Milford Track a ‘spiritual place’ as 30 years of Great Walks are celebrated

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When Hamish Angus heads down the Milford Track he feels like he’s coming home – and no wonder he’s covered his 54km 168 times.

Angus worked on the trail in Fiordland National Park for 13 years as a senior tour guide and then worked for the Department of Conservation which looked after the Great Walks including the Milford.

It’s late March and he’s in the mountains of Fiordland with his 11-year-old daughter hunting deer during the roar. It is a spiritual place for Angus; near the track where he loved “just about everything” when he worked there from 1990 to 2003.

The opening of the 2022-23 Great Walks booking season next week heralds 30 years of Great Walks, with Angus without a doubt the Milford track is the greatest of them all, at least in Fiordland.

Trampers have lunch with a view of the Milford Track at the end of March.

Evan Harding / Stuff

Trampers have lunch with a view of the Milford Track at the end of March.

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“He’s got a uniqueness and a bit of everything, and that’s what makes him,” he says.

“You have a cross-section of Fiordland, over the Southern Alps, [valleys carved by] glaciers, human history, and then you end up in Milford Sound, and it’s one-way, so you don’t pass people. And it’s the only way to walk to Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s highest waterfall.

Hikers on the trail, established in 1888 as an overland route between Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound, all get something different from it, whether it’s wildlife photography, landscapes, plants and trees, geological features or just the challenge of completing the trek, he says.

Hamish Angus, who has walked the Milford Track 168 times as lead tour guide, returns to Fiordland most years to hunt deer during the roar.  He is with his daughter Isla near the track at the end of March.

Evan Harding / Stuff

Hamish Angus, who has walked the Milford Track 168 times as lead tour guide, returns to Fiordland most years to hunt deer during the roar. He is with his daughter Isla near the track at the end of March.

Whether independent trekkers staying at the three DOC huts along the route or walking the track with guides and staying at the three lodges, the start is reached by boat on Lake Te Anau. And the end point at Sandfly Point [aptly named] requires another boat ride to Milford Sound.

Located in New Zealand’s wettest area, walkers often see hundreds of instant waterfalls cascading down the towering rock walls when the rain comes.

But not always, with Thing instead, see the four-day trail from a rain-free vantage point that allowed stunning views from Mackinnon Pass, the highest point on the trail. DOC operations supervisor Pania Dalley said some people had hiked the trail five times without seeing the view from the pass, with the weather thwarting them each time.

Spectacular mountain, bush and valley views aside, were also seen during our trek with the sight of trout in crystal clear rivers, the sweet tasting water of the creeks, extremely cold swimming holes acting as the ultimate refreshment after a six hour hike with a backpack, several birds including whio [blue ducks], kea, weka, kākā, South Island blackbird, rock wren; glowworms put on a show, deer roared in the mountains and the sight of the mighty Sutherland Falls [walking behind it is a must].

Then there’s the company of walkers, who stick to their individual groups on the trek each day, but chat freely over the gas stoves as they converge on the DOC huts each night.

Blue skies greeted trampers at the Mackinnon Pass memorial on the Milford track at the end of March 2022.

Evan Harding / Stuff

Blue skies greeted trampers at the Mackinnon Pass memorial on the Milford track at the end of March 2022.

The Covid-enforced border closure has seen most Kiwis walk the track for the past two years, but that’s no bad thing, says Julie Weeks, the Dumpling Hut caretaker at the track.

“The Kiwis enjoy it as their own backyard and respect the environment and each other. And the huts have been cleaner. forgot, not because he hid it in the books.

A who [blue duck] bathes near the Milford Track..

Evan Harding / Stuff

A who [blue duck] bathes near the Milford Track..

Covid travel restrictions have seen a 75% increase in the number of New Zealanders traveling to all major walks in the country over the summer of 2020/21. International tourists are expected to return during the next season.

Weeks, who worked as a hut sitter on the Milford Track for 14 seasons, said she couldn’t imagine it not being part of her life.

“I love coming here, getting away from the internet and everything that happens in the outside world. Drinking the water from the river, looking at the mountains, listening to the birds… I love sharing it with the people, I like when people are interested in what they see.

Over the years, advances in technology have helped improve the wildlife experience and safety for walkers on the Milford Track, Dalley says.

Acoustic recorders on the runway record birds and bats, trap boxes and aerial baits helped increase bird numbers from five pairs to nearly 100 pairs near the runway and tributaries of Milford over the past 20 years. And there was a “huge increase” in the number of kea, kākā, kākāriki, kiwi and robins.

Two weather stations, two flood sensors and two webcams sit on the Milford Track, which receives up to nine meters of rain a year and is prone to flooding.

Views from Mackinnon Pass on the Milford Track.

Evan Harding / Stuff

Views from Mackinnon Pass on the Milford Track.

The equipment allows DOC to read the depth of the Clinton and Arthur rivers beside the runway, the amount of rain that has fallen, temperatures, wind speeds and snow depth – so that DOC can make decisions about clear safety rules for trampers walking in adverse weather conditions, says Dalley.

And it’s right on the Milford Track, each of the Great Walks has its own challenges and stories.

At its inception, the Great Walks network included seven of New Zealand’s most popular multi-day walks: Tongariro Northern Circuit, Lake Waikaremoana, Abel Tasman, Heaphy, Routeburn, Milford, Kepler and the new Rakiura Track.

Several years later, the multi-day canoe adventure Whanganui Journey joined the network, followed by Paparoa Track in 2019.

New Zealand’s next Great Walk will be the Hump Ridge Track in Southland, with work to make it more accessible to more people expected to be completed in time for the 2023/24 walking season.

Conservation Minister Kiri Allan said the Great Walks were created in 1992 to manage iconic tracks that became overwhelmed with walkers camping anywhere near the track.

The protections put in place on Great Walks include limiting numbers through a booking service for a set number of cabin and camping spaces, limits on concessionaire activities and introducing regulations that force people to stay in designated cabins and campsites.

Efforts have also been stepped up to protect and restore biodiversity along the walks in partnership with iwi, community groups and businesses and Air New Zealand.

The Great Walks were important for conservation, recreation and tourism in New Zealand, and were a legacy for generations to come, Allan said.

“The outdoors and nature are an integral part of who we are as New Zealanders and the origins of these walks reflect that.”

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