Posted by: scribe9 | March 5, 2010

Milford Sound, er, Fiord

The southwest coast of the south island is all within Fiordland National Park. No, that’s not a misspelling, it’s English rather than Norwegian. And there are native parrots (the world’s only Alpine parrots, who are huge and have big beaks with which to trash people’s belongings, including cars), but they’re not blue.

The jump-off point for the famous Milford and Kepler tracks and several other tramps (hikes), and Milford Sound, is the town of Te Anau, on the lake of the same name. The mountains here are faulted and folded, and there’s enough rain and then some for rather long lakes. The town itself has the feel of a ski town—lots of sporting goods shops and restaurants. And a pharmacy, at which those whom all the mosquitoes and sandflies find succulent can buy repellant. (Yes, you can buy repellant at grocery stores, but it won’t be nearly as strong as what you can buy in the pharmacy.) The Mobil station sells not only charcoal and wood, but real coal—“Giles Creek Nuts/Low Sulphur, Clean Burning.”

There’s also a fairly new cinema that was built by the helicopter pilot who put together a marvelous 35-minute film of Milford Sound in all weathers and seasons. That movie runs every hour on the hour except in the evening, when a regular movie is shown. The seats are the widest and most comfortable I’ve ever seen in a movie theatre. They’d easily fit someone twice my size, but most of the people we saw were slender.

The place we stayed had units all the way from tents up to two-bedroom fully self-contained apartments. As we were splurging the next night, we spent $40 for a bedroom. Yup, just a bed, one chair, one table, and a credenza. No bathroom; that was up the hill in the same building with the communal kitchen and laundry. However, in true New Zealand fashion, our room did have a tea kettle, a toaster, plates, knives, spoons, glasses and tea cups, instant coffee, great tea, and of course milk and sugar. I’d guess that only the tents are lacking the necessities for tea and toast.

In the morning we drove to Milford Sound. Like the nearby Doubtful and Dusky sounds it’s actually a fiord (cut by ice) rather than a sound (formed by water), but in true Kiwi fashion, they haven’t gotten around to renaming it yet. (They also haven’t renamed 18-Mile Creek or 30-Mile Creek, although they went metric almost half a century ago.)

The road was pretty good, with arrows on the paving at intersections and at every parking lot, viewpoint, and side road, and on long stretches where there are no signs. This area gets thousands of visitors from around the world, many of whom are accustomed to driving on the right, so the arrows are there to remind them to drive on the left.

The Milford Highway is dangerous not only because of the drivers, but also because it’s in avalanche country, and the granite (some of the hardest in the world) doesn’t allow very firm toe-holds for plants and trees. We went by several stretches of road that recently been cleared of fallen rocks and trees. We were driving in rain, part of a storm that brought eight inches. The streams were all roaring.

 The long one-way tunnel was started in the 1930s, abandoned during the war when they worried that the Japanese might invade through it if they finished it, and completed in the early 50s. It used to be two-way, without lights, but as vehicles got bigger there were more altercations, so they made it one-way and installed lights five years ago. It’s the steepest tunnel I’ve ever been through. Our car had a substandard transmission and we used 2.

We arrived at the sound with a couple of hours to kill before our boat trip. We went into the restaurant for a cup of tea. That building was the only one I’ve seen in the entire country with screens on every opening window, because of the ferocious bugs. The screens were fairly new, and fastened to the windows with flexible magnetic tape, so they could be peeled back to open the window (casement opening out, of course, like 90% of all the windows installed in this country during the past hundred years) and then sealed once the window was open.

We got on the boat at 4:30, and got into our fleeces and rain suits. There are only four permanent waterfalls, but because of the rain temporary waterfalls were everywhere:

 The skies cleared, so Rick went out in a kayak and I in a tender (a scow-like power boat). A seal came and played around our boat, and we saw others chilling out on the rocks. So much fresh water pours into Milford Sound that the top layer of the water is slightly salty fresh water, and only little black mussels, which look like velvet from a distance, live in the intertidal zone.

(The fresh water carries enough sediment and plant material to act like sunglasses, so the salt water beneath it is darker than is usual for such shallow water, and lots of usually deep-sea fish and animals live there.)

During dinner we sat with a couple of Americans from Colorado and a couple of Australians. One hadn’t shaken her American accent in twenty years as an expat. The Australians grudgingly admitted that the New Zealand lamb was pretty good. When the cook was describing the desserts, he mentioned that both New Zealand and Australia claimed Pavlova, but that the recipe was found in a New Zealand cookbook printed before Australians learned to read. After dinner was a slide and video show, with yet more teasing of the Australians.

There were lots of Germans on the boat—most instructions were in English, German, Japanese and Chinese.

 The next morning we went out to the Tasman Sea, and saw how Captain Cook could have assumed there was no reason to go into the sound:

Since there was only a little rain during the night, many of the waterfalls had lessened or disappeared:



  1. Absolutely beautiful! Thanks for including all the photos. Mark & I just returned from a week in the Seattle/Vancouver area – clear skies, temps in the 50’s. We saw curling, hockey, skeleton, and a medal ceremony in addition to all the people. We spent 2 days in Olympic National Park watching the eagles and awed by old growth.

    • Glad you enjoyed both of the Olympics, and the photos. I really miss old growth or just big trees here–with all the cutting and burning to turn the country into a big pasture, they are few and far between. The tree farms just don’t cut it.

  2. Really enjoying your writing and photos. We had great experiences ourselves at Milford Sound and Mt. Cook. The wind in Milford Sound was blowing some waterfalls back up — a whole new perspective. On our hike at Mt Cook we heard major ice fall/landslides several times. Your bringing back some great memories for us!

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