The top of Mackinnon Pass, Day 3 of New Zealand’s Milford Track, is probably one of the most beautiful views in the world. I say probably because I couldn’t really see it behind the clouds, buffeting wind and pin-sharp rain. It would clear for seconds, just enough for me to know that it was truly a world-class view, but not enough that I felt satisfied with it. I did what photographers do best; sit down, have a snack, and wait.
I had slept like a baby the night before – there’s nothing like a 10 mile hike carrying 18kg to send you to sleep, no matter how noisy or cold the conditions (I’d made the error of only having a summer sleeping bag, which didn’t cut it here. I had to wear essentially all my clothes to stay warm). I’d also made a concerted effort to get up somewhat earlier; this was the hardest day of the track with roughly a 500m ascent to the summit at Mackinnon Pass and then 1000m back down again. It’s 8.7 miles. I was still one of the last people to leave, though – everybody must have had the same idea.
The clouds had settled back over again with a light but steady rain and a cold bite in the air. It felt calm.
The uphill walk begins immediately, but the gradient is never crazily steep. It’s enough to get you all sweaty and out of breath though, even in cold rainy weather. Luckily the views back are the perfect excuse to stop.
It’s not too long before you reach the edge of the tree line. This is the only day of the Milford Track that takes you above it. From here you have endless views of mountains, forests and waterfalls in a huge bowl shape, and the only way past it is to go up.
With less shelter the wind started to increase in strength and the temperature took a drop. I was grateful for all the heat my body was kicking out now. The rain became heavier too, which meant it was time to put my camera in its top-of-the-range ziplock bag. The path started to get flatter, zigzagging sharply back on itself. The summit was undoubtedly close.
Soon after I crossed the top of the mountain and left yesterday’s valley behind me. Up here is incredible, elemental, and damn does it feel high.
It wasn’t long before all the warmth I had collected from going up evaporated whilst sitting at the top. I still only got fleeting glimpses of the world around me and the wind was so strong I felt like I could have been blown off the edge. Perhaps it was time to move on. And perhaps I would find a better viewpoint in the process, I justified to myself.
But it was a good decision, because from a little curve in the path I got this view:
It took about 20 minutes to get this shot. It involved putting a plastic poncho over me and my camera like an old Victorian photographer and holding fast. When a gap in the clouds came I’d lift it up from the camera and shoot madly before too much rain hit the lens. It took a number of attempts but I knew I had a winner with the last one. Satisfied that I’d got at least one good shot I carried on, my hands numb to the core and my camera drenched.
It was a very short walk to the Mackinnon Pass shelter. This basic shelter is a serious sight for sore eyes. It couldn’t be in a better place – either to save you from the elements just as you thought you would freeze, or just admire the views with a hot drink in hand.
I was so happy to see some of the other hikers when I entered – I hadn’t really seen any of them on the way up. We sat in the little room, sharing our disbelief at how awesomely horrible that bit of the hike was, our bodies steaming. No one had escaped the weather that day.
I waited a long time in there, hoping that the weather would change. But as I got colder and colder, and the rain simply continued, I knew that I would just have to carry on if I was going to get to the hut in time. Time to face the elements again.
For the first time in the hike I actually moved quickly. I was so cold I decided that jogging was a win-win situation – I could warm up and get down quicker. This part is the most difficult technically – it involves hopping across uneven rocks, though once again the gradient is never particularly steep and in the grand scheme of hikes it’s still pretty easy. But on this day, everything had turned to water – water running down the path, water dissecting it every several meters, water falling down all the rocks around you. I have never seen so much water. It was so much fun.
I loved jumping across all the little obstacles. For once, the weight of my backpack helped my momentum, and my boots had incredibly good grip. However, time and time again water crept over the tops of them and turned my feet to cold wet mush.
I got down the side of the mountain in less than an hour and reached the tree line again. The wind had gone entirely and the rain was very gentle. My boots squelched with every footstep. I was starting to make silly errors like tripping on rocks, and my legs felt weaker. As I looked at the time it made sense: it was almost 3pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch or scarcely anything since breakfast. Lessons to be learnt: don’t just eat when you’re hungry on a hike, and there is no sin in snacking like crazy.
I made my way down past countless waterfalls and tributaries that roared through the lush green forests. They might have been the greenest I’d seen so far. But it felt like a lifetime walking through them before I reached Quintin Shelter, which is about three quarters of the way down the mountain, though I suspect that it was my mind playing tricks on me.
The guided hikers stay in this spot and it’s stunning. I always thought that doing the Milford Track as a guided walk was a waste of money if you’re reasonably fit (it’s the same track, after all) but I was a little envious of this set up, and not least because I had another hour or two of walking ahead. There’s also a shelter that the independent walkers can use, and from here you can take a little 1-1.5 hour hike to Sutherland Falls.
At this point, especially after the washout day, I found it hard to muster up the motivation to hike further to see Sutherland Falls. But when would I ever do it again? Plus I could dump my backpack in the shelter whilst doing the walk. I ate a freeze dry meal for two (a thai curry made by Back Country Cuisine that was surprisingly nice), and went for it. It was 4pm almost, so I hurried up some.
Standing at the bottom of roaring Sutherland Falls is an exhilarating and drenching experience. On this day it was surrounded by even higher waterfalls that had been brought to life by the heavy rain. They would run dry soon after the rain stopped, though, leaving Sutherland Falls to take the title of the highest permanent waterfall in New Zealand.
With the amount of water that it throws out, it’s incredibly hard to get a clear shot of Sutherland Falls. But to my surprise mine came out pretty well. The reason for this was because the filter on my lens was so saturated with water that the spray wasn’t showing up on it any more. That’s never happened before or since. I love my Canon 5D3’s resilience.
Once back at the shelter it’s only 1.5 hours to the next and final hut of the track. The path is easy to walk, and the scenery isn’t as impressive or different compared to what’s just passed – it’s a good time to put your head down and go for it. It was starting to get dark as I was doing it, so I ignored the soreness of my wet feet and hurried up.
I can’t say I exactly enjoyed this part. It was steadily getting darker and I wasn’t sure of what I’d encounter ahead. And damn did my feet hurt. But that didn’t stop me from taking just a few very special photos. The clouds had started to part and golden light was pouring over them, it felt like I was walking through a dream or a fantasy landscape. Definitely worth setting up my tripod.
The path crossed a number of sandy riverbeds and everything around me was turning bluey-grey. I stepped up my pace and jogged. Luckily it wasn’t long before I saw a sharp outline among the trees. It was Dumpling Hut. I was so happy – though a more accurate description would probably be relieved.
I think the other hikers were as relieved as me when I finally arrived. The Milford Track has the unique ability of turning you and your fellow hikers into a big community. We had shared almost everything in these last three days and this gave us an awesome connection. I was sad to think that this was our last night around the fire together.
That night I decided to bring my mattress into the open fire area along with some of the other hikers. It looked so warm and inviting compared to the bunkroom. I laid down stiffly below all the wet clothes that had been laid out everywhere. I wanted to use this time to reflect on just how epic the day had been, but the rest of me had other ideas – I fell asleep instantly.
Hiking the Milford Track
I’m taking on all nine of New Zealand’s great walks and sharing the stories, details and photos here on my blog. First up is the Milford Track. Here’s what I’m covering (all the headings will be clickable once the posts are done!):
OUT ON THE TRACK
Milford Sound Day 1: Into the wilderness
Milford Sound Day 2: The difference an hour makes
Milford Sound Day 3: The edge of the world
Milford Sound Day 4: Going the distance
WHAT TO EXPECT: The good, the bad, the ugly
WHAT TO BRING: Food, Clothes, and everything else
COMPARISONS [coming later!]
18 thoughts on “Milford Sound Day 3: The edge of the world”
Such a beautiful hike that I’d love to do!
Definitely one to put on the bucket list – though I think the Routeburn Track is even better!!
I was here five years ago and looks like the weather hasn’t changed a bit! Still beautiful as always, would love to go back!
Yep, still as much rain as you can imagine :) Though the next day was glorious!
Thanks for sharing your story and these wonderful photos! As someone who has never been to New Zealand, I felt like I was right there with you in the fog. The post also made me realize that I haven’t done a challenging hike in a while, so I need to plan one.
Thank you! Good luck with your hiking plans! Going through these pics I’m getting hiking withdrawal symptoms – need to plan another soon too :)
Wow! That’s stunning. This landscape looks otherworldly.
Thanks! Yes, the whole place feels like a dream :)
It IS difficult to take good photos of waterfalls or rapids, but you did a great job, especially under the adverse weather conditions. That bridge pictured near the top of the post looks beautiful, by the way, although perhaps a little precarious.
Thanks! Yes, that bridge was pretty precarious… and thanks to me setting up with a tripod there was a queue of impatient hikers behind me!!
Absolutely stunning photos! Thanks for liking my post
oh wow those falls look crazy beautiful! regarding your camera, you can try adding on a deep lens hood and even a plastic bag over your DSLR to help shield it a bit from the rain!
Thanks! Yes, I had a big plastic poncho that I put over it like an old fashioned photographer, but it still wasn’t enough! :)