Milford Sound and homeward bound

June 2022

Part 2 of my Fiordland roadie saw be setting off from Te Anau on my adventure to the world famous Milford Sound, another misnamed fiord, but probably the most well known. There was supposed to be lots to see on the 120km drive so I gave myself plenty of time to catch the 1 pm boat. 

Unfortunately, about halfway into my drive the forecasted rain came down hard, meaning a number of my stops were very short and others could not happen at all.   The so called Mirror lakes had no mirror but it was still a beautiful wetland with mountain views and I took a few other quick photos out of the car window of the changing landscapes lol.

Despite the rain and low cloud, it was still a stunning drive surrounded by snow-capped peaks and waterfalls everywhere cascading down the side of the cliffs around me.  It’s worth noting that the road is often closed in the winter months due to snow and the risk of avalanches, but thankfully not this day!

The gateway to Milford is through the one way Homer tunnel (which was a little bit scary) – construction on the tunnel started in 1935, 5 men with pickaxes carving away at the rock.  In all, it took 19 years of what was basically hard labour in harsh conditions (with a short interlude for WWII) to complete the 1.2 km tunnel through the Darran mountain range (part of the Southern Alps). 

The tunnel opened in 1954 and although it is wide enough for a bus and a small vehicle to pass each other, traffic lights operate to keep it flowing one way at a time (particularly during the busy months when there are lots of large tourist buses going backward and forward).

As you exit the tunnel through the bare rock tunnel, it is like arriving in a new world. Incredible views down the Cleddau Valley and noise of rushing water from all the waterfalls surrounding me.  It is not uncommon for the weather to be different from one side of the tunnel to the other – I guess that is not that odd as you are basically crossing the mountain range.  It is not far from here, down the steep winding road in to the ‘town’ of Milford Sound.

Because I did not stop as much as I had planned, I arrived early and hoped I would be able to catch an earlier boat, but it was just pulling out as I arrived at the pier.  You should probably know that you have to park about 10-15 minutes’ walk away – and that you have to pay $25 for that pleasure!!  I guess the massive car park near the wharf is reserved for all the buses??  Today, it sits eerily empty.  I can’t image how horrible it would be if the massive bus park was filled with buses and thousands of people. 

As I had a couple of hours to kill, I took some time to wander around near the wharf.   Turns out I was lucky to have this time as the rain stopped for a while and the cloud had cleared enough that I got a beautiful view of the fiord and Mitre Peak even a little blue sky adding to some lovely reflections.  I spotted a beautiful white heron or Kōtuku and … wait for it …. a double rainbow 🌈🌈.

Māori people discovered the sound over 1000 years ago, trekking over the mountains to fish, hunt and collect pounamu or green stone.  These traditional tracks now form part of today’s Milford Track.

Early European settlers didn’t realise that the sound flowed out to the sea and in fact, the sea entrance is so well hidden, Captain Cook missed it twice on his explorations of the New Zealand coastline.  It was settled by a Scotsman called Donald Sutherland in 1877, and he lived there alone envisaging a large city being built.  He was joined by his new wife in 1890 and they built the first hotel in Milford Sound to accommodate people arriving on what is now the Milford Track.   It was even visited by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890’s who declared it ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.

The opening of the Homer Tunnel in 1954 bought with its hordes of visitors with much easier road vehicle access.

As well as it’s natural beauty, Milford Sound is known for its sandflies.  They say people there are very friendly and always waving at people passing by – of course they are not waving at people, they are trying to wave away the sandflies.  Thankfully they are nowhere near as bad in the winter but still making their presence known.  I loved the Māori legend of the sandfly or Te Namu ….

As the legend goes, the demigod Tū Te Rakiwhānoa carved the fiords of Fiordland with his digging stick, culminating with his finest masterpiece of Piopiotahi or Milford Sound.  When Hine-nui-te-po, the Goddess of death inspected his work, she feared that it was so beautiful, humans would forget their mortality when they looked upon it.  So she introduced sandflies or Te Namu to remind them not to linger!!  Whatever the reason, I think it was pretty successful lol.

Back outside the Ferry terminal (under cover of course), I had my lunch.  It was beautiful listening to the light (and sometimes heavy) rain falling, nearby waterfalls and the distance bird song. 

Not surprisingly, Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on earth with an annual rainfall of 6,700mm!!!  And the cloud came down as I waited for my boat … then they changed boats at the last minute to a much smaller one (apparently the other one was having engine trouble) and it did not look anywhere near as good with not so many outdoor covered areas, but they did give us a free coffee voucher 🥴🤔😂

It was a far cry from the picture perfect day on Doubtful Sound, but everyone tells me that a rainy day in Milford is a good day as all the waterfalls are turned on and there were so many waterfalls and crazy blue/turquoise water. 

There were gannets soaring around and the other 2 or 3 boats around the sound showed just how vast the mountains around us were.  The boats take you right up to the big waterfalls – so close you could get pretty wet if you stood right at the front of the boat.  😂🤦🏻‍♀️

The rain got heavier as we headed back toward the ferry terminal, and you could barely make out the mountains around us.  It was misty and moody and also kind of cool.   The final stop was to see Bowen Falls.  A large waterfall near the ‘town’ that actually provides fresh water for the area. 

I was glad I was not driving back to Te Anau today … instead it was time to check in to Milford Sound lodge, the only open accommodation in Milford Sound and it does not come cheap! One night here was more expensive than 5 nights at my lovely 70’s motel room back in Te Anau, but we all have to treat ourselves from time to time, right? 

It was a lovely room, looking out over the rushing river and I was treated to rain, a rainbow and the most incredible thunderstorm with the thunder bouncing off the surrounding mountains.   I must say I had an amazing night’s sleep. 

The following morning, breakfast was delivered to the room, and I ate it looking out at my beautiful view and even though it was still raining I quickly then donned my rain poncho and drove down to the free park to do the lovely waterfront walk.  (I could have done it from the hotel but a slippery log as a bridge across a raging stream put me off.)

I had thought about finding the ‘Insta famous’ swing but it was raining, and I could not be bothered … I still had stunning views from everywhere.  There was really no need for a man made swing in front of it lol.

To drive on the road to Milford Sound in the winter you must carry chains (for your car tyres), thankfully I didn’t need them, but snow was forecast for the next day and I did see that the road was closed so I was definitely lucky with the weather (despite all the rain). 🥶❄️🌨

Speaking of rain, there was more torrential rain to come on the way home, as well as a low mist and a temperature of -4C!!!  But the cloud lifted as I passed the Mirror Lakes again, so I stopped to see if they were better than the day before … and they were much better – not perfect but still beautiful and worth the stop. 

For my last day in Te Anau, I had my final tour with RealNZ to see the Glow worm caves (I purchased a package that included the Doubtful Sound tour, the boat trip in Milford Sound and this tour and it was well worth it).  It was also nice not to have to drive for a day.

And so, I boarded another boat, this time from Te Anau, again a big boat with not a lot of people and we sailed across the lake.  Have I mentioned that Lake Te Anau is New Zealand’s second largest lake, and it is 66km long and a maximum depth of 417m.  Like the fiords in the area, it has been formed by glaciers that use to cover the area.

Upon disembarking, we headed up to a small information centre where we had a short briefing before we walked the short distance to the cave system.  The glow worm caves are 250m long and part of a much larger Aurora Cave system.  Carved from limestone, starting 30-35 million years ago and continuing today, the section we visited is only around 12,000 years old. 

A short way into the caves we boarded a small boat and floated through the caves in pitch black admiring the 100s of worms and their little glowing strings.  Unfortunately we could not take photos in this part of the caves so as to not disturb the glow worms so you will just have to take my word for how good it was. 

I have been to glow worm caves before, but I was not aware that they are actually endemic to New Zealand.  There is a different species that can be found in Australia, but they are nowhere else in the world.  What special little worms (actually larvae) they are lol.

There was a nice little bush walk and a beautiful view back across the lake to the snowy mountains before the boat trip back across the lake and another lake front walk in the sunshine.

Friday morning and my time in the south had come to the end so I hit the road north.  There were weather warnings for most of the South Island, including snow, so I was glad I had picked a different route home – it is longer but avoided the highest passes and thankfully it meant I did not have delays or issues because of snow or ice.

I passed through a number of small Otago towns, some with some pretty big claims e.g. Mossburn = Deer Capital of New Zealand, Lumsden = The Hub of Northern Southland and let’s not forget Heriot = Where Great Things begin.🤔

As I crossed from Southland into Otago, the rolling farmland turned in to orchards and then down through historic mining towns.  I stopped off in the tiny town of St Bathans where I had lunch in the famous Vulcan Hotel (built in 1882)– allegedly the country’s most famous haunted building and then headed to Naseby, another small ex-mining town.  Oh, and apparently Naseby is “2000ft above worry’s”!

I ended up in Wedderburn where I was staying the night.  If I thought St Bathans and Naseby were small, Wedderburn was a ‘blink and you miss it’ kind of place.  It was basically a pub and a town sign. 

I was staying in the cute little cottages of Wedderburn Cottages with a lovely view over farmland out to snow topped hills.  It was run by a fourth generation Central Otago farming family, and it was a lovely spot to spend the night with a sky full of stars – not sure I have seen them since my first night 😂

I started my drive home on a beautiful but freezing morning.  There was not too much to see on this route, but I did stop by a lovely old stone bridge (I am a sucker for a reflection) – it turns out that this was Bowker Bridge, the last of the arched original stone bridges on the old coach road.  It was actually in use until 1962 when the new bridge was opened. 

I swapped the snowy mountains for the coastal road, and I had no plan to stop on the way up the coast, but I could not resist a quick boulder stop at Moeraki.  It was such a beautiful morning, and I was the only person on the beach, so I was so glad I stopped.  A perfect last stop on perfect trip.