June 26, 2008

Milford Sound

Fiordland National Park, a World Heritage area and the largest National Park in New Zealand, is located on the South West Coast of the South Island. Fiordland’s West Coast is deeply indented by 14 fiords spanning 215km of coastline. Early Europeans bestowed the names of Sounds onto these dramatic valleys, however a true “sound” is a river valley that has been flooded due to the land sinking below sea level. Fiords are created by glacial action that produces U-shaped valleys with steep cliffs. Fiords are characterised by shallow entrances that slope quickly seaward to deep water.

In Maori legend the fiords were created not by rivers of ice, but by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, a godly figure who carved out the fiords with his magical adze Te Hamo. He started in the far south where he created a rough coastline with many islands. By the time he reached Piopiotahi (Milford Sound), he had perfected his technique and carved his finest sculpture, resulting in an awe-inspiring fiord.

The Milford Road is not a journey – it’s a destination in itself. Leaving Te Anau and heading north, we traveled 119km through green grass of lowland pastures and tussock country, to strands of native bush and rocky, mountainous terrains enroute to Milford Sound. There are numerous short walks and scenic lookout points, including McKay Creek which looks over Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes for shimmering views of mountain reflections on clear days, and Lake Gunn.

Top left: The sun shining through thick clouds to create a circle of lights on the foliage; Top right: The extremely vast and flat Eglinton Valley carved out by a glacier thousands of years ago; Bottom: Mirror Lakes

Lake Gunn

Gushing stream and unusual foliage on one of the many tracks

The road then climbs to the Homer Tunnel. Construction on the tunnel began in 1935, providing employment during the Depression, and wasn’t finished until 1953. The 1.2km tunnel pierced the mountain to allow road access to Milford Sound, the only fiord in New Zealand which can be accessed by road. At an altitude of 945m above sea level, the tunnel remains largely unmodified since its early creation. It emerges into the spectacular Cleddau Canyon on its Milford side.

Cleddau Canyon

From here, the road drops steeply between sheer rock walls. One important tip for those traveling on the Milford Road - head out superearly or later in the morning to avoid tour-bus congestion as tens of thousands of visitors arrive in Milford Sound each year.

We joined the Nature Cruise with Real Discovery, one of the many cruise operators operating at Milford Sound. The 16km-long fiord is dominated by the mile-high Mitre Peak (1695m) which rises almost vertically upwards from the glassy waters below, making for a spectacular sight, while luxuriant rainforests cling to sheer rock walls washed with waterfalls. Gliding over calm waters between sheer, weather-scuffed cliffs, the cruise took us directly underneath massive rock overhangs and so close to the cascading waterfalls that we can feel the spray on our face. We also saw a New Zealand fur seal, but unfortunately no bottlenose dolphins or Fiordland crested penguins which can sometimes be spotted. We were lucky that it was bright and sunny when we were there as daily downpours are common as Milford Sound receives up to 7m of rain a year (that’s over an inch a day!).

The massive Stirling Falls, one of the many waterfalls in Milford Sound

Left: Our guide getting some water from the falls for us to taste. The water was warm, caused by friction with the rocks on its way down; Right: Can you spot the rainbow formation amidst the spray of the waterfall?

Left: The boat for Nature Cruise; Right: The cruise departing at 1pm, the most popular time for tourist buses. Notice how long the queue is?

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