Milford Sound: Mist, water, and acrobatics
Rather than taking one of the many coach day trips out to Milford Sound from Queenstown, we opted for the self-drive option. We loaded up our gear into a nippy Ford Focus and made good time heading along the side of Lake Wanaka in between two mountain ranges. Almost 3 hours later we arrived at Te Anau to stop off for some lunch. We got excellent coffee, hot chocolate and toasted sandwiches from the Miles Better Cafe before continuing on towards Milford Sound. We had been planning on spending a night there, but unfortunately the only accommodation was booked out that night so we would have to return to Te Anau when it got dark.
Milford Sound is actually a fjord. It reaches the sea just north of Queenstown, but for land access you have to drive south to Te Anau and return back up on the opposite side of the mountains. It’s a big understatement to say that this is a wet place. Clouds crossing over the Tasman Sea gather up a big load of moisture on their journey. When they reach Milford Sound they encounter mountains that force the clouds up higher to find a way across. As the clouds pass into the cooler air above, they expend all the moisture gathered over the sea, resulting in very high rainfall in Milford Sound. Sure enough, the further along the fjord that we travelled, the wetter it got. There are mixed opinions as to whether Milford Sound is better in sunny weather or bad. We were definitely going to get the wet weather version.
The first stop off we made was at the infamous Mirror Lakes. This really wasn’t what we were expecting. There was no mirror effect to be seen at all in the rainy weather. We didn’t hang around too long before moving on to cross the plains of Knobs Flat. The landscape changes drastically on the 2 hour drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. We were now starting to approach the snowy peaks of the mountains. The road began climbing steeply up the mountains. Soon we were surrounded by mountains on all sides, rainwater converging in multiple waterfalls that streamed down the slopes. It begins to feel like you’re about to drive into a mountain, and that’s what you actually do.
Homer tunnel is a 1.5km long tunnel literally carved out of the mountain. The rough-hewn walls leave little space between them for traffic. This makes the reality of driving through the guts of a mountain more real. In the dark, dank tunnel you can feel the oppressive weight closing in from above. It’s not too long though before you can see the murky glimmer of real daylight in the distance. The car shoots out of the tunnel into blinding daylight and a view of the road back down to the valley below.
Deep within this mountain valley everything is dwarfed by the surrounding peaks. With the rain pelting down, there’s a sense of movement all round. Water descends from every direction as streams furiously race down the mountain sides. Dirty old snow drifts still nestle in the lower crevices where the streams slowly wear them away. It feels like you’re driving across the bottom of a giant basin while water gushes in from hundreds of taps. At the speed the water falls, it looks like it will only take minutes for the basin to fill up, leaving you racing to make it out the far side before the water level rises and sweeps your car away.
Eventually the gap between the surrounding walls of stone starts to widen and the river flows out to meet the sea. At Milford Wharf we booked onto one of the many Milford Sound cruises and swatted at swarms of flies while we waited on the dock. We were on one of the last cruises of the day. The rain was still falling heavily so most people huddled inside or crowded in the small shelter at the back of the boat to snatch photographs through the mist and rain. With the abundance of rain, the mountains were putting on a good performance. While there are only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, once the rain starts there’s a countless number of small and large ones flowing. The captain obligingly backed the ferry under one of the larger ones for a photo op. Closer and closer the boat went, drenching anyone at the rear until it got to the point that it seemed the ferry would founder on the rocks before it shuddered forward again.
It’s hard to say if the views on the cruise are better or worse on a rainy day. There’s certainly a lot of atmosphere on a rain-soaked day with the mountains looming out of the misty gloom, and the torrents of water spilling into the sea from a height You can’t help wishing for the clouds to clear a little though, and give a brief glimpse of what lies behind the veil. Ideally you would get to experience Milford in both sunny and wet weather and get the best of both.
After we reached the point where the river meets the sea, the ferry started its slow turn to cross the choppy waters and return back into the shelter of the bay. Shortly after this the boat gained some welcome visitors as a pod of dolphins decided to escort the boat back to shore. They played and frolicked at the bow of the boat the whole way. Despite the floods of rainwater sweeping across the deck, the dolphins were proving the most popular attraction of the cruise, attracting almost everyone out into the rain to view them. The bow was lined with people assuming the ‘dolphin watching pose’ (bended knees, leaning over the rails) to peer into the depths below. There graceful shapes could be seen weaving back and forth just under the surface of the water.
I found myself in a prime position when the dolphins decided to take turns rotating into place just to the left of the boat. They would leap out of the water, sometimes belly-flopping, sometimes flipping onto their backs to land with a huge splash of water that brought oohs and ahs from the audience. Possibly encouraged by this, the dolphins put on a long-running acrobatic performance demonstrating their agility and speed. They’re amazing animals to see up close and incredibly playful. There wasn’t much attention being paid to the rest of the scenery as the ferry drew back towards the wharf.
Finally the wharf was close by, and the dolphins departed in search of something else to run and play with. Back inside the boat, rivulets of water were streaming off everyone’s clothing. Squelching around in jeans that were wet-through we took advantage of the ridiculously cheap sandwiches the crew were hawking to avoid having to throw them in the bin at the end of the day. As one of the crew was a Dublin native, it didn’t take him long to spot our accents and we were among the benefactors when he decided to distribute the remaining soup at the low low price of $0. The soup and sandwiches were enough to keep us going as we got back to the car and performed our own clumsy acrobatics in confined space to remove our wet clothing and replace it with something dry from the rucksacks in the boot.
It was a long drive back through the mountains as the rain steadily continued to fall, showing no sign of abating. The road was almost deserted. Thankfully the car was in good condition and the roads are well-maintained or it could have taken twice as long to get back. Coming back down the steeper mountain slopes the car naturally accelerates the whole way back, leaving you with your foot permanently on the brake. It takes a lot of concentration to make sure the car doesn’t pick enough speed to send you skidding off on a sharp turn. Taking some extra care, we still made it back to Te Anau in a couple of hours just before darkness fell.