Sutherland Falls had to have been by far the mightiest waterfall in New Zealand. Ever since Julie and I knew of its existence, we made it a point to journey to this waterfall no matter how logistically difficult we found out it would be when we were planning for our honeymoon in November 2004. All the visual splendour that whetted our appetite to see this majestic wonder in person had the statistics to back it up as it had a cumulative drop of 580m in three distinct vertical leaps from Lake Quill, making it one of the tallest permanent waterfalls in the world (though Browne Falls in Doubtful Sound could very well have the title of the tallest such waterfall in the country). We even placed it amongst our Top 10 List of the World’s Best Waterfalls.
As for logistical challenges, we essentially devoted nearly an entire week of our first trip to New Zealand to make a Sutherland Falls visit possible. That was because we had to tramp the four-day 54km Milford Track to even access the falls, and I forked over the money to do the more expensive guided tramp experience (about 5x the cost of an equivalent independent tramp in 2004) so it would be less of an ordeal, especially since we were on honeymoon. It was probably a good call because our scheduled time on the track happened to be nearly 70% inundated with a rain storm, including our traverse of Mackinnon Pass at the highest point of the tramp.
We knew that booking this tramp had to be done months in advance. I recalled making calls as early as almost a year before our planned trip. That meant that once we were committed, there was no turning back and we really had no choice but to cross our fingers and hope the weather would cooperate (knowing full well that Fiordland lets nearly 7m of rain per year) on our scheduled tramping dates. And like I said earlier, Mother Nature’s random whims wasn’t so kind to us on our visit in late November 2004.
That said, we were also treated to numerous other waterfalls, which I’ll also describe on this page. Such named waterfalls included Hirere Falls, St Quintin Falls, Dudleigh Falls, Lindsay Falls, McKay Falls, and Giant Gate Falls. They really served as landmarks to help mentally break up the long distance Great Walk as you can imagine a long distance one-way multi-day backpack would entail. Indeed, they called this the finest tramp in the world (a claim I’m sure would be debatable depending on who you talk to) largely because of the waterfalls, the alpine and valley views throughout, and its grand finale at the famed Milford Sound (after starting at the north end of Lake Te Anau).
I’ll describe our Sutherland Falls experience on this page by walking you through our Milford Track experience (knowing full well that independent trampers will have a different experience as their routes were staggered and in different accommodation than what we were allowed to do)…
Day 1: Glade HouseOn our first day, we had a lot of time to kill. We showed up at the Ultimate Hikes office late in the morning and did their obligatory orientation, which was basically a safety video with some equipment procurement that consisted of thermal underwear (to keep), goretex jackets, and backpacks. In hindsight, we probably should have brought our rain ponchos, which ended up having a better chance at keeping ourselves and our gear dry through all the rain we would eventually see. We didn’t start taking off for the boat ride across Lake Te Anau until after lunch when the crew that came over from Queenstown finally showed up. I thought it was a shame that on such a beautiful day like today, we had to spend most of it waiting. Knowing how variable the weather was in this area, I knew we were losing an opportunity to capitalize on the fine weather and maybe even try for Mackinnon Pass had it been Day 2 instead of Day 1.
In any case, our tour began with a pleasant cruise towards the northern tip of Lake Te Anau. There wasn’t much in the way of waterfalls during this part of the journey, but we did spot one memorial of Quinton MacKinnon (who “pioneered” the Milford Track route in 1888) as well as some native flora that the guide pointed out. When the boat landed, we joined a large group of trampers all headed in the same direction. However, we ultimately stopped at about 1.6km from Lake Te Anau where we dropped off our stuff at the Glade House. The independent walkers kept going until about 5km from Lake Te Anau where they got to spend the night at the Clinton Hut.
We went on a short nature walk where we got to chill out and get distant views back towards Lake Te Anau as well as the Sentinel Peak looking in the other direction towards Clinton Valley. Given the beautiful weather, it was a very calm and relaxing experience though there really wasn’t much in the way of waterfalls on this day. We even got to see some alpenglow on the peaks behind the Glade House as the sun was setting, which was really cool.
Day 2: Pompolona LodgeAfter spending the night at the Glade House (getting aquainted with both keas and sandflies), we had breakfast then headed out, which immediately crossed the Clinton River over a long swinging bridge. At that point, we were back on a conventional bush track that followed along the river. Along the way, there was a signposted lookout at a bend in the river towards Dore Pass (some other mountain traverse that only staff or hardy independent trekkers would have the time and preparation to do). We also took the optional side track to the Wetlands Walk, which was a boardwalk that took us out to a very open part of the Clinton Valley yielding more scenic vistas as well as a closer examination of the ecosystem here. Nearby the Wetlands Walk was the Clinton Hut, which was where independent trampers got to spend the night. After Clinton Hut, we went on a very long walk within the Clinton Valley. It wasn’t until we reached the so-called Dead Lake which marked a little bit of a change in scenery for us. This “lake” was really a pool of standing water that inundated some trees thereby giving it a bit of a swampy appearance. This was also where we started to see Hirere Falls, which was the first of the named waterfalls we encountered on this trek.
It took Julie and I a little over 5 hours before we finally stopped to have lunch at the Hirere Falls shelter. Even though we welcomed the break from the long walking, we still had to contend with swarming sandflies as well as the keas aggressively trying to steal food from us and anyone else wanting to take the picnic break. Nearby the shelter, we were able to get perhaps our most unobstructed views of Hirere Falls, which was a stringy waterfall in the distance that might be permanent and thus given the name.
As we continued beyond the lunch shelter, we started to see MacKinnon Pass in the distance towards the head of Clinton Valley. We also took the time to explore a handful of side tracks leading us towards some secluded ephemeral waterfalls as well as one that fell into rubble before re-emerging from a cave. In hindsight, I wondered if this was what was left of the so-called Pompolona Icefield though admittedly, there really wasn’t much of a glacier or icefield left when we showed up in late November 2004.Finally after about 2 hours from the Hirere Falls Lunch Shelter (nearly 7 hours from the Glade House), we reached a dilapidated shelter called the Bus Stop. I don’t recall why it was so named, but with the sandflies buzzing around, we didn’t linger here for long. Eventually at around another 30 minutes beyond the Bus Stop, we finally arrived at the Pompolona Lodge. We showed up just in time before we started to experience some heavy downpours. It was amazing how quickly the weather turned on us like that as we were getting some pretty fair weather up to this point, but little did we realize that this rain would stick with us for the remainder of our time on the Milford Track.
Overall, we had spent about 7.5 hours on the track including all the side trips and detours. The literature said that the typical tramping time would be between 5-7 hours or 16km. With all this physical exertion, Julie and I looked forward to a hot shower and dinner.
Day 3: Quintin Lodge and Sutherland FallsAfter having brekkie at the Pompolona Lodge, we set out on what was quite literally the most dramatic day of the Milford Track. And by dramatic, I didn’t just mean the scenery, but the foul weather really made things interesting as well. When Julie and I had set out, the weather was momentarily calm and were immediately greeted by several waterfalls that didn’t seem to have names, except for one that had a signpost calling it St Quintin Falls (said to be 115m). We encountered St Quintin Falls barely 15-30 minutes from the start of our walk. After this waterfall, we would continue on the gradually steeper climb as the track was making its way towards a saddle where we also noticed the Mintaro Hut, which was where independent trampers spent their second night. Nearby this accommodation, there was also a little helicopter landing pad (for rescues and supplies, I’d imagine) as well as a little lake.
For more flexible independent trampers who were also strong and fast hikers, it was also possible to climb up to MacKinnon Pass if the weather was good before retreating back down to the Mintaro Hut (as it was fairly close enough to the pass to allow this to be a possibility). Clearly, it wasn’t an option for us since we were still a good 4-5km further away at the Pompolona Lodge at the end of the second day.
Anyways, immediately after leaving the Mintaro Hut vicinity, that was when promptly made our way up long zig-zagging climb up to MacKinnon Pass at over 1100m. Along this tiring stretch of track, we got to look back towards the Clinton Valley as well as towards the head of Clinton Valley at the so-called Nicholas Cirque. The weather had started off relatively calm when we began this stretch of the hike, but it quickly turned rainy and cold by the time we made it up to the MacKinnon memorial at the pass. Amazingly, keas and sandflies were still around to bother us even under the inclement conditions.The pass was supposed to be the highlight of the scenery of the Milford Track, but unfortunately for us, the clouds started to get lower and really dump their load on us. The well-positioned Pass Hut Shelter (roughly over 4 hours from the time we started our hike) was just what we needed to stave off the chilly temperatures, the odd snow flurries, and the cold rain. Julie and I remembered vividly the hot drink warming our bodies from the inside and staving off the potential of hypothermia (which one fellow guided tramper was struggling with as he was shivering and needed to change into a dry shirt while getting more doses of hot drinks).
When it came time to leave the Pass Hut Shelter and face the weather, we immediately followed the track towards the Arthur Valley side of MacKinnon Pass where the clouds were still high enough to allow us to see the rocky cliff faces of the surrounding mountains. I’m sure under better weather the precipitous views and mindblowing alpine scenery was what prompted many to call this the finest walk in the world. However for us, we tried to make sure we were off the pass before visibility and lightning started to become a problem as we also started to hear the loud roar of thunder.As we made the steep descent further into Arthur Valley, the track started to appear more developed as we reached a series of waterfalls known as the Anderson Cascades. The track descended alongside these cascades mostly as wire-mesh-topped staircases though they were very slippery even with the wire mesh atop the wooden surface. In one calamitous instance, I saw one independent tramper slip and fall then flip head over heels before landing on his back (cushioned by his pack) at the very bottom of the steps. He was visibly shaken, but nothing was broken and he was eventually back on his way to continue the tramp.
When we got past the Anderson Cascades (part of what was feeding the Arthur River below), we then started to notice more signposted waterfalls along the track. The first of these signposted falls was Dudleigh Falls, which had sort of a punch bowl type appearance as we looked down at it. A few minutes after getting past Dudleigh Falls, we saw the top of the signposted Lindsay Falls. We never really got a clean and satisfying look at it as it was always hidden behind foliage after having seen it from its top. Perhaps there might have been a scrambling path to go upstream from the bottom and get a better look, but we didn’t bother (regardless of whether such a view existed or not).Eventually after about 6 hours of some pretty challenging hiking, we ultimately arrived at the Quintin Lodge. To this point, we had hiked about 15km. And while Julie opted to call it a day and chill out in the lodge, I knew that the day wasn’t over yet. I still had to do the 90-minute return track to the base of Sutherland Falls. I knew that this was the only opportunity I would have to experience this majestic waterfall from up close.
So I followed the signpost that was just beyond the Quintin Lodge, which told of its overall height (580m) as well as its constituent parts (top 248m, middle 229m, and lower 103m). And I immediately passed by some more ephemeral waterfalls fed from the rain storm that drenched us at MacKinnon Pass. The hike was pretty straightforward as I went through a combination of lush rainforest with open spaces flanking bare rocky cliffs surrounding the valley before reaching a signpost that was positioned as far from the falls as it was tall. After another 0.5km of tramping, I got through the bush and found myself face-to-face with Sutherland Falls in an open area. It was misty around the falls and the forced perspective of looking up at the three-tiered waterfall kind of made it seem smaller from this close up than it did when I was approaching it from further back along the track.
One crazy fellow tramper actually went behind the falls, which one of the guides actually frowned upon saying it was too dangerous. In any case, when I started to head back towards the Quintin Lodge, the view of the side valley I had tramped through to get here was beautiful and U-shaped, which attested to the glacial heritage of this steep valley (and possibly the verticality of Sutherland Falls itself).
When all was said and done, I had spent almost 8 hours combined from the start to the time I finally stopped hiking upon my return to the Quintin Lodge.
Day 4: Sandfly Point / Milford SoundWith sore muscles and the feeling that strange feeling of being caught in between wanting the hike to be over with and wanting to stay on the track in the hopes the weather would improve, we set out to continue the remainder of the downhill hike from MacKinnon Pass that started yesterday. The remainder of the descent went along a section of track known as the Gentle Annie, which was essentially a boardwalk area going by a bog. Just before the track reached the boardwalk, we were besides the Arthur River where we looked back towards Sutherland Falls for one last look at it. The clouds were still hanging low so its topmost section wasn’t totally visible during our visit, but I guess that came with the territory thanks to the variable weather in this wild part of the South Island.
After the Gentle Annie, the track remained mostly flat as we walked along a very long stretch flanked by a combination of thick bush then open terrain with some views of surrounding mountains. Along the way, we skipped by the Dumpling Hut, which was where indepent trampers would have spent their third night on the Milford Track. At a little over two hours from the Quintin Lodge, we reached the Boat Shed Shelter, which was where we were served another round of hot drinks before continuing on. The sandfly swarm was particularly pretty nasty over here so we didn’t linger for long.
Immediately after leaving the shelter, we crossed a swinging bridge traversing the Arthur River and entered a thick bush walk where on the other end of it, we arrived at the 15m MacKay Falls, which was an unusually-shaped wishbone waterfall. Adjacent to the falls was the so-called Bell Rock, where we were able to crawl beneath an opening at its bottom then stand up inside the bell itself.Speaking of MacKay Falls, we were told by our guides that the first European explorers in the area – John MacKay and Donald Sutherland – were hiking up the Arthur Valley from Sandfly Point by the shores of Milford Sound. When they eventually arrived at this waterfall, they decided over a coin flip who got to name this waterfall. It turned out that MacKay won the coin toss and decided to name this waterfall after himself. However, the arrangement was that the next waterfall belonged to Sutherland. Needless to say, when they continued their way further upstream, they’d eventually reach the massive Sutherland Falls and Sir Donald was richly rewarded for actually losing the coin toss getting to name that waterfall after himself!
After leaving MacKay Falls, we went through more long stretches of open terrain where we got to further observe the much higher rainfall of the Arthur Valley as compared to the Clinton Valley. Indeed, all the trees we noticed had thick carpets of moss growing all over them, and I even recalled one stretch where we had to traverse a landslip (or tree avalanches), which seemed to be surprisingly common here considering the valley walls were so steep and the rainfall erosion so high that every once in a while, landslides occur. There were some parts of the track that hugged a rocky cliff sandwiched between it and the Arthur River. That section of track was said to be built by prison labour between 1890 and 1892.
Roughly about two hours after leaving MacKay Falls (or nearly 5 hours after leaving Quintin Lodge), we ended up at the Giant Gate Falls Lunch Shelter for a quick (and I do mean quick thanks to sandflies and keas) lunch break. For that signature photo of the swinging bridge crossing before the impressive 20m Giant Gate Falls, we would have had to jump into the creek and wade towards its middle. We were in no mood to do this wading (which undoubtedly would have ruined the interior of our hiking boots and socks) so had to be content taking photos of this waterfall from the swinging bridge itself.Beyond Giant Gate Falls, we made one last detour towards the shores of Lake Ada (a little over an hour later). Another hour of more flat hiking through rainforest eventually led us to the Sandfly Point Shelter, where we patiently waited inside for the last of the trampers to get here so we could boat across to the wharf at the Milford Sound and ultimately settle in for the final night at the Mitre Peak Lodge. Independent Trampers would have to catch a coach back to Te Anau Downs to recover their transport and their belongings.
For Julie and I, Sandfly Point was just under 8 hours (21km) of hiking from the time we left the Quintin Lodge. The shelter was aptly named for there were numerous sandflies trying to take pot shots of trampers passing through and into the hut. However, once we were inside the humid shelter, we were surprised at how effective it was as sandflies were concentrated at the entrance and around the windows, but they didn’t really linger around the general inside of the shelter itself.
And so ended our hiking portion of the Milford Track, where we noticed many people left behind their hiking boots hanging around the Sandfly Point sign near the boat dock. Taking a finish-line photo was an exercise in discipline for it was very difficult to remain smiling and still without swatting at the sandflies. In any case, we achieved our goal of witnessing Sutherland Falls in person, but there was so much more to see and do, and for sure, it was one of those memorable hikes of a lifetime that Julie and I were glad to do. And it was all because of one waterfall!
Since we did the more expensive guided tramp of the Milford Track through Ultimate Hikes, we only had to drive to their office near the centre of Te Anau (just a few buildings north of the Visitor Centre) since that was where we were staying. I believe they tend to cater to guests starting and ending in Queenstown, which was why we had to arrange for our own transport to leave the car at their Te Anau facility during our multi-day tramp.
Hardier independent trampers were supposed to find transport or drive to Te Anau Downs (by the Boat Harbour section of Lake Te Anau) about 30km north of Te Anau along SH94. The boat shuttle would then take them up to the start of the track at the head of Lake Te Anau.