With a strong recommendation to hit the road early, the first third of the journey skirts New Zealand’s second largest lake. Gouged by glaciers millennia ago, Lake Te Anau features a number of arms that poke into the heavily wooded enveloping mountains. Beautiful in its own right, it is dull in contrast to the landscape approaching Milford Sound. The small village of Te Anau Downs represents the launching point for the famed Milford Track which combines a short boat ride across the lake with a four-day trek to Milford Sound.
Mirror Lake is around half distance though it is a misnomer on our journey, a cool breeze ruffling the surface. At 85 km, The Divide represents the lowest east-west pass in the Southern Alps and is the trailhead for several superb multi-day hikes (or tramps in Kiwi-speak). Two hours tough trekking away are spectacular and panoramic views from Key Summit.Soon after, a dirt road (Lower Hollyford Road) spurs right towards historic Gunns Camp and towering Humboldt Falls. Acting as a camp for trekkers on the Hollyford Track, Gunns Camp is a treasure trove dripping with history around a famous family. Raising cattle in early days under harsh conditions and opening up an embryonic travel industry around hiking this spectacular environment, Dave Gunn famously trekked 20 hours in 1936 to raise an alarm after a fatal plane crash. His heroic efforts saw the four survivors rescued.
Gunn’s Camp superb one-room museum is packed with quirky items from early days in the area – farming tools, a backpack from early postal deliveries, historic home wares, tunnelling equipment and New Zealand’s oldest petrol bowser (functioning but not in service).A peaceful half hour stroll off the same road, Humboldt Falls stands supermodel tall and wafer thin tumbling an elegant 275 metres over three stages in verdant forest. Like a mirror image, a companion waterfall cascades nearby. (Tip: I strongly suggest that you take this road on the return journey to Te Anau)
The road narrows sharply and winds awkwardly, sheer rock walls gouged by ice rivers rearing up hundreds of metres either side in a dramatic setting. Water tumbles freely from the rock walls, temporary waterfalls tumble and dry as the area absorbs over seven metres of annual rainfall. An exceptional engineering feat, Homer Tunnel (one way during the day) blasted through a blocking mountain opening up Milford Sound in the early 1950s (before then it was trekking or boat access only). The rough rock walls are still clear as the car sneaks through the narrow downhill cavern to emerge with spectacular views from Mount Talbot, tumbling mist and clouds slightly shrouding a glorious hairpin descent towards Milford Sound.Nearing the sound, the gushing and swirling Cleddau River sculpt freakish and artistic rock formations in The Chasm, a 15 minute loop symphonic boardwalk of thundering waters and verdant green forest. Tiny tomtits prance and dart among the branches, their glossy golden breast gleaming in the dappled light.
The road meanders the final ten kilometres into Milford Sound, a location Rudyard Kipling flamboyantly described as the eighth wonder of the world. The fame and beauty of Milford Sound diminishes the Milford Road from Te Anau in tourist literature but on any measure it is one of the world’s finest touring drives. Leave time to enjoy the remarkable work of glaciers ploughing an exceptionally scenic path littered with waterfalls, beech forests, mountain views and glacial lakes.
Tips– Leave early to avoid the conga line of buses on the narrow road. Most buses leave Te Anau between 9:00am and 10:00am so wake up early and leave well before this.
– Have a full tank of petrol (gas) before you go as it is a 240 km round trip without fuel stations.
- Take insect repellent as the sandflies are ferocious.
– Save some of the highlights for the return journey (especially a longer hike or Humboldt Falls) to catch an earlier boat at Milford (recommend booking) and avoid the bus loads of passengers that arrive around lunch time for boat trips that depart between 12:30pm and 2:00pm.
– Allow up to 15 minutes to get through the Homer Tunnel, a one-lane traffic-light patrolled bottleneck to access Milford Sound.
– Plan for it to rain – after all, the area gets over 7 metres of rainfall annually and it contributes to the beauty of the area with tempoary waterfalls and misty views.
– Stop where you can for views as many stretches of road are narrow without chances to stop the car.