So today was the day we hoped finally to make it to the top tourist destination, Milford Sound. Would the road open in time, would we be able to go on a cruise on the Sound, what would Milford Lodge be like? The day dawned promisingly in Te Anau, and a few calls suggested the road would be opening soon, once they’d cleared a fallen tree further up. We therefore decided to set off, hoping that the road would be open by the time we reached the potential barrier.
The Homer Tunnel – inquisitive Keas
The road to Milford Sound from Te Anau is a beautiful and dramatic drive, culminating in the passage through the Homer Tunnel, a single track, and steeply graded (10%) tunnel with traffic light control. The main issue with road safety is that the waiting area for traffic passing through the tunnel towards Milford Sound is in an area of potential rock fall / landslide and avalanche, and waiting times for the traffic lights can be up to 15 minutes. Prior to arrival at the tunnel mouth, there are various view points and car parks, including one which is famous for its kea (mountain parrots). These will happily munch away at door seals and windscreen wipers, so it’s best to be careful. They will also dutifully pose for photos. These are fully wild birds though, so treat them properly and carefully.
Onwards and downwards
Milford Sound itself is very famous, partly because if its relative accessibility, compared with (say) Doubtful Sound or Dusky Sound. The views as you come down from Homer Tunnel open up to the famous vista of Mitre Peak. TOP TIP: as the day goes on, the temperature differences between ocean and mountain can cause increased wind speeds in the afternoons – if you want the glassy reflective photos as here, best to take those before your boat trip, as the water is often much rougher in the afternoon. This was our experience, and we were told it is a very regular occurrence.
We also discovered another advantage to our approach to getting there by car and setting off early – we’d beaten all the coach tours in arriving, and as the road had been closed for a number of days prior, there was no-one in the hotels either (except the odd hardy walker). This meant that we could pop straight down to the boat terminal, and book ourselves onto the cruise of our choice (which was an extended morning nature cruise, right to the mouth of the fiord (Sound).
For those perhaps more used to Norwegian Fjords, and entering them on a cruise ship, the the Milford Sound experience is very different. Whilst undoubtedly a beautiful spot, the lack of other similar locations, and the fact that this is very much on the tourist route for practically every south island tourist, does give the tiny settlement and the fiord itself somewhat a theme-park ambiance. There are constant coach arrivals, and so many of the small fiord-cruise vessels plying the waters, that there isn’t really much in the way of peace once the day gets going (our early arrival did at least give us a taste of that, and we’d be staying over that evening too). I would definitely recommend this approach over the organised tour purely on that basis (although you run the risk of not getting on a cruise trip).
The boat trip
The boat trip itself was really good fun, and whilst all these trips are relatively expensive, the trip we chose represented good value, and was one of the few “paid for” excursions we did during our time on the South Island. There are a variety of trips available, and whilst things have likely changed since we visited, there is plenty of information. We took one of the longer duration nature cruises, allowing the boat to nestle under waterfalls, and to spend time observing the seals and the shags and other wildlife in a leisurely fashion.
The boat had plenty of space, and the commentary was very informative, pointing out the views etc. Ponchos were available for the wet moments under the waterfalls.
One thing not to expect on Milford Sound is much in the way of tranquility. We were there in mid-December (peak summer season), and hence there was always another boat or two in sight. The village has a short airstrip, and there were a number of plane movements too.
After the boat trip
We had originally planned two nights in Milford Sound, so we’d have a whole day there. However, as previously mentioned, we’d had an unexpected delay in Te Anau as the road was closed. The Milford Lodge, which looks as though it’s had a bit of an upgrade since we stayed was our choice for the night, and provided an inexpensive option (admittedly not en suite). We’d remember to bring some food essentials (self catering all the way here) with us in the car, and the only real set back was the moment when i poured all of our pasta into the sink whilst draining it! Managed to wash it all down and rescue it though, whilst the other residents failed to hide their mirth!
Prior to that little escapade, we’d had a lovely walk around some of the local footpaths, in the forest, and various Sound viewpoints. We also had chance to head down to the Blue Duck to sample some beer, and to have a sit down! The evening was particularly pleasant as the majority of visitors have headed back to Te Anau and Queenstown, and hence the place becomes a bit quieter, with the few Lodge residents and some camper vanners the only people left.
All in all, I would give Milford Sound a solid 7 out of 10 – it’s stunning, and very well organised. Let down by the theme-park nature of the whole operation and the sheer number of people (which of course we contributed to, so it’s pretty unavoidable).