Our trip down the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island landed us at Franz Josef Glacier for the day. When I think of glaciers, I picture huge chunks of blue ice falling into the sea. Franz Josef isn’t like that at all. It just looked like snow. The glacier looked a little dirty from rock falls and avalanches and was squished between the mountain ranges.
When we walked through the valley to get a bit closer, our surroundings became a tad more impressive. As we passed through the old riverbed and colorful mountains, the glacier became a bit clearer and we could even see a tint of blue in the ice. That evening, we camped a few kilometers away from the glacier at a DOC campsite on Lake Mapourika. As the sun began to set, the light reflected off the lake water and the snow capped mountains stood in the distance. The colors in the sunset changed dramatically as the minutes and seconds passed. It was, without a doubt, one of the top sunsets we’ve seen in our life. No filters were used on the photos below (or any of our photos). The next morning, we were scheduled for a heli-hike which entails a chopper ride to the top of Franz Josef glacier, several hours of hiking on the glacier and a chopper ride back down. Even though the day was sunny and perfectly clear, high winds kept us off the mountain and prevented us from enjoying our Christmas present from my parents. Feeling bummed but a little richer, we drove down the street to neighboring Fox Glacier. Again, my first impression left me a little disappointed. It just looked like a clump of dirty ice.We ignored a few barriers so we could get closer to the ice where the views improved. Tourists seem to prefer Franz Josef but we aren’t like most tourists and were much more taken with Fox Glacier.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on several hikes around the glaciers and nearby forests before we made our way to our campsite for the night. This was no ordinary campsite, this was the coolest campsite we’ve ever been to. Not only was it free, but it was situated right on a smooth stone beach. Not far from the coastline were views of the mountains and Fox Glacier. Two views in one, not bad! We sat on the beach and watched the enormous beach break hit the coast while the sun began to set. Every once in awhile, we’d turn around to look at the glaciers. Sometimes the best things in life are free. Over the next two days, we made our way further south (past some of the most picturesque scenery we’ve seen including rugged mountains and bright blue lakes) towards the town of Te Anau and Fiordland National Park. When we first began to research our round-the-world trip and the countries we wanted to visit, we came across a description of Milford Track and knew we had to do it. Known as “the finest walk in the world,” Milford Track is a four day/three night trek from Lake Te Anau to the New Zealand highlight…Milford Sound. Milford Track is so popular and exclusive (only 40 independent trampers are allowed to depart each day) that it’s booked out nearly a year in advance. We booked our tickets last May but many tourists often end up shelling out up to $3,000 for a last minute guided ticket. The hike, or “tramp” as the Kiwis call it, is a 55 km (33.5 miles) hike through two glacial valleys and over Mackinnon Pass. The track can only be walked in one direction and there are planned stops (DOC huts) along the way where you spend the night. Image below is courtesy of the NZ DOC.
Each hiker must carry their own clothes, camping equipment, cooking utensils and enough food for four days (mattresses, gas stoves and water are provided at the huts). When we set off on our trek, each of our packs weighed 16.5 kilos (36.3 lbs). We thought this was really heavy but everyone we met was carrying between 16-18 kilos.
On the first day of the trek, we were picked up by a ferry at Te Anau Downs and after a scenic hour and a half boat ride across Lake Te Anau, we were dropped off a the beginning of the track. The hike was an easy and flat 5 km to Clinton Hut and the weather was cool and clear. Once we reached the hut, we selected one of two bunk rooms for the evening which we shared with 18 other people. This sleeping situation was actually a huge relief as I’d heard that it’s very common for New Zealand hiking huts to have one extremely large bed that everyone shares by laying side by side. Ewww!
As Chris and I prepared our lame spaghetti dinner in the mess hut, we sat with a family of Kiwis who started to make steak filets and homemade tabbouleh. Lucky for us, they just so happened to make an extra steak which they offered to us. As we gobbled it all up, they broke out their fondue pot with melted chocolate, fruit, marshmallows and lady fingers to share as well. Delish!
We were up early for our 16.5 km hike to Mintaro Hut. It was the second day and it was dumping rain. Fiordland National Park is one of the wettest places, not only in New Zealand, but in the world. The area receives 7-9 meters of rainfall each year. Using very rough math, that equates to about an inch of rainfall a day. I guess that’s what makes New Zealand so lush and green. The photo below is not a stream, it’s the flooded trail. We weren’t looking forward to hiking nearly seven hours in the rain but to our surprise, it completely paid off. The hut ranger told us if it rained we’d see great waterfalls, but we thought they were just trying to be optimistic about our situation (like when they tell you it’s good luck if a bird poops on you). We were definitely not expecting to see such spectacular waterfalls or so many waterfalls. As we walked down Clinton Valley, we were treated to 360 degree views of waterfalls in every direction. There were literally thousands of waterfalls coming down the mountainsides. Thousands. It was sheer natural beauty and one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It was a very wet day, but well worth it. Photos come nowhere close to accurately reflecting what we witnessed but the below will have to suffice. The next day was a 14 km hike starting with 90 minutes of switchbacks up Mackinnon Pass. Once we reached the top of the pass (1,154 meters), we had views of both glacial valleys, one on each side of the mountain. Although it was a bit overcast, the ranger at the top of the pass said it was the clearest day she’d seen in 6-7 weeks. The views were amazing and we took our time to admire the dramatic landscape before we started our hike down to Dumpling Hut for the night. The fourth and final day was an easy hike on flat ground but was the furthest we had to hike. We covered 18 km in just about six and a half hours to Sandfly Point, the end of the Milford Track trail.Once we reached Sandfly Point, a prearranged boat picked us up to take us to our final destination…Milford Sound. The weather was sunny and clear, a real rarity for the area. We soaked up the sun and the views of the fiordlands as we made our way to the wharf. A bus picked us up at the wharf and took us back to our campervan in Te Anau Downs, where we started the trek. It took the bus 90 minutes to drive what took us four days to walk. Once we reached our camper, we weighed our backpacks. We both started with 16.5 kilos but at the end we were both carrying a light 12.5 kilos (a loss of 8.8 lbs).
The bus ride back through the heart of Fiordland National Park was so gorgeous, we decided to get cleaned up and head back to Milford Sound the next day with our camper. The 120 km drive through the national park is absolutely incredible. The roadway passes valleys, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, bright blue rivers and sheer rock cliffs. It all culminates at Milford Sound but the drive itself is well worth the trip alone. There are tons of campsites with awesome views along the way. We spent two nights camping in Fiordland National Park but probably could have stayed longer.Thank you to the Newell’s, Sabal’s and Rossetto’s for the Milford Track honeyfund. The trek was one of our favorite things we’ve done on our trip so far and we loved every minute of it!
This past week has been amazing and New Zealand is definitely living up to all the hype. Milford Track and Milford Sound will be hard to top but we look forward to trying. Here’s to three more weeks in Kiwi-land!