Milford Sound is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. Obviously there are many hikes and trails to explore and it expected that you treat them kindly to minimize the human impacts.
But other than the typical draw to the area such as the mountains, the waterfalls and the landscape panoramas, you should watch with a keen eye for the more uncommon critters.
We were lucky enough not just to see the ubiquitous seals and birds, but the ever elusive Southern Right Whale and the playful dolphin.
Transit New Zealand has an Information Kiosk 8,5 kilometres north of Te Anau, on the way to Milford Sound. It is open during winter when vehicles have to be fitted with chains. According to the info on the Transit website, this happens about 20 times a year between June and November. But be prepared that it could happen at earlier and later dates. We often have early snow in April and May, as happened this year (2009).
If you travel to Milford Sound in winter, never travel without chains in the boot of your car. But no reason to despair if you do not have any and get caught in snow in Te Anau. You can hire snow chains at the petrol stations. If you are not used to drive in wintery conditions, you better leave your car in Te Anau and get on a bus. Make sure that you choose a bus company that has accredited drivers who have passed training courses to improve their driving skills on snow and ice.
Be warned: If you venture out onto the road and police catch you driving past signs indicating that chains are required further down the road, they can fine you NZ$ 750.
Warning number two: Do not speed! The police are out and about and make speed controls. The fines are significant. They can even strip you of your driver’s license, and if you do not have a replacement driver, you have to leave the car where it is. You can be sure your rental company will charge you for recovering the vehicle. 100 km/h is the speed limit on the open road.
Just to give you an idea (as 21 May 2009):
This year (2009) we have had an early start of winter, with snowfall in April and May, and Milford Road has already been closed on several occasions.
Transit has a 24/7 freephone hotline:
0800 4 HIGHWAYS (0800 444 449)
Update 12 July 2009
Last week one Korean tourist died in a tour bus accident on the Milford Road, just north of Te Anau Downs. There the road is still flat and wide - but the bus slipped on black ice and rolled. A rescue helicopter had to fly four seriously injured passengers out to Dunedin and Southland hospitals.
The bus was from Christchurch. There has been no further information about the driver's qualification but it clearly was not a local company, and the company's name (Isuzu Journey) indicates that the driver might not have been familiar with such road conditions. However, I have to say, before putting all the blame on this guy, black ice is the worst thing that can happen while driving on this and other roads. But especially in the early morning hours you have to be prepared to such hazards and drive accordingly.
Here is the link to the story in "The Press":
The carparks for the vehicles of independent travellers are located near the café/restaurant, about 500 metres and more from the cruise terminal. A boardwalk leads to the terminal along the shore.
If you want to risk a last minute arrival, you have to add 5 minutes for racing from your car to the terminal and 10 minutes if you walk leisurely. And some minutes more if you intend to take some photos – which surely is nice because you might have a great view of Mitre Peak’s early morning reflections…
BTW Parking is free.
Bus parking is next to the cruise terminal. There is even a drop-off and pick-up zone directly in front of the entrance. Not that anybody gets lost in the confusing vast space of one single road... ;-)
Hanging valleys are a typical feature of landscapes created by glaciers. The most obvious sign often are waterfalls plunging into the sea from overhanging rock faces.
When a huge glacier grinds its way, it might cross the path of smaller glaciers that have created side valleys. When this happens, a steep drop is created, and the smaller valleys end abruptly.
Some cruise boats get under the waterfalls. So if the captain talks about this intention you better listen to him and get inside if you do not want to take a shower.
The one you see on the photo is a semi-permanent fall from which water only tumbles into the fiord after heavy or a period of rain.
As we are in a region where the rain gets measured in metres and not millimetres, you will be surprised to travel through vast dry grass landscapes before reaching the real rainforest. But those dry areas are all too natural, as the area east of Lake Te Anau lies behind high mountains that keep the westerly winds that bring heavy rain and snow at bay. It is the same phenonemon that makes the West Coast further north wet and the eastern regions dry. The South Island’s major faultline drops into the sea at Milford Sound. We often have reports about earthquakes off Milford Sound.
The grasslands are mixed with manuka, bracken (which is a hardy fern that does not need a lot of moisture) and young beech. Further on, in the Eglinton Valley, red beech becomes the dominant tree, and you also find some native grass- and wetlands. The latter include the Mirror Lakes where most travellers stop.
The further west you travel, the harsher the climate gets. This is the area where silver beech do not grow very tall. (You recognise them by their super tiny leaves that are evergreen in New Zealand – not comparable with the beech trees you find in Europe or elsewhere.) As almost certainly only I recognise the other plants that grow here, so I do not want to bother you with the names. Well, you might recognise the fuchsia – at least when they are in bloom in spring ;-) You might have them in your garden containers in summer, with much bigger flowers. The wild ones are small, and the colours are red outside and the inside is purple.
The big white flowers you might spot along the road closer to Homer Tunnel are mountain lilies (buttercups) and daisies, also called Mt. Cook Lilies and Daisies.
The silver beech is the dominant tree, growing taller again on the descent into Milford Sound, mostly covered in mosses that hang on the branches like beards. Now in this wet region you also see tree ferns which make New Zealand’s rainforest so appealing, and lots of mosses and smaller ferns.
Although most of the world’s glaciers are melting you can see where they once have been. If you look out for the typical features of landscapes created by huge glaciers, you will find plenty such features along the Milford Road.
You will see hard rock debris of gneiss, diorite and granite, especially near the start of the Milford Road. This debris was deposited by a glacier that once filled Lake Te Anau. The valleys are U-shaped, steep, and their walls are bare rock face. The massive glaciers did this grinding work.
Do not miss to stop at the big carpark before Homer Tunnel: This is a cirque basin, carved by ice into a steep walled amphitheatre.
More information here:
As I write this tip, I am sitting in the dry region of Canterbury, and it has been raining cats and dogs for several days now, interspersed with snow and hail, accompanied by gale force winds. The annual rainfall here is about 650 millimetres.
For some days now I have been screaming and laughing about the weather forecast on TV. It has been raining nearly everywhere in the country, and Milford Sound and Fiordlad have full sunshine. Their annual rainfall is measured in metres. They have nearly seven metres (6800 millimetres), so ten times our rainfall, and they have rain on about 180 days of the year, so every second day. And now obviously the sun does not stop shining. Crazy world.
It has been the same when I travelled to Milford Sound in February (2009). And I had no rain on my first visit. So the weather just MUST be better than the statistics ;-)))
Or not. Be it. I think when it rains, it rains, and it can rain for days, and those continuous falls happen more often than here where it is an absolute exception.
The Milford Road has been closed for wintery conditions several times this year already. So surely you should always check the road conditions before you travel. (See Transportation and Warnings & Dangers tips.) Like further north on the West Coast the highest rainfall is during the summer months, January being the month which brings most rain. Statistics-wise February is the best summer month to travel.
Also try to watch the weather forecast on TV, it comes near the end of the news of the two main TV channels TVNZ (TV One) and TV3. They are on daily from 6pm to 7pm.
More accurate forecasts are available on MetService. It is tricky to get to the exact locations, you first have to choose the mountain forecast, and only from there you get to Fiordland. Here is the direct link:
The West Coast of the South Island, including the South-West, is the country of the greenstone, New Zealand jade. Maori call the greenstone Pounamu. The South Island’s Maori name – Te Wai Pounamu, the Land of Greenstone – refers to this fact. And greenstone was the main reason why the Maori travelled to Milford Sound on a track that has become the Milford Road.
Maori named Milford Sound Piopiotahi, after piopio, a single native thrush which now is probably extinct. Piopiotahi means: Place of the singing Thrush.
Permanent Maori settlements were located in the Hollyford Valley and around lakes Manapouri and Te Anau.
Milford Sound was named by a Welsh sealing captain John Grono after his birth place, Milford Haven. And obviously he had no idea what the difference between a fiord and a sound is :-)
Many places in the area are named after early European settlers. For example, the Sutherland Falls (along the Milford Track) which were named after the first permanent European settler, Donald Sutherland. (No, not the actor. This one was a Scottish prospector, sealer and ex-soldier. He also helped to cut the Milford Track, helped by a guy named Quintin Mackinnon. He “got” Mackinnon Pass…) Or think of the Homer Tunnel and Saddle, named after William Harry Homer who discovered the saddle in 1889.
James Cook had sailed the Endeavour close to Milford Sound in March 1770 already, but strong wind and heavy squalls forced him to keep well out at sea. In 1792 New Zealand’s first sealing gang was left in Dusky Sound and the slaughter of southern fur seals began. By the 1820s the seals were all but exterminated. Now they are protected, and you will see many on any cruise.
It was a major undertaking to build the Milford Road, and it took nearly 30 years until the road and Homer Tunnel were finished in 1954 – but just as a gravel road at the time. No-one thought it was an appealing job to work in the remote wilderness of Fiordland, being subject to all kinds of wild weather, floods, snow, avalanches. So most of the men who worked on the road were more or less forced by the Government to take the jobs up during the Great Depression.
The section from Te Anau to the Divide (that is where the Routeburn, Caples and Greenstone Tracks start/end) was completed in the 1930’s. Work on the Homer Tunnel began in 1935. Difficult conditions and a break during World War II delayed the completion until 1953.
They had an incredibly hard life, and some died in hazards caused by the weather. Parts of the road, bridges and the tunnel portals had to be rebuilt because they crashed. Having encountered those incidents and to prevent further loss of life, the road was closed during winter until the late 1970’s. The tourism industry and fishermen were the driving force behind the appeal to keep the road open year-round. The last stretch of the road was sealed in 1992 only.
After a massive avalanche killed a road maintenance supervisor in 1983, a programme was established to monitor the avalanche risk on the Milford Road. Transit New Zealand introduced the internationally recognised Avalanche Control Programme. With this tool they are able to close the road with short notice, so nobody travelling there falls victim to nature. Still, from time to time there are still incidents, especially landslips after heavy rainfall.
Although I have not hiked this 53,5 km walk myself, and will probably never do, I can give you some essential info about it if you want to do it.
I can also tell you the reason why I hesitate – far more than my hubby unwilling to carry a heavy backpack for four days and therefore not wanting to accompany me ;-)
Of course, I would be most interested, having seen the beautiful photos friends have taken on New Zealand’s most famous walking track. But the main reason for not doing it is that – due to the compulsory booking system – you cannot decide on the spot to go on the track, or hurry down to Te Anau when the weather forecast is great. I am not interested in walking through the rain for four days only because I have booked the trip well in advance. I would not mind one rainy day, but in a region where they have several metres of rain every year, it can happen that you are rained in and walk in the mud. I admit: I am a sunshine walker.
This is not just because I want to enjoy great views, although the rainforest IS very beautiful when it rains. It is also safer.
Imagine, the peak season is from late October to late April. In October you can still be snowed in, as we speak of an alpine environment, and in April you can already be snowed in. So the off-peak-season is absolutely no option for me. In the past weeks – I speak of April 2009 – hikers were stranded several times on the Milford Track in heavy rain, when rivers became unpassable, and quite a lot of walkers had to be flown out by helicopter.
New Zealanders and the DoC often mention how special it is to hike in our country’s backcountry, and that you need special skills. They say this with quite some pride, giving you the feeling that all people who do not want to do it the rough way are sissies. Well, as my name is nearly that, let me be a sissy. It has absolutely no appeal to me to cross rivers when the water is knee-deep, and look at the DoC brochure (link further down) to see what they consider normal in rain conditions: a hiker who walks in water that goes up to his hip or even waist!
If I want this, I put my swimming gear on and go to the hot pools in Hanmer Springs. Without backpack.
I think you get the idea what I understand under nice hiking experiences.
If you are tougher the Kiwis will surely like you. So let me give you some information and links that will help you to get on the Milford Track, come rain, come hail, come snow, or – if you are lucky – come sunshine :-)
Peak season is from late October to late April.
During this period you can only walk on the Milford Track if you book a four day/three night package, starting at the head of Lake Te Anau and finishing at Sandfly Point (Milford Sound). Bookings are essential and can be made via the online booking link on the DOC homepage:
or by mail, fax, email or phone. Bookings are normally open from mid July. The DOC website will give you the exact date. A maximum of 40 people may start the track each day. Even if certain starting days are fully booked, re-check the website from time to time, as people may cancel their bookings.
A hut pass for the peak season (3 nights) costs NZ$ 135.
Great Walks Bookings Office during the Peak Season:
Department of Conservation
Lakefront Drive, P.O. Box 29
Te Anau, New Zealand
Phone (03) 249 8514, international +64 3 249 8514
Fax (03) 249 8515, international +64 3 249 8515
Office hours: 8.30am - 6pm (7 days, Nov - April)
8.30am - 12 noon., and 1pm - 4.30pm (Mon - Fri, May - Oct)
DoC recommends to book your transport at least one week before departure. During the Great Walks Peak Season bus and boat companies depart daily, servicing both ends of the track. Most trips are available with Tracknet (see in my transportation tips).
If you want to travel to Queenstown on the day you finish your walk you have to book 2.30 pm or 3 pm buses from Milford Sound.
If you want to cruise Milford Sound before getting on the bus to Te Anau (with cruises starting between 2.45 and 3.15pm), you have to catch the 2pm boat from the end of the track. All Milford Sound cruises return in time to connect with the 5pm bus to Te Anau.
If you want to finish your Great Walk at a leisurely pace before getting back into civilisation, you might want to spend a night at Milford Sound. The only option is the Milford Sound Lodge which caters for all needs, from luxury lodge to dorm bed in the backpackers accommodation. See more details in my accommodation tip.
Off Peak (Winter Season) is from May to late October.
For this time of the year no bookings are required. You can even walk the track the “wrong” way round, so from Milford Sound to Te Anau Downs. But really, do not do it if you are not an experienced hiker with survival skills in alpine conditions, as you might encounter huge loads of snow, avalanche risk, and also heavy rain in icy conditions. Some facilities – and they mean things like bridges with this – are removed from the track and the huts. You have to be totally self-sufficient.
Never leave without Emergency Locator Beacon, as there is no cell phone coverage. DoC even recommend to carry mountain radios. (You can hire those personal locator beacons at various places. I have seen that they even hire them at the petrol station in Te Anau.)
Register your intentions at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre before the start of your walk, and leave notes in the huts, so rescue teams can trace your steps in case you do not return as intended.
De-register when you finish your walk, so you do not trigger a rescue action.
Carry more food than necessary, if you get stuck part-way through your hike. The weather can change very quickly, so carry gear for all kinds of weather and conditions, even if the forecast is great when you start.
You do not have to purchase the three-night hut pass in the off-peak season. You just pay NZ$ 15 per night, and you can stay as many nights as you want.
More information about walking the track during the off-peak season:
Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre
Department of Conservation
P.O. Box 29, Te Anau, New Zealand
Phone (03) 249 7924
Fax (03) 249 7613
Office hours: 8.30am - 4.30pm, 7 days.
This is a great booklet which gives you all info you need about the Milford Track, from booking huts to equipment, transportation to alpine plants, accommodation to animals:
A good VT page about the Milford Track is the one of member Josilver who went on this epic hike at the end of 2006.
The link: http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/9ff70/22aaa0/
You can walk into the famous Milford Track from Milford Sound, so the wrong way round. And there is no charge for doing this. Bookings are not needed either. However, you need boat transport to the track, and this is limited, as hikers who come back from their four day tour and have booked the boat transfer have priority.
I have not done this day walk myself. The Department of Conservation (DoC) that oversees all activities on the track state that it is not possible to walk to the best scenic areas in such a short time. So why bother at all? But, of course, the decision is up to you.
There are also kayak/walk options to the end of the Milford Track.
Tourism Milford Ltd hold the only DOC approved concession for overnight guided walks on the Milford Track during the peak season. Their website:
See long and short walks along the Milford Road in my Things to Do tips.
I always recommend to make an early start to Milford Sound to avoid the busloads of tourists being herded to the magic fiord from Queenstown and Te Anau.
Of course, the most perfect way to enjoy this outstanding place would be to stay at Milford Sound for the night and be there when even the independent travellers have left in the evening and before they arrive in the morning.
Transit NZ list the times during the summer peak travel time when you have to expect congestion at some scenic stops:
Many visitors plan their arrival in Milford Sound to coincide with boat cruises’ departure times. This can result in congestion at some scenic stops along the road, especially in summer. Most buses depart from Te Anau between 9am and 10am, and stop along the way at Mirror Lakes around 10.30am, Knobs Flat at around 11am, and the Chasm at 12.30pm. Plan your journey around these times to avoid the heavy bus traffic and high numbers of visitors, and your Milford Road experience can be more relaxed.
As I told you, we barely met a soul as we started in Te Anau at 7am, and after several stops along the road arrived at Milford Sound at about 9.30am.
The cruise operators encourage early arrivals by offering lower fares for the early (and late!) cruises.
Another way of enjoying the experience more is avoiding the big ships and cruise on a smaller boat of a smaller company.
Be assured, there are a few bus companies in Te Anau with early starts
Photo 2 shows the near empty carpark shortly before 10am.
Favorite thing: Being isolated from the rest of the world, New Zealand has a lot of unique flora and fauna. You can see trees and plants of interesting shapes and sizes when you are exploring the jungles of Milford Sound and surroundings.
you must... the Homer Tunnel made it possible to access Fjordland...and it is pitschblack inside the Tunnel, the only light I saw where the headlights of of the bus.
Maori People travelled along the road before European arrived in Aotearoa.
they lived around Anita Bay, looking for Pounamou..NZ Greenstone.
the area was named ..Piopiotahi, after the nativ thrush..piopio. the rivers where full of fish, the forest provided material for their settelments around the Lake Manapouri and Te Anau.
Milford Sound was named after the Welsh Explorer Cap. John Crono and his Birthplace Milford Haven
In 1889 William Homer discover the saddle and is now named after him..so is the Homer Tunnel, work started in 1935, but the dangerous and unstable terrain made it difficult for an early completion..and WW II also stopped work....finally, in 1954 the Tunnel was finished and Fjordland accessable for everyone
Fondest memory: the drive from Queenstown was awesome
Favorite thing: Fjordland is one of the wettest places on Earth. It gets hundreds of inches of rain each year. The raw chances of it raining the day you are boating on Milford Sound are real good. Not even the NZ national weather service can really be spot on with predictions. To know the weather you really have to be there. On a rainy day, Milford Sound is really something to see. Water gushes down the wall in dozens of waterfall. The downside is the peaks around the fjord are socked in with clouds. When it rains the pass and mountain peaks leading to Milford Sound are also socked in. It has it's pleasures, for sure,but for me, a fair day is the best. There's less water cascading into the sound but you can really see the majesty of the fjord. As an added bonus, on a fair day the drive to Milford Sound is breathtaking. If you are looking for the rare postcard view of Milford Sound,I believe you have better chances in the morning. If that is the case, you have to stay overnight in Milford Sound or Te Anau and drive over early. If you drive out from Queenstown,take the bus tour...it's a 12-14 hour day and those guys are pretty good about stopping for pictures on the way . Plus they know alot about the area and lay some interesting insights on you about Southwest NZ. So to finish up, check the weather predictions in the local paper , choose the type of day you like and book your tour/boating right then. If you want to fly from Milford Sound back to Queenstown, they only fly if the weather is fair and you can actually book that on the bus to Milford Sound. It's pricey but wow!, what a view. Just don't book a Milford Sound tour from your home unless you have no choice.