A natural wonder
The journey to Milford Sound provides almost as much enjoyment as the destination, writes Rob Dunlop
TO VISIT Milford Sound is to visit the Fiordland National Park.
For it is the national park, New Zealand’s largest, that encompasses the wonder of the fjords and provides the only accessible path.
This truly is a destination that is as much about the journey.
The 120km Milford Rd begins at the South Island’s largest lake, Lake Te Anau, flanked by three fjords.
We’re at the edge of Fiordland, deep in the southwest of the South Island, where more than 20,000 years ago, glaciers carved out 14 fjords from the mountains.
Today, it is one of the most pristine places on Earth. Lush rainforests of beech trees appear with carpets of green moss that cling to gnarly trunks, which later gives way to grassy flats. We never lose sight of mountains, including a stop at a lake to admire the mirror reflection of the Southern Alps.
There’s no mistaking this is an alpine road, when grass eventually gives way to towering granite and snow caps.
Even the 1.2km Homer Tunnel, which was carved out of a ridge, is a marvel to stop and appreciate. The road at this point is almost 1km high.
The road eventually winds down to Milford Sound. The biggest surprise is the lack of a true settlement. I expected a high street with a row of shops selling wind jackets and souvenirs. Although, there is a busy visitors centre and a wharf, at which day-trippers transfer out on to the sound for boat trips.
Blistered, bare-footed walkers line the gutters, after being ferried in from the Milford Track, which finishes at the far edge of the water. Along with the park’s other famous walks – Routeburn Track and Kepler Tracks, the 53km Milford Track taken over four or five days is considered one of the world’s best.
But what about the sound (which is technically a fjord)?
Well, what can one say when you’re awestruck. It’s big. And strangely the water is black – because the 1.2km high dark-granite cliffs also plunge hundreds of metres below the surface.
Mitre Peak (pictured centre) stands stall at almost 1.7km. And forests cling to the cliff faces. Fur seals play on the rocks while we get sprayed by the permanent waterfalls of Lady Bowen and Stirling.
Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on Earth, where rainfall is measured in metres, and when it rains hundreds of waterfalls spring into action.
A large open-air viewing deck on the boat allows us to take it all in.
We spend about two hours cruising around the sound, which flows for 15km from the Tasman Sea. As we approach the entrance, the boat starts to get the wobbles – the Tasman Sea is notoriously rough.
Further south along the coast is the entrance to New Zealand’s other well-known fjord, but not as accessible, Doubtful Sound.
It’s difficult to describe the wonder of Milford Sound. It’s probably best that someone puts a photograph in front of you.
Words can’t do it justice. This hack certainly can’t. Even UNESCO fumbled with institutional language when it became a World Heritage Area in 1986. They went for ‘‘ superlative natural phenomena’’. Best leave it to the experts. One of Britain’s greatest writers, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) also had a crack at it after he visited. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 during a pure time of writing. So how did he describe it? Cunningly. ‘‘ The eighth wonder of the world,’’ Kipling declared.
There you go. You really need to see it for yourself. The writer was a guest of AAT Kings and Air NewZealand.