More than any other Great Walk, the Milford Track (54km; 4 days) is a Kiwi icon. Its exalted reputation is part accident and part history but there’s no doubt that the Milford Track is wonderful and includes some of Fiordland’s finest scenery. The track starts at the head of Lake Te Anau and follows the Clinton River into the heart of the mountains, climbing over the spectacular Mackinnon Pass before tracing the Arthur River to Milford Sound.
Some disparage the track as over-regimented, expensive and not especially varied, while others complain that the huts are badly spaced and lurk below the tree line among the sandflies. While these criticisms aren’t unfounded – the tramp costs around $340 in hut and transport fees alone – the track is well managed and maintained, the huts clean and unobtrusive, and because everyone’s going in the same direction you can charge ahead (or lag behind) and hike all day without seeing a soul. The Milford is also tougher than many people expect, packing the only hard climb and a dash for the boat at Milford Sound into the last two days.
It is likely that Maori paced the Arthur and Clinton valleys in search of pounamu, but there is little direct evidence. The first Europeans to explore were Scotsmen Donald Sutherland and John Mackay who in 1880 blazed a trail up the Arthur Valley from Milford Sound. The story goes that while working their way up the valley they came upon the magnificent Mackay Falls and tossed a coin to decide who would name it, on the understanding that the loser would name the next waterfall. Mackay won the toss but rued his good fortune when, days later, they stumbled across the much more famous and lofty Sutherland Falls. They may well have climbed the adjacent Mackinnon Pass, but the honour of naming it went to Quintin McKinnon who, with his companion Ernest Mitchell, reached it in 1888 after having been commissioned by the Otago Chief Surveyor, C.W. Adams, to cut a path up the Clinton Valley.
The route was finally pushed through in mid-October 1888 and the first tourists followed a year later, guided by McKinnon. The greatest fillip came in 1908 when a writer submitted her account of the Milford Track to the editor of London’s Spectator. She had declared it “A Notable Walk” but, in a fit of editorial hyperbole, the editor re-titled the piece “The Finest Walk in the World”. From 1903 until 1966 the government held a monopoly on the track, allowing only guided walkers; the huts were supplied by packhorses, a system that wasn’t retired until 1969.
Wider public access was only achieved after the Otago Tramping Club challenged the government’s policy by tramping the Milford in 1964. Huts were built in 1966 and the first independent parties came through later that year.