Today, we dedicated our entire day to the most iconic of all natural wonders on the South Island. I am talking about the only fjord in NZ (and one of the few in the world) – Milford Sound. I had never been to a fjord before and hence was very excited about today’s trip. Milford Sound (it is a fjord even though the name says “sound”) is located in the Southland district. To get there, one has to either fly or drive from Queenstown/Wanaka all the way to the south western coast of South Island. For us, the drive was a long one, about 10 hours round trip from Queenstown.
There are many tour companies that offer you road/air transport from Queenstown/Wanaka, along with a cruise on the waters of the Tasman Sea (where the fjord of Milford Sound is). As New Zealanders believe that it is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, going to Milford sound by road is highly recommended. The main reason is that there is as much (if not more) to see on the way to Milford Sound, as there is to see at the fjord itself. If the weather and your budget allows, you can always do a fly back on the return journey. This will cut down the travel time from 10 hours to about 6.5 to 7 hours. We were not as lucky with the weather, and we could not afford the expensive flyback (NZ$200 per person), so we did the all day bus tour with Intercity. We booked our tickets online in advance.
As there was a lot we saw on this all day trip, I have divided our experience into two posts. The first will focus on the journey to Milford Sound. The second part will focus on the cruise and the drive back.
Our day started really early. After getting ready, we left our hotel around 6:50 am, and walked down to the Athol St parking lot to catch our 7:20 am bus to Milford Sound. It was a clear morning with little cloud. The Athol St parking lot in Queenstown is a hub for all kinds of tourist and transport bus companies, as they all do their pick-ups from there. After a few minutes of waiting, our bus arrived. A few people got on and then we continued for some more pick-ups around various hotels of Queenstown. One pick-up was right across from our accommodation. Perhaps, we could have scheduled a pick-up at our hotel too, but we never got that option online. Maybe there is some way of scheduling personal pick-ups (maybe phone call??). After all the picking up was done and the bus was almost full, we finally left for Southland! Our guide for the day was also our bus driver. He had loads of information and a decent sense of humour too.
(early morning in Queenstown)
(sunrise in Queenstown)
(our Intercity Bus with glassroof)
(fellow tourists on board the bus)
Within a few minutes, we were in the Otago countryside. We were still driving along Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown. The sunrise was absolutely stunning, but even more impressive was what we saw next. The Remarkables mountains had just a little bit of sunlight piercing through the clouds and onto its peaks. It almost looked like someone was flashing a light from above. As we were taking pictures of this stunning view, we see something even more incredible. We saw a vertical rainbow sticking out of the mountains. What a start to the day it was, and our tour had only just begun!
(driving South in Otago)
(lovely view of sunlight seeping through)
(stunning vertical rainbow)
After driving for about 2.5 hours, we reached our first stop, Te Anau. The bus made a 30 minute stop there, and the guide instructed us to be back in 30 mins. There was a cafe at the bus stop, and also a small shopping area across the street. Since we had already finished our breakfast in Queenstown, we decided to take a walk and check out Lake Te Anau. Again, the scenery was just amazing, with rainbows and low hanging clouds.
(Lake Te Anau)
(sea plane at Lake Te Anau)
(low clouds at Lake Te Anau)
After our brief stop, we all boarded the bus again and headed towards Milford Sound. The weather slowly changed as we were driving. From clear sunlight, we were now watching rain come down on the bus window; it was heavy rain. This was a good time for our guide to point out that the area near Milford Sound is one of the wettest in NZ and also in the world. It rains there every other day on average. While we made the stop at Te Anau, our guide had contacted the airport in Milford Sound to check on the status of the weather. They do this every tour for people who are interested in booking a fly-back option. Anyone on the tour could choose to fly back – for a fee of course. If the weather is found suitable for flying, then the guide helps you book the flight back.
However, the news that the guide received in Te Anau was not very good, especially for people who were interested in flying back. It was pouring down in Milford Sound, and that was apparently going to continue for some more time. No planes were taking off that day.
(a rainy day in Southland)
A few minutes after leaving Te Anau, we made another stop, this time at Knobs Flat. That was a short 5 min photo stop where we got a picture of this flat landscape with clouds and hills in the background.
(photo stop at Knobs Flat)
(near Knobs Flat)
(a stop at Knobs Flat)
After leaving Knobs Flat, we made our next stop a few minutes later at a place called Mirror Lakes. On a clear day, when the water is calm, you can see the reflection of a purpose built sign which would read “Mirror Lakes” in the water. However, since the weather was not clear when we were there, we could not see that clear reflection. So we got on the bus just as quickly as we got off it.
(driving towards Milford Sound)
(at Mirror Lakes stop)
(on a clear day, reflection in the water reads “Mirror Lakes”)
(one of the wettest places in NZ)
The rain while going to Milford Sound is actually a very good thing, because rain water from the mountain tops will turn into waterfalls. I had read somewhere that one of the best things about Milford Sound are its countless waterfalls everywhere. As we were getting closer to Milford Sound, we started noticing water bodies, flowing rivers, and then waterfalls started to appear. These initial waterfalls were few in numbers. Then after sometime, we saw a lot of traffic, basically a single queue of cars and buses waiting for a light to turn green. It was quite a long wait (about 10 mins or so). We were waiting to pass through the single lane Homer Tunnel, an engineering marvel of NZ. I have heard that in peak traffic, one can wait for 20 to 30 minutes to pass through the tunnel. Luckily for us, it was much shorter than that. Once we passed the tunnel and came out on the other side, we heard a chorus of wow’s all around the bus. The reason was because we saw this incredible landscape of multiple milky waterfalls and mountains, with a small winding road cutting through the mountainous forest. South Island has so many stunning natural gems to look at.
(the waterfalls are about to begin)
(and the waterfalls begin)
(waiting for our turn to pass through the Homer Tunnel)
(on the other side of Homer Tunnel)
(countless waterfalls everywhere)
(some light among the clouds)
After driving along for a few minutes, we made our final photo stop at what was called The Chasm. The Chasm is basically a crevice in between uniquely shaped rocks, and the water from the mountains falls through this crevice. To get to the view point, we took a short walk through what looked like ancient forest and small waterfalls. After clicking some photos of the Chasm, we headed back for the bus. When we got back to the parking lot to get back on the bus, we saw more waterfalls and green mountains. For a nature lover, Milford Sound and the surrounding area is paradise. A half day walking trip here could be quite amazing. Unfortunately for us, we did not have that kind of time on our hands.
(stop at The Chasm)
(forest at The Chasm)
(walking at The Chasm)
(this is The Chasm)
(interesting rock shapes at The Chasm)
(at The Chasm)
(taken from The Chasm parking lot)
(waterfalls and low clouds)
Leaving from The Chasm, we drove to our destination, Milford Sound. On the way, our guide gave us all sorts of information about Maori’s beliefs about Milford Sound, what efforts are being made to preserve the area, and how pristine the nature here is. After nearly 6 hours since leaving Queenstown, we finally reached Milford Sound. We got instructions from the guide on where to board the cruise boat from, and then what time to get back to the bus for the long drive back to Queenstown. We also were handed our boat passes as we got off the bus. So far, only half the tour was complete. But in that time, we were treated to some of the best natural wonders of South Island. We could only imagine what the next half was going to be like. We were very excited to begin our cruise of Milford Sound. Read about the cruise in this blog post.