MILFORD SOUND, 08 Aug 2008
‘080808′ – an auspicious date, and today we are doing a ‘must-do-before-you-die’ trip to the famous Milford Sound, which is actually a fiord. The 290km journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound goes through Te Anau, and in winter the tricky bit is the 120km rugged, desolate stretch between Te Anau and Milford Sound. It is exposed to snow, ice (esp. black ice) and avalanches, so to save all the driving hassles, we decide to take a coach daytrip.
At 6.45am we find ourselves at the Clock Tower of Queenstown waiting for our ride to pick us up.
Soon the warm comfy coach (provided by nakedbus.com, operated by Milford Sound Select) is whizzing past spectacular landscape in Southland, the southernmost territory of NZ. For orientation, please CLICK HERE.
Along Route 94, we arrive at the town of Te Anau 2.5hrs later for a short break.
It’s another freezing morning …
… and we promptly escape into a restaurant for brekky.
With less than 2000 ppl, this is another town living off tourism.
Next to the main town junction, Sabar braves the freezing weather to pose with a takahe – a flightless bird indigenous to NZ, now only 200+ live in the wild near Lake Te Anau.
And this is Lake Te Anau, largest in South Island, and 2nd largest in whole of NZ. It’s 65km long, and goes all the way down 420m. A true glacial lake. On the other side, it’s Fiordland National Park, another World Heritage Site.
We are at last on our way to Milford Sound. Hmmm … ominous sign.
And this is Vale, our delightful (as most NZers are) guide cum driver. He’s very knowledgable about anything NZ, and has loads of tales to tell us throughout the trip. Thanks, Vale, great stuff!
There are several interesting stops along the way, and the first one, in the beech forest, is a place called ‘Mirror Lakes’.
The Mirror Lakes are oxbow lakes formed by the river which meanders the floor of this huge glacial valley, formed some 15-20 thousand years ago. Sabar spots the familiar World Heritage Site logo.
Well, a dose of NZ humour, I must day. Unfortunately the water is a bit choppy and full of debris, so there’s no worthy mirror effect. Lake Ruataniwha near Twizel yesterday was much better.
Anyway the scenery of the mountain range across the valley makes up for it.
Further up the huge valley, we come to a place called Knobs Flat. Knobs are the ‘islands’ of plants or trees found on the otherwise barren flat (floor of valley), formed by clusters of earth debris left stranded by the glacier when it receded thousands of years ago. There’s a knob just behind the bus. Just imagine how collosal the glacier was.
At Knobs Flat there’s a rest area and also a display on NZ’s proud heritage.
After Knobs Flat, the road begins a steady climb.
We are entering truly Alpine landscape.
At 945m above sea level, the snow is on the ground all around us, and we come to the famous Homer Tunnel.
This is avalanche territory and only a brief stop is allowed, if at all.
A brief halt just to say hi to these unique hardy critters- the Kea. Note the Kia and Kea below.
Native to NZ, this largish bird is the only Alpine parrot in the world. Very rare species indeed.
Freezing humans try to befriend it, but the Kea is only keen to peck on anything it thinks edible.
The Keas are friendly and inquisitive, but please do not feed them.
Short stop done, and we are ready to enter the eastern portal of the 1270m-long single-lane Homer Tunnel. Completed in 1954 after 20 years of hacking through granite with basic tools.
It has a downhill gradient of 1:10, meaning when we exit the other (western) end, we are 120m lower than the eastern portal above. Note the roof lights in the tunnel going down.
But the view at the other end is simply amazing!
Down the valley we do another stop.
Spectacular mountains all around.
But the interesting thing is there’s a dense rainforest down here.
Giant ferns similar to the ones in Malaysia are aplenty.
Soon we arrive Milford Sound, dominated by the modern Milford Wharf Visitor Centre.
A bit of reading is necessary.
At the pier, cruise boats await patrons. We are lucky to get such fine weather today, esp. when Milford Sound is known to be one of the wettest spots in the world – it gets up to 9m of rainfall per annum, that’s 9 metres!
We immediately spot our boat – the smallish Milford Adventurer – for the 100min cruise to the mouth of the fiord (Tasman Sea) and back. That’s 17km away.
We are soon on our way, and the first thing we note is the spectacular Mitre Peak, at 1692m, another NZ icon. That’s a mile from the water surface to the pointed peak!
More awesome mountains opposite Mitre Peak.
The warm interior of Milford Adventurer.
Fine weather but very cold, esp. with the incessant breeze from inland. So keep warm with endless supply of free coffee.
To enjoy the cruise you have to be outdoor, no matter how cold it is. Luckily the weather is absolutely stunning which is rare in wet Milford Sound.
The cliffs go straight into the water, down to some 400m some claim. A mile in the sky and another 400m down in the water, thus making it 2km from top to bottom. Simply awesome.
Standing at the bow, one is mesmerised by the fiord.
The friendly Skipper at the deck, …
… always mindful of emergency procedure. At this point the water is 250m deep – that’s a long way down.
We now reach the open sea – the Tasman Sea. Go straight that way, and 1000 miles away, you’ll hit Tasmania, Australia.
The boat makes a u-turn at the mouth and we look back at the entrance to Milford fiord. Capt Cook missed this twice when he passed by in late 18th century. Must be due to bad weather.
We re-enter the fiord, with another boat trailing us.
More spectacular peaks, where strong winds whip up the loose snow.
Seals basking on Seal Rock.
Next to it, the amazing Stirling Falls, plunging 150m into the water. The boat actually pokes its bow into the waterfall – can get wet.
As we leave, another boat does the same Stirling Falls ritual.
Then I notice the familiar turquoise water – more glacial water?
Another boat overtakes us to return to the pier.
Soon it’s our turn to return to base. Too bad.
As we near the pier, Bowen Falls say farewell.
We take one final look at the stunning Milford Fiord, it’s not a Sound anymore, as strong wind sweeps the Mitre Peak. It has been a most exhilarating tour of nature’s grandeur. Totally worth the trip many times over, even for seasoned travelers like us.
Vale picks us up at the Visitor Centre and we are soon on our way out of Milford Sound …
… and through the Homer Tunnel. This is the western portal.
Lush beech forest as we descend the highlands.
A brief toilet stop at Te Anau and I spot this beauty across the street. Compare it to Vale’s office.
The weather forecast has been for snow all the way to Milford Sound, but we have been very lucky to have had great weather. We eventually get some snow as soon as we leave Te Anau. It has been another great day for us, we arrive back Queenstown 7pm. Yes, Magical Milford Fiord/Sound!