7 November 2017

World Famous in New Zealand: Milford Sound

By Lorna Thornber.

Believe the hype. Even Rudyard Kipling’s description of it as the eighth wonder of the world. Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) is a national treasure.

Where/What is it?
A narrow-mouthed inlet deep within Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound was long overlooked by early European explorers. Even the revered Captain Cook passed it twice unnoticed. Sealer John Grono was the first European settler to visit in 1823 and one can only imagine how he must have felt as he sailed toward what he thought was a small bay and found himself inside a 16 kilometre-long fiord surrounded by sheer-sided mountains covered in virgin rainforest and dripping with waterfalls. Former gold digger Donald Sutherland became the first resident in 1877 after setting sail down the Fiordland coastline with only his dog for company and deciding there were far worse views to wake up to every morning than the 162 metre-high Bowen Falls and 1692-metre high Mitre Peak. He kept it to himself until after his marriage to the entrepreneurial Elizabeth Samuels in 1890, with whom he built a hotel to cater for the growing number of hikers on the Milford Track. After the road to the Sounds opened in 1954, visitors flooded in and these days it’s a poster child for NZ’s 100 per cent pure campaign. Māori, however, have known it’s a special place for more than 1000 years. Naming it after the now-extinct piopio bird, they regularly travelled there from Otago and Southland to gather precious pounamu (jade).

Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Nature Cruise passing by the massive Bowen Falls

Why go?
The jewel (or jade) of the national park, part of World Heritage site Te Wāhipounamu, the Sound (technically a fiord) is a must-visit for every traveller – especially Kiwis. Take a cruise to fully appreciate the scale of the glacier-carved fiord and take in its many waterfalls (after heavy rain it’s positively streaming with them). Some boats stop right underneath them, giving whole new meaning to the word power shower. Keep your eyes peeled for the southern fur seals that hang out on aptly named Seal Rock and the tawaki (Fiordland crested penguins) that also call the place home. If you’re lucky, you may also spot bottlenose and dusky dolphins and southern right whales.

On the way/Nearby
It’s a long road to Milford Sound but that isn’t an issue when it happens to be one of the most scenic in NZ. Stretching 120km from Te Anau, Milford Road winds its way through Fiordland National Park, taking in so many stellar photo opps the typically two-hour drive may take much longer. The first pitstop in the park on my day tour from Queenstown was the Eglinton Valley whose movie star good looks have made it a favourite with the Hollywood set (it featured in Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Mission: Impossible 6). Mirror Lakes, which reflect the snow-capped Earl Mountains, are another highlight, as are Monkey Creek, with its glacier-fed spring and resident kea, and the raging waterfalls that make up The Chasm.

Insider Tip
It ain’t cheap, but a scenic flight is the ultimate way to experience the Sound and snow-capped mountain ranges that surround it. Our Air Milford pilot met us after our cruise and escorted us to the nearby airfield, where we boarded our 12-passenger plane for the 35-minute flight back to Queenstown. After seeing the Sound as Māori god Tu-te-raki-whanoa must have when, as legend has it, he carved it from the rocks, deciding it was his best work in all of Fiordland, you’ll pass over a landscape apparently unchanged since the last Ice Age. Alps impassable by all but the hardiest of human souls, powder blue alpine lakes, glaciers, NZ’s highest waterfall (Sutherland Falls) and and Lake Wakatipu are all covered before the spectacular descent into Queenstown.

How much?
Nadda if you just want to stand before the Sound and soak up the serenity. A variety of operators provide coach tours from Queenstown or Te Anau, some of which include scenic cruises. I went with Southern Discoveries, who transport you in a glass-ceiling coach to the Sound, with informative commentary along the way, before a two-hour cruise. Coach-and-cruise options with the company cost $199 per adult and $99 per child, or from $579 per adult and $354 per child if you opt for a return flight.

Best time to go
Milford Sound is accessible all year around although you’ll need chains on your tyres and to exercise extreme caution if you drive there in the colder months as the Milford road is prone to avalanches. It’s one of the wettest places on Earth so you should be prepared for rain at any time. Many think the place is even more magical in the rain, not least because it means even more waterfalls than usual.

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