Exploring Milford Sound

After we left Stewart Island we drove back up towards Manapouri and Te Anau, with the goal of visiting Milford Sound and doing the Milford Track. All are located in Fiordland National Park, which is the largest park in New Zealand at 12,600 km2, and is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

The park is named for the many fjords located in the park. Some are true fjords and connect to the ocean, though they’ve all been misnamed as Sounds. But there are also a ton of fjords that are not connected to the ocean, so they are just called lakes. Manapouri and Te Anau are both located on lakes, though Manapouri Lake has been expanded for hydro. We made a brief stop in Manapouri for lunch and then spent the rest of the day in Te Anau. It’s a cute little town that is mainly the stopping point for people visiting Milford Sound. We did a little shopping around, as well as a tour to the Te Anau glow worm caves.

The cave is located on the other side of the lake, so the boat ride itself was a treat because we got to ride up past the scenic arms of the lake. It was a gorgeous day, but super windy on the boat, even for us Newfoundlanders who are well used to the wind. The cave was really neat. The glowworms like dark wet places and I didnt realize that the entire cave is actually filled with water. So you have to walk on elevated platforms over the cave river to get to the glowworms, but the river has created some neat water features and waterfalls along the way. It’s lit until you reach the glowworm section and then you take a little boat ride in the dark to see the glowworms. It was pretty cool to experience.

The glowworms basically secrete these little mucus “fishing lines” that hang from the ceiling and then they glow to attract flies and bugs to their lines to eat them. We watched this “wee” video about the glowworms that was surprisingly gruesome about how they eat moths from the inside out and will turn canabalistic if the other glowworms get in their way. It was kind of hilarious though because our guide delivered this information to us in the most deadpan way while we all watched the video horrified.

Milford Sound and Fiordland Park in general are one of the wettest places in New Zealand, getting on average 6700mm of rain in some parts of the park. But we got really lucky on the day we drove up there because it was a bluebird day and we had the most amazing weather. It’s about a 2 hour drive up to the Sound along the Milford Road, but we planned to have the whole day to do it and ended up taking somewhere between 4-5 hours on the way up. We stopped at every viewpoint and did a few of the short side walks along the trail to take in the views. The highlight along the road for me was definitely when you come through the Homer Tunnel.

Though the Sound was discovered in 1812, for a long time it was only accessible by boat from the coast. The Milford Track was opened by the government for guided walks in 1901, but the road wasn’t completed until the 1954. The challenge is that the mountains are very steep and there are several mountain saddles that were impossible to traverse without climbing equipment. The track was opened up after the discovery of the MacKinnon Pass in 1888, but the Milford Road required hand drilling a tunnel through the Homer Saddle to connect to the Sound. The road and tunnel are an impressive feat that took 24 years to complete. The Homer Tunnel is a one way road and when you exit through the other side you are totally surrounded by steep mountain walls on all sides as you slowly descend back into the valley through a number of switchbacks.

We finally arrived in Milford around 2 in the afternoon and did some searching around for parking since we were too cheap for the $10 an hour parking fees. It involved a bit of a walk, but we ended up really enjoying it because we weren’t in any rush and it was nice to explore the foreshore area around the Sound. There’s really not a whole lot to the Sound in reality. There’s only 1 hotel/cafe and they advise to bring all your food for the day because there’s really no where to buy it. The main activities include a boat tour or kayaking.

We opted for the boat tour, which was really the right choice because it was still really windy out on the water and I didn’t envy anyone trying to kayak in it. The boat tour takes about 2 hours and goes up to where the fjord meets the ocean and back. It passes by Mitre Peak, which is the tallest peak in the fjord. If you’ve ever seen a photo of Milford Sound, it’s likely Mitre peak as it’s one of the most photographed peaks in the world.

It is an incredibly gorgeous fjord, but I have to say, it mostly just reminded me a lot of Western Brook Pond in Newfoundland… just a lot bigger. I guess it’s just because I don’t really have anything else to compare it to. There are two permanent waterfalls in Milford; the first is Bowen Falls, which you can see from the town and supplies both drinking water and hydro to the Sound. The second waterfall is located just upstream in the fjord and descends down from this beautiful hanging valley. Supposedly the spray from the waterfall makes you 10 years younger, so I’m looking forward to starting my 20’s all over again!

We’re told that on a rainy day the fjord is even more beautiful because thousands of waterfalls start to flow down the steep mountain walls (foreshadowing). There were several temporary waterfalls left over from the rain we’d had a few days before, but not quite to the same magnitude. We did get to see some hanging gardens growing along the cliffside and I found it interesting to learn that theres a huge fault line that runs right across the south island that you can actually see coming down the mountain.

We did the drive back in much better time than the drive out, but we did pull out at a rest stop before the homer tunnel to make dinner and ended up finally seeing one of the infamous Kea. The Kea is an alpine parrot that is notorious for wreaking havoc on people – stealing your food or wrecking your car while you’re off skiing in the mountains. We saw two, one of which was just hanging out in the middle of road and then hung around us the entire time we were eating dinner, we had to scare it off twice.

But all in all it made for a very eventful trip up to the Sound and we can definitely see why people from all over the world flock there to see its beauty!