A "Must-See" Spectacular
After the jam packed adventure that Queenstown provided, it was time to head further south in New Zealand towards a "must-see" part of the South Island called Milford Sound (or "Piopiotahi" in Maori). There's plenty to look at on the drive down and even with rain forecast, it doesn't matter here as it's all spectacular! In fact, there were some views which made you feel like you were in a scene from something like the film Independence Day!
So come and join me as we go on an epic road trip from Queenstown, stopping off at some sites of interest before ending up at the majestic Milford Sound. Let's go!
Moari Culture - Piopiotahi
There's always a beautiful story behind the Maori naming of places and Piopiotahi is no different. The piopio bird, which is sadly now extinct, had similarities with the thrush bird and Piopiotahi means "one piopio". The legend of Maui, who was known as a "culture hero" but was also a bit of a trickster with plenty of cunning, is where this name all comes from. Sadly, it was his last trick that Maui played which cost him dearly.
In his attempt to make mankind immortal, he messed with the wrong Goddess, Hine-nui-te-pō, and got himself caught in a place that he shouldn't have, which cost him his life [Source]. A single piopio bird was seen to have flown to the site where it happened in mourning, that site is Milford Sound [Source].
Places To Stop En Route
Thankfully for us though, there were no deaths on the day which made for a more pleasant experience! What was even more pleasant were the stop off points on the way from Queenstown which you may like to visit on your way through.
First and foremost, we're heading south on our trusty Highway 6 before heading west on Highway 94, following it all the way to Te Anau (we'll cover this place in another blog), and continuing all the way down to Milford Sound (well, it IS called the Milford Sound highway)!
"Why oh why can't we just drive one side of the square and get to Milford Sound by heading North West?" I hear you ask... Simply put, there's a massive mountain range and a giant lake in the way where there's no road through and besides, it would ruin the scenery and destroy areas of wildlife which New Zealand is very proactive in trying to preserve. So we need to drive this lovely route and there's plenty to see!
About 45 minutes drive North from Te Anau on Highway 94, you'll start noticing that the mountain ranges get closer and closer then they'll surround you, hugging you as they welcome you in. Not too long after you enter their warm embrace (or cold, depending on the time of year you go), there's a view point overlooking the beautiful Mirror Lakes, which mark the half way point from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
Now don't be too alarmed as there will likely be a load of tour buses that are also parked up in the off road bays. Remember that this is the only road that leads to Milford Sound and as New Zealand's main industry is now tourism, swathes of snap happy tourists are to be expected. When we went at around 10am (in the middle of May 2019), there were 3 buses including our own and it was a bit much but to be fair, the noise levels were kept to a minimum as people were enjoying the views. After looking at the next shots, I'm sure you can see why!
They do say on the Department of Conservation website that you need a clear day to see the reflections of the Earl Mountains on the surface of the lakes but as you can see, there was a bit of drizzle in the air but we could still see the reflections. This is only a short 5 minute walk and is accessible for wheelchairs too along the boardwalk.
About 40 minutes further down Highway 94 will bring you towards the impressive Homer Tunnel. Funnily enough, this was designed by Homer Simpson... no, not really! The idea to build a tunnel here came via William Homer as he and George Barber discovered the "Homer Saddle" in the Darran Mountain Range in 1889 and suggested the tunnel would be needed to allow access to the Milford area [Source].
Construction didn't begin until 1935 though and it wasn't fully completed and opened until 1953 due to the difficult working conditions, World War II happening, avalanches killing most of the workers (and there only being a handful at the time to build it) and water flooding the tunnel.
The tunnel itself is just over 1km long, is very straight and is not for the faint hearted! If the traffic lights are red before you go in, I'd recommend parking off to the side and having a little walk about the place. Even if you miss the lights (like we did... oops), you'll only need to wait 5 minutes for them to change over! Whilst you're at it, why not make friends with Kevin the Kakapo?
As we had to come back this way after visiting Milford Sound a few hours later, I might as well share the scenery on the other side of the tunnel here, which is even more spectacular. When you exit Homer Tunnel on the west side, you drive down a very beautiful, winding road but the lights were red as we were returning back to Te Anau. So we stopped, took some pictures... and missed the lights... AGAIN!
However, the weather had been pretty funky that day with a combination of rain and sunshine trying to burst through. As I turned around to admire the view again at the red lights, it looked like a scene out of Independence Day with the clouds shining bright! This was probably one of my favourite photos of the day and I haven't even shown you Milford Sound yet! Sometimes it's all about the journey, not the end destination.
We're getting closer to Milford Sound now folks but first, there's just one more place to stop off at before we get there and it's called "The Chasm"! Sounds ominous but you have nothing to worry about... unless you fall in of course! The Chasm is a series of rushing waterfalls fed by the Cleddeau River about 10 minutes further on from Homer Tunnel. Look for the signs, park up and enjoy the short walk.
You'll need some walking boots for this even though it is only a short distance. The reason being that it can get a bit slippery with all the water every where - we are in the mountains after all. However, the noise of the water as it rushes through beneath you is incredible.
Congratulations! You survived tour buses with hundreds of people, kilometre long tunnels AND the Chasm to make it to Milford Sound! 13 minutes further from the Chasm and you're home and dry... well, maybe not dry!
Milford Sound is a "fjord" which is the name given to "steep sided inlets of water which have been created by a glacier" [source]. Unsurprisingly, this is in a part of New Zealand called the Fjordlands National Park and there's no prizes for guessing what geological landscapes are prominent here (sorry)!
The company we went with for the cruise was one called "Go Orange" although it was included in the price of our own big adventure tour, I've done some research and it looks like the prices are very reasonable actually! If you are making your own way there, a 2 hour cruise will cost $45NZD and there's food and drink available on board but it's cash only. We had Fish & Chips included with ours but I'm sure if you ask when booking, they'll be happy to reserve a table for you. So, shall we go for a cruise?
It doesn't matter whether it's raining or if it's a clear day as all weather conditions make for a dramatic scenery. For us, we had drizzle and rain the night before and during the cruise which created spectacular waterfalls as we were moving out towards the mouth of the fjord. When you step outside and to the front of the boat, hold on as you may get blown away by the strong winds too!
Our cruise Captain thought it would be amusing to steer the ship up close and personal towards the waterfall above, which is very doable because of how steep the water actually is. We went RIGHT up to the waterfall and even went under it, which is made possible because the rock is so steep that where the water falls, it's up to 100 metres deep underneath (from what the Captain was saying)!
Thankfully, we got the best of both worlds on this cruise as the weather cleared up on the way back and revealed some of the peaks that were hidden away underneath. What a place!
I really didn't want to get off that cruise and say farewell to this place. So much so I was very silent on the bus as we departed, gazing out the window for one last photo opportunity as we shimmied on back through Highway 94 to Te Anau.
The cruise really gave us every magical experience we could have hoped for through Milford Sound and I'd highly recommend visiting. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I was told by various people that Milford Sound is a "must-see" part of New Zealand. After being there, I believe them!
I hope you enjoyed this road trip and cruise, until the next time, take it easy!