In 1935, five men were given picks and wheelbarrows, and asked to dig a tunnel… so begins the remarkable story of the Homer Tunnel, a 1,270 metre granite-faced tunnel through the Darran Mountain Range beneath Homer Saddle.
It took five years for the work gangs to cut through to the far side, working in harsh conditions, battling avalanches and without sun for months at a time. Progress stopped during the war, and it wasn’t until 1953 that the tunnel finally opened to traffic, making Milford Sound accessible to anyone brave enough to tackle the road trip.
Since its opening, the Homer Tunnel road has been sealed and can accommodate two-way traffic. While the walls remain unlined granite, there is now electric lighting, and traffic signals manage the flow during peak periods (the tunnel only fits one tour bus at a time).
Perhaps the best thing about this historic tunnel is coming out the other side. Milford Sound has been described as ‘something out of Jurassic Park’, and more famously, as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ by Rudyard Kipling when he visited in 1891. Native bush dominated by ancient tree ferns lines the road, which weaves through rugged mountains and finally bursts out at the head of the fiord, where Mitre Peak stands guard over the steep gully and cascading waterfalls.
Milford Sound has world heritage status, and is carefully managed to maintain its environmental legacy. It is home to a range of unique flora and fauna, including rare penguins, geckos and black coral, amongst plentiful birdlife and marine animals. Water tours are available, with cruises and kayaking among the most popular ways to explore the area. The Milford Discovery Centre & Underwater Observatory give an unequaled view of the sound, with minimal disruption to the natural rhythm of the marine life. Milford is strong on eco-tourism, and ‘gentle viewing’ is encouraged by tour operators.
And at the end of your visit, there is the return journey through that feat of Kiwi ingenuity and number-eight wire thinking. It’s enough to make a hobbit grin…