No trip to New Zealand’s South Island would be complete without a visit to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. This World Heritage site lies just over the mountains from Glenorchy, no more than 50 km away, but because the terrain is so rugged, it can only be accessed via a 295km loop via Te Anau. And since we were on a tight schedule we opted for a day tour with one of the local operators.
I personally find that there is merit in taking at least one guided tour during a trip. Our guide / driver provided live commentary for the entire 4 hours of the drive to the sound. I have learned more about New Zealand’s natural history, Maori and European settlers’ history, local legends and cultural idiosyncrasies on this drive than I would have from volumes of guide books. Half of these things I would never probably have learned about if it wasn’t for the guide’s stories. So while I prefer to explore new places independently, I do like the high volume of information that can effortlessly be learned from a single guided tour in a new country.
As we headed out of town along the northern half of lake Wakatipu we watched the sun rise over the peaks of the mountains. The scenery was spectacular, but as the darkness lifted we saw that it was going to be an overcast and rainy day. Not that it mattered much for a visit to Milford Sound, where apparently it rains 90 percent of the time.
After about 2 hours of driving we arrived in Te Anau – a town most notable for Te Anau lake – a typically spectacular glacial lake surrounded by towering mountain peaks. While our fellow day trippers stretched their legs at the tourist center I went to the lake for a look around and found a few Black-billed gulls and a rainbow.
The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound goes through the spectacular Fiordland National Park and passes a number of interesting places. First up were the Mirror lakes known for their still surface that provides outstanding reflective views of the Earl Mountains. We happened to reach the lakes during a brief period of sun shine and were treated to fantastic views as a result.
The walkway from the road to the lakes meandered through red beech forest, where seemingly every surface was covered with moss and lichen. And as promised by the driver, a New Zealand fantail swooped in from the tree tops to check us out.
Soon after we left Mirror lakes the sky darkened and it started to rain. We passed Knob’s Flat and lake Gunn without stopping. The next point of interest was Monkey Creek and Lyttle’s Flat. And despite the rain we stopped, mainly so that people could fill their water bottles with crystal clear mountain spring water from the creek. I was so impressed with the moody scenery of Lyttle’s flat that I took the chance to take some shots of it instead.
The last stop was the Chasm. By the time we got there the rain was coming down quite heavily. The walk to the chasm is a loop track that goes through some truly amazing red beech forest. And as cold and unpleasant the rain was, it was amazing to see this forest in its element. Tall trees wrapped in a coat of moss, vines and ferns enveloped in mist, droplets of rain running down the leaves of hanging moss gardens. The scene had a sense of a primeval world to it.
Another positive side to experiencing these sites in adverse weather is that only a small percentage of visitors choose to leave the comfort of their coach, giving those that do a rare opportunity to enjoy these places with a degree of intimacy.
When we returned to the car park I spotted a Kea landing on a dead tree. Unfortunately he didn’t stick around for me to change the lens.
When we arrived at Milford sound the fiord was shrouded in thick mist, which lent an element of mystery to an otherwise well-known site. Fiordland National Park is one of the wettest places on earth, with Milford sound averaging more than 6 meters a year. As our boat took off towards the Tasman sea the fiord was barely visible in the mist.
The scenery of the fiord was awe-inspiring. Twelve hundred–meter high sheer cliffs rose out of still dark water, covered in a lush carpet of temperate rainforest and streaming with waterfalls. The rain was creating more temporary waterfalls in front of our eyes. Some of them were so small that they never reached the bottom of the fiord, being blown into oblivion by the wind.
Milford sounds supports a number of wildlife species: New Zealand fur seals, Fiordland Crested Penguins, Blue Penguins and Bottlenose Dolphins. Most species were too hard to spot through the rain, but the New Zealand fur seals were quite happy to relax on their usual rock, seemingly unaffected by the weather.
The wet weather was a perfect addition to Milford Sound experience, as it created a sense of discovery, of heading into the unknown. The visibility was so low, that we couldn’t see what lay ahead and as one cascading waterfall after another floated into view, it was still very difficult to see where they began – the tops of the cliffs were often lost in the mist.
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