Just a few short days after my journey on the Milford, I was heading out for my next Great Walk – the Kepler Track. I had wanted to wait for perfect weather, and my hiking companion, Becky, and I got it just 3 days after I had stepped off the Milford. A bit of a quick turn around, but I’m not going to miss out on 3 perfectly sunny days!
The Kepler Track is probably the most ‘accessible’ Great Walk there is – you can actually just walk to it from the town of Te Anau. It was created in 1988 as a way to off-load some of the demand on the Milford and Routeburn tracks, and thus doesn’t have the history that those tracks do, but also has some nice, more modern amenities. Such as switch-backs for going up and downhill, and a fantastically laid out track itself. Very wide and easy to walk. They made some goofy decisions still (the campground spacing is terrible), but overall, it was quite a different experience compared to the other two Great Walks in the region.
Upon waking early in the morning, the first thing everyone did was check to see if the rain had abated.
“The Finest Walk In The World”
That’s a mighty big proclamation to make. Even in a country known for great hiking. The Milford Track has a lot to live up to, not just that quote, which gets bandied about quite a bit in regards to the Milford, but also from general word of mouth that places it as an outstanding 4 days.
When I had made my booking for the Milford Track back in November, I had yet to set foot on any hike longer than a day. 4 months later, I had tackled 4 Great Walks and 3 other multi-day hikes. But none had the reputation the Milford has, not even the fantastic Routeburn and Tongariro Circuit walks. I really didn’t think the Milford could beat my favourite hike, the Tongariro Circuit, and most people had considered the Routeburn superior than the Milford (and in it’s own right, one of the best hikes in the world). I really didn’t see HOW the Milford could even approach it’s reputation, as the negatives to the hike hit on a few major issues I have with hiking in New Zealand:
- The trek is primarily lower level, so walking among the trees rather than the peaks. Forest all seem to look the same after a while, and I’ve hiked in a LOT of forest here in New Zealand.
- Sandflies. And they make them extra voracious it seems on the Milford.
- Rain. Rain rain rain. The Milford area is one of the wettest in the world. Hiking in the rain…not fun. Especially when you get days of it.
And so, on March 13th, 2012, I found myself on a boat heading to Glade Wharf, with a sense of trepidation and doubt. I just couldn’t see how this track could live up remotely to what it had been built up to. There were just too many things stacking up against the Milford in my mind, and the forecast wasn’t promising either. The first day was to be great, 2nd day deteriorating and the 3rd day, the longest hiking day involving the highest section of track…heavy (severe) rain. Yuck.
But for the time being, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we crossed Lake Te Anau. It was a beautiful day to start hiking.
The first time I was in Milford Sound, it was a stunningly clear, sunny and warm day.
With Marc, Alex and Sabrina, the return trip was remarkably different.
Once I knew about Sabrina, Marc and Alexandra’s plans to travel to New Zealand, it wasn’t a matter of if we’d do a Great Walk together, it was a matter of choosing which one. The Milford Track is the obvious choice – world famous, challenging but not too difficult, excellent huts and stunning scenery. Three flaws though – it has to be booked months in advance, it often gets rained on, heavily, and the clincher – it takes 4 days and 3 nights to complete it. Which, when you only have 17 days in New Zealand, is a good amount of time. So I considered other options. The Routeburn was the next, and fit perfectly.
While the Milford Track gets the most international attention, the Routeburn is often considered to be superior (I’ll find out before this month is out). It’s a considerably shorter trek, only taking 3 days and 2 nights, and also receives less rain and heavy cloud than the Milford. Bookings don’t need to be quite so far in advance either. And what worked out perfectly was how you can hike it. You start on the Queenstown side of mountains and hike into the Milford Sound side.
Thankfully, my anticipation of extended rain was WRONG. I awoke to wonderful sunshine.
Which was a good thing. This was the day we were hiking across the McKellar Saddle – the highest point of the track, and also the day with far and away the most significant ascent and descent. The saddle, which would end up being way up on the left hand side of the next picture.
This was a little bit of an unexpected detour on my part. Prior to hiking around Mt. Cook, Hanna had mentioned the Greenstone-Caples circuit track, a 4 day, 60km valley and mountain-pass trek, in the same area as the famous Routeburn Great Walk (which I’ll be hiking in just 2 weeks from today). Many people actually complete the Routeburn and then use the Greenstone track to get back on the Queenstown side of the mountain ranges you are hiking across. But the Greenstone-Caples track is a more complete circuit, and far less expensive. The Greenstone was one I had wanted to see but had written off as a track I’d miss due to time/other hikes. The option of having an excellent hiking partner for the 4 day tramp changed my mind. And so after waiting out bad weather in Queenstown for 2 nights, I found myself at the start of the Greenstone-Caples track.
You can walk the track in either direction. Hanna and I opted for the Greenstone first, returning on the Caples track. This way, the hardest day, crossing the McKellar Saddle, would be the third day, and our packs lighter than if we took the Caples track first, which would have us crossing the saddle the 2nd day instead. This turned out to be a very good choice for a number of reasons. For much of the first, short day on our way to the Greenstone Hut, we walked amongst forest scenery.
When people talk of Milford Sound, they often describe the rain, the waterfalls, and the utterly spectacular scenery. When Hung, Markus and I visited the area, we didn’t have the rain, nor many of the waterfalls. Instead we had stunningly clear and sunny weather (a rarity for a place that receives over 7 meters of rain /year) and such amazingly scenic, glorious views of the peaks and surroundings that it really is hard to convey with simple pictures. This is a place that, even though pictures look fantastic, being there is the only way to actually experience the simple majesty of the area. That being said, I’ll do my best with what I took, which was far too many pictures. 🙂
Getting into Milford Sound is part of the fun. To get there you follow a winding 120km road that cuts through the grand mountain passes. After the first 40km of driving, you start getting the sense you are heading somewhere special.