Where: Milford Sound, Fiordland
Distance & Time: 1 hour on the water, two hour drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound
Take: water, snacks, warm layers, hat. They have lifejackets & waterproof pants to put on.
Amenities on route: at Milford Sound there is accommodation, and the ferry terminal where different tour operators take visitors into the Sound.
Cost: Ranges in price.
The research says that New Zealand’s environment is the number one reason visitors come here, and one of the most popular places has got to be Milford Sound – and after my first visit, I understand why. This place is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and you will spend most of your time here either taking in your surroundings in silenced awe, or exclaiming to the person next to you ‘oh. my. god, it’s just SO beautiful’.
Full disclaimer here – I know this isn’t a walk, and I was privileged to experience this day as part of a comped famil through my day job. It’s pretty, rad, I know!
As soon as I found out that a) I would be going to Te Anau for work, and b) that I would be able to undertake a famil to Milford Sound while there, I started asking the weather gods nicely for snow. They didn’t quite oblige with actual snow falling but there was loads on the mountains along the Te-Anau – Milford Highway, so I was a Happy Amy! We lucked out with the weather as the forecast had been for rain all week, but the day we spent in Milford Sound was perfect. Which was brilliant, considering two days later the road was closed due to the weather. It’s that kind of place, you have to wing it and hope for road-open weather during your time here as there’s only one way in and out – unless you’re hiking, or have enough credit on the visa card to hire a helicopter (I can but live in hope)
I hadn’t quite realised how far away Milford Sound is from Te Anau, it really is quite remote. I lost cellphone reception approx 10 minutes into the two hour bus ride. While the trip would have taken two hours without stops, with the mini stops (primarily for photos) we made along the way, it took us closer to four hours. Our guide told us that this road only came into being because the government at the time needed to provide work during the Depression, and this provided a great opportunity for mass employment. When you look at the road, you can see what an incredible feat of engineering and peoplepower it is.
This had to be one of the only bus rides I’ve had where people weren’t staring at their phones, or engrossed in listening to music, but were chatting with each other and staring enthralled out the window. It certainly made a nice change!
When we got off the bus at Mirror Lakes, I naively though we would be going on a bit of a bush walk…nope, it was just a five minute boardwalk to go and take more photos. But once I saw the lakes, I understood why. And let me tell you, their name lives up to the hype:
We stopped at one little bush walk, that was adjacent to a DOC campsite. There were maybe half a dozen campervans there, but in summertime there can be up to 150 campervans there each night. So much for feeling as though you’re alone in this part of the world!
At one of the stops they had those signs that asked visitors to please not feed the kea. I read it and waved it off thinking it was like all of those others signs you see around the country – i.e. ‘penguins nesting, drive carefully’ – I’ve never in my life actually seen the bird that these signs are highlighting. Until this day. I was busy taking some panorama shots when I noticed that a small group of people were congregating behind a van. I went over to see what all the fuss was about and there was a kea! Just casually hanging out, like she did this every day. Which come to think of it, she probably did.
There are quite a few spots along the road where you can see the effects of avalanches. There are several stretches of road where signs say not to stop, as it’s an avalanche prone area. Not only do you have to be concerned about avalanches, but black ice, winds, earthquakes, heavy rain, and other drivers! This summer, police stopped one campervan and when they opened the back door, more than 20 people came streaming out! I couldn’t believe it when our bus driver told us that last year alone, there were more than 800 accidents on this stretch of road. 800!
The Milford Tunnel is cool. Can tunnels be cool? I’m going to go with yes. However, I’m not sure I’d want to be driving through there during an earthquake (this area has hundreds of them each year) or an avalanche. It’s one way only, but the maximum time you’ll have to wait at either end is 8 minutes, thanks to the nifty traffic lights installed recently!
And then we were pulling up at the boat terminal. It wasn’t long to wait until we were on the boat but I have to admit at this stage that I was more concerned with getting some food in my belly than I was about the scenery. But once that situation was taken care of on the boat, I was good to go!
The boat cruise took us up on side of the Sound, with incredible views of waterfalls, Mitre Peak, and out through the Sounds into the Tasman sea. We saw seals sunbathing on the rocks, and sea birds overhead. The boat even pulled up close to a waterfall, so we could all experience a ‘glacial facial’!
After an hour or so on the boat, we pulled up to the discovery centre, where those of us who were doing the kayak tour disembarked. This is what I’d come for!
The Discovery Centre had a wealth of information about the area but unfortunately we didn’t get a lot of time to peruse it as we were whisked down a spiral staircase. I didn’t give much thought to where we were going until we came to a small window and a fish swam past. Then it dawned on me that we were going under the Sounds! There was a viewing space at the bottom and holy sweet deity it was cool – for one reason. Starfish! I have always been a huge sucker for starfish, I mean look at how excited I am here!
Back upstairs, and it was time to get in our kayaking gears. Honestly, there is going to be serious money for the person that eventually makes stylish, affordable, waterproof gear for activities like this, because highlighter yellow fisherman-style pants aren’t exactly flattering on many people!
Our group of 10 had all kayaked before which was perfect, as we didn’t need to spend too long learning how to kayak and could just get out there! I had been wondering how exactly we were going to get in the water in our kayaks when low and behold, our guides led us around the corner to this contraption:
It’s a platform that raises and lowers into the water – so you get into your kayak while it’s raised and then when everyone is ready it lowers about 30cm into the water and you can float out. And the reverse happens when its time to come in. Genius!
The photo opportunities. Seriously. I think our guide got a bit annoyed with us at one point as we were so busy taking photos and videos that we kind of got left behind a little bit. Ah well, just meant we got a sweat on as we paddled to catch up! But we were pretty much left to our own devices as long as we stayed within shouting range. Downside to that though? When some penguins were spotted, we missed them as we were the last ones to arrive. Sometimes, it pays to be first.
If you can, you’ll want to do this trip with a friend, purely so they can take awesome photos of you on your kayak. Because it’s damned hard to do on your own! In saying that, credit for all the photos of me kayaking go to Tarns – thanks, e hoa!
This place is amazing. The water was so clear you could see to the bottom. It is the middle of winter here so the idea of going for a swim wasn’t appealing, but in summer the idea of dipping my toes in would be fabulous!
We had more than an hour on the water, which was plenty of time to explore but there was also time to just sit back in my kayak and take it all in. Which you need to do in a place like this.
Back at the Discovery Centre we realised we were running behind schedule as the staff packed up after us as they were catching the boat with us back to Milford. It also provided us with a chance to say sorry to the guide for being the naughty kids at the back of the room who weren’t paying as much attention as we should have been!
Amy’s Advice – book a kayaking trip. You won’t regret it – you get a much better vantage point being on the water, than you do being in one of the boats!
The bus trip back to Te Anau was a quiet one as we were all exhausted from our big day out. If you can, make sure you sit on the same side coming back so that you can take in the scenery, both sides provide totally different experiences!
Also, while you’re in Te Anau, go and see the film Ata Whenua at the Fiordland Cinema. It’s $10 for a 32 minute film, and it’s so worth it. A helicopter pilot realised he had access to places in Fiordland that many people have never gone or will have the ability to do so, so he filmed it for our enjoyment. Go and see it. It’s incredible.
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