The Road to Milford Sound
Yesterday (February 6th), Emmett and I drove what's been called "one of the most beautiful drives in the world" - the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound through iconic Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the whole country; the area gets 21 feet (6.4 meters) of average rainfall per year! Pretty incredible. As anyone who has been to New Zealand can tell you, it's likely that it will be raining during your visit to Fiordland. As you'll soon see, our visit was no exception to that rule.
Our Fiordland trip began in Te Anau (tay ah-now), a little tourist town acting as the gateway to the National Park. Te Anau sits on the edge of it's namesake lake, which is surrounded by incredibly tall mountains. We couldn't tell, though, because of the heavy cloud cover that afternoon.
After checking out those nearly non-existent views across Lake Te Anau, we visited the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. As we strolled along in the rain, we were able to see quite a few native New Zealand birds including white-headed Paradise Ducks and the incredibly endangered Takahē - which look kinda like thick-beaked blue chickens.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) recommends that vehicles traveling to Milford Sound have a full tank of gas before they go because there is nothing but national park along the way. Scared by that direction, we filled our tank then picked up a French hitch-hiker named Camille. Heading towards Milford, the rain was a full on down-pour and we were worried that we might miss the famous views in Fiordland. From what little we could tell, the mountains surrounding us were massive. But their peaks were shrouded in mist. We did get a few glimpses of some thin mercurial waterfalls running down the disappearing peaks.
Camille, our hitch-hiker, was planning to hike the Hollyford Track. We took a detour into the Hollyford Valley to drop him off and also take in the sights along the way. Talking international politics, we all paused when we saw a roaring creek through the trees. The three of us decided to hop out and take in the water's sheer power. We found ourselves on a somewhat intimidatingly narrow suspension bridge overlooking Moraine Creek.
The quick jaunt onto the suspension bridge left us completely soaked. So, we figured why not get back in the rain again? Just shy of the road's end near the start of Hollyford Track, we joined Camille on a walk up to Humboldt Falls. Humboldt Falls are an imposing tiered waterfall 902 feet (275 meters) tall. The quick tramp up to see them was just 30 minutes round trip, through lush rain forest. Mini rivers ran along (and through) the pathway and the Falls were absolutely gushing from all of the rain that day. Though we couldn't see the full drop past the tress, it was impressive nonetheless.
Soon we bid Camille "au revoir" and then set off for Milford again. Emmett and I continued to spot waterfalls everywhere, peeking beneath the cloud cover like some sort of celestial snail trails.
Before we knew it we had arrived at the Homer Tunnel, one of the final stretches of the road to Milford Sound. It looked like the clouds were receding at last from a couple of the surrounding mountains. We had high hopes that we'd be able to see more mountains from then on.
After a few minutes' drive in the chilly alpine tunnel, we found ourselves in one of the most insane valleys I have ever seen. We were completely surrounded by mountains towering over a mile (1.6 km) above us. Not only that but there were even more waterfalls on those slopes. I honestly couldn't say how many waterfalls we ultimately saw that day. Though I do believe that number is somewhere in the hundreds.
P.s. Just for scale, that little dot at the bottom of this next photo is a car.
Our awe waned a little as we then descended into a cloud sitting low in the valley. We pulled off the road to stop and take a walk through more fern-filled rain forest to The Chasm in a churning river gorge.
After we left The Chasm, it only took a few minutes more of driving before we were finally at Milford Sound. There was a lot of cloud cover there (surprise, surprise) but that didn't stop us from appreciating the Jurassic Park-like beauty of the fjord.
After about five minutes of oohing and ahhing at the mountains that we could see, a big cloud descended into the fjord and covered them completely. It was nearing 8 PM, so Emmett and I figured it might be a good time to head back through the tunnel. We began making plans for what we could do if/when we come back. - That is, if we had a bit more money, time, and some sunshine. Once we were back on the other side of Homer Tunnel, we parked and talked to a grumpy, wet kea for a bit.
Though the clouds weren't totally gone, the rain had finally ended for the day. We took the dry opportunity to check out some of the places we'd missed the first time around. One of those places was Mirror Lakes. On a still day, apparently these aptly named lakes act as a perfect mirror for the peaks behind them. While that wasn't what it looked like for us, the lakes were still quite beautiful.
The sun was steadily going down, but we didn't let that deter us from making more stops. The clouds had finally parted so we of course had to see what we'd been missing that afternoon.
We ended up chasing the sunset down the road to the edge of Lake Te Anau near the small settlement of Te Anau Downs. The sky was a vivid orange-pink behind the dark glacier-carved mountaintops. It was a perfect way to end an exhausting, beautiful day.