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Published: December 23rd 2015
Milford Sound has to be one of the most remote places there is. You travel all of the way to New Zealand; go to the larger, more sparsely populated South Island; leave behind the East Coast with its towns and cities and head into Fiordland; you pass through Te Anau - the last real settlement before Milford; travel along a highway for 120 kilometres; cross over a high, steep mountain pass; and eventually arrive at a ferry terminal in the middle of nowhere.
Yet, if you meet anyone who has been on the South Island of New Zealand for more than a couple of weeks, they will tell you about their experience of Milford Sound. They generally regard it as one of the best things they did whilst they were on the South Island. Whatever weather they experienced, the area's charms shone through and they were awed by the majesty of the mountains and the water.
We decided that we had to see it too. The day after our two-day walk we had to be up early enough to get to Milford by 9am. As we departed the hotel on a haze of rain we were told that it
could take two and a half hours to get there. I was very skeptical!
There were several points along the road where we wanted to stop but we decided to defer these until our return journey. We covered the first hundred kilometres in less than an hour but then we reached the mountain pass and tunnel. As we climbed the hill we came across every motorist's worst nightmare... a mobile home following another mobile home. Then we came around the corner and saw how much worse that nightmare could be. We were following not just two mobile homes but a queue of at least ten. What should have been a really fun drive down the hairpins of the mountain turned into a long slow procession. By the bottom of the mountain the car was emitting an acrid stench as, even in low gear, I had to keep my foot on the break to go slow enough to avoid the mobile in front. The last twenty kilometres took another hour. This did give us time to admire the scenery we were passing. All around us as we descended the steep valley were waterfalls, cascading down the near vertical slopes. There
must have been several dozen of them. Some fell harmlessly away whilst others washed across the carriageway.
We eventually got to the car park and had to walk through the rain to get to the terminal. It turned out though that the rain was the least of our problems - the clouds we had to beware of were composed of sand flies... thousands of them. We waited for the ferry and were the first to board. We went upstairs to get a good window seat.
As we left the mooring all we could see was greyness. The grey was broken into patches of darker and lighter shades. Ahead of us loomed Mitre Peak, the most famous view in the Sound but all we could make out was that it was a dark blob on the horizon. The cloud did clear a little which allowed us to pick out some details such as waterfalls but there wasn't much else to see through the mist. The waterfalls were impressive; some were long and dropped down a whole mountain in a single unbroken river; others split into lots of smaller rivulets and fell as trickles to the sea below; one of
them, which the ship got very near to, was huge and dropped a huge volume of water vertically kicking up an immense spray. We spent the cruise sitting for long periods in the cabin and then braving the elements to get a better view and take some photos.
Despite the weather it was a great experience and we were glad that we did it. The area is beautiful even when fog-shrouded. I'm not certain though whether it was worth the effort it took to get there though. I can imagine that in beautiful weather than the whole place could be completely transformed to reveal a spectacular grandeur that would be well worth seeing. Sadly, for us, it wasn't the "out of this world" experience we'd been set up to expect.
The return journey was just as frustrating as our earlier experience as we got stuck behind slow moving cars. On the way back we were more relaxed and had time to stop to see some of the sights. Fiordland is an amazingly beautiful national park. All along the road ran a lupin-shrouded river of glacial melt-water. The atmosphere was enhanced by the aura of moodiness cast by the
fog. We also came across the Mirror Lakes, a short diversion from the road. These small meres gave good reflections of the mountains in the background even through the ripples caused by raindrops.
We paused briefly by the lakeside in Te Anau for some lunch. We had planned to wait for their Santa parade but as it was still pouring down we decided to push on and headed back towards Queenstown.
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