Milford Sound lies in Southwest New Zealand in the Fiordland National Park, the largest and fourth oldest of the country’s 13 national parks, the fifth largest park of its kind in the world and part of the Te Wāhipounamu (Greenstone) World Heritage Site. It has been judged the world's top travel destination in an international survey, and referred to as New Zealand's most famous tourist destination. Rudyard Kipling once called it the Eighth Wonder of the World. If New Zealand still had the Pink and White Terraces, long since disappeared in volcanic eruption, Milford Sound might just be the ninth wonder.
Every year about one million visitors see it up front and in person. Most come by car or by bus, some fly and some by sea, and about 14,000 people take three days just for the privilege of walking there. Milford Sound is a paradox, for while it attracts streams of visitors it is located in an area with some of the most remote coastline, in one of the world's most remote countries. The Māori named the sound Piopiotahi after the thrush-like piopio bird, one of some 53 bird species now extinct since people first reached New Zealand 1000 years ago. For centuries Māori came from near and far for hunting and fishing, and also the pounamu or greenstone (jade) used for carvings and in war. John Grono, a Welshman, “discovered” the sound in 1812 whilst on sealing expeditions, often taking 10,000 skims at a time. Milford Sound is in fact not a sound at all, but a fjord. A true fjord is created by a glacier and cut into a V-shape, whereas a sound is naturally configured into more of a U-shape.
Grono from Newport, and probably not knowing the difference, named the sound for Milford Haven in Wales, the busiest port in Pembrokeshire, and though surrounded by flat countryside, looks nothing Milford Sound with its towering cliffs. Admiral Nelson described that waterway as the next best natural harbour to Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, one of Asia’s oldest seaports, and “the finest port in Christendom”. Nelson’s compatriot James Cook never visited Milford Sound on his three visits to New Zealand despite sailing past it each time. That’s because he didn’t know it was there and couldn’t see it. One of the wonders of the sound is the entrance is large enough for the Queen Mary II to navigate but also nigh on invisible, a coastal “drop scene” with some of the higest sea cliffs in the world, up to 1700m, one side folding across the other.
Milford can be reached from the nearest town Te Anau, itself in a beautiful setting, along route 94, a two-hour drive through first farmland, then alpine terrain like the Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, Lake Gunn and The Chasm. Most people make the day trip from Queenstown, two hours further away still. The drive itself is a wonder, never mind the destination. Route six along Lake Wakatipu is worth the effort alone. The road snakes its way squeezed between the cliffs and the water’s edge. Parts of the road make up tight corners and others can approach motorway speed. Alpine lakes are deep; filled valleys over centuries from melted glaciers. Lake Wakatipu is 380m to the bottom and Lake Te Anau 417m (the mother of them all, further south is Lake Hauroko at 462m). You could stand the world’s biggest cruise ships vertically by the stern and the bow wouldn’t be seen. If you drove over the edge you’d never been found. It happens, people do, some too busy admiring the view and miss the turn altogether.
At the southern end of Lake Wakatipu is Kingston, once a rail junction and home to the now defunct Kingston Flier. It was here they pieced together the TSS Earnslaw in 1912, at 51m and over 330 tonnes the largest steamboat ever built in New Zealand and still plying its trade from Queenstown. It once made a cameo in Indiana Jones. After Te Anau the drive heads through winding mountain roads and avalanche areas where stopping is forbidden. Avalanches regularly close the road to Milford, washouts too. A massive landslide closed the road for days a year ago trapping tourists. Road maintenance is a full-time job with heavy machinery based on the road year-round. Avalanches have been known to thunder down one side of the valley across the road and back up the other side.
Travelling in New Zealand you quickly become aware around every corner brings another spectacular view especially in Central Otago, and here in the lakes area. Lord of the Rings was filmed here and many a car commercial was set has burned up the road. It looks like Switzerland but is not, it could be Norway but isn’t. The roadsides are often surrounded by tussock. The beech trees have black trunks and dark green and silver foliage, and the mountains a spectacular ruggedness. Aside from the road, it’s as if no human has ever been there. There are even road safety signs advising drivers to pull over to take a photo rather than risk it while driving.
The road winds through thick forest of “black beech” which in the tropics might be called rain forest, an apt description as Fiordland is the wettest place in New Zealand. It rains on average 182 days a year in Milford Sound dumping almost 7m of water annually. It’s not uncommon to have 250mm of rainfall in a day. It’s unusual to come here and it not rain. Narrow bridges cross raging torrents. Large boulders can be seen by the roadsides moved by nature one way or another.
To access Milford Sound itself you need to drive through the Homer Tunnel, 1200m long piercing the Darran Mountain range at the Homer Saddle. It’s like stepping into the Lost World from Arthur Conan Doyle, or the Land That Time Forgot by Burroughs. In the region they’ve found the skeleton of the giant Moa. The females were the largest at 2m making them the tallest birds known and hunted to extinction. Birds long thought extinct have been seen, or were last seen, and rumours abound of North American moose. People are known to disappear, hunters, climbers, tourists, some by accident and some intentionally.
Homer Tunnel is straight. It descends sharply to the west dropping so far you cannot see light from either end. The walls are unlined granite, its workings and lighting cables bare for all to see. It took 18 years to construct beginning in 1935, hand dug, and interrupted by war. Workers had to contend with 40,000 litres of water an hour pouring through the site all of which had to be continually pumped out. It was until widened and the road sealed the longest gravel-surfaced tunnel in the world.
The tunnel is one-lane wide, and buses barely fit under the tunnel roof. Vehicles wait at each end at traffic lights, prey for the kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. Large with a curved beak and powerful claws, the birds are inquisitive, highly intelligent and eat just about anything. They have been known to strip vehicles of anything non-metallic, including rubber linings leaving your windscreen in peril of falling out. Feeding them is not advised, though tourists often do so at their peril.
Nearby is New Zealand's most famous walk, the Milford Track. Around 100 years ago, the poet and writer Blanche Baughan declared in the London Spectator, the Milford Track to be ‘the finest walk in the world’. First walked by Europeans in 1888, tracing older Māori routes, the 53-kilometre track, one of New Zealand’s 10 “Great Walks’ begins at Lake Te Anau, and heads across suspension bridges, a mountain pass, by lakes, mountain peaks with deep valley views; and the Sutherland Falls, the tallest waterfall in New Zealand at 580m. It ends at the aptly named Sandfly Point in Milford Sound where walkers (called trampers in New Zealand parlance) are at the mercy of swarms of sand flies until being collected by boat, saving them from being the meal of the day. So many foreign walkers do the track every year, Kiwis complain they aren’t able to walk it anymore.
When I visited Milford Sound for the first time, many years ago, it was a bright sunny day. This time it poured with rain and the views limited. Rain in Milford brings the place alive with waterfalls streaming down the cliffs in one of nature’s most impressive displays. There are three permanent waterfalls. One is considered permanent unless it stops raining for more than three days in which case it dries up but it hardly ever stops raining here for three days. Water from these falls has enough force to knock you out if you were ever silly enough to get under it. Part of the boat trip is to put the vessel nose in to the cliff close enough for the spray to soak everything and create enough down draft to blow away hats and soak anyone not under cover.
The other permanent falls are the Bowen Falls (162m or taller than a 50-story building) near the wharf and known in Māori as Hine Te Awa, meaning ‘girl on the river’ after the lower third of the falls that resemble the plumage of the Kereru (NZ wood pigeon). The falls also provides the township of Milford Sound with its sole source of power and water, which allows the town where many of the workers live, to operate. The second highest are Stirling Falls at 151m on the opposite side from the iconic Mitre Peak seen on nearly all the postcards of Milford Sound. At 1681m its sheer cliffs plummet almost vertically to the waterline.
I headed out onto the water in the smallest vessel moored at the visitor centre, currently undergoing renovation. We got a running and very informative commentary from the skipper. We turned left into Deep Water Basin, where the fishing fleet and some pleasure craft were moored. A large yacht was about 200m from the shore and one of the tour vessels, a large catamaran was anchored mid-water. Fiordland’s crayfish boats are based here. The fishing management area is allocated 900 tonnes of crayfish annually, 200 tonnes of which is processed here for live export to China, where it can fetch up to NZD140 a kilo. Deep Water Basin is adjacent the small (the runway is barely 800m long) but very busy (by flight movements) airport, arguably the country’s most scenic. In operation since 1938 it's not for the faint-hearted. It’s located at the conjunction of three valley systems and is surrounded by water on three sides and steep mountains. Pilots are briefed the airspace around the aerodrome is constrained by precipitous terrain and often experiences unusual micro climatic conditions. Nevertheless helicopters and small aircraft make it a hive of activity, weather permitting. Apparently on average, 75 percent of fliughts from Queenstown, the main jumping off point are cancelled, and flights by very small planes can only land about 8 days a month.
Milford Sound is a tale of threes, at least according to some of the statistics from our skipper on the cruise. It’s 3kms wide at its widest point. Wide enough for some of the world’s largest cruise ships to turn on their mid-point axis. Its 1000-feet deep in the middle, or about 300m, the water an inky black due to a tannin washed from the beech trees. The top 6m of water or 293 inches is freshwater, saltwater being denser. There are sheer rock faces that soar 1,200 metres high or 3030 feet from the waterline. The highest recorded rainfall in a day was 350mm or three-quarters of a foot of water. Winds at Copper Point, named for the streaks of the mineral seen in the cliffs, can reach 300kph on the anemometer, used by tour operators to gauge whether it’s safe to take cruises out, and strong enough to cause the loss of “hats, hair pieces and small children” swells at the sound entrance in the Tasman Sea past Dale Point can reach 8m or over 30-feet
The drive to Milford is usually done by tourists in day trips from Queenstown, another of the jewels in New Zealand’s tourist crown. The route takes in a gigantic U-shape, travelling south, then southeast, then northeast along state highway 6 before reaching Te Anau. The whole trip is 288kms one-way to travel barely a third of that distance as the crow flies. Every day dozens of tour buses, some with the distinctive sloping glass covered roof to afford better views of the alpine scenery, make their way along the route to Milford and back.
Queenstown was once low-key, when I’m not sure and living proof New Zealand can ruin a place of magnificent natural wealth through rampant overdevelopment just like anywhere else in the world. There are spawning industrial developments and shopping centres and now an international airport. Because of all the construction the powers that be decided to allow large DIY centres with car parks to be built just outside the original town, swallowing up the paucity of available flat land. Housing estates with pretentious names pack large luxury houses tightly together on small footprints to sell more units. The sprawling suburbs can now be seen from along route 6 ruining the magnificent drive from Kingston along Lake Wakatipu, a natural wonder. One of Queenstown’s most notorious achievements was setting a precedent for breaking the Queen’s Chain, the stretch of land guaranteeing public access to waterways present on every river, lake and stretch of coastline, to construct a casino. I’m told a toilet tax has been considered to put a cap on development or at least help pay for sewerage and water. Frighteningly, if there’s a power cut, authorities have 20 minutes to rectify the situation least raw effluent flow into the lake.
Hundreds of thousands visit Queenstown every year. It has a reputation for thrill-seeking activities that run year-round, but now thousands want to live there too. The former tends to be younger and the latter more gentrified, and some I was told by a former resident, obsessed by money and status, theirs and their neighbours. Moneyed and many advanced in years their SUVs clog the solitary road into town for while Queenstown’s popularity with tourists and residents alike increases, its infrastructure has sadly lagged far behind. Service workers can barely afford the astronomical rents so share rooms, double bunking, their wages insufficient to live but without whom the town would grind to a halt. Most it seems, come from faraway for the experience, thrills and the setting, not the money.
While Queenstown is in danger of becoming an eyesore, nearby Arrowtown has strived to retain its historical character as a gold mining town. New developments are allowed provided they keep the look and size of original structures. It’s quaint, quiet and really quite charming, an exemplar for blending tourism with history; living off one without sacrificing the other. The climate in winter is freezing, a pall sets on the valley and without any wind refuses to move. In June, mid-winter, Queenstown is without sun at all. Parts of the landscape are alpine; the Remarkables so called as they are never without snow, though this is no longer the case; part is dense beech forest, the lakes here are a deep blue and further north the most fluorescent blue from mountain algae. Hillsides are lined with vineyards and other parts remind me of scenes from a Morricone western.
You would have to wonder where all the Kiwis are. I got breakfast in Te Anau cooked and served by Filipinos. In Milford I got a coffee from a Lithuanian. My boarding pass for the cruise came from an Englishwoman. At Arrowtown, the staff at one shop was German and in another, Chinese. In Cromwell, I stayed in a motel owned by Australians. Later, at Fox Glacier I noticed staff at the local general store were mainly Thai. And in Hokitika, a small town on the West Coast pinned by the mountains and the Tasman Sea, there was a Filipino-run café complete with a mini-market stocking Asian products. These the result then of the government introduced immigration laws that encouraged immigrants to move to the regions a big positive. They work hard, add flavour and undoubtedly make the place better. They also make up for urban drift which over time has denuded the smaller regions of its younger population and address the ageing demographic, the bubble moving through the population pyramid.
Here you are half way around the world with a piece of Southeast Asia.