Te Anau was our base for the part of the trip I was looking forward: the magnificent Milford Sound fjord. Despite its remote location Milford Sound is the one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand and it’s also the only fjord in Fjordland that can be accessed by road.
The 121 km Milford Road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is an experience in itself. However, to make our schedule work better we decided to get going early in the morning, get to Milford Sound early and visit the sights on the way back. Parts of this road are also one of the most avalanche prone in the world and it is occasionally closed in winter for safety reasons. Luckily for us the conditions were quite good during our visit. Shortly before the Sound itself the road enters the Homer Tunnel. This 1270 m long tunnel pierces the mountains separating Milford Sound from rest of the Fjordland.
Soon after the tunnel we arrived to the small tourist village next to the Sound itself. From there we headed straight to the boat terminal and our boat cruise in the Sound. The massive boat terminal seemed rather quiet in the winter, during the peak season the place must be packed though. Best way to experience the fjord is obviously on water and most visitors take a boat tour while visiting. Milford Sound is also a popular destination for big cruise ships. There are also various water activities available including kayaking and diving. Sadly the dive operators are not very active during the winter season and in any case I was still suffering from the cold.
With 182 rainy days and almost 7 m of annual rainfall Milford Sound is one of the wettest place in the world. So it’s not very surprising that it was raining during our visit too. Luckily the rain wasn’t that heavy for most of the time. Still, with heavy fog everywhere it was hard to see the full magnificence of the fjord. Especially for photos it would be very nice to visit on a clear day when the mountains surrounding the fjord aren’t all covered in fog.
Still, the fjord was an impressive sight indeed. The almost sheer walls of the fjord are over 1 km high with several higher peaks in the area. There are only two permanent waterfalls but on a rainy day like this the walls are covered by countless smaller waterfalls. As a big fan of waterfalls I was very much impressed. At one point our boat actually took us right next to one of the waterfalls. A rather cool (and wet) experience!
The fjord is also home to a variety of marine mammals, including seals, whales and dolphins. We only saw some seals hanging out on some rocks though. We still got to experience more of the marine life as we had booked a visit to an underwater observatory as part of our cruise tickets. This floating observatory is anchored near one of the sides of the fjord and offers an impressive glimpse of the rich marine life in the area. Somewhat surprisingly we were the only people doing this part of the tour, our cruise boat simply dropped us off at the observatory and moved on.
The underwater environment of Milford Sound is quite unique. The combination of massive rainfall and the waterfalls forms a layer of fresh water on the surface of the fjord. With all the tannins in the water this layer is almost impenetrable and blocks out most of the sun light. This means that species that can normally only be found at much greater depths are found close to the surface.
The main example of this is black coral which is typically only found well beyond recreational diving depths. Here it starts appearing from depths as shallow as 10 meters. The name black coral is bit of a misnomer. The coral is actually white when it is still alive, it only becomes white when it dies.
The fish life around the observatory was also very rich for temperate waters. In addition we saw several smaller sharks passing by. We all enjoyed this part of the tour quite a bit. And as for myself I’m quite keen to go back to Milford Sound one day and do some actual diving in the area!
After a while the next cruise boat was passing by the observatory and it was time for us to move on. We hopped on to the new boat to finish our tour of the fjord. We passed near a few more impressive waterfalls but all too soon we were back at the boat terminal.
It was still raining a little bit when we got back to the shore so instead of doing any of the short walks in the area we decided to hop in the car and start the drive back.
Our first stop was the Chasm only a short drive away from Miford Sound itself. The Chasm is a series of small waterfalls and holes carved in the rock by the river. Pretty impressive sight, especially on a rainy day. At the Chasm car park we also had a close encounter with the native alpine parrots, Keas. These very curious and intelligent birds are very friendly and seemingly not afraid of humans at all. They also love to steal food and other things. In our case this included our car’s radio antenna and Jacinta’s jacket! Luckily both of them proved much for the birds.
Our next stop was Lake Marion Falls shortly after passing through the Homer Tunnel. The Falls can be reached by a short walk from a side road and are located in a beautiful patch of temperate rainforest. The walk there was quite nice and the falls themselves are pretty enough.
We had few other stops along the way too, including the Mirror Lakes. On a calm day these small lakes display a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains. Sadly the rain was picking up again so the reflection we got was quite blurry.
After an excellent (if little bit wet) day exploring Milford Sound and the Milford Road we finished off the day in Te Anau.