There’s only one way to truly experience the majesty of the New Zealand wilderness, and that is to walk.

So last November, two of us ninjas, together with two other family members, returned to New Zealand for the second time in less than a year. What called for our return was the finest walk of all walks, the Milford Track. After a failed attempt to book the track in 2015, we decided to try again in 2016.

New Zealand, famous for their Great Walks, is the perfect place to experience long multi-day tramps (kiwi word for trek) if you haven’t tried any. We did our first multi-day tramp at Routeburn in 2015 and were completely blown away by it. The entire track was clean, the paths were safe and easy to follow, and the view we got along the way was just unbelievably A.M.A.Z.I.N.G!

After conquering Routeburn, we decided to come back for the Milford track. Milford is undeniably one of New Zealand’s most stunning natural attractions and anyone who goes to the South Island would, very likely, have Milford Sound on their itinerary. It’s not difficult to see why. As Mary Davis said “To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles”. Indeed, ice age has grandly made its mark on the South Island for more than two million years. Like a bulldozer going through a farm, glaciers carved their way through the land, resulting in a dramatic collection of fiords with huge U-shaped valleys and alpine mountains we see today. While most people choose to enjoy Milford on a cruise, some people prefer to experience its greatness by tracing back the exact path taken by early pioneer explorers of the world.

Having been there and done that, we thought that the mistakes we made and lessons we learnt can help in the preparation for your first Fiordland tramp. Here, we compiled a list of Things to Know about tramping through Milford.

Milford_People

1. Choose suitable people to go with

For city dwellers like us, being in the wilderness for 4 days 3 nights covering a distance longer than the width of Singapore can pose quite a challenge. (53.5km to be exact) Especially when you are tired, smelly and possibly, wet. It’s definitely not for everyone. 

Don’t compromise just because you need a walking partner. Choose a partner you know you will have a good time with together. Go with someone who appreciates being in nature. Go with someone who has similar expectations as you (so that you don’t drain off each other’s patience). More importantly, go with someone who can make your trip even better. Start your tramp on a positive note and know that you are all there for the good scenery, good air and a good time.

2. Book early

Yes, you have to book the track. As part of their conservation efforts, the New Zealand authorities only allow 40 trampers to enter the track every day. The Milford Track is akin to New Zealand’s main national event, it is highly popular and fills up faster than you can imagine. Trampers usually make their bookings for this ‘finest walk on earth’ as soon as the website opens for booking.

We booked our tickets in June, 5 months before our trip in November. We planned to go during their Great Walks season in summer (late October to early May) because that’s when we get all the facilities in check and hut rangers in place. Summer is perfect, the days are long, it doesn’t get too cold at nights (still freezing temperatures though), and walking is enjoyable.

Do note that it is compulsory to book all three huts for the three nights.

3. Arrange transportation

The Milford Track is a one-way track starting from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Which also means that the starting point and ending point are not at the same place and are far from each other. If you are driving, this is a problem. Where do you park your car? For us, we engaged the help of TrackHopper, a car transfer service. We spent a night at Te Anau, drove to Te Anau Downs the next day (that’s where the boat to the start of the Milford Track is), left the car keys in the locker provided by TrackHopper, did our 4 days 3 nights track and our car was already waiting for us when we got to Milford Sound.

We could have taken the public buses back to Te Anau Downs to retrieve the car but because there were four of us, we did the math and realised that the car transfer service was a more logical decision in terms of price and time taken. We were glad we chose to do the car transfer simply because the one and only thing we wanted to do immediately after the track was to stand under a hot shower (available at Milford Lodge) and not spend another 2 hours on the bus, get to the car and then drive to the next town before we can get any rest.

If you have less than four people in your group and reckon that it is cheaper to take the bus, or if you are not driving and bus is your only option, check out Tracknet, that’s the bus service provider that brings you in and out of Milford Sound and Te Anau Downs.

4. Report to the DOC office before you start

You have to pick up your hut passes and boat tickets at the Department of Conservation (DOC) office at Te Anau before the start of your track. This system is good because the DOC will then be informed of your arrival and if by any chance you do not reach the hut when it gets too late, the ranger will be alerted.

5. What to bring

The huts do provide basic facilities like bunk beds, gas stoves and toilets. But note that there is no electricity, no shower facilities and no bins.

Food
Whatever you bring into the mountain, you have to bring out. So if you are thinking of bringing canned food or sauces in glass jars, these empty packages do take up some weight and space. Take a visit to the supermarkets at Queenstown or Te Anau, you will find a lot of backcountry food pouches that only require hot water to cook. But if you don’t mind the weight and like us, look forward to a good hearty dinner after a long day of tramping, just bring whatever that makes you happy. Gas stoves are provided but please remember to bring a lighter (or matches), pots and pans to cook in and utensils to eat with.

Lights
There are no lights in the bunks and toilets so do remember to bring a torch. Personally, we prefer head torches so that we don’t have to feel handicapped holding the torch with one hand or struggle to find a space to hang our torch. Brushing teeth and using the toilet were a breeze with the head torch.

Sleeping Bag
It can get pretty cold at night especially if it rains (which is pretty common) so bring warm clothings and a good sleeping bag that can withstand low temperatures. We ordered ours online because it was really cheap and when they came, we were so shocked because the sleeping bags were so huge and heavy it took up 85% of the space in our 65 litres backpack. We saw what the experienced trampers brought and were so ashamed of our cheap buy. Down sleeping bags are made with duck feathers hence is not vegan, so if you are looking for a vegan gear, check out this website. It has a pretty good list of vegan sleeping bags available in the market. http://veganoutdooradventures.com/vegan-sleeping-bags/

Beanie
Beanies are great against the cold. I was so glad I chose to bring a beanie instead of a cap although it was summer. My ears are very sensitive to cold, so when it rained and got cold, I tucked my ears in my beanie and my body felt warm immediately. And when it got hot, I simply stuck my ears out! And of course, it helps with bad hair mornings ;p

Toiletries
As there is no shower facility, all we brought to clean ourselves were facial wash, a small towel, body powder, toothbrush and toothpaste. You won’t want to bring more too, toiletries are heavy.

Hiking Poles
Hiking poles were a great help. We didn’t actually bring our own poles because we thought we didn’t need them but we were wrong. The upslopes on our second day and the downslopes on our third day were made so much easier with the poles. Also, the poles came in handy when we had to get past a river crossing. As we didn’t bring our own poles, we had to make our own poles from the fallen branches we found on the ground. Do not attempt to chop a branch from the trees, they are all protected and very treasured. You can also purchase your hiking poles from the DOC office when you collect the tickets.

Milford_Water

6. Water

Do not bring 4 days worth of water, that’s gonna kill your back. The tap water at the huts are all drinkable. You can fill up your bottles before the start of your track every day. In fact, we were told by an avid local tramper that all water in creeks above farmland is fine to drink in the South Island so we just refilled our bottles whenever we saw a creek along the way. We swear it was the most refreshing water we have ever tasted.

7. Sandfly Repellent

This is important, it was like a warzone out there. New Zealand is a sandfly country, especially at the Fiordlands. It is by no mistake that the end point of the Milford Track is called Sandfly Point. Milford is the generous home to the nastiest, most annoying blood-sucking pests alive. Their bites hurt and the itch can last for days and even weeks, resulting in ugly scratch scars on your skin. They have a special ability of spotting any exposed skin possible so you definitely want to cover up as much as you can. Sandflies are especially attracted to dark coloured clothings, so as advised from the hut ranger, choose neutral colours and use sandfly repellent (not any ordinary mosquito repellent). And if you ever get bitten, which you will, do remember to bring bite cream.

Milford_Wet

8. Prepare to get wet

Milford is one of the wettest places on Earth. It rains an average of 200 days a year thus it is highly likely that you are going to get wet. And if you don’t get to experience rain during your tramp, we’re sorry but you haven’t gotten the full Milford experience, you will have to book your tramp again. When it rains, the valley walls will be filled with countless waterfalls and it is a spectacular sight.

So, it is best to be prepared. Waterproof layers are definitely a must; raincoats, ponchos, rain covers. Not just for your clothes, but for your bags as well. You will want to line your bags with pack liners or a big simple trash bag. Also make sure that you bring additional change of clothes and socks, just in case.

I read somewhere that normal walking shoes can provide more flexibility on your ankles as they are not as stiff and heavy (heavier when it rains) as hiking boots, so I chose to walk in my Nike FlyKnits instead. Walking in them Nikes was comfortable and fine but I am not going to lie, water did get in and my feet were cold. Lucky I brought extra socks to change into.

The weather is very unpredictable and floods can and do happen. We saw some pictures at the DOC office, water levels raised so high that trampers had to wade through waist-deep waters during heavy downpours.

Milford_Backpack

9. Take the lead when you are tired

If you are doing the tramp with a group of people, rotate who takes the lead. When you find yourself feeling tired and lagging behind, take the initiative to lead, you will feel lighter and less tired almost immediately. It works on your psychology. Try it!

Milford_Enjoy

10. Take your time and enjoy

It’s summer and the days are long. Do not worry about daybreak. Do not worry about being the last. Trekking is not a race. Take your time to experience nature, hear the birds sing, the leaves rustle and the water fall. Rest when you need to, stop when you want a picture. Be at peace with yourself and let your mind find quietness. Away from the distractions-filled dog-eat-dog world out there, no one here is competing with you. Give the mind time to rest, it is crucial for it to function optimally. Take time to let this ‘forest therapy’ engage your senses. Nature time is always good for our physiological and psychological well-being so don’t rush. Our aim here is to enjoy nature and not to see who reaches the hut first.

Sometimes, what we need is a really long walk to ease off that fatigue. Sounds ironic but it really isn’t. Think about it, we are on our butts for more than 12 hours a day on average. We sit at our desks at work for most part of the day, then we either sit driving back home or sit while taking public transport and then we slump in front of our TV or laptop while reading this article on your phone. There really isn’t much chance for us to walk, isn’t it? Why then are we still tired when we are seated down for most parts of our day? Simply because we are tired of being tired! We need to walk, and walk often. Walking is a light, low-impact exercise that is easy, free and accessible to everyone. Walking stimulates the heart gently to keep us healthy and our brain will release endorphins to make us happy. Nothing is as good and as easy as walking. And it’s even more amazing when you get to walk in one of the most pristine and untouched places in the world. Trekking has become a staple whenever we travel now. We hope we have inspired you to include a trek in your upcoming travel itinerary. And if you have done any amazing treks, do share it with us too!