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.

Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island (Part 3) – Into the Sounds

November 2021

After a relatively good sleep despite the rolling (or pitching as we boat people say lol), we woke up in a perfectly calm inlet of Open Cove, at the entrance to Thompson Sound.  Of course, my phone still thinks I am in Vladivostok and after asking around, it appears this is the first time it has happened, and no one seems to know what’s up 🤔.  I continued my morning coffee with a view this morning, this time my view was of beautiful cloud topped mountains flowing down into the sea. 

We were out in the zodiacs by 9am and we zipped around the northern end of the sound and then down a beautiful Pandora River. As with yesterday, the tide was on our side, otherwise we would not have got very far down the shallow river.   It was beautiful and peaceful, and the river was lined with beautiful bush including flowering rata, kamahi and orchids.  We were welcomed to the wonderful Fiordland weather with sun, rain and hail all in about 30 minutes 🤔.  It seemed crazy as it was not that cold.  Another great Fiordland feature was also out to greet us – sandflies, so many sandflies!!  Luckily, we were pretty much covered from head to toe with our wet weather gear so there was not a lot of opportunity from them to bite.

From Pandora River, we continued on our expedition to Neck Cove where we jumped out in the shallows and went for a bit of a bush whack … a serious bush whack in some cases where there were no tracks at all. (FYI bush whacking normally refers to walking through the bush where there is actually no track – I guess it means you have to ‘whack’ away the bush lol.)  It was fun and the bush was beautiful though it took some time to find a decent route out to the beach (avoiding the swamp), but we finally made it back and on to the boat for time to dry off before lunch.  As we ate the ship headed into Blanket Bay, part of Doubtful Sound, where we dropped anchor.

After lunch we were back out in the zodiacs for a couple of hours zipping around the bays of Secretary Island with a short stop on one of the small beaches.  Secretary Island is one of New Zealand’s most important islands for conservation as it has always been free of possums and rodents.  Subsequently it has been cleared of deer and stoats (a great challenge given the very steep and densely forested slopes) making it one of the largest pest free islands and populations of endangered species have been relocated there.

It is interesting how localised weather is in this region.  We could watch the rain showers pass down the valleys and across the fiord (and across us too of course 🥴) but thankfully there was not too much rain and we did not get too wet.

We had another evening recap before dinner, and boy what a dinner it was.  We had passed a couple of small crayfishing operations during the day and the chef had taken it upon himself to negotiate a large number of crays for 2 bottles of Russian vodka (I did hear numerous versions of what it he actually swapped for the crays, but in every version, Russian vodka was gratefully received by these remote fishermen lol).  The fresh crayfish went down a treat with my fellow passengers – if only I liked crayfish lol.

Why are some areas called ‘Sounds” and others ‘Fiords” I hear you ask?  It is an interesting question, and I was keen to learn that a Sound is a drowned river valley whilst a Fiord is formed in a valley left behind by a glacier … of course in Fiordland, there was once many glaciers along the coastline.

After dinner I headed back on deck as it was a stunning evening to leave Doubtful Sound and head back out to the ocean as the sun set – but I did have to make sure I was back in my bed before we got out past the headlands and it got rough again 🥴

Day 5 and we work up in Cascade Cove in Dusky Sound, having travelled through the Acheron Passage during the night.  I had slept well again with only a few hours of rolling during the night and it was yet another beautiful morning, a perfect morning for the helicopter flight some of us had booked.

I was in the first group that set of in the zodiac to the floating helipad and into the helicopter.  We then flew up the sound and landed on the top of Mt Pender (at 1100m above sea level) where we were met by Ross, an ex-senior DOC ranger who told us all about the region.  From here there was spectacular views of Dusky Sound and some of the 360 islands it contains.

Despite being almost summer, there had been some snow on the peaks of the mountains around us and it there was definitely a brisk chill in the area.  Too soon our time on the top was over and we could also see a weather front coming in from the sea as we headed back to the barge for the next group to go up.  It was such a special experience, and I was certain that my photos would not do it justice (I was right)!

We had a quick zodiac cruise around Pickersgill Harbour and the historic Astronomers Point before heading back to ship.  Astronomers Point is the site of a temporary observatory set up during Capitan Cooks second voyage in 1773.  It is significant because they were testing new technology and it was considered the most accurately located place on the globe at the time.

Cook and his crew, having just sailed through Antarctica, cleared about an acre of forest and set up camp for provisioning and ship repairs.  They even set up a brewery, using Rimu and manuka leaves to make beer with the hope of preventing scurvy during their 5 week stay.

Having had an early start, we were all back on board before 10am and we set sail deeper into Dusky Sound It was beautiful travelling down the sound with snow-capped mountains in various shades of blue and grey.  We sailed through Cooks Passage and past Long Island, through water so clear you could see the Little Blue penguins popping up from time to time, as well as see them swimming under water!

We anchored just off Cooper Island in Sportsman Cove and had time for a pre-lunch zodiac cruise, passing the tiny but beautiful Shags Island which was covered in flowering Rata.  Have I mentioned the sand flies 🥴🤔🥴 – we were keen not to stop for very long as every time we did, the sandflies would swarm in!  Despite that, it was wonderful to be completely surrounded by native bush.  (It was frustrating that my maps were still showing that I was in a Russia as I had planned to use them to pinpoint our location in these small coves and bays 🤦🏻‍♀️.)

As we had lunch we started sailing again.  I must say, meals were always interesting as there was a great mix of people on board.  Most were very well travelled, many were very experienced trampers, other were birders and/or botanists and about half had been on Heritage Expedition trips before.

A weather front was moving in as we sailed down the Acheron Passage, the wind picked up as we watched the rain travel down the valleys.   Thankfully the sea was not as we were in still in the sheltered fiords and by late afternoon, we were anchored in the protected Duck Cove.
The day finished with a great lecture from one of our guides, Lindsay Wilson.  Lindsay has a long history of working with the Department of Conservation in the Fiordland area and gave us some wonderful insights into conservation in the Dusky Sound area.

Fiordland National Park is the largest national park in New Zealand, established in 1952 and it plays an incredibly important role in conservation in New Zealand.  In fact, it is considered the birthplace of conservation when in 1890, when Richard Henry set up a New Zealand’s first island sanctuary on Resolution Island and single handedly rowed more than 500 Kakapo and kiwi to this and other island sanctuaries in the area.    (FYI Resolution Island is New Zealand’s 5th largest island.)  He even used a muzzled dog to help him track down the birds on the mainland.

Unfortunately, he had underestimated the distance stoats, ferrets and weasels could swim, however his techniques of using conservation dogs and relocating endangered species to predator free islands is still key to New Zealand’s conservation efforts today.

Today a number of the islands in Fiordland have been cleared of pests and in fact Anchor Island today is home to half the world’s population of Kakapo!! (I should note that of course they are endemic to New Zealand and therefore the entire world’s population is in New Zealand lol)

I looked forward to exploring the area more in the morning.