Archives For Milford Track

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

Toni Ellis, Fiordland District Office

This year marks 125 years since the Milford Track began drawing thousands of tourists from all parts of the world. To celebrate, a special heritage focused walk of the four-day 53.5km journey is scheduled—departing 31 October 2013.

Mountain and hut view at Mackinnon Pass on the Milford Track.

The alpine vista at Mackinnon Pass

The idea was hatched by local DOC Ranger, Ken Bradley, who wanted to gather track personalities together to tramp the four days in period costume, highlighting the unique and colourful history of the track.

From there the concept grew, with spaces being opened up to the public as a fundraiser for the restoration of Beech Hut; the official opening of the new Sutherland Falls Track being included; and the Minister of Conservation, Hon Nick Smith, confirming his attendance.

Quinton Mackinnon camping along the Milford Track.

Quintin Mackinnon (middle) discovered a passage later to became known as the Milford Track

Those lucky enough to secure a spot on the walk can expect to be transported back in time by five expert guides—all specialists on the Milford Track. Their stories and experiences will bring the track to life, detailing history, culture and current biodiversity work in the area.

A group in swandris walking the Milford Track, at Six Mile Hut.

Walking the Milford Track during the early 1960s

Many enjoy the Milford Track as a personal and physical challenge; while others enjoy witnessing the results brought about by the ongoing protection and regeneration of New Zealand’s native biodiversity. Heritage is yet another layer that contributes to the unique character and charm that makes the Milford Track Great Walk ‘The finest walk in the world’.

A group of pack horses on the Milford Track.

Pack horses on the Milford Track.

You can celebrate the Milford Track’s 125th anniversary by joining the Heritage Walk. Book your place on the DOC website or by contacting the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre.

Related link

Celebrate the Milford Track’s 125 years – Media release