We have made the big journey down to Fiordland National Park a handful of times in the past. We did the touristy boat trip around Milford Sound as soon as we moved here and I ran the Kepler Track Ultra Marathon in 2016. After nearly four years in Aotearoa we hadn’t done either of the other ‘big ticket’ items in the national park, the Milford Track and a boat trip on Doubtful Sound. Spending a week or two hiking to the lesser known areas is still on our to do list, but that will have to wait for another trip.
Fiordland National Park is the largest of 14 national parks in Aotearoa and is a major part of the Wahipounamu World Heritage Site. The glacier-carved fiords reflect the gumdrop mountains, impenetrable beech forest, and wispy tussock valleys making the landscape arguably the most scenic in the country. In this area of Aotearoa, it rains over 200 days a year, generally between 3,000–6,000 millimetres (120–240 in), creating dramatic waterfalls rushing down the steep faces of the Earl Mountains.
Reaching the park isn’t the easiest journey. Te Anau, the gateway town of the park, is just over two hours drive from Queenstown to the north and just under two hours drive from Invercargill to the south. Neither of the cities are known to have affordable flights so one like would not pop down on a whim often.
The other big logistical issue involves booking the Milford Track. Travel to and from the track requires additional bookend days beyond hiking for travel and the track huts sell out in seconds during the peak summer holiday weeks. If you are flexible and have a bit of luck, you can find some dates available at the end of the season in April during the few days following the booking opening. This is actually a lovely time to visit the park as the weather is typically more stable and the temperatures are cool for hiking.
With our hike booked, we decided to extend our time to enjoy an overnight boat trip on Doubtful Sound. That is where we begin our Fiordland journey once again.
Doubtful Sound: Patea the place of silence
Māori first named the sound Patea translating to “the place of silience”. Its other name, ‘Doubtful’ comes from James Cook who named the area Doubtful Harbour because he was doubtful that it was wide enough for his boat to tack through and he passed it by. Today most refer to the area as Doubtful Sound although it is actually a fjord, a narrow valley carved by ancient glacier rivers of ice. The narrow waterways flanked by steep imposing mountains on both sides creates quite a dramatic landscape.
Today, the original name of Patea seems more appropriate as very few boats make the journey to the fjord and there is no settlement within 200km in all directions.
Only two commercial boats have permits for overnight trips on the fjord. Real Journey’s has a large yacht accommodating 72 people with full service meals and licensed bar. We chose Fiordland Expeditions, a much more intimate boat accommodating only 12 people with a single chef serving up delicious cuisine.
Getting to the sound is quite a journey in itself. We traveled by car to the tiny settlement of Manapouri where we boarded a large boat with both the Real Journey’s overnighters and day trippers. After a 1 hour trip across the lake we took a small van winding over a steep pass to our boat.
The hydrology of the fjord is unusual as it contains two distinct layers of water, one saline and the other freshwater from glacial melt, rain runoff, and the nearby hydroplant release. Typically this area supports large numbers of bottlenose dolphins, but after a heavy rain period and due to some recent adjustments to the hydrodamn, the numbers were in decline. Unfortunately for us we saw only one lone dolphin. Apparently he is a rare one to be away from a pod.
The low dolphin numbers were not indicative of the fish population. There are so many fish in the sound that it usually takes just seconds to feel a tug on your line. It was so fun to be able to catch our own dinner for the evening. Bri was able to reel in the greatest catches.
Between fishing and kayaking most of the day was spent simply exploring the arms of the fjord, admiring its beauty. The calm, sunny day reflected the landscape in perfect symmetry.
Despite the rainless day, many of the waterfalls continued to flow. We would get close to feel the cool mist between warming back up in the sun. Every so often a rainbow would reflect in the mist.
As nightfall approached, it was time to check the crayfish pots and find a peaceful place to spend the evening. It is not too often that you get many cray in April, but we got lucky with two in the last of the three pots we helped pull up. These two were part of breakfast in the morning.
Seems we had found the perfect spot to watch a bit of sunset huh between the towering peaks as we were soon joined by the Real Journeys boat.
We woke to a rainy morning, creating a completely different experience than the day before. We made our way through the low clouds exposing, double the amount of waterfalls that we passed in sunshine. The trip back follows the same route as the journey in, but the change in weather made it seem new and mysterious.
The sun would return the next morning at camp as we prepared for our next Fiordland adventure. The rainbow below extends from the Kepler Track, another beautiful Great Walk and one of my favorites of Aotearoa.
Milford Track: walking to the rhythm of bird song
Another day, another boat ride. This trip took us from Te Anau Downs across Lake Te Anau to the start of the Milford Track. The map below shows the walk’s proximity to another beautiful, but mildly logistically challenging Great Walk, the Routeburn Track.
The little boat carries a big crowd consisting of 38 of our newest friends sharing the freedom walk with us and a similar size group of guided walkers. While our evenings were spent cooking dehydrated meals and sleeping in 20 bunk rooms, the guided walkers had far more flash huts with three course meals and licensed bar. We follow the same path, simply stopping in different sections of the trail for a nights sleep.
The Milford track is 53 km, hiked over 4 days with stops at 3 huts, Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling. The timeline must be strictly followed and no tent camping is allowed. The hike is generally flat and like all Great Walks, well marked and easy to follow.
Day 1: Clinton River Valley
The hiking begins from Glade Wharf where everyone disembarks the boat. It is a short 5 kilometer walk through the beech forest of the Clinton River Valley. The track crosses several classic kiwi swing bridges zigzagging over turquoise blue river water constantly on the lookout for whio, a blue duck that is taonga (treasured) and in threat of extinction. The birds and waterfowl were quiet by our mid afternoon arrival so our duck spotting would have to wait for the last day when we returned to another river valley.
There is a 15 min wetland walkway detour just before the hut. It is well worth the deviation. The wetland walkway takes you over spongy peatland where the sphagnum moss and sundew were beginning to show their autumn hues. Often we were in dense beech forest in the river valleys, but the stunted tree growth in the peatland exposed views of the towering mountains we would be crossing in a few days time.
I often forget to take photos of the huts on these trips. Generally, the large huts look similar. There is a central kitchen with two or more bunk rooms. Typical dinner time hustle consists of people cooking on camp stoves, playing cards and someone tending to the woodburner keeping us warm and dry after sunset.
Day 2: Mackinnon Pass (the first time)
Brian and I had an early start to beat the crowds to have a quieter, more intimate experience. We started the day with our torches on low, passing several grottoes with glow worms. We hoped to get lucky and see a kiwi, but the chances are slim to none and we didn’t even hear them among the chorus of bird song that grew with the changing light.
The dramatic scenery of the Milford Track is slowly exposed on day 2. The climb is gradual to Lake Mintaro passing through dense beech forest and exposed valleys between towering rock walls. The dense fog in the lower reaches of the valley begins to clear we climb to the hut. We begin to feel small in the landscape here.
We pass over several boulder fields between beech forest sections as bird song is replaced by the roar of male deer trying to attract a lady for some fun. We know they aren’t going to harm us, but the sound takes some getting used, especially because it can resemble the sound of a bear. Every so often we would spot a kea, wondering if it would meet us for a little play.
We arrived at the hut just after midday. It is tucked in a very narrow valley and is about to lose the 2 hours of sun it gets in autumn shortly. The hut sits in a precarious place, in considerable danger of rockfall during an earthquake. We actually received an email saying that if there was a 6.0 or higher on the Alpine Fault that there is a high probability of being crushed in the hut and we could cancel with a full refund if wanted. They are currently building a new hut in a safer area that should open for the 2021 season. As luck would have it, there actually was an earthquake that evening. It was a quick, loud bang, registering 5.4. Thankfully there was no visible signs of rockfall in the area.
Due to our early hut arrival, the warden suggested that we head up to the pass since it was such a clear day. Often the clouds are thick in the morning and she didn’t want us to miss the view. We dropped our big packs and moved swiftly up miles of steep switchbacks.
Soon we reached the tussock grassland and could look back down the valley where the hut is located.
Near the top of the pass there is memorial to Quintin McKinnon, the man credited for blazing the track up from Glade Wharf to Milford Sound to attract tourists to the region. McKinnon went missing in Lake Te Anau in 1892. While his boat was recovered, his body has never been found. The large rock stack topped with a cross in remberence sits perfectly in the center of the amphitheater created by the surrounding mountains.
A beautiful fen sitting beside the memorial gets lost in the landscape as we reach the pass. In the other direction, there is a view of the Pompolona icefield.
Day 3: Mackinnon Pass (again)
This is the most challenging hiking day with the climb over the pass and a steep icy descent into the next valley. The sun was just arriving to small sections of the pass when we arrived. It was lovely to see the area in different light, although our time laying in the tussocks on the warm sunny day prior remains one of our favorite memories.
There is small shelter at the top should bad weather roll in quickly. It feels colder in the shelter than outside, but we stop to explore and to use the drop toilet with a view.
From here, you’ll drop steadily through an alpine forest, passing several waterfalls along the Roaring Burn River carving its way down to the valley floor. The clarity and color of the water was unlike any river I had seen before. I wanted to jump in to continue the hike via float, but my mind reminded me that it is icy cold glacial melt and without the sun would be a tragic mistake. Unfortunately, the light was not ideal for capturing its beauty in a photo.
The track here requires some steady feet down large boulders and across slick wooden boardwalks. The wire friction mat created little resistance when covered in ice.
Soon we would reach a wide valley, finding the sun as we followed a side track to Sutherland Falls. Sutherland Falls spills 580 meters over three giant leaps from Lake Quill. If you google waterfalls of Fiordland, this is what pops up the most although usually the view is from a helicopter where you can view it from its source lake. The track to the falls is well groomed with mild slopes allowing us to get a little run in. A beautiful rainbow greeted us at the pool below and we spent a good hour laying on warm sun drenched rocks with our feet in the cool water.
Not long after we would reach the Dumpling hut, our last evening on the track. It was a lively night with everyone sharing their last bits of food and alcohol to keep their packs light on the final day of hiking.
Day 4: Sandfly Point (the name does not lie)
The last day is a lengthy 18 km hike following the Arthur River. Despite the length it is gentle with so much to see it feels almost as short as the 5 km we walked at the start. Highlights here include whio ducks, a historic boatshed, Bell’s Rock, and Mackay Falls (pictured below).
Like the Clinton River, this river valley has beautiful clear turquoise water that gently floats laminarly over the rocky riverbed. In addition to the whio we saw both trout and eels as we hiked among the rimu, kahikatea, and totara giants.
By early afternoon a boat greeted us at Sandfly Point and we were on our way to the famous Milford Sound. The boat was filled with hikers carrying a mix of emotions upon departure. Some too exhausted to chat or smile, some discussing all of the non camp food they planned to consume, a family in tears proud of their mom who overcame a terrible brain injury, a sleeper, and the rest just loving the speed boat ride through the sound. All with happy hearts.
After 4 rainless days on the track we arrived to the sound to see the clouds roll in by the famous Mitre Peak. It would rain on our ride back to Te Anau and continue for the next 10 days…gosh were we fortunate!