Every day, busloads, carloads and planeloads of people squirm through the mountains of Fiordland National Park to visit New Zealand's postcard-perfect Milford Sound, but once it was only walkers who could make it to these shores.
A path to the long inaccessible sound was made possible with Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell's discovery of the 1,069m Mackinnon Pass in 1888. This immediately became, and remains, the midpoint and centrepiece of the Milford Track, opening up Milford Sound decades before the road was carved through the mountains. Mackinnon would become its first guide (though, tragically, he drowned in Lake Te Anau in 1892), and the track would spend decades as the private domain of guided trampers. It wasn't until 1966 that independent walkers were allowed on to the Milford Track.
Dubbed the "finest walk in the world" by The Spectator in 1908, the 53.5km track is now so popular that access is regulated. During the tramping season (late October to late April), only 40 walkers can begin the track each day. You can walk in only one direction – Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound – and you must follow a set itinerary.
If the experience is regimented, the landscape is far from it. From Lake Te Anau, the track funnels through Clinton Valley, with its glacier-scratched walls closing to a crack at its head. From here, it climbs to the crest of wind-whipped Mackinnon Pass. The descent follows the Arthur River, passing Sutherland Falls, at 580m the highest in New Zealand. The four-day tramp ends at Sandfly Point on Milford Sound.
The adventure unfolds
The trout seem to hang like marionettes in the clear waters of the Clinton River. Lichen hangs in ponytails from the trees and ferns surround the track. It's like walking through parkland – flat, easy, the melodic whisper of the river – which makes it hard to imagine that you'll be atop an alpine pass in less than a day. As you head upstream, the high walls of the Clinton Canyon rise to frame a classic U-valley. You sleep the night at Mintaro Hut, setting out again into cloud in the morning on the 400m climb to Mackinnon Pass.
If you're lucky, almost simultaneously, you step out of the tree line and the cloud. The greens and greys are gone, replaced by butter-yellow grasses and pure blue sky. But so often trampers reach this pass and see nothing but cloud, wind and rain, with New Zealand's foulest weather funnelling up the valleys.
Even if Sutherland Falls and Milford Sound weren't ahead, it would be worth the days of walking just for this ethereal view. You don't want to leave. You wander across to the other side of the pass, staring dizzyingly down into the Arthur Valley, your guiding line to Milford Sound. But you must descend from this airy perch, though the drop is so precipitous it makes you giddy. Another good reason to linger, although tarry too long and you'll miss your berth for the night.
Making it happen
Advance booking is necessary to walk the Milford Track in season; they can be made on the Department of Conservation website. Guided tramps are operated by Ultimate Hikes.
Stepping through lush beech forest along the banks of the Clinton River
Wondering at the winter carnage as you pass avalanche clearings near Hidden Lake
Bracing against the weather atop Mackinnon Pass – there's a reason the shelter was built here
Standing in the showery mist of the 580m-high Sutherland Falls
Crossing high swing bridges as you descend through Arthur Valley.
Location: Fiordland National
Ideal time commitment: Four days
Best time of year: October to April
Essential tip: Book well ahead
this is New Zealand's most
famous and popular track.
This is an extract from 'Great Adventures', published by Lonely Planet on 16 October (£29.99). Readers can by a copy for £25, including UK P&P, by going to shop.lonelyplanet.com and using the code INDEPENDENT