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Visiting New Zealand's Milford Sound
Story and photos by Lee Juillerat
HighOnAdventure.com   October 1, 2012

Some lessons are learned and, even better, put to good use.
Milford Sound
Moody Milford Sound

On my first visit to New Zealand's South Island, the group I was traveling with boarded an early morning bus in Queenstown for the several hour drive to Milford Sound, one of 14 fjords in Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is surrounded by steep, forested cliffs punctuated with spectacular waterfalls and dramatic, sheer mountains.

Along the way we stopped briefly in Te Anau, the park's commercial center, before finishing the final 72 miles without stopping.

New Zealand tumbling waterfalls
Tumbling waterfalls

The cruise boat ride from Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea was a visual spectacle. We gawked at the ragged top of Mitre Peak, so named because it resembles at bishop's mitre, and Bowen Falls, which pummels 530-feet down a U-shaped hanging valley. Seen through fog and clouds - Milford Sound has New Zealand's highest average rainfall - the mood was mystically surreal. When it was over, we hopped on the bus for the multi-hour, non-stop ride back to Queenstown. I wondered what we hadn't seen.

Lesson learned. For my second visit, I studied guidebooks and websites and made overnight reservations at the Milford Sound Lodge, which "Eyewitness Travel: New Zealand" unabashedly describes as, "Possibly the best located hostel in the world." I opted for a backpacker room with a pair of bunk beds. I cooked dinner, took an early evening through a beech forest, enjoyed a sunset and sunrise and ate a quick breakfast before a morning cruise aboard the MV Sinbad, a 75-passenger vessel that's part of a fleet of tour boats operated by Real Journeys.

  New Zealand fur seals  




New Zealand fur seals
  New Zealand fur seal  
Massive fur seals clamber and rest on rocks

The cruise was even better the second time around. We viewed massive New Zealand fur seals lumbering, and sometimes battling, for position on steep-sloped rocks, and watched as cavorting bottlenose dolphins danced on the water. Challenging Bowen Falls for beauty was the 480-foot Stirling Falls. From the harbor, Mitre Peak and neighboring towering spires stood like a phalanx of guardian gatekeepers.

  New Zealand Stirling Falls   New Zealand Stirling Falls veil  
Stirling Falls

But the best part of staying overnight was being able to leisurely savor the roadside offerings, from several trails along the Milford Road between Te Anau and Milford Sound to an afternoon voyage to the Te Ana-au Caves on the drive in. Reaching the caves requires a boat trip from Te Anau across Lake Te Anau. We were prepared to be dazzled inside the caves, known for their otherworldly glowworms. Our expectations were exceeded.

  New Zealand Te Ana-au Caves  
New Zealand Te Ana-au Caves
Te Anau's glittering glowworm caves (Photos courtesy Real Journeys)

Walkways connect visitors to small boats that glide inside the cave, sliding through water-carved limestone grottos, past tumbling inner cave waterfalls and, most magically of all, soundless gliding through an enchanting glowworm grotto where thousands of the itsy-bitsy glowworms "fish" for food by dangling multiple strands of with sticky mucus droplets. Insects are lured by the glowworm's blue-green light, trapped and paralyzed by chemicals in the mucus, then hauled up, killed and sucked dry. With lights out in the silent darkness, our boat cruised the grotto, our heads sometimes just inches from the luminous glowworms.

  New Zealand Te Anau glowworm caves  

Inside dazzling Te Anau glowworm caves
(Photo courtesy Real Journeys)


It's said the ancient Maoris called the caves "Te-Ana-hinatore," or the "cave of phosphorescence," and later "Te Ana-ua," or "cave of swirling water." By any definition, the caves are simply phantasmagoric.

We interrupted our drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound for a short hike at the Homer Tunnel Nature Walk, where the trail wound past flowering native plants and views of the tantalizing mountains. At the parking lot, car roofs were covered with inquisitive keas, colorful large alpine parrots.

  New Zealand Homer Nature Trail   New Zealand Kea bird  
The Homer nature trail
Kea scavenges for food

After traveling through the Homer Tunnel, a 3,940-foot engineering marvel that provides access to the sound, we stopped at The Chasm for a loop stroll that features two crossings over the Cleddau River, where waterfalls and millennium years of swirling waters have gouged and carved deliciously weird rock formations. It's a short but fascinating walk that reveals the whimsical and fierce force of nature.

  New Zealand giant fern  

Giant fern along trail

  New Zealand Chasm sight   New Zealand Chasm site  
Sights along The Chasm
  New Zealand Cleddau River bridge  

Bridge over the Cleddau offer Chasm views


A day later, after our Milford Sound tour, a series of short hikes were equally surprising and delightful. The Holyford Valley Lookout offered panoramic views of the Holyford Valley. Better was Lake Marian, where the trail through a silver beech forest begins with a swing bridge. The combination of light, filtered through the dense canopy, along with burls and never-the-same patterns of bark and plants, make the forest an ever-varied circus of sights.

New Zealand beech forest trails New Zealand beech forest trails New Zealand beech forest trails New Zealand beech forest trails
New Zealand beech forest trails

In contrast, the Lake Gunn Nature Trail looped through a red beech forest, again with a baffle-dazzling array of trees and vegetation. At Mirror Lakes the trails weave along small tarns and, more pleasingly, fields of hearty, tall-standing lupines glowing in a rainbow of colors.

  New Zealand lupines  

Colorful fields of lupine

  New Zealand lupines   New Zealand lupines   New Zealand lupines  
Lupines, lupines and more lupines

So, what lessons were learned the second time around?

Two days in and around Milford Sound are better than one, but still not enough.

Roadside Bonus

New Zealanders are known for the quirky, ironic sense of humor. That's often reflected by signs along their South Island highways. A sample includes: "The faster you go, the bigger the mess." "Christmas! What a Birthday!" On signs showing several sheep, "Sleepy?" And, aboard the MV Sinbad, "The crew is highly trained to panic for you."

The Author

Lee Juillerat is a co-owner of High on Adventure who has been writing and photographing various adventure - including traveling, hiking, skiing, bungy jumping in Switzerland, Japan, Chile, Canada, New Zealand and Wales and throughout the U.S - since 1997. He is a fulltime writer-photographer for a daily newspaper in Southern Oregon, freelance writer-photographer for several magazines and author of books about Crater Lake National Park. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net.

  New Zealand rainbow of lupines  

Rainbow displays of lupines


When You Go

Among the guidebooks I most relied on was "Eyewitness Travel: New Zealand," which has excellent maps, helpful capsule summaries, enticing photographs and breakout sections filled with information on special don't miss features.

Along with offering a variety of guided trips - including the Milford Sound and Te Anau Caves cruises and tours - Real Journeys has a detailed, extremely helpful brochure, "Road to Milford." Visit www.realjourneys.co.nz. For information on the Milford Sound Lodge visit www.milfordlodge.com.

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