The Magic of Milford Sound (and other Fiordland Favourites)

Published: February 27th 2017
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Majestic FjordMajestic FjordMajestic Fjord

Milford Sound's mighty peaks silhouetted against a stunning summer sky
After enjoying the scenic delights of both Kaikoura and Akaroa in previous days, Linda and I suffered a bit of a lull in the days following our departure from the Banks Peninsula (Saturday 18thFebruary), as the blue skies of the previous week gave way to grey and the monotonous flat landscape of Canterbury's eastern plains rolled by for hundreds of kilometres.

Diverting our attention briefly along the way was the busy port town of Oamaru, which sports a remarkable amount of impressive heritage architecture for a town of it's size (much of which now houses funky art, craft and coffee shops) as well as having attained fame as the capital of 'steampunk' culture... though what that actually is I have no idea, even after reading the explanation posted outside Steampunk HQ in town!

Arriving in Dunedin on Sunday we were greeted by a display of Scottish music in the centre of the city's 'octagon', and couldn't help being impressed by the magnificent heritage railway station nearby; before we headed out to the suburbs to check out what is proclaimed to be the world's steepest street. Rising 50 metres in just over 160 metres (at an average gradient of 1:3.4,
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The so-called Southern Scenic Route
but with the steepest stretch rising at 1:2.8) Baldwin Street was a challenge we were compelled to take on, and the Troublemaker didn't let us down – though if anything coming back down was even more nerve-wracking than going up had been!

After forking out forty dollars for what turned out to be nothing more than a gravel car parking space at a holiday park just outside the city centre, we left Dunedin on Monday morning bound for the nearby Otago Peninsula... only to get there and find ourselves driving through clouds barely fifty metres above sea level! And with the sea of cloud only getting thicker the further we went, there was really nothing we could do but turn around and get the hell out of there.

And so, less than an hour after we had left Dunedin bound for the Otago Peninsula, we found ourselves leaving Dunedin again headed in the exact opposite direction towards the Catlins. Unfortunately though this bizarre weather phenomenon would continue to haunt us for the rest of the day, so that our first day following the 'Southern Scenic Route' proved to be anything but that!

It was at about this
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Blue skies finally appearing over Purakaunui bay
point that the New Zealand weather finally broke me, and I simply gave up trying to see anything at all in the face of this unrelenting sea of cloud (or fog, or whatever the hell it was) and instead headed straight for the DOC campground at Purakaunui Bay - which ironically led to pretty much the only highlight of the day, as the weather had miraculously cleared by the time we pulled into the campground; providing us with a spectacular view of sharp cliffs rising vertically from the Southern Ocean, with a beautiful sandy beach to complete the scene. Of course half-an-hour later we couldn't even see the beach any more (quite incredible when you consider that we were parked beside it) as yet another bank of thick clouds had blown in from the sea, but at least we'd had that fleeting glimpse of sunshine to offer a glimmer of hope!

Admittedly the clouds did part late in the day, allowing me to go for a walk along the beach where I discovered a large New Zealand sea lion trying to relieve itself of a seemingly incurable itch by rubbing itself on the sand. Unfortunately when Linda then went
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A change in the weather the following morning at Purakaunui Bay
to investigate, she managed to slip on a rock whilst crossing the shallow stream between our campsite and the beach, and suffered a badly bruised middle toe as a result - which would ultimately prevent her from doing any hiking with me for the next week. Now I know people say that bad things happen in threes, but for Linda to suffer a migraine, a bee sting and a busted toe in the space of ten days was taking the piss!

Waking to a stunning summer day the following morning, we started our exploration of the Catlins Coast with a visit to the nearby multi-tiered Purakaunui Falls; before moving onto Matai Falls not far away; but it was the beautiful forest walk and stunning 22-metre-high drop of McLean Falls that stole the show... for me at least, since Linda had elected to stay behind and read her book!

Stopping for lunch at Curio Bay – where the stumpy remains of a fossilized forest lay scattered on a rocky platform just above sea level – we then continued on to Slope Point, which is the most southerly point on the South Island... though with the clouds having by now
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McLean Falls in the Catlins
closed in once again the views were somewhat less than spectacular, with the rugged outline of Rakiura (Stewart Island) barely visible in the distance.

Having seen pretty much everything we had wanted to see in the Catlins (bar the Cathedral Caves, which we had passed at high tide – when the caves are inaccessible – earlier in the day) we decided to push on past Invercargill, though unfortunately this meant passing up the opportunity to drive down to Bluff at the very 'end of the road'. On the bright side it did allow us to reach the free campsite opposite Monkey Island just as low tide arrived, giving me the chance to scramble over and check out this miniature island up close - even if the tiny rock outcrop I encountered was considerably smaller than I had imagined!

Having quickly checked the weather forecast during our brief window of phone reception / internet access as we passed through Invercargill, it was decided that Thursday or Friday would be the most opportune time to visit Milford Sound – a place that is notorious for the amount of rainfall it receives (in the vicinity of seven metres per year!). So
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On Frazer's Beach at Lake Manapouri
after making brief stops at Gemstone Beach and the Clifden Suspension Bridge (built across the Waiau River way back in 1899, and now open to the public as a footbridge) we pressed on north to Manapouri, on the shores of it's namesake lake.

It was during the hour-long drive from Tuatapere to Manapouri that the surrounding landscape started to crinkle and fold, as the first really impressive mountain ranges of Fiordland came into view. Stopping in town for a scenic walk along the lakefront – and with the sun shining overhead at long last – it was Linda who came up with the idea of going for a swim in Lake Manapouri, which like a number of other lakes in Fiordland reaches a depth of over 400 metres and is fed by snowmelt as well as rainfall... in other words, it was butt-numbingly cold!

Nevertheless it was one of the more scenic swims we had ever indulged in, and had us suitably refreshed for the final twenty kilometre drive to Te Anau, where we had lunch by the shores of the equally-scenic Lake Te Anau (which at 60km in length and 400 metres in depth is the largest
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Beach beside our campsite at Lake Te Anau
lake by volume in New Zealand). After taking advantage of the internet connection to book our boat cruise and campsite in Milford Sound and stocking up on three days worth of food supplies, we then set out on the famed Te Anau – Milford Road – a 120km stretch of road that has a reputation for being one of the most scenic drives in the country. And we weren't to be disappointed either – even if we only drove 25km before stopping for the evening at the Henry Creek campground (the first of nine DOC campgrounds scattered along the Milford Road) by the shores of Lake Te Anau.

Waking bright and early on Thursday morning, we were relieved to find that the winds from the previous afternoon had dissipated overnight, leaving us free to enjoy a scenic breakfast by the shores of Lake Te Anau – whose mirror-still expanse reflected the surrounding mountains beautifully as they caught the first light of the new day's sun.

Hitting the road by 9am, we managed to avoid the worst of the Milford Road 'rush hour' traffic, though admittedly we did have a couple of coach tours for company when we made
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Mirror Lakes living up to their name on the Milford Road
our first stop at the aptly-named Mirror Lakes about twenty minutes later. Passing through the remarkably flat-bottomed yet steep-sided Eglinton Valley (a sure sign of the valley's glacial origins) we eventually came to the Divide, where sometime during the last ice age the glacier that carved out the upper Hollyford Valley split into three separate glaciers – one which carved out the lower Hollyford Valley on it's way to the Tasman Sea; one which gouged out the Eglinton Valley whose waters flow out into the Southern Ocean; and one which carved out the Greenstone Valley, whose waters eventually drain into the Pacific Ocean.

With Linda still nursing a sore middle toe from her mishap at Purakaunui Bay earlier in the week, I was left to tackle the steep but incredibly scenic climb to Key Summit (adjoining one end of the famous Routeburn muliti-day tramping tack) alone – the first half-hour of which was spent hiking through a beautiful, steeply-sloping forest; the next fifteen minutes involving a steep, switch-backing climb above the tree-line offering outstanding views of the lower Hollyford Valley; and the final stretch following a looped nature trail through the alpine tussock landscape atop the Key Summit, with
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View of Mounts Christina and Lyttle from Key Summit
amazing close-up views of Mounts Christina and Lyttle just across the valley.

After enjoying a scenic lunch just up the road from the Divide at a viewpoint overlooking the Hollyford Valley, we then made just one more brief stop at the aptly-named Falls Creek (where a powerful, multi-tiered waterfall thunders down out of the forest into a turquoise-coloured plunge pool) before tackling the final climb up to the Homer Tunnel – where the Te Anau - Milford Road disappears through a tiny hole in an otherwise impenetrable mountain fortress, with almost sheer cliffs rising up all around... as far as dramatic roads go, this one is right up there with the best of them! In fact, the Milford Road reminded me somewhat of the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rocky Mountains – albeit a shorter, lower-altitude version - in that the mountainous grandeur encountered along the way is very much a destination in it's own right.

But unlike on the Icefields Parkway, this road has a true pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (with apologies to the town of Jasper in Canada – which is quite a lovely destination!) in the form of Milford Sound
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Stirling Falls being completely dwarfed by the mountains of Milford Sound
– which is actually not a sound at all but a fjord, since it was carved out (like everything else in Fiordland) by glaciers, rather than being simply drowned river valleys such as the Marlborough Sounds in the island's north.

After wearing out our brakes for the umpteenth time on this trip on the steep descent from Homer Tunnel, and then stopping off to tackle the short walk to The Chasm near the bottom; we forked out an extortionate $54 for little more than a gravel car parking space at the Milford Lodge – though unlike in Dunedin this gravel car parking space came with the major benefit of being the only place within fifty kilometres of Milford Sound where you can legally spend the night in a campervan... as well as having a terrific communal kitchen / dining room, which is an absolute necessity given Milford Sound's reputation for being the sandfly capital of New Zealand! (Seriously, within five minutes of arriving we had at least a hundred sandflies doing laps inside our campervan...)

Camping just a kilometre from the waters of Milford Sound also gave us the flexibility to do a two-hour cruise on the fjord
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162-metre-high Lady Bowen Falls
at 4:30pm – by which time the vast majority of visitors to Milford Sound had left on their air-conditioned coaches for the two-hour-plus return journey to Te Anau. Thus we pulled away from the dock at the Freshwater Basin terminal on board our Mitre Peak Cruise boat with only about forty other people on board and just a couple of other tour boats plying their trade at the same time – a far more leisurely and relaxing experience than those that visit the fjord on a day-trip could possibly indulge in.

And if we may have grown a little tired of the 'Milford Sound this, Milford Sound that' attitude that tends to prevail in this part of the country, I for one could certainly understand such a mentality as we made our way along the full 16km length of the fjord and out into the Tasman Sea at the far end – where curiously the surface water was much calmer than within Milford Sound itself, presumably due to the 'wind tunnel effect' created by the steep sides of the fjord channeling the prevailing westerly breezes – with impossibly-steep mountains rising up precipitously on all sides, and towering waterfalls fed
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151-metre-high Stirling Falls
by snow-melt plunging from their cliff-faces directly into the sea below.

But if all this wasn't already enough, there was the added attraction of two separate New Zealand fur seal colonies lazing about on rocky outcrops on either side of the fjord – both of which our small boat was able to drift within a few metres of, as they lounged about nonchalantly as if oblivious to our presence! And then to top it all off, after passing by the 162-metre-high Lady Bowen Falls at the very start of the trip, we then passed underneath the 151-metre-high Stirling Falls on our way back to the marina - when in spite of the captain's repeated warnings that anyone staying out on the front deck would be drenched by the spray, I confidently handed Linda my phone and camera before assuming my position at the very front of the boat... though unlike the three other hardy souls on board who were prepared to brave the icy cold water with me, I didn't have the benefit of a waterproof jacket to take the brunt of the watery assault!

Needless to say standing underneath a 500-foot-high waterfall was not only the highlight
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Heading out into the Tasman Sea on our Milford Sound cruise
of the cruise for me, but one of my highlights of the entire road-trip - and though I may have been soaking wet by the end of it, it was worth every goose pimple! Plus there was complimentary tea and coffee on board, which certainly helped to get the blood pumping again afterwards...

After enjoying a social evening in the dining area back at the lodge, I was up at 6am the next day to embark on an early morning sea kayaking tour with Rosco's Milford Kayaks – the only owner-operated tour company still in business in Milford Sound. After moving the campervan from our campsite to the day parking area all of twenty metres away (so that Linda could go back to sleep for a few more hours!) I headed off alongside the Cleddau River towards the kayak tour's rendezvous point at Deepwater Basin, just as the first of the sun's rays was beginnning to illuminate the tips of the mountains to the south.

With Linda opting out of the kayak tour, I lucked out and ended up paired with a friendly Californian girl named Cassie in one of four twin kayaks led by a super-chilled Kiwi
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Nearing the end of our sea kayaking trip
guide named Mark, whose enthusiam for this spectacular part of the world had clearly not diminished after five years of guiding in the area. Unlike the day before when we had been blessed with a cloudless sky, the morning started out with a blanket of clouds obscuring all but the bottom five hundred metres or so of the surrounding mountains – the lowest of which rises 1300m, while the highest and most famous (Mitre Peak) rises 1692m, making it one of the highest mountains in the world to rise directly from the sea!

Just as Mark had promised though, we were soon to be treated to the sublime spectacle of a prolonged Milford Sound striptease, as the sun slowly burnt off the clouds one by one, providing us with tantalising glimpses of towering peaks emerging from the encircling clouds. At one point we were even treated to the sight of a mountain-top ridge having it's shadow cast onto the clouds obscuring it – so that the summit ridge-line was visible in silhouette through the clouds! Whether this was before or after we paddled over towards the base of Lady Bowen Falls (which along with Stirling Falls are the only
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The otherwise impassable cliffs through which the Homer Tunnel passes
two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, being fed by the Grey and Pembroke Glaciers respectively) I can't quite recall – suffice it to say the highlights were coming thick and fast by this point!

After completing a wide arc around the inner stretches of Milford Sound – covering close to fifteen kilometres in all – and stopping in the middle of the fjord (whose average depth is around 300 metres) for a scenic snack break, we slowly made our way back to Deepwater Basin; by which time all but the most stubborn of clouds had vanished from the skies, and the thickly-forested cliffs on either side of the fjord were bathed in sunlight.

Back in the campervan, we made our way up towards the towering wall of cliffs lining the head of the Cleddau Valley, before passing through the tunnel at their base and emerging back into the Hollyford Valley - where I left Linda one last time to tackle the gruelling two-hour return hike to Lake Marian, nestled in a hanging valley at the base of Mounts Christina and Lyttle, which I had caught a glimpse of from Key Summit the day before.

With the track
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Lake Marian, perched high above the Hollyford Valley
being by far the most rugged I had encountered in New Zealand so far – made up mostly of rocks and tree roots, with a healthy dose of mud thrown in for good measure – the going was much tougher than it had been the day before on the climb to Key Summit, though I did have the encouraging comments from people returning from the lake to spur me on; and after an hour of uphill slog through dense forest I finally laid eyes upon the serene expanse of Lake Marian occupying a perfect rocky glacial cirque, with steep mountains rising up on all sides.

Having sweated it out on the hike up to the lake, there was no way I was going to miss out on the chance to cool off with a refreshing swim once I got there – and though I instantly felt a cold shudder pass through my body as I plunged head-long into the turquoise water, it wasn't enough to deter me from enjoying every second of the experience! As I sat back on a large rock letting the sun warm me once again, I had the peculiar sensation of forgetting where I was
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Cascade Creek campground on the Milford Road
for a few seconds – though I suspect this was due to the unmistakable likeness of Lake Marian to so many of the glacially-fed lakes I had encountered in the Canadian Rockies a few years ago. But after exchanging greetings with my kayak-partner Cassie – whom I had passed on the climb up to the lake – one last time, I only needed to take a few steps back into the forest and find myself surrounded by ferns and mosses once again to remind myself: “this is DEFINITELY New Zealand!”

And Fiordland had turned out to be everything I had hoped for, and more.

Additional photos below
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Heritage Stunner

Dunedin Railway Station
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Soaring Skyward

First Church of Otago
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Wall Painting

Mural on the side of a building in Dunedin
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The World's Steepest Street

Baldwin Street in Dunedin

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