New Zealand: Milford Sound

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I’ve often heard that no trip to New Zealand is really complete without a visit to Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s natural wonders and a designated World Heritage Area.  The funny thing is that the name can be misleading because Milford Sound is not a ‘sound’ at all, but actually a fiord.  What’s the difference you ask?  A sound is a valley created by rivers while a fiord is carved by glaciers.  During the last Ice Age, glaciers carved out Milford Sound, a huge U-shaped valley with towering mountains, waterfalls, and rainforests.

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This site draws more than half a million visitors each year, and is one of the country’s most popular destinations.  There are many ways to get to Milford Sound: by foot via the Milford track, by one of the many bus tours that leaves from Queenstown, by car, or even helicopter.  From Queenstown, it is a 4 hour drive, which would make a doable day-trip.  However, since we were coming from Mount Cook, which is located another 3 hours north, it would have been impossible to drive to Milford Sound and back in a day. Instead, we decided to make pit stop at Te Anau and spend the night. We stayed at the beautiful Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park, which cost $44 for a powered site overlooking the water.  Their facilities are modern and impeccably clean.  We made full use of the shower, which felt amazing after 2 days of freedom camping.

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While in Te Anau, we visited one of the glow worm caves that we heard so much about.  The massive caves were carved by an underground river sourced from Lake Orbel.  Once we were deep inside the cave, we got on a small boat that took us a little further upriver to the glowworm grotto.  Inside, it was eerily quiet as we glided across the still water.  The silence was heightened by the pitch blackness of the surroundings, limiting our senses.  It’s weird to feel myself moving as the boat glides through the grotto, but not be able to see anything. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, I started seeing the little dots of light on the ceiling, like stars from far away galaxies. The glow worms lit up like a bright starry night from the Van Gogh painting.  It was so cool, I wish I could take pictures, but all photography was prohibited in the cave.

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The very small town of Te Anau is located only two hours from the Milford Sound, allowing us more time to stop at the various scenic points along the way. We got on the famous Milford Road, which passes through stunning landscapes including mountain ranges, glacier-carved valleys, clear blue lakes and native rainforest. As we got closer to Milford Sound, it become more apparent that we were venturing into a pristine area untouched by the outside world.  There was no phone or internet, no gas stations, and no modern conveniences.  The pouring rain and thick fog, further created a mysterious atmosphere.

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Along the way we stopped at Mirror Lake, a mountain lake about a five minute stroll from the main roadOn a calm morning you’ll see a perfect reflection of the nearby Earl Mountains on the far side of the valley.  Unfortunately, when we were there on a rainy afternoon, we couldn’t see much.

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Just before you get to Milford Sound the road leads to the Homer Tunnel, an amazing achievement of the early pioneers.  Before it opened in 1954 , there was no road access to Milford Sound. This 1.2km-long tunnel was carved out of a solid rock cliff. The men building the tunnel and their families camped on site for the duration of the project.  Progress was slow, taking 19 years to complete, with difficult conditions including numerous avalanches during winter and spring. Although the tunnel is just wide enough to fit a bus and a small car, it is a one way road with traffic lights at both ends of the tunnel, allowing vehicles to pass through one side at a time.  The light can detect movement and changes every 7-10 minutes.  On a rainy day, there are cascading waterfalls down the side of the cliffs, that make it a really pretty sight.

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A little further on is another natural phenomenon, called The Chasm. The short 25 minute loop track takes you out to this  22m deep ravine carved and smoothed out by the Cleddau River. We saw the Chasm at its best just after a massive rainfall and we could hear the roaring water even before we got there.

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After 3 hours, including all our stops along the way, we finally reached Milford Sound, a tiny village of 120 people, at the end of highway 94.  The whole area consists of 3 parking lots and a Visitor Terminal building where the kiosks for the various cruise companies are located. There are five or six different tour companies offering an hour and a half tour of the Milford Sound, all with nearly identical itineraries, the only major difference is the size of the ship.  The smaller ships, with more intimate settings are more expensive.  We choose to go with Cruise Milford, a smaller boat run by a local crew.  In addition, the compact boat can easily maneuver to get up close to the waterfalls and cliffs. Parking is in the designated area, and is free of charge.  From there, it’s a short 5-10 minute walk to the center where you can board the ships.

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As we were waiting to board our ship, we walked out onto the dock to admire the beautiful landscape of sheer rocky cliffs rising out of the inky black waters.  The fog hovering over the area made this whole place looks like it was wrapped in clouds. Apparently it rains more than 200 days a year here, and it was no exception when we were there. The rain created newly formed waterfalls cascading down the cliff faces.

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We were brought onboard and introduced to our captain and crew.  The crew provided funny commentary throughout the cruise so we could learn a little about the area. They were also really friendly and made an effort to talk and get to know all the passengers.  Our boat had two levels levels, a lower and upper deck.  On the upper deck was is an interior lounge area with comfortable couches, or you can go outside to sit under a glass covered canopy. The ship also provided tea, coffee and cookies, which came in handy when we were cold and wet from being outside too long.

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As we glided across the water, we come face to face with giant mountains covered by clouds and mist. These fjords were created during the last Ice Age when the glaciers tore into the Earth and left behind these towering peaks.  The spectacular Mitre Peak, standing at 1692m tall, is one of the most well known in the area.  Another attraction to watch out for is Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls, two of the only permanent waterfalls in the fiord. As the rain continues to pour harder, water began to plummet down the side of the grey misty mountains creating many other temporary waterfalls.

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The fiord is home to fur seal colonies, penguins, and dolphins.  There are also many great white sharks around the nearby Stewart island that feed off of the seals. We didn’t see any, but we did find some lazy seals lounging on the low-lying rocks.  They seemed to be soaking in the views.

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The wind velocity picked up as we got closer to the Tasman Sea, in some parts, as high as 100 knots. Our little boat started rocking as we tried to scale the crest of each wave. Even though we were assured by the crew that this is relatively calm, it was still pretty scary.  Apparently the waves can get as high as 9 meters in the open water. I got completely soaked from head to toe. I would definitely suggest dressing warmly and wearing a rain jacket.

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The whole cruise takes an hour and 45 minutes. Since this is one of New Zealand’s most popular destinations, we figured the Milford Sound would be buzzing with boats. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was pretty quiet and we only encountered a handful of other boats along the way.

Information Round-up:

  • Distance: 530 km from  Mount Cook to Milford Sound
  • #Nights: 2
  • Accommodation: Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park– $22 NZD per person
  • Pit Stops:
    • Te Anau
    • Mirror Lake
    • Homer Tunnel
    • The Chasm
  • Tour: Cruise Milford – $ 90 NZD per person
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