Archives For Milford Track

New Zealand’s mountain peaks, native forests and pristine lakes can now be viewed from anywhere in the world on Google Maps. We go behind the scenes.

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To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Milford Track’s first Freedom Walkers, members of the Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club revisited their battleground.

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Liz Carlson, of the popular travel blog Young Adventuress, recently walked the Milford Track and has some exclusive, what you should know before you go, insights to share with us…

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By Herb Christophers

It seems that revolutions were not that uncommon in 1965. There was the Dominican Republic uprising and the Indonesian revolution and counter revolution. Then there was the less contentious ‘Freedom Walk’ on the Milford Track. It was that sort of action packed year.

A boat with Otago Tramping Club members at Milford Track in 1965.

Robyn Armstrong and Otago Tramping Club members get ready to freedom walk the Milford Track in 1965

It was reasoned by some in the New Zealand outdoors fraternity that, because the Milford Track was in Fiordland National Park, there should be no restriction on access. Walking the Milford Track up until that time meant that you had to be part of a Tourism Hotel Corporation guided trip.

So, a hardy group of Otago Tramping Club members staged a two pronged assault on the track in April (Easter) 1965 to force the authorities of the day to review the status of access to the Milford Track.

A boat with Otago Tramping Club members arriving at Sandfly Point.

Otago Tramping Club members arrive at Sandfly Point in 1965

The plan was for some of the group to ascend Hutt Creek and Glade Pass from the Eglinton Valley. They would then drop in at the head of Lake Te Anau, behind Glade House, and walk through to Milford. The other party went to Milford, planning to do some climbing after walking through to Mackinnon Pass.

Robyn Armstrong (nee Norton) was one of the revolutionaries who came over Glade Pass:

“The phrase ‘Freedom Walk’ was adopted because it was the same time as Martin Luther King was doing his ‘Freedom Marches’ throughout America. It’s a loose connection but it was a well broadcast phrase and the name stuck!”

John Armstrong and his team had come in from the Milford end of the track, but the foul weather put a dampener on any ideas of getting much further up the track:

“The Fiordland rain had the last laugh. We spent a couple of days trapped just three or four hours walk up the track and, in the end, we had to turn around at The Boatshed and go back out to Milford with our colleagues, but we had made our point!”

Campsite set up in the Clinton Valley along the Milford Track.

Otago Tramping Club members camping in the Clinton Valley in 1965

Soon after the Otago Tramping Club trip, the infrastructure of alternative huts on the Milford was put in place and those are the facilities that we all enjoy today – Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling Huts.

Of course the guided walks are still very much a part of the scene but, since 1966, there has been the freedom to choose how you will engage with the track.

Robyn and John were recently on the 125th anniversary walk of the Milford Track. Their pioneering efforts on the Milford Track have opened the way for many thousands of people to enjoy the Milford Track as Freedom Walkers. Viva la Revolution!

Milford 125th Anniversary Heritage Walk 2013

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Herb Christophers: The only thing that held up the long johns were the shorts over the top!

Herb Christophers: The only thing that held up the long johns were the shorts over the top!

By Herb Christophers

When I was kid, I loved playing dress-ups and pretending to be a cowboy or a captain of a battleship. So imagine my delight when I was told we had to dress up for the Milford Track 125th anniversary heritage walk, held in October this year. Four whole days of playing dress-ups!

The DOC Te Anau locals had been planning their costumes for months and had come up with their interpretation of ‘old school’ garb—some came as historic figures; others came in the style of an era.

The staff at the Te Anau Visitor Centre also got into the spirit of the event and dressed in Victorian costume to farewell us.

I went along dressed in the moth-ridden leftovers from the seventies that I had thrown in the attic decades ago.

‘It’s merino Herb but not as you know it!’

My 42 year old pack was sewn up to make it waterproof for the occasion and the gear felt familiarly uncomfortable and even smelt of mothballs and mould.

The home spun raw wool hand knitted mittens, given to me as a present in 1970, and the japara over mitts had their last foray outdoors in about 1975—but they still worked. You have to love the smell of wet wool and linseed-oil!

Ken Bradley, the person who conceived the idea of the 125th Milford Track celebration, got so far into character as Samuel Moreton, the 19th century artist and explorer, that he carried his gear in an old japara coat strapped across his back. His food was a lump of bacon and a stack of cabin bread (hard biscuits designed to last many weeks at sea on sailing ships in the absence of fresh bread). I kept my food strictly 21st century.

Ray’s 85 year old Bergen pack

Ray’s 85 year old Bergen pack

Whether or not the women of the day might have worn full length dresses all the way on the route, we will never know, but it was awkward enough for the impersonators to walk a few hundred metres without ‘sweeping’ the track with their skirts!

Beth, one of the pillars of the 125th event, carried her dress in the bottom of her pack and pulled it out at appropriate venues to get in character!

Others, who were part of the reopening of the Sutherland Falls Track, came in for the day from the Milford end, but joined in the spirit of the occasion by dressing in period costume.

Anyone stumbling on the party might have been mistaken for thinking they had warped in time to the 1880s!

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By Herb ChristophersThe Milford Track - 125 years.

Ray Willett, in his mid 70s, has just walked the Milford Track to mark its 125th  anniversary.

His age is only a number and his fitness and competence would easily sit well on someone 30 years younger. He dressed for the journey, as one of his heroes – Quintin McKinnon.

Left: Quintin McKinnon. Right: Ray Willett dressed as Quintin McKinnon

Left: Quintin McKinnon. Right: Ray Willett dressed as Quintin McKinnon

Looking and acting every bit of the part of the 19th century explorer, Ray was able to get inside the character of the man credited with discovering the overland route between Te Anau and Milford—later to become known as ‘The finest walk in the world’.

It is hardly surprising that Ray knows so much about McKinnon. He has spent many years researching the history of the track in its formative years.

Ray’s own involvement is impressive. Once the Milford Track was cleared in the early 50s, after going into recession during World War Two, Ray was involved in the post war boom on the track as a guide. He started in 1958 for the managers at the time, the Tourist Hotel Corporation.

Back then on the track, horses were the main means of getting the season’s supplies from the head of Lake Te Anau up to Pompalona Hut and bunkhouse accommodation. Limited privacy was the accepted norm for all walkers.

Ray Willett leading horses on the Milford Track.

“It was a great leveller,” says Ray. “People would drop their pretensions at the beginning of the track and we would be friends for a magical four days. It’s only afterwards you realised that there were people from vastly different backgrounds sharing the natural environment on equal terms. It was magic!”

Ray Willett having a rest with his pack as a pillow. Horses in the background.

Ray and his wife Helen worked as hut wardens in the early to mid 60s at Pompalona Hut.

“Pomp was home for summer!” says Ray with a wide grin. “We’d get the horses in with the supplies and the other guides and I would spend the early season stowing the stores and cutting firewood from up behind the hut.”

Ray with his pile of firewood.

Ray tells a great story of a ‘number eight wire flying fox’ for the fire wood.

“I don’t think it would pass today’s stringent safety requirements but at the time, we had to use our initiative to keep the place going.”

Ray Willett dressed as Quintin McKinnon in front Glade House.

In spite of radical changes to the quality of the guided accommodation, many things remain much the same as when Ray started on the track, particularly the amount of rain.

Ray Willett. “Come to Milford expecting rain and that way you really appreciate the fine weather!” he says with a wry smile!

“Of course we have had the freedom walkers too since the mid 60s. It’s really great that everyone has an opportunity to enjoy the Milford Track.

“The numbers of walkers is restricted by the accommodation available, which adds to the feeling of isolation in a vast natural world. The positive stories and the sense of achievement for most people is priceless. Milford does that, nature does that to you.”

Ray strides off into the distance with a swagger. The ancient Bergen pack sits lightly on his shoulders.

Trampers from behind.

By Herb Christophers

Ken Bradley.

Senior DOC Ranger, Ken Bradley

Ken Bradley was 16 years old when he first walked the Milford Track in 1968. That was 45 years ago and only one year after the Milford Track was opened to ‘Freedom Walkers’.

Now, as the track celebrates its 125th year since the route over McKinnon Pass was discovered, Ken tells me about his time on the track and the changes that have taken place.

Ken is part of the matrix of personalities whose life is bound to the Milford Track – he has been a guide, trackman, park assistant, park foreman and ranger in charge.

Man putting his feet up outside Trackman's Hut.

Trackmans Hut at Mintaro – one of original tourist huts at this location

He reckons he would have walked the track well over 100 times and walked the Clinton Valley part at least 500 times, either working, fishing or hunting. That’s hardly surprising when you realise he spent his early working years from 1972 until 1975 living in the Clinton Valley as guide/trackman with the Tourist Hotel Corporation which, in those days, had exclusive access for guided walks.

Man on a tractor.

A tractor on the track from Glade to Pompalona. This was the way stores were carried from 1965 to 1978

As part of his job, Ken worked on the ‘Tawera’ – the vessel taking people to the head of Lake Te Anau. This gave him access to the lower Clinton Valley on his days off to fish and hunt when he wasn’t volunteering to clean up the huts.

Tawera in its final years.

Tawera in its final years

“I remember back in the late 60’s and early 70’s there were no possums on the Milford Track, or very few,” says Ken.

“The birdlife has always been reasonably good, but it’s now a lot better since the stoat trapping undertaken in the last 15 years.”

In the late 1960’s there was plenty of deer living on the valley floor and it was really easy to shoot a couple to take out to sell. That would equal a week’s wages for Ken ($20 per week in 1968). By the mid 1970’s the numbers of deer had been greatly reduced by helicopter hunting for export. Trophy heads of those remaining became better, with more feed as vegetation recovered.

In 1976 Ken joined Lands and Survey Department which managed Fiordland National Park at the time, working on a wide variety of projects throughout the vast National Park.

National Park rangers clearing the new hut site at Mintaro.

National Park Rangers clearing the new hut site at Mintaro, 1986 (Ken Bradley in the green bush shirt)

Back on the Milford Track in 1992, Ken was ranger in charge of all operations up to 2006. Since then he has overseen track maintenance operations and other major projects in the area.

“Much of the grunt work was taken out of operations by helicopters but they were rare in the early days. These days, I am in and out of one most weeks somewhere on the track over summer,” says Ken.

Helicopter lifting material during the mid 1970s from head of Lake Te Anau.

Lifting material during the mid 1970s from head of Lake Te Anau

Ken’s favourite hut is Clinton Hut.

Clinton Hut. Photo: Neil Hunt/flickr.

Clinton Hut

“The old Clinton Forks Hut ‘at five mile’ was in danger of being washed out when the river changed course, so we moved it downstream in the mid 90’s to ‘two and a half mile’.”

Clinton Forks Hut, the original Freedom Walkers hut.

Clinton Forks Hut. Built in 1966 it was the original Freedom Walkers hut

Ken oversaw the recycling of 40% of the old hut and rebuilding and expansion of the current hut.

The most radical change that Ken has seen is the type of people doing the Milford Track.

People standing outside Mackinnon Pass Shelter No 2 during late 1950s.

Mackinnon Pass Shelter No 2 during late 1950s

Track walkers in flood conditions during the 1970s.

Track walkers in flood conditions during the 1970s

“People these days seem less prepared than you might expect for a trip in the outdoors. Even so, in spite of giving themselves a hard time, they always go away with a smile on their faces so I guess the experience outweighs the discomfort.” he says.

“Also, if we allowed 100 Freedom Walkers a day we would most likely fill them over the height of the summer. With 40 a day at present, we are at 98% capacity for all of the summer season.”

Related links

Milford Track
Heritage Walk on the Milford Track
Celebrate the Milford Track’s 125 years – Media release