Knowing we had a long drive ahead of us to Milford Sound from Colac Bay, after a quick breakfast we set out towards Lake Manapouri, stopping in Colac Bay for a few photos on the way. It was a beautiful day outside and we were looking forward to making the most of it by making plenty of stops along our way to Milford Sound.
Lake Manapouri is a beautiful lake, but we only had time for a quick stop and a few photographs before we had to continue on to Te Anau, a similarly scenic lake. In Te Anau, we found a coffee shop, with WiFi and a view of the lake, where we were able to get online to search for the best hikes and stops to do on our way to Milford Sound. We also stocked up on groceries for our next couple of nights as well as filling the car up with petrol. Milford Sound is 120 kilometers from Te Anau and has very little available in the way of fuel or food so it is important to buy everything you may need ahead of time.
After filling our little Daihatsu, we continued on to the Milford Sound highway, making our first stop at the Mirror Lakes. The Mirror Lakes held true to their name and we could see a brilliant reflection of the surrounding mountains in the lake from the boardwalk. The water was so crystal clear and calm that it was easy to see fish swimming as well as see ducks diving down to feed underneath the water.
Based on our coffee shop research, Sara and I decided that rather than doing a number of short stops, we would instead do a longer hike to take advantage of the wonderful weather we had. We passed many viewpoints and stops and continued on to Key Summit, an easy three hour return hike with amazing views over the Fjordland mountains. The hiking trail was extremely well maintained and while hiking, we saw an older park worker digging a drainage trench next to to trail. I think he has a dream ‘retirement job’ – epic views and exercise in one of the most beautiful national parks in the world. Upon reaching the top of Key Summit, we were greeted with a box of self-guided tour pamphlets to lead ourselves around a loop filled with majestic views 360 degrees around us. Despite the wonderful weather earlier in the day, the clouds quickly rolled in towards Key Summit and we were soon blasted with a freezing wind which expedited our return to our car for a sheltered drive on to the Milford Sound Lodge.
The drive to Milford Sound is twisty and winding, just like most scenic highways in New Zealand, with the added attraction of the Homer Tunnel. The 1.2km long Homer Tunnel was commissioned in 1935 during the great depression to to provide relief work. The progress was delayed by World War II as well as having to handle the large water flows coming from snow melt dripping through the tunnel’s fractured granite walls. Eventually it was finished in 1954 and provides easy access to Milford Sound on what would have been a very difficult at one time over Homer’s Saddle.
When we reached the Milford Sound Lodge, I was initially disappointed that it was not actually in Milford Sound village, but several kilometers before it. We decided to drive on to see the actual Milford Sound, only to realize that it is an extremely tiny place with little more than a restaurant/bar/café, motel, and boat terminal. We did a quick 15 minute walk to a lookout point, which was a disappointing and cold hike in the rain, but offered us an initial glimpse of the spectacular views we would be in for in Milford Sound if the weather cleared.
New Zealand ‘sounds’, such as Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, are actually technically fjords, which is why the entire range is now called Fjordland. Fjord is a Norwegian word that means ‘a long narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs created by glacial erosion’ and Milford Sound certainly reminded me of Norway and the beautiful Fjords I had seen there.
The sun was dropping quickly so we returned to Milford Lodge to check in to our double room and make dinner. The Milford Lodge is nicely appointed and, given its remote location and limited competition, is likely worth the $89 per night we paid. The dining options from the café and bar were quite expensive so we were happy to make use of the adjacent kitchen to make our dinner. The kitchen was very nice and it had a number of gas stove burners available, but given the size of the lodge and number of people staying there, it became very crowded and difficult to cook in during usual eating hours. Despite how busy the kitchen was, Sara was still able to prepare a delicious meal for us to enjoy (while I sort of kind of tried to help but really just enjoyed a cold beer). Given the cloudy and rainy weather outside, everyone at the lodge seemed to go to bed early and we were no exception as we tucked in for a solid rest after a long day of driving and hiking.
We were pleasantly surprised by blue skies when we woke up the next morning. Given how quickly the weather in Milford Sound is known to change, we decided to hurry for a quick breakfast in order to make it down to the Milford Sound docks to get on one of the 9 am cruises. There are a number of Milford Sound cruise companies available, but we chose to go with Go Orange cruises based on its excellent reviews on Trip Advisor. We were able to secure our spots on the boat for $49 each and, after having a rushed breakfast, I was happy to hear that we would also receive a free BLT and juice on board. The blue skies made the Sound appear very different from when we had seen it the night before and it was a real pleasure to cruise through it all the way to the Tasman Sea.
Beyond the beautiful mountain and sea landscapes, the highlights for me were seeing seals and especially a pair of dolphins. The dolphins jumped out of the water in front of the boat (I was one of the lucky few passengers who observed this) and then, when the captain put our boat in reverse, two of the dolphins swam right up the bow and surfaced to take a closer look. It was the closest I have ever seen wild dolphins and I was happy we had such luck. Since we had a clear day and it was April (so most of the snow had already melted), there were only a few waterfalls tumbling over the tall granite cliffs, but they were still very beautiful and impressive. I have heard that Milford Sound is beautiful regardless of the weather and I later learned that this is because the steep cliffs are quickly covered in waterfalls when it begins to rain. Because of the rocky landscape and limited vegetation, the rainfall does not take long to funnel into gorgeous waterfalls and I imagine Milford Sound is spectacular during heavy rainfall.
After our amazing cruise, the weather appeared as though it was going to continue to hold so we decided to try our luck at a hike. We returned to the Milford Sound lodge and asked about hikes. They had a wonderful display board describing a number of hikes of various lengths and difficult, and Gertrude’s Saddle stuck out to us both. Gertrude’s Saddle is only 7 kms long, but rated 5/5 for difficulty. After consulting with the lodge receptionist and hearing it was very worthwhile, we decided to give it a try. The hike was back towards Te Anau past the Homer Tunnel so we climbed back into our car to backtrack to the starting point. The start of the hike was quite easy but it progressively got quite difficult as we had to climb over large glacial boulders, eroded shale slopes, and up steep granite rock faces. I was very happy it was a dry day as even with the metal cables available to help with climbing the steep portions, I imagine many of the rock faces get extremely slippery. Once at the top of Gertrude’s Saddle we were rewarded with incredible views over Milford Sound. It is incredible to imagine the overland explorers who first made their way to the region without any roads or tunnels given the difficult terrain and often extreme weather. Since the days were getting shorter and shorter as Winter approached, after a quick snack and many photos, we began our 7km return hike to our car. If the weather is cooperative and you are comfortable scrambling at times, I would very highly recommend Gertrude’s Saddle as it is one of the best hikes I have ever done.
After returning to Milford Lodge and cooking another wonderful dinner in the crowded kitchen, I hoped to do some work, but decided against it when I saw the internet prices of between $3 for 10MB and $50 for 250MB of data. The cost is understandable given that it is a satellite connection, but it provided a good excuse for me to enjoy the beautiful stars outside instead. We were lucky enough to have a clear night, so despite the cold, I stood out for several minutes taking in an extraordinary view of the universe around us. One of the recurring highlights of New Zealand for me was the lack of light pollution and ability to enjoy the beautiful night sky whenever the skies were clear, something I greatly miss from my time spent in rural Canada. We also took advantage of the Milford Sound lodge’s laundry room. It cost $3 for the washer and $3 for the dryer, but there was also a wonderful ‘drying room’ which was essentially a large sauna with clothes lines running through it.
The next morning, the skies had filled in and it was raining heavily. We used the rain as an excuse to take a very easy pace, enjoyed a long breakfast, and took our time folding our laundry and packing the car. When we finally started driving back towards Te Anau, we decided to try and just make quick stops along the highway with the hope that we wouldn’t get too wet. The drive itself was stunning as the rain had caused a huge number of large waterfalls to suddenly develop, completely changing the landscape from when we had driven in. Incredibly, Milford Sound averages nearly 7,000 mm of precipitation a year, which leads to constant landslides, rockslides, avalanches, and erosion.
Our first stop was the Chasm Walk, a 400 meter loop with two foot bridges that offer great views over the Cleddau River and the rocks that it has beautifully sculpted. Despite the great tree cover, we were both quite wet when we returned to the car. Our next stop was the Humboldt Falls, which was near the Hollyford Track, an 18km detour off the Milford Highway. Although the Humboldt Falls were impressive, it was probably not worth the extra driving time and certainly not worth the 30 minute walk in the increasingly wet weather. When we returned to the car both Sara and I were soaking wet and we decided that we had done enough sightseeing in Milford Sound. We changed into dry clothes and made our way back to Te Anau, enjoying the magnificent views from the relative comfort of our little Daihatsu.
Milford Sound was incredibly beautiful and I was thrilled to finally see it, especially after my failed attempt in the Spring of 2010 because of highway closure due to avalanche. I truly believe that Milford Sound is worth seeing rain or shine, even if only for a day.