Say goodbye to dehydrated food and talking to yourself for days on end… a guided walk on the Routeburn or Milford is the ultimate holiday. Picture mind-blowing scenery, meeting new people and immersing yourself in nature, while you learn more about the area from your local guide and of course – let someone else do some of the cooking!

Tony Philips has guided walkers along the Routeburn and Milford tracks with Queenstown-based company Ultimate Hikes for nine summers. He started hiking as a teenager in the Nelson-Lakes region and is now the head guide. He says the scenery never gets old, but the thing that makes walks truly special is the people you meet along the way. 

What do you love most about guiding multi-day group hiking trips? 

It’s the people. And being outside – I’m fortunate to be a Kiwi who was brought up on the outdoors and I feel very lucky to be able to do that as my career. 

The views are pretty amazing, but it soon becomes about the people as they bring new stories which means you learn something new every day. That’s what keeps the job so interesting. 

You'll meet people from all walks of life, all kinds of people. In pre-Covid times we had people come from all over the world with a diverse range of backgrounds. They all have interesting, unique life stories to share and they're all so appreciative that they are here as its usually been on their bucket list for years. You can always be guaranteed a laugh and its awesome to see how people relax over the course of a few days walking.   

Glade Burn Clearing

Glade Burn Clearing

What does a usual day look like on the track?

In the morning, we’ll have a chat about the day ahead while everyone makes their lunch. Then, you head out onto the track for six or seven hours. During the day, the conversations just flow – there’s plenty of time to talk and guides will usually point out some of the flora and fauna and talk about the history.

In the evenings we'll do a briefing and the safety aspects of what is happening the next day, then we’ll sit down and have a cup of tea, or a glass of wine and talk away the evenings. The diversity of people on the tracks means the conversations are usually incredibly interesting. The guides are all very different too - ex police officers, lawyers, long term travellers etc, all with interesting stories to tell. So, there’s a lot of talking!

Do people usually stick together on the track?

Our philosophy is that you are here to enjoy it and you can walk at your own speed. If you want to walk with a guide, then you’ve got that option and the time to do that. But if you want to walk alone and enjoy some nature and peace and quiet, then you can do that! 

When it's a nice day, we’re really flexible on how fast people want to walk so if you’re a fast walker, you don't have to spend the day waiting for the rest of the group. Or, if you’re a slow walker, you don’t have to rush through the walk to keep up with everyone. There's usually a guide walking at the start and end of the group.     

Lunch stop at Glade House

Lunch stop at Glade House

We've heard the food is pretty great, what can people expect?

We’ve got our own private lodges – which are very comfortable places to hang out. We have three course meals every night, cooked and served by our great lodge staff, and a cooked and continental breakfast in the morning. For lunch, the walkers make themselves sandwiches… it’s a subway style plus plenty of snacks to keep everyone energised. Its up to the walkers whether they want to eat it by a riverside or at the top of a mountain. 

What kind of wildlife and plant life do you usually see on the Routeburn and Milford Tracks?

You'll see kea floating around. Or, the rock wren (pīwauwau), which is a unique little bird – it’s our only native bird which spends its entire life up in the alpine environment. It’s really small too, so it takes a bit of spotting and the chance to see it is pretty awesome. You can see blue ducks (whio) if you are lucky and oodles of weka on the Milford (very cheeky birds).

You might look at a bird and think it’s just another bird, but guides will fill you in with the back story and explain how rare it is. 

In the forest, there's so many different kinds of interesting plant life. As guides, we know which berries are edible. Being able to eat fresh, native berries and being able to share that is pretty cool. 

Which Great Walk is your favourite - The Routeburn or The Milford?

They’re both so unique, I can't pick a favourite. On the Milford Track – you spend a lot of time in the forest until you get to Mackinnon Pass and then you drop back down into the forest. It is really diverse with its flora and fauna. And the waterfalls that come out after the rain are spectacular. The rain brings the forest to life too. All the different shades of green become more vibrant and that nice, fresh smell after a good rain is just wonderful.

On the Routeburn Track, you spend a lot more time above the forest looking down onto it and so you get spectacular views across the Darran Mountains looking down across the mountains and all the bits and pieces associated with that.