Milford Sound – Piopiotahi

Milford Sound is simply breathtaking. In sunshine or in teeming rain, it captivates with its spectacular beauty. Milford is the most well-known and most accessible fiord in Fiordland National Park, found in the south-west corner of New Zealand’s South Island.

Carved out over time by glaciers, Milford Sound is 16 kilometres in length from the head of the fiord to the open sea. It’s lined by steep sided rock faces that rise up more than a kilometre – the most famous and most photographed of these is Mitre Peak standing at 1692 metres.

Bowen Falls in the foreground and in the background Mitre Peak standing proud over Milford Sound


Milford Sound is believed to have been discovered by Māori over 1,000 years ago. The Māori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi which means ‘single native thrush’ referring to the legend of Maui trying to win immortality for mankind. When Maui died in the attempt, a piopio (native thrush) is said to have flown here to sing and mourn the loss. Legend also says that Piopiotahi was carved out by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, a god who was given the task of shaping the Fiordland coast with his adze (carving tool).

Milford Sound was initially overlooked by European explorers because its narrow entry gave no clue to its large interior. Captain James Cook bypassed Milford Sound not once, but twice for just this reason. The first explorer to visit Milford Sound was the Welsh adventurer, John Grono in 1812, who named it Milford Haven after his homeland in Wales. Its name was later changed to Milford Sound by Captain John Lort Stokes. One of Milford’s more famous residents was Donald Sutherland, a Scot, who arrived in Milford Sound in 1877 and lived there for 40 years. As well as being an energetic explorer of the region, he established the first hotel in Milford along with his wife Elizabeth Samuel, to cater for the summer tourist trade brought by the opening of the Milford Track in the late 1880s.

Milford Sounds amazing night sky.

The Milford Road was first proposed around the time that the Milford Track was built to find an easier way to take gold out from Queenstown. One of the early settlers, Henry Homer, explored the area and figured that drilling a hole through the rock wall would make road access to Milford possible. No action was taken at the time, and it wasn’t until more than 40 years later in 1935 that work began on the building of the Homer Tunnel. Using picks and wheelbarrows to start with, drilling and dynamite were later introduced. Progress was slow with plenty of challenges including avalanches, fractures in the rock bringing water from snow melt into the tunnel and very tough living conditions. The tunnel finally opened in 1954.

The extraordinary grandeur of Fiordland was recognised by the United Nations in 1986 when it was made a World Heritage Area. Fiordland National Park was described as having ‘superlative natural phenomena’ and ‘outstanding examples of the earth’s evolutionary history’. In 1990, the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area was extended to include Fiordland, Westland and Mt Cook National Parks.

Flora and Fauna

Lush rainforests cling precariously to the steep rock faces of the fiord. Beech trees, as well as mosses, ferns and lichen create a patchwork of root systems, all dependent on one another to stay in place and on plenty of rain for their survival.

Native New Zealand birds flourish in Milford Sound. Tuis, bellbirds, kea and kereru are often spotted along with sea birds including gulls, shags and oystercatchers as the fiord is an ideal breeding ground. New Zealand fur seals bask lazily on the rocks while bottlenose dolphins, Fiordland crested penguins and little blue penguins are also at home in the fiord which is a marine reserve.

The underwater environment is one of the most unique and interesting places in the world. The high rainfall in the area drains through the rainforests and becomes stained with the tannins until it’s a deep brown colour. This dark surface layer of fresh water means that species such as rare black coral, usually living at depths of more than 500 metres, can be found just below the surface.

Milford Sounds beautiful awe-inspiring cliffs and waterfalls.


Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world with an average annual rainfall of 7 metres per year. Rainfall can reach 250 millimetres in 24 hours and creates dozens of temporary waterfalls (as well as a number of more permanent ones) that cascade down the cliff faces, some reaching a thousand metres in height.

The temperature in Milford can vary depending on the season and can go from an average high of 19C in summer (Dec – Feb) to 9C in winter (Jun – Aug).

Milford Sound is even more magical in stormy weather.

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