Southland, South Island
To tell you that you should visit Milford Sound if you travel in New Zealand would be like carrying coal to Newcastle. Of course you have to go there if you have enough time and are in the area. Well, probably not if you are from Norway! You have fiords as fanstastic as Milford Sound and even better.
To me, Milford Sound was even the trigger for my first trip to NZ. I had seen a photo in a magazine. The fiord, the nearly 1700m high Mitre Peak, white sand and a cabbage tree of which I thought it was a tropical palm... This was the perfect picture postcard of NZ, so many features of the world at one small place.
Already on my first trip to NZ I visited places I found more magic than Milford Sound but it always remains a very special spot.
I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. We stayed at Te Anau and drove to Milford Sound early in the morning, so we already came back from our boat trip out to the sea when the tour buses from Queenstown arrived. On the way to Milford Sound and back to Te Anau we stopped for keas and spend a long time just playing with them. Of course, they inspected the rubber parts of the car, but they also loved to play with coins we gave them.
In the meantime the fiord has become a rather crowded place, and sometimes even noisy when all the sightseeing airplanes and helicopters start and land. I do not like this at all in such pristine environments - but I must admit that you get such incredible views in this remote region which is inaccessible on land in many parts, and you can imagine the creation of Fiordland by huge glaciers.
In winter the road to Milford Sound can be closed occasionally as it is prone to heavy snowfall and avalanches. Always check the weather forecast and get information on the road conditions before your trip, and carry snow chains, just for the case.
Update 26 September 2008%
Not only here but also in the forum I often ask people to get information about the condition of the Milford Road before travelling there. And I do it for good reason. Although sometimes Milford Sound is the only sunny place in the whole of New Zealand, this is not the norm. It rains a lot down there (that is why it is so beautiful and green), and while travelling a bit further north or east you do not get aware of it. Yesterday, for example, a huge slip crashed down on the road after heavy rainfalls, and destroyed parts of the road. Luckily nobody was injured, two local ladies had a narrow escape. So again, get your information - and have alternative plans ready for the case you cannot access Milford Sound.
Road info here:
Checking both websites out right now only Transit tells you that the road is closed. AA only records that the avalanche risk is low... Not very helpful! So you better use the Transit website, and note their 24/7 freephone hotline:
0800 4 HIGHWAYS (0800 444 449)
In the meantime I have written and uploaded a proper Milford Sound page with a lot of information and photos, not just about the fiord itself but also the drive on the Milford Road and the attractions along the way, also information about the Milford Track.
Update 7 July 2008
The Paua House has now been recreated and can be seen in the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch since 4 July 2008. It is a fantastic display, matching the original. The museum has a lease for ten years - so you do not have to hurry. More pictures and information on my Christchurch page (Things to Do).
(Background info from 28 July 2007)
This year we had many reports about the famous Paua Shell House in Bluff on TV - unfortunately rather a sad story.
The late Fred and Myrtle Flutey had covered this house and garden in paua shells and added kitschy paua-decorated ornaments and trinkets, and turned it in a tourist attraction. It was their wish that it should remain like this and used as a museum. But the new owner, Fred and Myrtle's grandson Ross Bowen, ignored that wish and cleared out the house in a late night action and shifted the shells to an undisclosed place. He had said the shells should be displayed at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch - and after initially claiming they had not heard from him and not to be interested, the Museum has confirmed this month that they have received the shells, and that they will present them in the not too far future. Obviously the plan is to dedicate one room to the shells and decorate it in the way Fred and Myrtle Flutey had done it in their house in Bluff. Even Southland mayor Tim Shadbolt commented this solution would be better than to exhibit the shells at another place than the original house, as a lot more people would see and enjoy the shells and kitsch in Christchurch than in the Far South.
Apart from that agreement, I still think this guy who dismantled the house in Bluff is a disgrace.
What made me smile is that he did not succeed in selling the house at the auction at the end of April 2007, so he had to wait until he could satisfy his greed. I was always sure that the house would sell at some point, as it has a lovely seaview and sits on a big property. Finally, in July 2007 he sold the house for just under $300,000. Sadly, the new Australian owners did not intend to transform the house back to its former uniqueness. But I think at this moment the deal with Canterbury Museum was already perfect. And the grandson even got airtime on TV to announce it...
Only the little port of Bluff lies further south on New Zealand's South Island than Invercargill, and for many visitors, Bluff and the ferry to Stewart Island, is where they're heading so Invercargill is just a place to stop for a night - whichis a pity, because the town certainly warrants more than a cursory look.
Over the 150-odd years since it was founded, Invercargill has certainly had its high and low periods. Founded on the sheep's back with solid Scottish values, the early days have left a legacy of fine Victorian buildings such as the Town Hall, parades of shops in the city centre's wide streets, handsome churches and the quirky water tower (photo 1). The city's central public gardens, Queen's Park, also date from this time.
The middle years of the 20th century were not so prosperous and Invergargill, like many provincial towns, saw hard times, unemployment and people leaving but some smart thinking and determination to succeed have turned the city's fortunes around and there's a new spirit of optimism about the place. The giant aluminium smelting works, 25 km out of town ( free tours daily) is the major employer, whilst the more recent establishment of a fee-free Polytech college has brought student life and jobs right into the city.
The museum's certainly worth a look - it's open daily with well-laid out exhibits and an interesting rare species breeding programme of the unique tuatara.
27km down the road, Bluff is the port for Invercargill. It's the oldest European town in NZ - people have been living here since 1824. MrL was working out of here back in the 1970s - from the little we saw of it this time, not a lot has changed but the oysters are still as good as ever.
Heading south from Dunedin to Invercargill, the road forks at Balclutha. You can take the main highway through the Southland farming country, it's a good road and passes through some pretty countryside and if your time is short is definitely the way to go. With time on your hands however, the coast road through the Catlins will take you into a wild and lonely landscape of rugged coast and rainforest-clad valleys, with plenty of opportunities for wild-life spotting as you go.
Most of the high points of the Catlins coast are off the main road, often quite a few kilometres off, so without your own transport and no public transport to these out-of-the-way places, you really limited to taking a tour of some sort. For those of an independent bent, the Catlins Coaster's a good option - it's a New Zealand Southland version of the hop-on/hop-off buses that are a feature of so much city sightseeing.
With only a day to make the trip, we didn't have time to make too many detours but one place we wouldn't have missed is Nugget Point, about 30km south of Balclutha. A steep-sided promontory with a lighthouse right at the end juts out into the sea here. The narrow track takes you right to the edge of the drop, where far below you can see (and hear) southern fur seals. The longer you look, the more you see, in the water and basking on the rocks. At its furthest point, the promontory breaks up into stacks of vertically-striated rocks ("The Nuggets" that give the point its name) whilst around to the west there's a sweep of beach known as Roaring Bay - which gives you some idea of just what the Southern Ocean throws at this coast.
There were no roaring winds the day we were there, just bright blue skies and a fresh breeze. One word of caution - the road to Nugget Point ends at a fairly small carpark. We were there mid-week in April and it was all but full. Turning room was tight - especially for the large campervans. You have to take your chances - there's no way of knowing when you set off down the road to the point how many people are ahead of you, but I could see it being a bit of a problem on a fine day in high summer.
Te Anau is the gateway to Milford Sound and Manapouri is the gateway to Doubtful Sound. This is a very ideal base to explore the Fiods and walk the Great Walks such as the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler Tracks.
Manapouri is just a 20 mins drive from Te Anau It is a quieter town than Te Anau and has a beautiful Fraser Beach and a Pearl Harbour.
You could spend half a day to visit the Wildlife Park, Ivon Wilson Park, Dock Bay, Te Anau Museum and DOC.
If you like adventure, there are some paid activities gloworm caves, high ride -quads horse treks, westray horse trek, skydive fiordland, luxmore jet, golf, mini golf, cinema, scenic flights, float planes, helicopters, boat cruises, sea kayaking, underwater diving, cycling, fishing and trekkings are some activities that you could go for in Te Anau.
Milford Sound is an easy 2hrs drive from Te Anau. Milford Sound is the famous of all of the fiords and the only one that can be accessed by road.
It is about 16km from the head of the fiord to the open sea. Visitors can comfortably travel the length of the fiord to open ocean.
We stayed overnight in Te Anau and departed at 0630 to catch the early cruise out to Milford Sound. It is advisable to do so as we do not have to fight with the rest of the large coach crowd arriving from Queenstown.
The drive from Te Anua to Milford Sound is very scenic. There are few walks which you can do when you are on your way to Milford Sound.
There are 4 cruise operators which you book yourself on the Milford Sound Cruise. Cruising Milford Sound, Red Boat Cruises, Mitre Peak Cruises and Real Journeys.
If you have more time, you could stay overnight on board the cruise. For budget accommodation, the Milford Sound Lodge is the nearest one around.
We had not given a thought of seeing penguins at the Petrified Forest of Curio Bay. We were already happy to arrive at low tide (as we had not checked the tides, just driven down south leisurely) and see the exposed tree trunks and logs from 180 million years ago.
After having walked over the rocks and fossils, I stayed a while, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere (while my hubby fled the sandflies...). Suddenly a yellow-eyed penguin came out from the sea and walked towards me. As my husband had taken the camera with the big lens back to the car, I ran up to the carpark and got the camera - and when I arrived back on the beach, a second penguin had joined the first one, and they steadily walked towards me, stopped from time to time, cleaned their feathers, and seemed to chat - a bit like you and me when walking from shop window to shop window and discussing the exhibits LOL
Now I had learnt that this penguin species is shy, and you should not approach them closer than ten metres. But what to do if the penguins approach the humans? Well, I just stood still and made some steps backwards when the penguins came too close, and took my photos, and enjoyed this extraordinary encounter.
You remember such moments forever :-)
At dusk you should be aware that the penguins normally do not come to shore if they see too many people, and this would be very bad after the hatching of the chicks, because if the parents are too scared to come to shore the young do not get any food. But especially when chicks are in the nests penguins often come to shore already in the afternoon. So step back and keep your distance. Also at dawn there is a lot of penguin activity on the beach.
BTW At nearby Purpoise Bay you can watch Hector dolphins.
We went to Curio Bay - which is at the western end of Purpoise Bay and just some kilometres before Slope Point - because we wanted to see the Petrified Forest. This is exposed on the beach at low tide. Lucky us, we were there at the right time of the day, so we could walk on this Jurassic forest park which dates 180 million years back. This is already absolutely impressive, as you can clearly recognise lying tree trunks and stumps. If you are lucky you get a bonus, as did we: Some yellow-eyed penguins waddled ashore (see next tip).
The Petrified Forest is one of the most extensive and least disturbed examples of a Jurassic fossil forest in the world and stretches about 20 kms from Curio Bay to Slope Point. Those 180 million years ago - the middle Jurassic period - the area was a forested coastal floodplain of Gondwanaland. Most of the future NZ was beneath the sea.
It is believed that the forest was destroyed when heavy rain washed down volcanic debris from a volcano. This could have happened as often as four times over a period of 20,000 years, every time when the forest had regrown. You can clearly see this, as distinct bands of fossilised tree stumps and wood are exposed in the cliff face. As the sediments were buried deeply, they were impregnated with silica minerals. This turned the wood into rock.
After NZ had split away from the Gondwana super-continent about 100 million years ago and drifted north, the sea eroded the layers of sandstone and clay, so now the tree stumps and logs are exposed. Please do not carry away fossils!
On the way from the Catlins to Bluff, you pass Slope Point. There would be nothing to see apart from hardy grass and rough seas if this was not the mainland's southern-most point. So a sign tells you how far it is to the Equator and to the South Pole. No real surprise when standing in a cold southerly that the South Pole is 300 km closer than the Equator ;-)
The exact position:
Latitude 46°40'40'' south
Longitude 169°00'11'' east
On some maps Bluff seems to be further south than Slope Point - but this is when publishers try to fit a NZ map in a narrow frame. They adjust the South Island more vertically to fit in the space, so the north/south axis is not exactly vertical, and by doing this Slope Point moves a bit further north and Bluff further south...
The only feasible way for visitors to get to Doubtful Sound is via an organized day trip -and there's a very limited number of those, so the magic of this place really is in its isolation and tranquility. The deepest of all New Zealand's southern fjords, it certainly repays the effort it takes to get there - a long drive if Queenstown or Te Anau is your starting point, otherwise tours set out across Lake Manapouri, over the Wilmot Pass and down to the head of the sound itself. After that, it's out onto the quiet waters of the fjord into the deep stillness of lush rainforest, tumbling waterfalls, mist and rainbows. The chances are, once you leave the dock and move out into the fjord you won't see another boat until you return and birds, dolphins, sea-lions and penguins will be the only other living things you see all day.
The limited number of cruises available on Doubtful Sound make it essential that you book well ahead to be sure of getting the trip you want if you are on any sort of schedule.
There's a very good chance it will rain - but the reward for that is the countless waterfalls - so be sure to bring a jacket. I'd be inclined to bring my own picnic too - the lunch box we ordered from the tour company was somewhat less than inspiring.