I’d heard about Fiordland ever since moving to New Zealand. Words like “spectacular” were usually thrown around in conjunction. So I figured that we should probably check it out during our time here on the South Island. Now, if you ever visit New Zealand and especially if you spend some time on the South Island, you might get mountain fatigue by the time you reach the southwestern corner of the South Island that is Fiordland. The Southern Alps offer stunning vistas for much of the island, and you would be forgiven for wondering if the long drive out to Fiordland would be worth it. But trust me — it is absolutely worth every kilometre and hour spent getting there. Many countries have a defining “highlight”, something that is unique (or nearly so). Fiordland is New Zealand’s defining highlight.
After our overnight stop-over in Wanaka, we made the 3-hour drive to Te Anau. It is a small town of under 2,000 people, and is arguably the main base for exploring much of Fiordland. The town sits on the shore of Lake Te Anau, and while the mountains range on three sides, they do not dominate the views. The town itself is a pleasant mix of restaurants (Italian, Chinese, pizza, cafes, pubs, etc.) and shops selling souvenirs, outdoor gear, and tourist activities — not over-commercialized, but not completely lacking things to do for those times you need to rest your body. Looking around at the mountains from Te Anau, you may be tempted to think that the stories of Fiordland’s beauty have been greatly exaggerated. But that’s because you need to head out of town to really see Fiordland. Out on State Highway 94 to Milford Sound.
From Te Anau, it’s a 2-hour drive to Milford Sound, and the road starts out innocuously enough, winding through rolling farmland. Eventually you enter Fiordland National Park and you start to see some of the more impressive peaks in the distance.
Ont the way, there are several places you can stop to admire the natural scenery. There are the Mirror Lakes, renowned for their calm reflections of the surrounding peaks (given the many calm lakes we have in Canterbury, we opted not to stop). Cascade Creek was my favourite due to the profusion of alpine lupins — a mad mix of purple, blue, and pink hues carpeting the green grass.
After about an hour, the road starts to wind this way and that. The views you get will either make your jaw drop or your brows furrow. This is because Fiordland is one of the rainiest places in New Zealand — an average of 200 rainy days and 8m (26 feet) of rain per year! That equates to a lot of cloudy days. Even on clear, good-weather days, clouds can sit thick upon the land in the mornings, burning off only around midday or early afternoon. The clouds can be especially thick around The Divide of the Southern Alps. But perhaps that is a good thing — because you really need to concentrate on the road. It twists every which way, it rises and falls, it goes across one-lane bridges, under rock-fall danger and avalanche paths. The Milford Road is one of the most dangerous roads in New Zealand, and if you’re not comfortable driving on mountain roads, you may be better off taking one of the many tour buses that run between Queenstown or Te Anau to Milford Sound and back. On our first trip to Milford Sound, we took the bus from our boat cruise company (because I was planning to return by myself at sunset and did not want to drive 8 hours in one day). It was actually quite relaxing to be driven on Milford Road once, to be able to see the views without worrying about the road. However, I have to say, that our experience was probably coloured by the fact that we three were the only ones on the small bus that morning, and our driver was a fantastic guide, stopping wherever we wanted to, and showing us many of the out-the-way spots. Being on one of the mega tour buses with hundreds of others may be a different matter.
Anyway, back on the road. Near the Divide, the effects of the huge amounts of rain start to become visible in the form of dense wet forests and numerous waterfalls cascading down the surrounding rock faces. When the weather is clear, the views heading up to Homer Tunnel are jaw-dropping. A stop on the eastern mouth of Homer Tunnel is worthwhile, just to take in the stunning scenery around. You may even spot some keas, New Zealand’s alpine parrots (their claws make an amazing racket on car surfaces). If the weather is just right, you might catch the clouds come spinning off Homer Saddle into the little valley under Mt. Talbot — almost feels like a natural timelapse.
The Homer Tunnel is one-way for most of the day in the summer (due to the large tour buses). You can tell its age just by driving through it (started in 1935, finished in 1954). No fancy interior like the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado here — just bare rock on all sides, and you can feel the weight of the mountain pressing down on you.
Once through to the western side, Cleddau Valley seems eager to make up for the dark oppressiveness of the tunnel. Standing at the top, looking down the green valley with soaring peaks above and the winding road below, you will be reminded of the fact that many consider this one of the best roads in New Zealand, if not the world.
From the tunnel, it is a short drive to Milford Sound. You may have seen images of the Sound online, but there is nothing like seeing it in person. The peaks hem you in on all sides. The waters of the sound run through the steep mountainsides, seemingly leading to a giant’s waiting trap. The shore of the sound is a boggy mess — good waterproof shoes are a must if you plan on veering off the maintained track. The presence of the marshy area means lots of little pools of water for stunning reflections.
Now, a word about the sandfly. Maori legend has it that when the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa created Fiordland, it was so beautiful, people just stopped doing everything and stared at the scenery. To get the people back to work, the goddess Hinenuitepo created sandflies to bite them. I can believe it, because the sandflies will bite you and you will be moving around trying to get rid of them. Put some insect repellent on yourself if you plan to be near the water in Fiordland. And even with repellent, they will still find that one little portion where you forgot to rub it on. If you have close-cropped hair like I do, wear a hat. I made the mistake of not doing so, and the flies would land on my head trying to get to my scalp. Okay, back to the beauty of Milford Sound…
One of the best ways to experience the beauty of Milford Sound is on the water. While you can rent kayaks and go out on our own or as part of a guided tour, most tourists avail themselves of the many boat cruises. With a 7-year old, so did we. There are many cruises available in Milford Sound. Some are overnight, some have naturalists on board. Most are between 1.5 and 2.5 hours long. Some have smaller boats and some are huge. Usually all the companies have at least two departures every day — one around 10:30am and another in the early afternoon. I highly recommend the morning cruises, which tend to be less crowded (since most of the Queenstown tourists arrive for the afternoon cruise).
I’m not one for organized tours/activities, but the cruise we did (with Cruise Milford) was absolutely fantastic. The views from the boat were just exceptional. Towering peaks and cliffs closing in on all sides. Amazing greenery on all sides and blue skies above.
We also got really lucky with the weather, in that it had rained all day the previous day and then cleared up during our cruise. The previous day’s rain meant numerous waterfalls. In fact, visiting Milford Sound when it’s completely dry is not as good because of the lack of waterfalls. And the waterfalls are really beautiful. I found a new appreciation of waterfalls during our trip. At one point, the stern of the boat dipped into Stirling Falls — standing at the front, getting blasted by the water is something that must be experienced.
Perhaps it was the soaking in the waterfall, or perhaps it was just bad luck, but most of my pictures from the day were lost due to a corrupted memory card. I was able to salvage the pictures you see here, but some of my favourite shots are lost unfortunately (including a spectacular one of the spray from Stirling Falls). I’ll just have to keep them in my memory.
One of the attractions of a boat cruise is the ability to see some of the natural wildlife. We were not lucky enough to see penguins or dolphins, but did come across several seals sunning on the rocks.
We went out as far as the edge of the Tasman Sea. The vast openness ahead of us was honestly a bit frightening. Not to mention that the water became much choppier. Thankfully, we turned around. As the clouds continued clearing, more and more peaks became visible on our journey back.
Milford Sound was spectacular — even more so than the reviews and the pictures. From the views on the drive to the Sound itself, it was stunning. But we were not done with Fiordland just yet…
Key Summit Track
After sitting in a bus and a boat for a whole day, we wanted to get out and stretch our legs. Our destination for the next day was the Key Summit Track, highlighted as one of the must-do walks in the area. The track starts at The Divide, an hour from Te Anau. The Divide is also the western terminus of our old friend, the Routeburn Track, which we had walked some from the eastern end in Glenorchy. The track starts out in the familiar beech forest, very wet and damp, with ferns and moss growing everywhere, before ascending above treeline after a series of switchbacks.
A tip about hiking the Key Summit: given that it’s a summit hike with great views from the top, go in good weather for the full effect — but even on a good weather day, you might be disappointed to find the area completely socked in with clouds on the morning of your hike — low clouds that prevent you from seeing the mountain right next to you. That’s because of the usual Fiordland weather patterns, where clouds percolate through the valleys overnight and slowly burn off in the sun during the day. This is one hike where you’re better off going a bit later in the day (if the weather’s good), and reaching the summit in the afternoon. On the day we hiked, it called for completely clear skies, but it was completely cloudy with no views until about 1:30pm.
After about an hour of a moderate walk through the forest, we cleared the trees and started climbing up switchbacks. We were walking in the clouds and had just the grey shroud to accompany us. Within another 30 minutes, we reached the alpine loop trail and stopped for a quick snack, resigned to not seeing any views from this supposedly superb walk.
As we sat munching on some nuts, the low clouds seemed to get more ragged, and we could see a bit more of the ridges and mountains next to us. We didn’t even realize that there were these tall mountains right next to us the whole time!
But yes, the clouds were clearing! It was as if the land itself was breathing — the clouds would disperse one moment, then reassemble the next, but just slightly thinner. With every “breath”, they scattered more and more, until the landscape slowly revealed itself to us.
Even as the low clouds cleared, there was a stiffer upper layer that refused to budge. It was surreal, as if somebody had drawn the shades over the land. We could see tantalizing glimpses of fantastic far-off places, but couldn’t see them properly.
Ever so slowly, even that tougher layer started to disappear. As we started making our way down around 1:30pm, the views became extraordinary.
Despite the cloudy start, the Key Summit Track turned out to be a gem of a walk by the time the clouds parted. If the weather is good, it is a must-do. Relatively easy (about an hour and a half up, 400m of vertical) on a well formed trail. It can get quite busy with dayhikers (like us!), especially as the day wears on, so you may have some company on your walk. Not a hike for solitude, but still a great walk.
With all the glorious lands around it, the town of Te Anau often gets overlooked. And that is perhaps a bit unfair. It has managed to stay somewhat low-key (perhaps in part due to the type of people who make the trek out here?). There are some good restaurants, including La Dolce Vita, run by Italians from around Lake Garda — authentic Italian food just like you get in Italy. The Sandfly Cafe was our favourite breakfast place. On the afternoons when we needed a little rest (e.g. after our Key Summit walk), there was enough to do in town. We played mini golf one afternoon. Browsed the books at Paper Plus. Walked along the lakefront path. Played at the Te Anau Domain. Thankfully, the huge tour buses that come from Queenstown (on the way to Milford Sound) packed with tourists don’t linger long in town, so there’s no big crush of tourists (like in Dubrovnik).
Having seen the sights around the northern part of Te Anau (Milford Road/Sound), we decided to go elsewhere the next day. Having done quite a bit of driving over the past few days, we settled on something a bit closer — the Kepler Track. The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks (along with the Routeburn Track and others). There are a couple of trailheads within a 10-minute drive of Te Anau, so it was a very easy drive. We started off at Rainbow Reach and headed west toward Lake Manapouri. The envelope of lush greenery on all sides is very…soothing. I hiked a decent amount in Colorado, and the lushness here is such a contrast to the dry alpine climate of the Rocky Mountains. The fern forests on the Kepler Track are truly wonderful — I never knew there were so many shades of green.
Unlike the Key Summit Track, this part of the Kepler Track is relatively flat, with a few rolling ups and downs.
After about an hour and a quarter, we reached Moturau Hut on the shore of Lake Manapouri. It was not the clearest of days, but still afforded some nice views. Unfortunately, this is where the sandflies appeared. They were non-existent while we were in the forest, but the moment we came out by the water, they descended in force. Some quick application of insect repellent helped us avoid the worst attacks, but they still kept annoying us, trying to find the unprotected skin. We had to limit our time on the beach and head back into the protective greenery.
That was our last full day in Te Anau and Fiordland. We had a great time. Fiordland is truly a spectacular place — New Zealand’s natural gem. Soaring mountains, deep valleys, all covered in lush greenery, with the blue sky above. Despite the remoteness, I highly recommend a visit. Oh, and just like any other remote part of NZ, if you can, do get out after dark. The night sky here is just stunning.
For our part, we were on our way to Queenstown…