Some people claim that travelling is often more about the journey than the destination. They say it’s about seeing the country, meeting the people and dealing with the mishaps along the way. And that’s all true of course, except that it’s generally said by somebody trying to convince themselves that their next 20-hour bus trip will be a great “travelling experience”.
But when it comes to Milford Sound, no debate is needed. New Zealand’s most famous tourist attraction is doubly blessed: not only as a final destination boasting some of the most staggeringly-beautiful scenery on South Island, but also because the road from Te Anau must be one of the country’s most spectacular. Te Anau, a few hours’ drive south-west from Queenstown, acts as a gateway to Fiordland National Park, which is not only New Zealand’s biggest national park but also part of a World Heritage site.
If you’re late for your boat, then Milford is only a couple more hours down the road, but this is one place where you will most definitely want to ease off the throttle. Whatever you do, avoid my mistake and make sure you fill up with petrol before leaving town as there are no more fuel stops along the road. Having to turn back after a sign miles out of town finally warns you of the situation is very annoying, believe me. But once safely on the 119km route to Milford, we made our way past rolling meadows, overshadowed by towering peaks reflected perfectly in glimmering lakes.
Gifted with a perfect day, full of blue skies and a warming sun, we stopped repeatedly to explore some of the short walks and frantically fill up our memory cards. After passing through the majestic valleys and beech forests, the road began to rise again, winding us into the mountains, until, as the rain began to fall, we came face-to-face with a red light and a dramatic hole in the rock. We’d reached the Homer Tunnel. Jumping out of our campervan, we went to explore the snow caves beside the road while waiting for the 15-minute red light, the world’s most alpine, to change.
Despite being the end of summer and dripping heavily, the icy caves were still massive and perfectly formed in a bridge shape, meaning we could walk through them without any hope of touching the roof. Eerie, surreal and alien, it was like entering a room made of giant, dripping egg cartons. Back by the van, cheeky kea birds loitered with a mischievous twinkle in their eye, hoping their apparent friendliness would lure unsuspecting tourists into parting with scraps of food.
But suddenly the red turned to green and it was action stations. Our lights on, we plunged into the mountain and dropped down the dark, rugged tunnel for 1,207 long metres.
Finally emerging into daylight at the other end, we were met by the spectacular Cleddau Valley. The sudden onslaught of lashing rain had duly transformed the breathtaking canyon’s nickname, the Valley of a Thousand Waterfalls, into reality, as all around us water cascaded down, practically turning the entire mountain into one gigantic waterfall.
From there, the road wound down steeply, with savage hairpin bends, all the way to MilfordSound.
Once at the fiord, there really is no better way to enjoy the surroundings than by simply getting out on the water.
Described by Rudyard Kipling as the “eighth wonder of the world”, Milford Sound is not technically a sound, but a fiord – having been carved out by glacial action about a zillion years ago over an Ice Age or two. It’s the northernmost fiord in the national park and, while not being the biggest, is easily the most dramatic. At its deepest it plunges to 265m, while its crowning glory is Mitre Peak, so named for its resemblance to a bishop’s hat, that towers literally a mile above the water.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the area is dominated by Welsh names due to being discovered in 1812 by a Welshman, Captain John Grono, who happened to be from Milford Haven. Captain Cook never found the fiord, despite sailing past twice, because of its entrance to the Tasman being hidden by overlapping rocks. But Milford Sound is an area where facts, figures and history are of little importance. All that matters is its raw beauty.
I’ve experienced Milford in both sunshine and rain, but in each it exerts a moody aura unlike anywhere else. It’s as if the mountains and water are joined as one personality, full of brooding solitude and serenity which is hard not to be affected by.
Stretching inland for 15km, impossibly-steep, rainforest-clad cliffs rise out of the water over a kilometre high on all sides.They face each other like sparring water gods, with the near-permanent shrouding of misty clouds adding to their mystical appearance. Water gushes from endless, giant waterfalls, as if its blood pouring from the wounds they’ve inflicted on each other. And near the surface of the dark depths, as if playing at their gods’ ankles, is the ample wildlife. We were lucky enough to spot a dozen or so fur seals lazing on a rock, as well as a pair of very rare fairy penguins playing in an inlet. All the while, the howling gales that betrayed our location in the Roaring Forties latitude, and the dumping on us of some of the area’s immense seven metres of annual rainfall, both added to the feeling that we were well and truly at nature’s mercy.
Back in the van, we turned our backs on the titans and headed up through the Homer Tunnel once again, emerging out the other side to find the world full of sunshine once again.The water gods, it seemed, were now truly behind us. But, heading back towards Queenstown, at least we had the journey to look forward to.
The damage & the details: Milford Sound cruises with Real Journeys (Freephone: 0800 656 501, www.realjourneys.co.nz) cost from $72; Campervans from Explore More (Freephone: 0800 447 363, www.exploremore.co.nz) cost from $21/day; Beds at Base Queenstown (Freephone: 0800 227 369, www.stayatbase.com) cost from $20/night.