Milford Sound/Piopiotahi: Watching the weather in Fiordland

4 October 2016

New Zealand is proud of its clear blue skies and fresh, clear air. The southern climate is said to be as crisp as the apples grown in the Deep South, with fresh-to-freezing nights and clear balmy days. And rain.

Milford Sound averages more than seven metres of rain each year. It’s more likely than not that any traveller to the area will experience the famous West Coast wet at any given season, so the best thing is to accept it, prepare well and enjoy what comes your way – some of the most memorable occasions are when Mother Nature throws her best at you. Gale force winds howl through the valleys, rain pours in torrents with a sound like native drums, lightning bolts rent the sky and thunderclaps echo among the mountain ranges. And that’s on a good day! Any inconvenience from the wet is offset by the sight of the waterfalls, which swell to dramatic proportions when the rains come.


The Fiordland region is marked by unpredictable and dramatic weather patterns. The strong westerly wind, fondly named the ‘Roaring Forties’, is drawn sharply up the sides of the seaward mountains creating heavy rainfalls and snow on the upper slopes. The high altitude air cools quickly, bringing cloud mass and creeping mists which shroud the peaks in flowing garments of white, broiling black clouds, and everything in between. Planning your visit depends on what you really want to see and do. For tramping, safety predicates going in the open season between October and April. Sightseeing is amazing at any time, depending on how well you handle the colder climate and depending on your preference – snow or sun (rain thrown in, free of charge!).

On average, the temperature in summer (December to February) is between 15 – 20 degrees during the day, falling to around ten degrees at night. Spring (September to November) and Autumn (March to May) are a little cooler, with highs of 10 – 18 degrees and lows down to seven or eight, while winter (June to August) tends to range between ten and zero degrees, though it is often mild and sunny during the daytime.

Summer in Milford Sound is generally a mixed bag weather-wise. While it can be remarkably clear (photographers from around the world will gladly testify to the stunning light and clarity of a fine day in the Sound) it is rarely very warm. Remember this is some of the closest land to the South Pole – it’s usually pretty cold, which makes it great for curling up indoors, taking a cruise on a comfortable (and warm!) boat, and making the most of what nature provides. Between March and May, the entire region is ablaze with rich autumn colour, fiery reds and golds through to blazing yellows as far as the eye can see. The Arrowtown Autumn Festival in April is an exuberant celebration of the colourful display. Often the winter days are sharp with the delicious crispiness which is well known in Aotearoa New Zealand, and nights can be breathtakingly fresh and frosty. Snow falls are common in winter, when the peaks are capped with shimmering white for months on end.

There is always the possibility of seeing the exceptional Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights. Auroras are created by electrical particles entering the earth’s atmosphere, causing colourful gaseous reactions. They only happen at the Poles, and are a veritable visual feast for anyone lucky enough to see them. The Southern Lights can provide an unforgettable show of luminescent pinks, greens, reds and purples, weaving and spiralling into the night sky. While this may be seen at any time of year, the highest activity is generally during the cooler months from March to October.

While the weather is changeable, it is always spectacular, and there are also many stunning, clear days with warm sunshine. Wind and rain can be quite localised, and the mountains shelter many places from the strongest effects. There is also the issue of avalanches. The Milford Road will be closed if avalanche danger is high, and the Homer Tunnel has an avalanche shelter built into its entrance, however it is important to follow the weather reports and be prepared, especially if tramping out of season.

The dramatic and changeable climate is responsible for the scenery of Fiordland. Glaciers carved out the fiords millions of years ago, torrential rivers and gushing waterfalls scoured out clefts and valleys and the seasonal freeze and thaw helped the evolution of hundreds of unique forms of plant life.

Whatever the weather, Fiordland is spectacular and always worthy of a visit. Just be sure to bring an umbrella, and don’t forget your gumboots!

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