Milford Sound: a stunningly beautiful place with spirit of adventure
Milford Sound is not actually a ‘sound’. It’s actually a fiord (like the fjords of Norway, they are carved out of ice rather than sea water), but the early explorers screwed up and now it’s a little too famous to correct that mistake.
So now that we’ve established that…
Milford Sound came highly recommended by a few friends and my NZ Frenzy guidebook and boy were they right.
Breath-taking views at every turn, opportunities for adventure plentiful and some quirky history really make Milford Sound stand out. Even better, the views (and adventures) change with the weather, but are fantastic come rain or shine.
Which is a good thing too, as Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on Earth, with a whopping 7m of rainfall (over 260 days) each year. In comparison, the UK (only) gets about 1.1m of rainfall a year!
I count myself extremely lucky that in the 2 days that I was there, I experienced both glorious sunshine as well as pouring rain, not to mention a bit of snow.
Actually, before I set off from Queenstown (where I had a quick day for a bungy jump and a very tasty Fergburger), the i-Site lady heralded doom and gloom with weather forecasts of torrential rain, ice and snow and was sort of trying to put me off going to Milford at all.
Living in the UK, however, I tend to take weather forecasts with a large pinch of salt. Besides, I figured that I was in a self-contained campervan with ample food supplies.
So off I went, driving through the stopover town of Te Anau and then onto the Henry Creek DOC (basic) campsite (25km north of Te Anau). It rained pretty much the entire way and then throughout the night, which left me a little nervous.
When I woke up at the crack of dawn though, the rain had stopped and the sun even made an appearance.
The first part of the drive was beautiful, with sights such as the Mirror Lake, Falls Creek bridge waterfalls and other viewpoints warranting photo stops.
But past The Divide (where the Key Summit trail starts) was really where I had my jaw-hanging most of the way with the stunning sights.
The Homer Tunnel uses traffic lights to continually change the direction of traffic every 10-15 minutes so many people pull over to the car park area to take a few photos. There is actually a very short alpine nature walk at top left corner of the car park, with some waterfalls in the distance.
I had itchy feet, so clambered some rocks in an attempt to get to the waterfalls. It was one of those times where things looked nearer than they are, and getting over those rocks was also pretty hard going. I got fairly near the waterfalls (following the little creek) but gave up when it started hailing.
Once through the tunnel, I resumed my role of wide-eyed wanderer, and quite literally kept having to turn to my imaginary passenger to ask… did you see that?
Anyway, I eventually made it to Milford Sound itself about lunchtime, checked out some cruise times and decided that as it was glorious sunshine, I would rather go tramping than sitting in a boat.
Back down the Milford Road, I headed to Humboldt Falls.
[GPS coordinates for Google Maps: -44.692878 168.125918. It's just over an hour from The Divide, take a right turn onto the Hollyford Track Road - past Gunn's (Hollyford) Camp. You can't really miss it as the unsealed track stops at the river.]
My NZ Frenzy guidebook said that this was a great tramp upstream to the foot of the falls on a nice day. Some ‘rock hopping’ and a bit of shallow wading was apparently all it was. What it failed to say was that if it had been raining a fair bit (apparently 3 days non-stop), then the water levels are significantly higher and not one to try.
Instead of rock-hopping, I ended up wading in water mid-thigh in fairly strong currents. Didn’t quite get to see the ‘shangri la’ that was promised, but it was a fun little wade nonetheless, although quite scary and in hindsight maybe not that smart a thing to do.
Gunn’s Camp nearby was my stop for the night. It was pretty much wonderful in every aspect.
Great-humoured curiosities scattered around the place, and there’s even a museum with lots of historical objects and stories about the Milford Road.
Boiling hot shower that was powered by a wood burner, and also a wood burning stove in the living area (although the wood was pretty wet and difficult to get going).
That night, I fell asleep listening to the sounds of the creek next to me, while watching stars in the pitch dark (as they turn the generator off at 22:00) and quiet (as there were only 4 others staying). Perfection.
The next morning, I headed back to Milford Sound and went on the boat cruise that everyone does. There are a few operators that pretty much do the same loop, so I chose what looked like the smallest boat at Southern Discoveries.
Grandiose, gargantuan and magnificent. Oh, and (of course) wet. Even in the pouring rain it was a sight to behold. Cruise liners sometimes go into the 'sound', and even they are dwarfed by the steep edges of the 'sound'.
Ironically, because the rain hadn’t quite started till just before the cruise started, there were less mini waterfalls sprouting up until towards the end.
Also saw a few dolphins and a napping seal as we went around the sound and a little out to sea.
My favourite bit, however, was when the boat went all the way up to the Stirling Falls, which thundered onto the bow of the boat.
I (never one to pass on an experience) obviously had to accept the guide’s offer of getting right under the waterfall.
And another bigger waterfall we got right up to, where the boat's skipper had a sense of humour and played 'Raindrops keep falling on my head...' as the soundtrack.
Second pair of shoes complete soaked. But so worth it.
On the drive out of Milford Sound, I checked out The Chasm.
Torrents of water plunge over dramatically shaped rocks into a dark abyss. This one really fits its name, not just some hole in the ground. Even with the safety of the bridge’s railings, my stomach churned with the waters.
Back on the Milford Road, just as I was about to drive into the Homer tunnel, I noticed a group of 5 Kea parrots casually walking around on the road. Photo op!
I must have been a curious sight too. As I my clothes were soaked from the boat trip, I was wearing shorts and barefooted (both pairs of my shoes were soaked) when I jumped out of the car.
The parrots must have thought so, as they came right up to me and I had to shoo them away from me a bit (hey, there were 5 of them with their beaks and just 1 of me barefoot).
On the other side of the tunnel, the view had changed dramatically from yesterday, with a number of waterfalls sprouting up from the recent rainfall, and snow had covered two thirds of the cliff face.
In all, I experienced two fantastic days in Milford. It wasn't nearly enough time to actually go hiking around the place and really get to grips with it, so it's on the list for a re-visit next time!
Who wants to come along next time?