On the 5th we set off from Queenstown along the southern scenic route to the campsite near Milford Sound, stopping in Te Anau on the way to go to the visitor centre and make sure we were full on petrol. There aren't any petrol stations between Te Anau and Milford Sound and it's a 119km journey. Milford Sound is in the heart of the Fiordland National Park which is a World Heritage Area. Milford Sound is actually fiords, but explorers who discovered them mistook them for sounds, which they have been known as ever since. The drive from Queenstown was stunning, mountains everywhere surrounding us with lakes appearing in front of them on the windy roads.
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is one road in, one road out and has lots of points of interest and sights to stop at on the way. We drove straight to our campsite as we wouldn't get to see much before dark so would see things on the way up to Milford in the morning and then on the way back down in a day or two. The drive up was lovely with amazing sights! We crossed latitude 45 degrees south on the drive up. As we got closer to our site the bad weather set in! Milford is well known for its constant rainy weather and there is a severe weather warning out for tonight for rain and thunderstorms so we have got that to look forward to. Milford Sound is the most northern fiord in NZ and the only one accessible by road. It is approximately 17 km from the head of the sound to the open sea. Milford Sound was formed by the grinding and rounding action of glaciers over millions of years that then retreated and the sea flowed into the steep valleys.
We stayed at Lake Gunn DOC campsite, 43km from Milford Sound, on Milford Road at the edge of Lake Gunn. There are no free campsite any where in the area or even near to Te Anau for that matter. There are lots of DOC campsites at $6pp a night, this campsite being the last one on the Milford Road before Milford Sounds. The rain did not stop once all night, pounding away on the van. I wasn't sure if the lake was going to overflow and we would be floating in it in the morning - but we survived!
On the 6th in the morning the rain still carried on and on, everywhere starting to slightly flood. We set off early up to Milford Sound stopping at some sights on the way. We stopped at The Divide, the lowest east-west pass in the Southern Alps (531 metres) and also where many walks started including the Routeburn great walk track. We then went down Lower Hollyford Road, an unsealed road off Milford Road which led to Marian Corner where we parked up. We crossed over a swing bridge over a very very fast flowing high river into the Marian Valley and then walked 10 minutes to a series of waterfalls which were very strong due to the rain.
The rain still carried on and on staying very heavy and with strong winds. When we came out of Lower Hollyford Road back onto Milford Road we noticed that there were cars and buses parked everywhere on the road and that it had been shut. We were told that the road had been closed due to bad weather and a storm coming and that all trips have been cancelled. The lady said that she would know by 12pm and that we could stick around until then if we wanted but they had no idea what was going to happen with the weather and if the road would open back up and trips go ahead. We decided we had nothing to lose so had a drive up to Pop's view where there are suppose to be amazing views over the Hollyford Valley but we couldn't see anything because of the bad weather! We then drove back down the where the road closure was and stuck around to see what would happen, it was 11am by this point so thought there would be no point driving all the way back to Te Anau yet (88km) when the road may open and Milford is closer (32km).
Just after midday they re-opened the road and there was a big queue of traffic waiting to get through to Milford. The weather was still so bad and there was torrential rain once we passed through to Milford. It was pretty harsh driving conditions! We passed through Homer Tunnel, at an altitude of 945m above sea level and 1.2km in length, the unlined road tunnel passes through sheer rock to Milford Sound with a gradient of 1 in 10. It was very exciting! Even though the weather was bad the scenery surrounding us was just wow! It was very off putting when I was tying to drive! We got there just after our trip was suppose to start but it had been cancelled anyway. They got us on the next trip at 1.30pm which was the scenic boat trip, which is shorter than ours on a bigger boat that didn't go as far, but not sure ours would have done that with the weather anyway. We were the first trip of the day. They don't stop trips because of the rain but they had been having very strong winds of up to 200km/hour. We were the tester trip! It was a nice boat, we got tea and coffee and there were seats and tables inside or you could go out on the deck or up to the very top deck which was the length of the boat. It was very windy up there but you could see everything. There was also commentary from the skipper as we went around the sound.
The trip started at Freshwater basin- a small harbour at Milford Sound that contains more freshwater than salt water. We passed Bowen falls- the highest of the two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound at 161m. It was still very windy on the trip and we had a little rain but not too much. There seemed to be waterfalls everywhere around the fiords but it was due to the water cascading down the rocks due to the amount of rain. We passed copper point, which is the narrowest area of the fiord and it was very windy and rocky! We visited and went right under Fairy Falls, soaking us all on the top deck. Fairy Falls had large amounts of fresh water that cascaded from the falls due to the rain, but they are actually a temporary waterfall and dry up if there has been no rain for a couple of days. The skipper told us that the amount of water cascading down the rocks was all due to the rain and 90% of them will dry up once the rain has stopped for around 2 hours. We then went up to Dales Point and turned round there, we couldn't go any further into the Tasman Sea as it was too rough and it would be too difficult to turn around. We could see where the freshwater from the fiord met the sea water. It was a distinctive line of green to dark blue. Dales Point is the entrance to Milford Sound, 548m wide and 79m deep, compared to the rest of the fiord which has depths of up to 300m. We stopped at Stirling Falls and went as close as possible, soaking the whole top deck. The spray of water that was being blown by the wind and the amount of water due to the rain made the waterfall stronger. Stirling Falls are 155m high and are known to be more spectacular after rain. We stopped in Harrison Cove, which is the only natural anchorage in the fiord, the Observatory is here and the kayak trips are usually in the cove.
Mitre Peak made an appearance on the way back when it had cleared up a little, at 1,692m it is one of the highest mountains in the world to rise directly from the ocean floor. It was very impressive! As were the rest of the mountains and sheer cliffs that rose directly from the water. We then headed back to the basin. The bad weather seemed to add to the experience of the trip and the wind made it a good laugh. We experienced it as you are suppose to and is natural to Milford, in the rain. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world- it has an average of 7m of rain per year! It was such a brilliant trip and it was so beautiful! When we got back to the van there was a Kea, an alpine parrot, on the van. He was very cheeky and tried to get in the sun roof by trying to lift it with his beak!
On the drive on the way back we stopped at Tutoko Suspension Bridge, built in 1940 to cross the Tutoko River, completing the road into Milford Sound, though it's no longer in use for vehicles.
The Chasm was the next stop, a series of powerful waterfalls, showing the sheer velocity and amount of water Milford has due to rain fall. Then back through the Homer Tunnel and stopping at Monkey Creek, a pull over area with fantastic views of the Upper Hollyford Valley and snow capped mountains- the snow looked blue and very deep. It was beautiful! We had a drink of the water of eternal youth from the pristine stream then carried on and stopped back at Lake Gunn for the night, the weather wasn't as bad at all for the night- not much rain or wind. We got there when it was still light and it had cleared up loads so we got lovely views of the surrounding valley and reflections in the lake.
We set off nice and early on the 7th and stopped at**** Flat first and found out information on the effects of avalanches in the area. Pretty crazy stuff! We stopped at Mirror Lakes, which are small tarns (mountain lakes) which give good reflections. They are best in clear, calm weather and it was raining but it still gave a good reflection. We stopped at Eglington Valley for one last look of the beautiful valleys before we left! This glacial valley is constantly being changed by the Eglington River. Te Anau Downs historic site was the next stop and it gave information on the old station and farming out in the wilderness in Fiordland National Park. The old station hut was still there and was preserved which was cool. The last stop on the beautiful, crazy, unpredictable Milford Road was Lake Mistletoe, a glacial lake. It was a good drive with unbelievable views that are enough to make you take your eyes off the road!! There were a lot of brilliant places to stop on the way too! It was suppose to be a very challenging drive with the roads but we didn't really think it was. We have definitely drove worse. The weather was the only challenging and unpredictable thing. We definitely got a good feel for how changeable NZ weather can be at any minute!
Once at the end of Milford Road we carried on through Te Anau and onto the southern scenic route to head further south.