Rainy, remote and beset by sandflies, the star of New Zealand’s Fiordland still feels thrillingly wild
Suddenly I had a flashback – to myself as a wee boy, aged seven, face pressed against the rear windscreen while being driven through Scotland’s Glencoe for the first time.
This time, I was on the other side of the world, but as I headed into the heart of New Zealand’s Fiordland, that same child-like feeling, long lost, of pure, unadulterated awe came rushing back. I knew the road to Milford Sound was good – but this good?
A corridor of bush-clad ranges fringing the flat tussock plains of the Eglinton River Valley gradually converged and State Highway 94 became like some flimsy thread thrown through the eyes of massive granite needles. Subtly, inevitably, the winding ascent began, past the brooding Lake Gunn to ‘The Divide’, departure point for the Routeburn Track and Key Summit.
I wanted to walk that, after I’d climbed that, and that...
Onwards the thread went, at this point so overshadowed by sheer, bare rock faces all shedding themselves of the last downpour, that awe was joined by an uneasy sense of humbling.
Then, amidst a cloak of peaks, the thread stopped below a solid wall of granite. A dark, ominous hole marked the entrance to ‘ol’Homey’, more drain than tunnel. I switched on the headlights and went for it.
And what of the thread beyond? The ‘other side’? That first view of mile-high Mitre Peak, Bowen Falls and Milford Sound, where the adjectives forever fail?
Well, let’s just say for a while I lived there and, for much of that time, felt like a child again.
Fiordland is a vast wilderness of glaciated mountain landforms uplifted directly from the sea along the Alpine Fault Line and indented by remote inlets. Although named as sounds (drowned river valleys) by early navigators, including Captain James Cook, all of the coastal inlets in Fiordland are in fact fiords (glacial valleys with steep sides).
Maori people arrived from the Pacific Islands around 1,000 years ago and reached Milford Sound overland via the same route as the Milford Track. Their main motivation was to gain access to bowenite – a prized rock used for ornamentation, weaponry and tools.
Since European settlement Milford Sound has become the jewel in the crown of Fiordland National Park, designated in 1952. At a total of 12,500 sq km it is the largest national park in New Zealand (in fact, one of the largest in the world) and forms a major part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area.
The 120km road from Te Anau to Milford Sound (SH94) is often lauded as one of the most scenic highways in the world, reaching a height of almost 1,000m and including the 1.2km Homer Tunnel.
Welsh whaler John Grono named Milford Sound in the early 1800s after his hometown, Milford Haven. The Maori name for the sound is Piopiotahi, which means ‘one native thrush’.
The best way to experience Milford is independently – stay at least two nights so you can take your time, absorbing the incredible scenery of SH94 as well as the sound itself. It also gives you a better roll of the dice regarding the weather.
Though highly commercial, it would be rude not to take a cruise. There are several cruise options from the ‘bums on seats’ catamarans to the smaller, more personalised vessels. The smaller ones are recommended, if only to avoid the feeling you are just a daily statistic.
If you can afford it, and if the weather allows, a scenic flight is an unmissable experience. The majority of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft fly in from Queenstown with innumerable options to fly-in, coach-out, fly-cruise-coach and so on.
A bus-cruise-fly option costs around NZ$500 (£185). A cheaper option is to take a helicopter flight with local veterans Jeff or Snow of Milford Helicopters.
A guided kayaking trip allows you to get a far more up-close experience of the sound. Try the long-established Rosco’s. Better still, if you are experienced, hire your own and paddle out on a clear midwinter’s night with a full moon.
If a night out on the sound appeals, join one of Real Journeys’ overnight cruises. There are three modern vessels of varying sizes, sleeping from 12 to 60. This trip combines all the aesthetic highlights of the day cruises with more time for wildlife watching (dolphins are often encountered), boat-based kayaking and a rather staged group session listening to the famous ‘sound of silence’. Prices (including meals) range from NZ$158 (£60) to NZ$210 (£80) depending on season.
Although the sound may seem dark and empty there is an abundance of marine life clinging to its precipitous edges, forming a unique niche in the mix of fresh and salt water. Rare black coral is also found in the sound. Tawaki Adventures offers daily dive trips from $139/£51 ($169/£63 from Te Anau).
If total submersion doesn’t appeal, view the black coral and an array of colourful species at the Milford Deep Underwater Observatory. To do so you can join a Red Boat Cruise (NZ$28/£10.50 extra).
To escape the crowds go riverside at Little Tahiti, a little-known spot near the Milford Sound Lodge. This is a quiet section of the Cleddau River with awesome views of 2,746m Mt Tutuko, Fiordland’s highest peak. You may also see a pair of blue duck, a rare species native to New Zealand’s wilderness areas. Ask the staff at Milford Sound Lodge for directions.
If there’s one consistent complaint from visitors to Milford (other than the sandflies, the rain, or both) it’s that their visit is all too fleeting. In order to fully experience the place, consider a longer stay as a casual staff member with one of the major cruise companies, or at The Milford Sound Lodge. The latter offers various lodge positions in the high season and also runs a volunteer work scheme (usually about four hours a day) in return for food and accommodation. It’s hard work, but well worth it.
The most eagerly anticipated event in Milford is the ‘Nude Homer Tunnel Fun Run’. In essence, it’s a mad dash (or a casual perambulation) in the buff from one end of the tunnel to the other. The prize? An engraved Barbie doll – naked and in running position, naturally!
The most pressing problem facing Milford is the steadily increasing and unsustainable numbers of visitors – more than 550,000 people a year. Despite this, attempts are continuously being made to develop the area and make it easier for visitors to reach.
In recent years developers have pursued various options of shortcutting the distance to Milford from Queenstown. Proposals have included a gondola route, a new tunnel via Glenorchy and a monorail via Lake Wakatipu. All would reduce the current round-trip duration, increase visitor numbers and decrease their independence. While the gondola looks doomed after the Department of Conservation refused it for environmental reasons, the two other options are still on the table.
Milford’s status as a World Heritage Site and its relative inaccessibility have saved it from the worst of mass tourism so far, but the future of the sound still hangs in the balance.
Adam Brierley, manager, Milford Sound Lodge
What is it like to live in one of the wettest places on the planet?
After growing up in Manchester I am used to grey wet days but rain in Milford Sound offers something very different. Rain brings the environment here alive: the waterfalls wake up, the rivers rage and the rainforest becomes green and lush. So be excited if the forecast is for rain!
What are the highs of living in such a remote environment?
Living in such a stunning location with wilderness on your doorstep. The outdoor opportunities of kayaking, walking and climbing attract an interesting, diverse mix of people to come and work here. The small community (200 in summer, 50 in winter) creates great friendships.
Any advice for those travelling to Milford Sound?
If possible drive yourself in rather than taking a bus trip. This allows you to take your time along the majestic Milford Road where there are many great stops to cherish.
A trip outside peak season (April to October) or staying overnight will allow you to enjoy the serenity of Milford Sound without the crowds. As darkness falls look up and see the starlit night sky in all its glory.
How do you live with those blasted sandflies?
It sounds bizarre but gradually you become used to them and the bites become less irritating. Saying that, there are certain times of day (dusk and dawn) when only a mad dog would be brave enough to go outside!
When to go Milford’s weather is notoriously fickle. Peak season is November to March, when the sound hosts up to 2,000 visitors a day. April/May and September/October are less crowded. Winter is the best time to visit – from June to August you often get clear, crisp days (but take your thermals).
Do be prepared for rain at any time of year Milford comes a close second to the mountains of Tahiti in recording the highest rainfall in the world. But don’t let that put you off: a torrential deluge can add to the drama of the place, swelling waterfalls to frightening capacity. The best way around this is to hope for the best but don’t be too disappointed if you get grey skies rather than tourist-board blues. Check the forecast at www.metservice.co.nz.
Getting there Milford is 120km from Te Anau and 307km from Queenstown. There are numerous public transport options via SH94 and by air (or combinations thereof). Note, SH94 reaches a height of more than 1,000m so care is required and chains must be carried in winter; hire is available in Te Anau.
Park information As yet there is no entry fee to the Fiordland National Park. The Department of Conservation has offices in Queenstown and Te Anau and offers hiking and short walks information. For general information log on to www.fiordland.org.nz. For road conditions refer www.milfordroad.co.nz.
Where to stay Beyond the Milford Track and overnight cruise packages Milford Sound has only one accommodation option. Milford Sound Lodge offers hard tent (NZ$15/£5.60pp) and powered sites (NZ$18/£6.70pp) for campers plus dorm rooms (NZ$28/£10.50pp) and double rooms (NZ$70/£26 per room) with shared facilities. It also has a small shop, laundry and internet.
Gunn’s Camp (8kms off SH94 along the Hollyford Road and 30 minutes before Milford Sound) offers a fine alternative and is a gem of a place, offering basic huts with stoves (sleeping up to six) as well as campsites (from NZ$15/£5.60pp). There are basic cooking facilities, hot showers, a well-stocked shop and fuel. There’s no phone – just turn up before 6pm.
The Department of Conservation also has several designated campsites along SH94 but none are less than 40 minutes from Milford Sound.
The sandflies are legendary in Milford – bring insect repellent
Carry spare fuel and fill up in Te Anau. Fuel is available in Milford and Hollyford, but it is expensive. Also, if arriving independently by road join the AA in case of breakdown; in winter, carry chains.
If you do not have your own transport the coach-in and fly-out (or reverse) option is recommended. Note: it is a five-hour road trip to Milford from Queenstown, one-way!
For the best photographs get yourself to the waterfront for dawn, preferably in calm conditions and at high tide. If you’re serious about getting the perfect shot allow four days – the weather is unpredictable.
Watch out for keas, native alpine parrots. They hang around car parks on SH94 and will eat anything (windscreen-wiper rubber is a particular favourite).