New Zealand 2011 - Milford Sound , Fiordlands and Queenstown

Sunday, Apr 03, 2011 at 19:00


3rd April, 2011

It poured rain during the night and was still drizzling when we awoke this morning. As expected, I managed to cock up the daylight savings changes meaning we were leaving a half hour later than we would have liked, 8:30a.m. instead of 8:00 am as intended. This meant that we would have to hurry the two hour drive through the Fiordlands.

It was certainly a majestic drive north on Highway 94 along the lake and then into the hills towards Te Anau Downs and Mirror Lake.The first 30 odd km to Te Anau downs, the jumping off point for walkers on the Milford Track, paralleled the eastern shore of then lake, before veering slightly inland through farmland nestled along low valleys. About 50 km north, the road enters the National Park proper running beside the Ellington River towards Knobs Flat. The transition is amazing and the farmland is soon forgotten as you enter the forest realm. The highway also followed many glacial valleys, those that didn’t hold lakes, having a sizeable stream and a grassy tundra.

Highway 94 pierces through the Homer Saddle roughly midway between the Wick Mountains to the south and the Darran Mountains to the north. The tunnel is single laned, 1270m long and was once the longest gravel-surfaced tunnel in the world. The tunnel and the associated Milford Road were built by relief workers during the Great Depression, initially just starting with five men using picks and wheelbarrows. The men had to live in tents in a mountainous area where there might be no direct sunlight for half of the year. At least three were killed by avalanches over the coming decades. Avalanches remain a very real risk to this day and the southern end of the tunnel is protected by an avalanche shelter.Traffic is regulated in blocks with traffic lights at either end. You’d reckon it would be a bit chaotic but the traffic flow is largely tidal heading into Milford in the mornings and out again towards Te Anau in the afternoons. Winter brings an increased avalanche risk to those waiting at the entrances. We were amused to see a few of the large alpine parrots working the crowds of waiting motorists at the Milford end of the tunnel.

Milford Sound is named after Milford Haven in Wales, while the Cleddau River which flows into the sound is also named for its Welsh namesake. The Maori named the sound Piopiotahi after the now extinct piopio bird. With 182 days of rain a year, it is also the wettest place in New Zealand. Milford Sound runs 15 kilometres from the head of the fiord to the Tasman Sea at Dale Point. The wide fiord is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 1,200 metres or more on either side. Rain forest clings precariously to these cliffs often losing its grip and sliding into the sea as a result of the heavy and constant rains.

Milford Sound was initially overlooked by European explorers, because its narrow entry did not appear to lead into such large interior bays. Ship captains like James Cook, who bypassed Milford Sound on his journeys for just this reason, also feared venturing too close to the steep mountainsides, afraid that wind conditions would prevent escape (this refers to Doubtful Sound, so named as Cook thought it doubtful he would escape if he sailed in). The fjord remained undiscovered by Europeans until a sealer by the name of Captain John Grono discovered it in 1812 and named it Milford Haven after his homeland in Wales. Captain John Lort Stokes later renamed Milford Haven as Milford Sound.

A large modern ferry terminal awaits the visitors on arrival at Milford these days. It provided good amenities and shelter from the elements while we waited for our cruise to board. Our ship was a large single hull affair. By far the majority of the crowd appeared to be Koreans as well as several other large tour groups.The ship just seemed to swallow them all. Rain meant it was hard to see out windows due to condensation in the warm cabin areas. Driving rain meant that outside you were confined to the sheltered areas of the deck only unless you were prepared to brave the elements. Vik and I were and we were able to seek and secure what little shelter was available topside on the viewing deck. For me it was the funnels. Not a bad place to perch actually. The heat vented direct from the engine room also exited from grills a little above head height on the funnel stacks so you were able to keep warm. You had to be quick with the camera on any photographic opportunity though as the lens was covered in water in no time.

What strikes you about the sound in inclement weather is the sheer number of waterfalls everywhere. It’s like some magic wonderland, the sheer walls of the sound appeared to have been draped with gossamer threads of silk. It was in fact thousands of rivulets of water cascading 1800 metres down sheer stone cliffs and I’m afraid I find it hard to do justice to the description in mere words.

With the ship nosing under various waterfalls, a constant narrative of the history of Milford was kept up. The steep sided cliffs meant little in the way of wildlife and they did look very imposing rising sheer from the water as they did. Often the tops were shrouded in mist and cloud. While the weather could have been much better but we actually felt privileged to have seen it with such volumes of water cascading down into the sea.

We arrived back at Milford thoroughly damp but having enjoyed our cruise. We wasted no time in getting on the road though to beat the never ending procession of tour buses gathering their passengers for departure. Having spotted it on the way through, we pulled into the rest/camp area at the northern end of Gunn’s Lake for lunch. It was like driving into a scene from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The very forest was draped in green, every tree is a microcosm in itself. Mosses ferns, fungi and moulds growing on every branch of every tree. We backed the camper right down onto the stony shore of the lake to provide panoramic views as we had our lunch of warm soup and toast. What a spectacular place this must be on a fine day. It was a more leisurely trip back allowing us to check out the scenery below the blanket of cloud.

With only one way in and out of Milford, It was back on Highway 94 to Te Anau and then east on the 94 again towards Lumsden. We cut across the Mossburn Five Fingers Road to get to Highway 6 and headed north to Athol and on to Kingston through beautiful countryside. From Kingston it’s a 40km hop along the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu wedged hard up against the western side of the Remarkables to Frankton and then into Queenstown. We booked into the “quirky” Big 4 on the top side of town and then spent the night wandering the streets looking for a place to dine. Went ended up at “Flame” restaurant for a massive meat platter and then to the Irish pub for a few in front of the fire before easing home in the brisk night air. Naturally we slept well.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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