Weather reports in Fiordland National Park are about as ambiguous as astronomy predictions. "Fine and sunny with some cloud. Possibility of rain throughout the day. Winter conditions exist, so beware of ice and snow. Maybe there will be a tornado. Who bloody knows?"
I had woken to fog. Or perhaps low cloud. Either way my headlights bounced off a suffocating white blanket as I drove along the winding road, concentrating on keeping my old bomb from crossing the centre line into the dim headlights of the oncoming cars.
Milford Sound is one of New Zealand's most stunning natural attractions. It is also one of the most photographed. If you have ever looked into travelling to New Zealand, you will have seen photos of Milford Sound, usually with a backdrop of blue sky and a blanket of light mist. Unfortunately, you may not see it like this because usually it's raining. It rains 183 days of 364. So, basically half the year it will rain sometime during the day. The good news is when it rains the Milford Sound waterfalls are in action, so you should always win.
Technically, Milford Sound is a fiord (or fjord, depending on where you are from). Massive glaciers carved out a valley and when they receded, leaving steep cliffs for pretty waterfalls, the ocean followed. Milford Sound is the only fiord in New Zealand accessible by road. The road, which is a stunning adventure in itself, winds through grasslands, along rivers, into valleys, and through the Homer Tunnel which is straight out of a horror movie; a dark, wet, single-lane horror movie. Once you're through the tunnel, you will be surrounded by native bush, massive mountains and, depending on the season, snow, ice and avalanche country.
My advice: do not rush this road. Not only could you drive off a cliff and end up in a river, you won't be able to call anyone to complain as there is no cellphone reception.
At the end of the road is a car park, a couple of lodges, a small store, and a cafe. As you can imagine, everything for sale has an idiot tax included, for those silly enough to forget buying food in Te Anau. The largest of these is the ferry building, where you check in for your cruise. I had booked a ticket with Jucy in July, which isn't known as the warmest part of the year in New Zealand. Luckily, by the time I arrived at Milford Sound the fog had burned away leaving a reasonably clear, winter sky.
The boat pulled away from the pier with people jostling for position along the bow, shoving each other with selfie sticks, and the cheaper, but no less annoying, point of view poles; myself included. After hitting three tourists with my GoPro while trying to get the right amount of light reflecting off my head, I gave up and was forced to just look at the beautiful landscape instead. My insta-followers will be writhing in agony over this missed opportunity.
You usually do not go to New Zealand to party. You do not go to New Zealand for fine dining or shopping. You do not even go to New Zealand for historic landmarks. You go to New Zealand because of its ridiculously beautiful landscapes and to do fun things like jump off bridges with a rubber band tied to your feet. Milford Sound is definitely one of the places for beautiful landscapes.
The boat is dwarfed by steep mountains, some rising over 1300m, with Mitre Peak the highest at 1692m. Waterfalls cascade from the dizzying height of the cliffs, spreading out in the wind, forming sheets of shimmering rainbows. The captains get the boats as close as they can; usually near enough to soak anyone foolish enough to stand around. It makes for a long, cold journey back if you are one of those fools. I know this from experience.
The cruise is a relaxed journey through the fiord toward the Tasman Sea with the captain providing information over the loud speaker and pointing out anything that may be of interest, from different parts of the landscape to visiting dolphins, penguins and New Zealand fur seals, which are actually sea lions. Early New Zealand settlers weren't very accurate when naming things.
The experience lasts a little over 90 minutes and takes you close enough to the Tasman Sea, around several of the more impressive waterfalls and to a few sites where it is possible to see some local wildlife. Definitely a good half-day out and one of the easiest ways to see the Milford Sound. None of that pesky paddling like you have to do in kayaks.
Things to Note:
- Take wet weather gear. Seriously. The average annual rainfall in Milford is over six metres.
- There is no cell phone reception once you leave Te Anau. I recommend telling someone where you are going, especially if you are planning any hiking. Leave a detailed plan and do not make changes unless you have to. While there are generally people around on the trails, if something happens it is a great deal easier to find you if people know where to look.
- While there is a small store at Milford Sound Lodge, Te Anau is the last place to stop for petrol and supplies. I recommend you do what you need to while you are there.
How to book:
- To book a cruise have a look through BookMe which may be one of the cheaper options. There are a lot of possible cruises to choose from.
How to get there:
- The most convenient is to drive in yourself. When driving from Queenstown allow five hours in case of bad weather.
- There are buses into Milford Sound and day tours available as well.
- It is possible to fly into Milford Sound, though you will miss out on a lot. The drive in is worth it.
- For those who are more adventurous, you can walk the Milford Track. Be aware this is a multi-day hike and you will need to book the huts. There is no freedom camping on the Milford Track.
Where to stay:
I did a day trip to the Milford Sound and while it was a lot of driving, it was a good day. If you want to stay close to the area, there are some options available.
- The Milford Sound Lodge is the closest accommodation in Milford Sound, but be aware you will need to book in advance and it will likely be quite full. However the location can't be beat.
- Knob's Flat is the next closest, located between Te Anau and Milford Sound. There are campsites and some studios available. Again, book in advance.
- The Department of Conservation has a number of campsites which you can book. The rules around freedom camping have changed in New Zealand and they are enforced.
- Te Anau is the closest town for more accommodation.