Murchison Mountains. We are actually trans versing Jackson Peaks. On the south west, the snowy peaks of Kepler Mountains rose majestically. We arrived at Hanging Valley Shelter around 1515. In case of emergencies, this shelter is in valuable. Fifteen minutes later, we walked along several tarns (alpine lakes).  Finally, I could get glimpses of Lake Manapouri in the distant valleys. We descended one ridge assisted with a series of wooden steps. This led us to a lookout point, around 1600. It was still cold but with a gentle breeze.

The tree line was just below this point. On the open slopes, long beige grasses swayed in the breeze while hardy green shrubs clung onto the rocky slopes. We had now left the mountain slopes and ridges and entered the forested areas. We were greeted by beech trees draped with old man’s beard and lime green lichens.  Green moss dominated the forest floor. However, my knees took a beating from the zig zag steep descent. I had to slow down. Fortunately, there were interesting spots to take my mind of the demanding trek. The trek followed a fast-flowing stream. With increased humidity, tree trunks and branches were covered in moss.  I felt like walking through a primordial forest. My aches forgotten for a moment taken over by imagination. Perhaps, the now extinct Moa bird, might just run past the stream. Perhaps, I am just plain tired!

Iris Burn River

There were tracks of fallen trees damaged from storm or landslides. It looked like a strong force. Only sounds of the water flowing and gently rustling of the leaves was heard. Suddenly, I heard flap of wings high above. They were from a couple of Wood Pigeon.  The feathers were colorful and was perched on a beech tree branch. I finally arrived at Iris Burn Hut located on a grassy filed around 1800. I was more relieved than delighted. No more walking for the day. Fortunately, the sun was still shining through a clearing in front of the hut. I had walked 8 hours on this leg (estimated as 6 hours). I was exhausted and normally would be happy to explore the area. A small path led towards Iris Burn River and another towards a waterfall with prospects of seeing the iconic Kiwi bird. Not today. Kea birds are notorious for investigating anything left outdoor. So, the ranger advised us to tie up our boots and hang them on hooks provided. The dining room was warm, although the fire place was not lit. A hot cup of coffee and boots off, I rested my weary legs. What’s for dinner?

Iris Burn hut

 

 

Day 3 (03/04/19) – Iris Burn Hut – Moturau Hut (16.2km)

It was a “warmer” night compared to the freezing temperatures at Luxmore Hut. My boots hung on hooks remained undisturbed by the naughty Kea birds. We left the hut around 0830. The air was still and cold. The morning sun was just touching the top of the nearby mountains. Immediately we entered the mixed forest. it was slightly dark under the tree canopies. A few birds were busy forging on the moist forest floor. In an open grassland, the sun lit up the nearby mountain peaks. Lichen dominated the rocks scattered around on the narrow valley floor. Frost covered the grasses surfaces. Together with the lichen, long grasses with flowing inflorescence added some color to the otherwise green landscape. Tall beech trees dominated the mountain slopes while a dense cold fog hung just above the ground. A tomtit bird surveyed the area from a shrub, common in this area. Interestingly, numerous white silk nest of an unknown resident was bound onto these shrubs. I reckon it was the work of spiders.

We re-entered the forest. Moss grew abundantly onto tree trunks, branches and the ground. The trek continued along the Iris Burn River. Some of the scenery were amazing, the combination of structural beech trees, some in autumn colors, and the Iris Burn River in the foreground. The rocks on the river covered in green moss. It looked like a painting. Along the trek, I found a variety of fungus – red, orange, purple and beige. Some on tree branches and mostly on the moist and spongy sphagnum moss that seem to dominate the forest floor. Sweet birdsong accompanied us most of the way. Sunlight penetrated through the dense canopy creating shafts of light. This created an interesting and dramatic effect in the forest. I was just happy to get some light on my skin to warm up in the still cold and moisture laden air.

 

We reached a shelter around 1145 along the river. This was our lunch stop. A signage indicated the there is another 3 hours to Moturau Hut. Not to despair as my legs were still strong. As we progressed, the mossy forest floor gave way to ground ferns. A mixed forest began appearing. Broad leaf’s and shrubs with red and orange fruits appeared sporadically. Our hunt for diminutive fungus continued. Through a board walk, we emerged out of the forest onto the shores of Lake Manapouri. Half an hour later, we arrived at Moturau Hut around 1530. The sun shined brightly onto the lake and the hut.

I later ventured onto the shore and into the cold water. It was an opportunity to wash up after going two days without a shower. Within minutes, I was out and sunning myself. It was bliss. Time for a cup of coffee and put my feet up. Lee Cheng was yearning for some hot and spicy noodles. A fellow hiker was just cooking some up. She approached him and was just happy to share as he was trying to finish up his food stocks. Happy to help mate! In trying times like this, little experiences are blissful. I returned to the shores of Lake Manapouri to catch the last rays of the day. Later, we settled down for dinner and a talk by the local ranger. He gave us a passionate talk about the incidents, accidents and people whom contributed to the well-being of Lake Manapouri. Thanks to them, we can appreciate its beauty today. Still no screeching calls of the elusive Kiwi bird.

sunset on the shores of Lake Manapouri

 


 

Day 4 (04/04/19) – Moturau Hut – Rainbow Reach (6km)

Sleeping in huts are usually uncomfortable for me. Being a light sleeper, every movements, snoring, conversations in close proximity and opening and shutting of door keep me awake. All the huts in this trek is no exception. Yes, perhaps it helps to invest in a set of ear plugs. However, today, most of the hikers including us got up early. The reason, to catch the 1000 bus at Rainbow Reach that would transport us back to Te Anau. This is one option on the final leg of this trek. The full trek would take us all the way to the Control Gates and thereon to Te Anau ( an additional 9.5 km, about 4 hours walk). This extra 9.5 km is mentioned as ‘uneventful’ as it hugs the Waiau River and the scenery is monotonous. Personally, we thought after walking 52.6 km, it was enough for the weary legs!

Day 4

We left early at 0730 and the hut was a hive of activity. I think nearly all hiker had similar plans. It was still dark and had to turn our head torches. We immediately entered the wooded forest. Only the trek was lighted as we walked past silhouettes of trees. Half an hour later, we arrived at Shallow Bay on the shores of Lake Manapouri. There was a 180 degree views of mountains and islands including Kepler Mountains, Jackson Peaks, Mt Luxmore, Iris Burn and lots more.  Paradise ducks swam peacefully in the cold water. The sky was laden with thick dense swirling clouds. We took in the cold beauty of this bay. It really is a sight to behold. Suddenly, streak of filtered sunlight burst through and hit the peaks of the cold mountains. The natural beauty now was further enhanced. We were just mesmerized by the natural beauty before us today. The lake, however, remained calm. There were no sand flies here like the beach at Motorau Hut. Insect repellent is definite essential on this trek especially on the lake’s shoreline.

Wetlands

There was another 1.15 hours to Rainbow Reach. It was 0835. The trek soon exited the forest into a wetland – Amoeboid Mire ( an interesting and new word for me). It is a bog dominated with sphagnum moss and a variety of shrubs. A board walk took us towards the large tarn (pool of water) in the middle of a mire (or marsh). Part of the Lord of the Rings was short here – the Dead Marshes!

The barren summit of Mt Luxmore is quite visible from here. Back on the main trek, is a large and a sapling of a Rimu tree. This is certainly a mixed forest including Podocarps, Beech and broadleaf. It varied from the forests at the beginning of the trek at the Control Gates. Here, with the assistance of a elder trekker, he identified Miro, Beech, Lancelot, and Totara trees. The forest is further complimented with lichens, moss and ground ferns.  A solo female runner zipped past us with just water bag strapped to her back. These are the hardy runners training for the Kepler Challenge – a tough marathon that starts and finishes  at the Control Gates ( 60.1 km race). I saw a couple on day 2, near the summit of Mt Luxmore. Hardy souls! This year’s challenge is on December 7 and the race completed just under 5 hours!! Amazing, a testament of human endurance.

bridge over Waiau River, near the end -Rainbow Reach

We crossed a dry stream via a wire suspension bridge. soon after, the trek followed the terraces of the fast flowing Waiau River. We had finally reached the swing-bridge at Rainbow Reach. Time was 0950.  The transport shuttles were already waiting for the last few trekkers to arrive. We lingered on for a while, unloaded our packs off our weary bodies  and we were off back to Te Anau promptly at 1000.

Back at Te Anau, the weather turned from cloudy to light rain. To our delight, our accommodation had a spa which we indulged after dinner. Great for the tired legs and time to reminisce on the 52.6 km  trek we had completed. Te Anau is a great place to unwind. Kepler Trek is an iconic trek in the Fiordlands for its unique environment, varied landscape, wildlife and flora, and its unpredictable weather. It is indeed a great privilege to witness the magic of New Zealand for those whom venture.

Te Anau Lake view