Milford Sound may sound like a radio station from the eighties (’87.7 Milford Sound – all of the music, all of the milf’) but it is, in fact, a stunning fiord described Rudyard Kipling as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. But is it really that good? We took a trip on the Kiwi Experience ‘Milford Explorer’ bus to find out.
After nine months in Australia, we headed to New Zealand where our adventures on our Kiwi Experience bus included glowworm caves, geysers, hiking across Mordor, horse-riding in Hobbit land, partying at the Poo Pub, heli-hiking a glacier, climbing a mountain, jumping off a canyon, snowboarding and drinking at an ice bar.
It was a nice and early start – early enough for Dan and Will to still be drunk from the night before, which made for a pretty hilarious bus journey. We drove by the Remarkables mountain range, one of the few ranges in the world (along with the Rocky Mountains) that runs due north-south. We stopped at Te Anau for tea before stopping at the not-at-all-hilarious Knob’s Flat.
About Milford Sound
This temperate rainforest receives London’s annual rainfall in just twelve hours! This Fiordland was part of Gondwanaland – beech trees found here and on other continents gave evidence for plate tectonic theory. 90 million years ago, New Zealand broke away long before mammals evolved (bar seals and bats). Then 1200 years ago humans brought stoats and stuff which ate birds that had evolved to become flightless after not needing to fly for all that time.
New Zealand was one of the last major landmasses to be populated, you see, by the Mãori Polynesians. Humans never settled here permanently though as it is too inhospitable: it rains two in every three days. As a result it is a good area for Gondwanaland research.
The area known as Fiordland became a national park in 1952, but the tunnel to Milford Sound began to be built during the Great Depression. A Fiord is formed from a glacier carving through the valley in the ice age. Milford Sound is a misnomer – it’s a fiord, not a sound. A fiord is glacier-formed; a sound is river-formed (e.g. Marlborough Sound at Picton where we got the ferry to New Zealand’s South Island).
The road to Milford Sound
It was a dramatic drive past the Southern Alps crossing to the ‘West Coast’ (anything west of the Alps counts apparently, we were still about 80 kilometres from the actual coast at this point). Heavy rain and clouds casually hung in the epic valleys amongst fast-flowing waterfalls and streams. Interestingly, the waterfalls are temporary in that they come and go with the rain. The vast cliff-faces looked like a CGI movie – too majestic and gigantic to be real. Lots of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed around Fiordland.
The road is a major avalanche area. If one occurs they close the road and drop explosives from helicopters to promote and control the rock fall. They used to close the road in the winter but these days it is open 85% of the time to meet the tourism demands. We could see evidence of previous spectacular avalanches as we drove by. We also saw a Kia bid when we stopped at The Chasm, where we took a very soggy walk into the rainforest to the falls.
Cruising Milford Sound
The next stop was Milford Sound itself. Our catamaran was called ‘Pride of Milford Sound’. We had a free lunch as we set off from Freshwater Basin. The incredible mountains rising out of the water were breath-taking. Mitre Peak is one of the highest mountains in the world to rise directly from the ocean floor, at 1682 metres. Meanwhile, Mt Pembroke at 2014m is permanently snowcapped and the glacier atop it is the remnant of a glacier which carved its way through the Fiord and is up to 27 metres in depth. The vast, epic scale of the place felt like a location from King Kong.
We sailed right up to a couple of waterfalls, almost going into one of them so that everyone on the front deck got soaked! Out towards Anita Bay we saw some penguins and our driver later informed us that they only see penguins about half a dozen times a year.
We turned around and headed back from the Tasman Sea, from which Captain Cook missed Milford altogether despite sailing right past the entrance. Dale Point denotes the entrance to Milford Sound and is about 548 metres wide and only 79 metres deep, unlike the rest of the fiord which is up to 300 metres deep.
There were so many waterfalls on all sides and we were so lucky to go on the best wet day in ages, resulting in magnificent waterfall action. Rain means the waterfalls are ‘working’ and we saw hundreds, around 90% of which would ‘switch off’ as soon as two hours after the rain stops. There are astonishingly only two permanent waterfalls: Stirling Falls with its mighty 155 metre drop, and Bowen Falls with an even more impressive 161 metre drop.
We pulled up to Seal Rock, which was covered in lounging seals (they are active at night and rest at places like Seal Rock during the day). It is one of the few areas in the fiord where the Southern Fur Seal s able to climb up out of the water onto the rocks. They inhabit the fiord all year round.
It was very windy out on deck but as we neared the end of our cruise the sun started to burn through the cloud. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the famous mirror reflection, but the sheer number of waterfalls made up for it. By the time we were driving back to Queenstown it was a gorgeous day in Fiordland National Park, which is by far the largest of New Zealand’s 14 national parks. The fickle New Zealand weather struck back though and it was pouring with rain before long, a nice rainbow emerging in the conditions.
Back in Queenstown we said goodbye to some friends who we would be leaving the next day and celebrated a great trip with a famous Fergburger. As I munched on a colossal ‘Big Al’ burger I pondered whether Rudyard Kipling was right about Milford Sound being the eighth wonder of the world. I’ll tell you this, it’s certainly up there…
You can watch my Milford Sound video here.
Next time: Christchurch – Rebuilding with Hope.