As we left Queenstown for the town of Te Anau I found myself wondering how the scenery of Milford Sound and Fiordland could possibly be any better than what we’d already seen. And yet by all accounts it was, and I couldn’t wait to see it. The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau was pretty flat, with a lot of straight and long roads – something we’d not been accustomed to while driving around the notoriously mountainous, windy roads of the west coast. There were still some pretty good views of Lake Wakatipu however. There were also sheep – a lot of sheep. The idea was to stay in accommodation in Te Anau, 120km from Milford Sound, and then drive up to the fiord itself for a day trip and a boat trip on the water
We arrived in Te Anau, which I didn’t have particularly high hopes for as it was a tourist town. It was quite chilly when we arrived, even at midday, but it was a pretty little place with a bit of charm. Being on a lake, it was quite picturesque, and had a lovely backdrop of mountains and the wilds of Fiordland – there was a definite feeling of being on the edges of civilisation.
We booked our boat trip pretty quickly – we decided to go for a 10:30am boat, timing it so we would get to Milford Sound before the hordes of tour buses arrived at midday. We went with Real Journeys as we couldn’t actually find the booking offices for any other boat companies – Real Journeys definitely seemed to have the monopoly with their booking office right in the information centre!
So, the following morning we were up bright and early and ready to go. We’d heard that Milford Sound itself (actually a fiord) was only half the attraction – the drive there was meant to be just as wonderful. So we were pleased that we were driving up there in the morning when the light was good and Mahmoud could take lots of nice photos! The only problem was that when we were ready to go at 6:30am it was still dark! We waited until 7am and then drove on out.
The first 45 minutes of the drive were relatively uninspiring, and it wasn’t until we got to Te Anau downs that the sun began peaking over the hills in the east and through the clouds. It was not a perfect morning in terms of weather as there was a bit of cloud about, but it was certainly atmospheric to see the sun coming up and shining through the low clouds that clung to the surrounding hills.
Our first stop along the way were the Mirror Lakes. These were pretty impressive. They were perfectly still, and were literally like a mirror – reflecting perfectly the mountain range opposite. The upside down and back-to-front sign of “Mirror Lakes” was reflected by the water to read correctly when you looked at the lake surface, which I found quite amusing (not sure why). The only problem was a native duck which insisted on having it’s breakfast in the middle of the lake and spoiling the reflection for us momentarily – how dare it!
Further on and I began swerving off the road every few minutes so Mahmoud could take a few shots. The rising sun was shining onto the mountainsides and the low-lying cloud that was surrounding them, and as we slowly climbed into the mountains we also climbed into the clouds and then above them – this made it feel like the mountains were actually on the clouds. It was truly magical.
Along the way we pulled through some bush and into a carpark to have a look at the surrounding views. The sheer mountainsides across from us, covered with primary forests, were an amazing sight in themselves – and then we noticed the inhabitants of the carpark. All around us were kea, the notorious mischievous clown of the bird world and one of New Zealand’s few native parrots. They were on the ground, in the trees, perched on rocks, perched on the other two cars that were already parked there – and all screeching at the top of their lungs. The few that were on the cars were having a good look about – trying to pull off aerials, windscreen wipers – anything that moved.
They looked like they were having a great time at the expense of the humans watching them, most of whom looked mildly concerned at the devastation the kea were apparently trying to wreak upon their cars, but too entertained to do anything about it. One or two landed on our car and tried to eat the aerial, but they seemed more interested in the other cars which had a few more interesting gadgets on them. We managed to tear ourselves away after a few minutes of watching – but I have to say, they were some of the funniest birds I’ve ever seen.
We continued to ascend as we drove north, and soon we were driving alongside ice and mini glaciers which littered the roadside. Vast waterfalls fell from great heights and their rivers flowed down valleys. Honestly, if you ever get the opportunity to do this drive, you can’t miss it. I can’t imagine anyone not finding it an amazing drive.
Reaching our highest point, we then drove into the mountains themselves – through the 1km long Homer Tunnel, and out the other side and into a vast valley with a small road winding down towards the village of Milford and Milford Sound itself. We arrived at about 9:45am – plenty of time left for us to get on the boat! We parked up and were immediately assaulted by sandflies. They came in droves, and for every slap that resulted in a dead sandfly, two more seemed to land and start sucking my blood. We sprayed repellent which resolved the situation, but it was amazing how many there were!
We boarded our boat, the Milford Mariner. It was quite a large boat which was strange, because we thought we’d be on a smaller one, but it was also the boat with the most character. It doubled as a sailing boat, and had massive furled up sails, lending it a feeling of a boat of real exploration potential! Well, it wasn’t – it just did the same route as everyone else (although slightly longer and slower as we’d paid for a 2.5 hour cruise instead of a 1 and ¾ hour cruise).
The scenery from the boat was absolutely stunning. It was a chilly day and the weather was threatening us with rain – not unusual as Milford Sound gets about 7 metres of rain each year apparently – but rain didn’t actually happen and we got a share of sun, wind and cloud – making the place look very beautiful and atmospheric.
We sailed right out into the ocean, looking back at the rugged wilderness on the mainland. It looked like something out of the age of the dinosaurs – really wild, untamed land. We were told about its Maori and European history – of jade mining and tourism respectively. It’s fortunate that such an amazing place has retained it’s characteristics. Even though thousands of people visit it every year it looks like no one’s ever set foot there.
In the fiord itself, sheer cliffs plunged from great heights directly into the ocean. In the boat, we were able to get right up close to the cliffs, where we could see seals bathing in the sun and trees clinging to the mountainside, growing on what seemed to be sheer rock. Truly, an incredible place.
It was over all too quickly and then we were sailing back to the little port we’d started from, where we disembarked and got back into the car. The drive home was equally as stunning, but this time we knew all the places to stop and get some extra photos based on our previous experience. Without the low clouds, there were some clearer views of the mountains, leading to a different experience for our return trip.
Back in Te Anau, we had a bit of extra time. We did a couple of other activities – one was our visit to the Te Anau wildlife sanctuary. This place was sponsored by the Department of Conservation, and contained a few native birds – including an extremely rare (there are only about 200 left) and elderly Takahe. Her name was Alpine and she was so cute. At 25 years of age, she looked a little worse for wear, and was lying down looking kind of dead when we arrived, but as we moved up to the mesh of her cage she started making a sort of a regular clucking sound and then got to her feet and started foraging for food. She was incredibly cute and I wanted to take her home with me. So sweet, and such a shame there are so few of them left.
We also visited Lake Manapouri, not far from Lake Te Anau. This was a large lake which people do tours on to get to Doubtful Sound, on the other side of the lake and over the mountains. It was very pretty, but the highlight for me was finding lots of interesting looking rocks on the lakeshore. I’m convinced one has gold in it – it’s very sparkly and, well, gold. It’s probably fool’s gold, but I like it. I also found a lot of jade which I’m now carrying with me against my better judgement. My backpack’s heavy enough without carrying rocks around.
Feeling very satisfied, we left Te Anau to travel further south. We knew the scenery couldn’t get better than what we’d seen on the way to and at Milford, and that was fine. It was the best landscape I’d ever seen, no contest there. I’d absolutely recommend that, if you only have the time to do one thing in New Zealand – go to Milford Sound!