Discovered by the Māori more than a thousand years ago, the early stories of Milford Sound are steeped in myth and legend that talk of its magnificent creation. According to the stories, Milford Sound was shaped by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, an atua (godly figure) who shaped the fiords. Uttering a powerful karakia (prayer) he took his adze called Te Hamo and split the earth hewing out the towering sheer rock faces that surround the water.
The Māori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi which means “a single piopio”. Legend has it that the hero Maui died trying to win immortality for people, killed by the goddess of death Hine-nui-te-po. His partner — a piopio (an extinct thrush-like native bird) he bought with him from his fabled homeland of Hawaiki -flew to the area to mourn his loss.
Milford Sound was an important area for earlier tribes that used the fiord for fishing and as a hunting ground. It was also a rich source of pounamu (New Zealand Jade commonly known as Greenstone). Pounamu was highly regarded for its spiritual significance and was thus treated as a great treasure. It also offered practical value for making tools and weapons due to its steel-like hardness. Because the jade from Milford Sound was unique to other found in New Zealand, the Māori gathered the stone from the area and traded it with other tribes throughout the country.
Early European settlers did not discover the area until 1812. In fact, the famous explorer Captain Cook missed it twice during an early exploration of the coastline. It was Captain John Grono who came upon it and named the area Milford Haven after his home town in southwest Wales. It was later renamed Milford Sound by Captain John Lort Stokes.
In 1887, Milford Sound had its first permanent resident. A Scotsman named Donald Sutherland decided to leave everything behind in Scotland and arrived in New Zealand with only his dog as company. When he reached Milford Sound, he decided to lay down his roots close to what is now Lady Bowen Falls. He discovered Sutherland Falls. In 1890, his wife Elizabeth joined him to live in the area. They built the first hotel in Milford Sound. In 1919, after Donald died, his wife sold the hotel to the government.
In 1888 Mackinnon Pass was discovered and it became part of what is now known as the Milford Track, making the area more accessible to travelers. It is believed that this ancient pathway was the same one used by the Māori to collect pounamu in earlier times.
When the Homer Tunnel was built in 1954, it provided road access to the fiord. Soon, it’s natural beauty became known to the world.
In 1990, Fiordland and Milford Sound were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now one of New Zealand’s most popular places to visit it has been described by the writer Rudyard Kipling as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It has also been called one of the most beautiful places on earth and has won travel awards such as the world’s top travel destination (Trip Advisor).
Not much has changed about Milford Sound’s ancient beauty but you need to come and see it for yourself. The best way to enjoy the stunning fiord is on a Milford Sound cruise with Southern Discoveries. Southern Discoveries are the original cruise boat operators who have been operating in Piopiotahi/Milford Sound for over 50 years.