Milford Sound is a thrilling highlight of any New Zealand itinerary. It’s somewhere we’ve both wanted to visit and was one of our priorities for the South Island. What we hadn’t realised was how special Doubtful Sound was, and we’ve heard Dusky Sound is too. Maybe one day we’ll get to that one. For now, we’ve experienced Doubtful and Milford and we’re extremely happy. The journey to get to Doubtful Sound was a valuable part of that experience; as was the Te Anau to Milford road.
We took our time to plan this trip, as there’s a huge variety of options once at Milford Sound. We kind of wanted the weather to be fine, for the reflections, but knowing that this is one of the highest rainfall areas in the world (around 200 days a year!), we knew we’d be lucky. Plus lots of rain = waterfalls! Our journey began on Saturday 27th March.
Leaving Te Anau
Te Anau is known as ‘the gateway to the Fjords‘. As the main township in the area, it links to almost everything and is where you’ll find the information you need at the DOC Information Centre. We hadn’t realised quite how many things there were to see along the Milford Road – “The Milford Road (also known as State Highway 94) is much more than a way to get to Milford Sound. It’s an unforgettable journey into the heart of Fiordland National Park, and just as impressive as the destination itself.”
Many people travel by coach from Te Anau or Queenstown on organised coach tours. We chose to take our time driving ourselves, with the choice to stop where and when we want. We used the Milford Road Tips for Drivers by DOC.
Here’s an overview of what’s on offer below – although a number of the highlights weren’t possible, like ‘The Chasm‘, where a slip on the path has caused it to be closed for a while now and likely for a long time to come. A real shame; we’d been eagerly anticipating that stop.
Ta Anau Downs
Te Anau Downs was our first stopping point. It would also be our last on our return journey to see a historic hut we’d missed. This is where trampers take a boat to the start of the world-famous Milford Track. A middle-aged couple and their daughter waited, about to start the Track. She must’ve been about 9 years old. What an incredible experience that would be. I recall amazing adventures around that age with my parents, walking in the Lake District.
Conservation is such a crucial concept nowadays in New Zealand. The knowledge that people in power ever thought introducing (and even protecting!) animals like stoats, ferrets, weasels and rabbits was a good thing is unimaginable. Then there’s the deer. Introduced to provide the ‘landed gentry’ with a sport. The mind boggles, and the soul despairs. These creatures have NO natural predators here and consequently thrived, happily munching their way through the native bush. It’s not their fault! In Te Anau we’d we watched a film called ‘Deer Wars‘:
“This is a story of men and machines, of incredible daring and unprecedented ingenuity set in the dangerous and unpredictable New Zealand mountains.
Over a 20 year period these helicopter pioneers turned a national ecological disaster into a major export industry – but at a cost.
Over 80 men died in the pursuit of deer and many more seriously injured.
This film celebrates this unique time when through innovation and sheer guts a few hundred Kiwis did the impossible and created the legend that became the deer wars.”https://www.fiordlandcinema.co.nz/deer-wars/
I was horrified at how grotesquely hunting and killing deer was glorified and celebrated. It’s a shameful aspect of NZ history, as far as I’m concerned, that deer were ever brought to live here just to be slaughtered.
While we were at Te Anau Downs, four deer hunters returned with massive backpacks. Three of them in full camouflage gear. They’d been across the lake hunting for a few days, living in basic huts. It’s not unusual here in New Zealand, but it was my first experience of deer hunters carrying a deer’s head (covered in a bag, thank goodness) and antlers. I chatted to the man carrying it, who told me it was a ‘rutting stag’, so the meat would be too tough for eating. I guess it’s more about the sport. Is it a male thing? I can’t comprehend any female being so cold-blooded and able to shoot one of these magnificent creatures. They may be considered a ‘pest’, but they’re beautiful.
A Misty Look at The Eglinton Valley
Our next stopping place was the Eglington Valley. The first Europeans to explore the area arrived in 1861 and named this river and valley after the British Earl of Eglinton. The road wasn’t built until 1935, allowing more visitors to experience the valley’s beauty. The Valley is home to a host of birdlife and New Zealand’s only land mammals: bats (pekapeka). This short-tailed bat is a fascinating creature – unlike other bats, it’s evolved to be able to crawl about on the forest floor and forage for food. Sadly that makes it more susceptible to predators.
Several areas in the Eglinton Valley were locations in the Lord of the Rings movies, particularly the Eglinton mountains, which represented the Misty Mountains in the Fellowship of the Ring. They were certainly misty when we were there!
We missed the lupin season, when the valley is carpeted in them. It’s part of the attraction of this area – however these flowers are an introduced species that have grown to the detriment of native ones. It’s hard to dislike them though! To my delight I found a purple one still in bloom …
Again, it wasn’t the best time of day or type of weather when we stopped here. But it was still interesting, and we managed to capture a few reflections. Unsurprisingly Barry more than me!
I did, however, spot a long-finned eel for the first time in daylight. We’d seen one at the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, but that was in the darkness without the ability to take a photo or movie. So I got one for you:
Hollyford Valley Lookout & The Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Track begins near the Hollyford Valley Lookout. We parked up to read the information boards, and could tell immediately we’d never be doing this walk – similar to the Milford Track, it takes far too much stamina for us. We now know our limits! I’m sure we could ‘train’ for either of both of these if we wanted. But I suspect we’ve got other priorities on our time.
There’s a walk to Marian falls nearby, which sounded amazing. But due to the poor visibility, there seemed little point. We parked nearby to a place you’d normally be likely to see kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, but due to the lack of overseas tourists for almost a year, there’s not many to be seen. This is positive because thoughtless people no longer feed them human food (which can be fatal). I’d still love to see one close-up and for Barry to get a decent picture of one! Maybe one day.
Three of the Ten Great Walks begin along this road. The Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler.
The Incredible Homer Tunnel
Digging the 1.2 km long Homer Tunnel began in 1935 and not completed until 1953 – with a World War in the middle not helping! Several other adverse events occurred during the build, including avalanches (widespread here in the winter, and a number of fatalities. The first private car to travel through was in the summer of 1954. The road to Milford, and the tunnel, are now open 365 days a year.
“In 1935 five men with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows began piercing the Darran Mountain Range, beginning the creation of a 1,240m long tunnel into Southland’s Cleddau Valley and the magnificent country beyond. The Homer Tunnel was an essential part of the Milford Sound to Te Anau road project – State Highway 94.https://www.engineeringnz.org/programmes/heritage/heritage-records/homer-tunnel/
Quite an unbelievable feat to dig through a massive rock mountain, with only picks and shovels, I’m sure you’ll agree! We think the 200+year-old Standedge Tunnel is amazing – the longest, highest and deepest tunnel on the UK Canal System. m
The Te Anau to Milford Road, including the Homer Tunnel, is open 24/7, 365 days a year. There are nearby engineers to keep it open whenever possible, even during the harsh winter months. However, it’s probably not advisable when there’s a risk of avalanches!
Wet weather marred our road journey experiences but caused cascading ribbons of waterfalls to appear on the mountains as if by magic. You can’t have it all ways!
Tutoko Suspension Bridge
The final stopping point before arriving at Milford Sound is the Tutoko Suspension Bridge. It’s the last surviving steel suspension bridge on this road – and was made in Great Britain, imported to New Zealand, then assembled on-site in 1940.
The water rushing underneath has that vivid blue-green glacial quality we’ve seen several times now – but never fail to be amazed by it.
Mount Tukoto, at 2723m, is Fiordland’s highest mountain. Barry has some awesome shots of this view below.
We’d intended to stay overnight at the DOC camp at Cascade Creek but forgot to get cash out, and the website booking page hadn’t loaded to book! We visited the camp to check it out – it was massive, spread over a vast area with access to the walk around Lake Gunn. As we only had $19 in cash, and it would’ve cost $15 each, we decided to continue. The weather that day wasn’t conducive to walking or seeing sights in the distance anyway. There were a few vans scattered around. It could be a cool camp on a pleasant day and the nearest DOC camp to Milford Sound, with a nearby nature walk around Lake Gunn.
Milford Lodge is a short distance from Milford Sound and at $60 for one night it was the most we’ve paid to date. But we didn’t mind as it was an amazing place. Very hospitable, welcoming, and surrounded by majesty. The facilities were first-rate. Not that we imagined we’d use them much, apart from the showers. How wrong we were! I started to cook tea only to discover we’d run out of gas! We only have one bottle in the van, unlike larger campers or motorhomes who may carry a spare. Hoorah for the Milford Sound kitchen. It was a real treat to cook in. I’d already prepared the veggies and meat for a stir fry, so we just had to carry that and our pots, pans and eating implements over.
I played with 2 and a half-year-old Elijah, whose parents originate from Middlesbrough but have lived in Wellington for a number of years.
We watched a rugby match. I knitted for a while (a possum/merino wool sleeveless top that’s now finished and gorgeous). We played Five Crowns. Then we lounged on the sofa and watched a film with Tom Cruise, ‘A Few Good Men’. An oldie but a goodie. It was such a charming evening. We would’ve been miserable and cold at the DOC camp – with no tea or heating! Actually, that’s not strictly true. We did have a camp stove and gas I could’ve cooked on, but that wouldn’t have worked the heater!
There was a late checkout time of 11 am – far more acceptable than the usual 10 am. The hot showers in the morning were spacious and divine—what an awesome place.
The Māori name for Milford Sound, Piopiotahi, means “a single piopio”. When the legendary hero Maui died trying to win immortality for his beloved people, a piopio (a long-extinct native bird) was said to have flown here in mourning. Early European settlers didn’t explore Milford Sound by boat, not realising inside its narrow entrance there was such a beautiful region to explore. In fact, it’s so well hidden Captain Cook managed to miss the entrance to the fiord twice!
In 1823 a sealer called John Grono was the first European settler to visit. He named it Milford Sound after Milford Haven, a long narrow inlet on the Welsh coast.
Milford Foreshore Walk
We parked in the free campground, about a ten-minute walk from the village. A most pleasant walk which continues as a nature walk around the ‘lake’. A tall man who obviously worked for one of the companies told me that ‘Herman’ the white heron, was in a nearby tree! Barry once again got some super shots of him – our first sighting of this beautiful bird.
Continuing along the track I started chatting to someone walking behind me, then turned around and realised it wasn’t Barry. “Oh sorry I thought you were my husband”. I said.
Sometime later, I left Barry snapping away and went into the cafe for a coffee. After a while, I spotted Barry. He’d come in and was sitting at a table across the room opposite a woman. I went over and asked what he was doing. He’d been sat looking at his phone I think. Or something. Anyway, he’d just sat down opposite a random woman (you’ll see her on the left of the doors below), and thought it was me! Hilarious. She looked nothing like me! There’s a moral to that tale but I’m not sure what it is … Anyone?
We also spotted a poster for the Naked Homer Tunnel Run that happened on 1st April. The fastest woman gets a statue of Barbie, and the fastest man one of Ken. Oh, my days! Or is this an April Fool? There’s a photo of the event on this website – https://www.roscosmilfordkayaks.com/The-Great-Annual-Nude-Tunnel-Run/ – so I guess it’s legitimate?
The Walk To The Boat
Sandflies (Te namu) were prolific and voracious around Milford. I love this story at the waiting room for the boat trips.
We learnt about another fly we’d never heard of called a Bat winged cannibal fly! The world’s rarest fly, it sounds horrendous. Thankfully we’ve not spotted or been devoured by one yet …
Southern Discoveries Discover More Cruise
We chose a Milford Sound cruise with Southern Discoveries, as they were the only company offering a visit to the Underwater Observatory with their ‘Discover More‘ cruise. It was magnificent from start to finish.
There had been five days of no rain before we got to the Sound, which for the area is drought conditions. It rained heavily overnight and intermittently during the day we were there. Which was pretty damned perfect as it meant we got some blue sky – AND waterfalls! There are only two permanent waterfalls, others spring up after rain. Fairy falls weren’t there on the morning cruise but were on ours so we went in really close.
Mitre Peak towers over the Sound and is over 1,000 feet higher than Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK at 1,683 meters high. It goes straight up from sea level whereas Ben Nevis is inland.
We saw plenty more tree avalanches scarring the mountainsides. Bowen Falls, towards the end, were spectacular.
We travelled through the Sound out to the choppy Tasman Sea with our brave skipper. Other boats turned around way before us. Water splashed over the bow. Sadly there were no dolphins or penguins around. There were only fur seals sleeping on the rocks. Apparently that’s the beauty of an overnight cruise here, as you’re likely to see them at dusk when they’re awake
We had a Glacial facial at Stirling Falls, one of the permanent waterfalls – legend has it that the water from here takes 20 years off your skin. We both got a good soaking but it didn’t seem to make much difference!
A Christchurch based company has brewed the spruce beer Captain Cook made to ward off scurvy, brewing it to the same recipe. They were selling this on board – – it would’ve been rude not to try it!
I was so happy I’d chosen this cruise, to see the underwater life was astounding! It’s anchored at Harrison Cove, the only natural anchorage in the fiord and accessible only by boat. Can you even begin to comprehend how they built this?
“There are very few places on the planet like Milford Sound’s underwater environment. Here, a phenomenon known as ‘deep-water emergence’ occurs where freshwater meets seawater and species which normally live at great depths survive in much shallower environments. Black Coral is known as a deep-sea coral, however, here in Milford Sound it is found just 10 metres below the surface.”https://www.southerndiscoveries.co.nz/milford-sound/underwater-observatory/cruise-and-underwater-observatory/
You never know what you’ll see. Sometimes there are even sharks speeding past!
We saw a purple and green scorpionfish that sits for ages camouflaged, waiting for prey to come to them. Black coral – which actually appears white due to the anemone-like creatures living on it (see above). Harry the banded rasp (seriously, some of them have been named!). Barry’s photos are brilliant – mine were hopeless so I’m not even posting any of the marine life
Back to Te Anau
The car park for the boat trips was eerily empty. Pre-COVID, it would’ve been packed with coaches. Our journey back to Te Anau was much faster, with hardly any other traffic. En route, I filmed a video of us driving through the Homer Tunnel. It was breathtaking to travel through. We’ve finally taken the plunge and started a YouTube channel of our travels around New Zealand in NZ Areandare! I suspect there’ll be an NB Areandare one appearing at some stage too if we ever get back.
We stopped only briefly at a historic hut near where the Milford Track starts, as we’d missed it on way through.
Then we stopped for diesel at Te Anau, before driving eastwards to the nearest free campground arriving in the pitch blackness. It wasn’t that late, about 8.30 pm. But the nights are drawing in now. We had had little clue where we were till next morning. It was rather delightful:
This has been another massive post! Such an incredible experience. If you’ve made it this far well done! You’ll now get the gift of the journey through Barry’s lens. As always, Barry’s photography is amazing. Click the first image to begin.