The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is about 120 km, about 2-2.5 hour trip. There are multiple places to stop along the way but our plan was to reach Milford Sound without stopping. Our Cruise via Go Orange was scheduled for 9 am which meant we had to report at the terminal at least by 8:40 am.
After spending most of the night intermittently attending to the laundry, we were ready to leave by 6:30 am. Most motels in NZ are family run businesses and as such, involves the owners living on the premises. Business hours typically start at 8 am, so we took care of all check out items the night before and left the key on the dining table for the owner. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Arran Motel but it was time to move on.
The Te Anau-Milford Sound Highway is one of the most beautiful stretches we have ever driven on. A two lane highway, the roads were in good repair and well maintained, as they were in the rest of the country. Cell phone coverage is non-existent as is fuel for the cars and humans. So we had filled gas the evening before. As always on South Island, we dressed in layers and brought our sunscreen and sandfly repellent along. We had sufficient food and water for the drive.
Milford Sound is the smaller and more popular sister of Doubtful Sound, also part of the Fiordland National Park and World heritage Site. It’s probably the most famous and iconic of all Kiwi places. Set on the northernmost part of the Fiordland National Park and the only one accessed by road, Milford Sound is renowned for its amazing vistas. As with its sister fiord, the waters conceal a wide range of diverse flora and fauna. Black coral trees are numerous here and interestingly, marine life is found at a much shallower depth compared to other places in the world. Tannins washed down by the rainfall from the soil of the rainforests give the water a tea color and allow for the marine life to flourish undisturbed. The tallest peak at Milford is Mitre peak, at nearly 1700 meters (5100 feet).
Other than by road, Milford Sound can be accessed by a multiday walk from Te Anau, by helicopter from Queenstown. One can take the cruise like we did, or choose to kayak. Our cruise was two hours in all but felt longer. There are three major walking tracks from the area, Milford, Kepler and Routeburn.
The only stop we allowed along the Milford Highway was a brief one at Mirror Lakes. On a clear day, the lake reflects the surrounding mountains in perfect symmetry. There was a light breeze that morning, but I managed a quick picture hoping to stop on the way back. We made our way past Eglinton valley, the Knob flats. About 20-30 km before the end, we couldn’t help but ooh and ahh our way past the valley shrouded in the early morning mist amidst vast granite mountains rising steadily to the sky. After the first few minutes, we stopped taking photos to simply immerse ourselves in the nature surrounding us. The best of cameras would make a poor substitute for the pictures in our hearts and memories.
The best man-made part of the whole trip was driving through the Homer Tunnel. Completed in 1953, this tunnel was carved through hard, granite rocks to allow access to Milford Sound. Situated about 945 m above sea level, there are traffic lights at each end that control the flow of traffic. It was an amazing experience driving through the tunnel. The Kiwis have done an amazing job, maintaining the balance between preserving the natural beauty of their land and yet making small but key changes with technology that allows us to see and enjoy and experience these far-flung places.
We drove up to the Discover Milford Sound Information center and Cafe with just enough time to grab a cup of coffee and freshen up. Then we walked about ten minutes to the Terminal to grab our tickets and boarded our catamaran. It was a bright and sunny morning with a chill in the air, magnified by the cold waters around us.
As with the cruise the previous day, we stayed out on deck most of the trip, taking photos, enjoying the crisp, cold, pure air. The morning sunlight did little to allay the cold seeping through our jackets. Mitre Peak remained hidden behind a cover of clouds most of the trip. We briskly made our way to the choppy waters of the Tasman Sea and then paused to click photos of the entrance to the Sound as we turned around to head back. There were several people kayaking and we saw several helicopters ferrying tourists back and forth.
The captain pointed out several fur seals sunning themselves on a rock. Further on, the boat moved close to Stirling Falls, one of the permanent falls in the area. A 155 meters (465 ft) nearly vertical drop, the water was frigid, numbing, exhilarating! Its said that these falls have been in this area for over 15,000 years. For being that ancient, these falls are lithe, powerful and pretty as they run plunge down over the edge of the sheer cliff face.
As we traveled further down, the crew pointed out the multiple layers in the rock formations around us, like smooth steps, attesting to different era of geological changes. The power of wind, water and time over several centuries. Slow but persistent change. It’s interesting to think that long after I am gone, these powers will still be at play, changing and evolving the landscape.
We passed the observatory which would have been fun to explore. There is an alternative cruise that includes a trip to the observatory and underwater explorations. But with a nearly 5 hour drive back to Queenstown, it wasn’t on our cards. So we rode past, eventually making our way to Bowen falls, another permanent falls in this area and the closest to the docking area.
With our cruise completed, we bid goodbye to Mitre Peak and Bowen and Stirling Falls. There was a tinge of regret as we may never make it back to these places again. After cruising Doubtful Sound, we didn’t find Milford Sound as exciting or amazing. Perhaps, as Missy JJ put it, if we had traveled here first, we would have appreciated it more. But coming as it did after the trip to Doubtful, it was a shade lesser in all aspects.
Back at the Discover Milford Sound Information Center and Cafe, we enjoyed a hot lunch of vegetarian soups from the cafe with some flat breads and dip that we had brought along. We also tried the Proper Parsnip crisps that are locally made on the South Island, they were light, crispy and amazingly chockfull of flavor. One bag just wasn’t enough!
On our way back from Milford Sound, we stopped at The Chasm. This is an easy 20 minute walk across the Cleddau River to see the power of water at play. Over thousands of years, water has sculpted wonderful forms and shapes in the rocks. Just seeing the powerful water swirling on its journey is sheer hypnotism at its best. We stopped again at Mirror Lakes on our way back, but unfortunately, it was still too breezy, causing a rippling effect. So we enjoyed watching the ducks play in the water and the vista of the surrounding mountains before heading out.
At Te Anau, we stopped at the Bailiez Cafe to grab a flat white and to refresh before our two-hour drive back to Queenstown. The weather stayed warm and sunny all day, and we reached Copthorne Hotel around 6:30 pm. The hotel was a little dated, there were several steps leading from the parking garage entrance to our floor that we had to navigate with our suitcases. The room itself was spacious and we had a small terrace overlooking the main road and the lake beyond that. After a hot dinner from the in-house restaurant, we hit the bed earlier than the sun that evening. All in all, a very satisfying day.