Milford Sound

Posted from Milford Sound, Southland, New Zealand.

New Zealand never fails to provide when it comes to scenery – and Milford Sound helps this country maintain its title of the most beautiful and special place on earth.

Located some 41km northwest of Glenorchy (as the crow flies) – just over the towering Southern Alps, this geological marvel draws nearly one million people each year to its majestic fjords. I’ve been wanting to see Milford Sound since my first visit to New Zealand in 2009. It just took me some time to schedule some days off work to get there.

Well into the drive to Milford the mountains begin to hug the highway.

Well into the drive to Milford the mountains begin to hug the highway.

We decided to drive and camp to save money. There are heaps of tour operators that offer same day return trips to Milford, but we wanted to stay a few days to fully immerse ourselves in the raw natural beauty that I was told was out there. Raw beauty and sandflies. Lots and lots of sandflies, I was told.

The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is kind of ridiculous – and I mean that as both silly and mind-blowing. It’s silly because Milford is just northwest of Queenstown, but you must drive south two hours before heading up north another 90 mins due to the unsurpassable mountains that block direct access to this magical place. There’s talk of a them blasting a tunnel somewhere through the mountains near Glenorchy, but its a controversal topic. But if you don’t want to drive you can always walk over the mountains and pay about the same money (or more) to take the Routeburn Track over two to four days, or fly over with one of the many flight operations that make the short hop over the Alps.

The mind-blowing part of the drive is because the landscape constantly changes in a way that photographs could never do justice to. I didn’t see much of this, though, as we left Queenstown at 7 p.m. – a well-considered time meant to avoid the insane amount of tour buses and campervans that inevitably prolong the journey. The sun set about one hour after we departed leaving me unaware of the growing mountains on either side of us as we neared our destination. When I woke up the next morning, I was in another land.

The view I woke up to in the morning. Lake Gunn.

The view I woke up to in the morning. Lake Gunn.

There are a bunch of basic no-frill campsites along the way to Milford on DOC land that cost about $6/adult. There’s environmental toilets (which is the fancy term for an outhouse) and a few picnic tables and barbecue pits. We got to the Gunn Lake campsite around 10 p.m. to find it absolutely packed with camper-vans and about two tents. We meandered around with our headlamps until we found a nice damp place to set up our tent under the most amazing starlit sky I’ve seen since I was a kid on vacation in BC with my family. I’m not gonna lie. It’s late March and it was cold, even with my thermal underwear and our down duvets. The good news was this meant no sandflies. At least until morning.

Gunn Lake hugs the edge of the towering granite monoliths that lead to Milford Sound. After we packed up camp and had a fresh fruit breakfast we made our way north towards Lake Marian. Friends had told us it was a nice hike, so we put on our coats and made our way into the woods. The hike went up and up and up. We passed rock falls and creeks, huge trees and raging torrents. But in the end we were rewarded with our own private alpine lake. It was still early so the sun began to creep over the top of the peaks and heat up the air (and wake up the sandflies.)

A photo of me at the shores of Lake Marian.

A photo of me at the shores of Lake Marian.

From Lake Marian we made our way through the 1.2km Homer Tunnel. We were eager to find a picnic area to enjoy our pre-packed lunch, but we wound up picking up an Italian couple whose brakes had caught fire on their rental car and took them the remaining distance to Milford (about 15km) so they could use a phone. There’s no mobile service in these mountains.

After a brief nosh in a carpark we made our way to the port to book a cruise for the afternoon out into the fjord. There are plenty of cruise options, some of them overnight, some of them taking passengers out past the inlet into the Tasman Sea, but it was the discount Jucy Cruises gave us – making out ticket $59 – that cinched our decision for a 1 hr 45 min boat ride at 3p.m. The best part of this time slot is the sun is headed out to sea on the return journey casting a gorgeous backlight to the opening of the inlet.

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While the weather was brilliant and sunny, this was a downside as it reduced the number of waterfalls cascading down the mountainsides. This is a place where rainy weather can change the scenic experience. But really, it wasn’t that bad. And we got to see seals.

That night we set up camp at Cascade Creek, a gorgeous meadow by a babbling brook with tons of sandflies, but at least we had our own fire-pit. After gathering heaps of wet wood and starting a smokey fire we tucked into some meatloaf and pasta salad before fatigue took us into our five-star tent. It wasn’t as cold as the night before, but that could’ve been the Jim Bean.

Our campsite at Cascade Creek.

Our campsite at Cascade Creek.

After a lovely breakfast of eggs and salami we headed south to the Mirror Lakes, which were kind of disappointing after our alpine hike, and they were packed with tour buses. We ended our journey with lunch in Te Anau at none other than the Sandfly Cafe. Fitting really.

Milford is a must see, but I would recommend driving on your own so you can do your own thing. And as far as camping goes – bring bug spray.

 

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