Justifiably popular, Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful stretches of water in the world. Accessed via the stunning Te Anau-Milford Road which provides a taste of the scenery to come, Milford Sound is hemmed in by towering vertical rock faces rising up to 1500 metres in height, waterfalls cascading from mountain ridges and hanging valleys into the inky dark waters.
Cruises depart regularly for a 1.5 to 2.5 hour (30 kilometre) journey along the fjord walls past Mitre Peak (the iconic peak, much photographed as a reflection in the mirror like early morning waters) and waterfall laden cliffs to Anita Bay and the Tasman Sea, spotting playful New Zealand fur seals and occasional dolphins.
Stirling Falls is especially spectacular falling over 150 metres from a verdant hanging valley characterised by the twin giants of Lion and Elephant Rock. Boats highlight the immediate depths of the fjord (300 to 500 metres in most places) running the foredeck under Stirling Falls metres from land saturating any enthusiasts looking for an extra close-up view. (Lady) Bowen Fallssits at the end point of Milford, huge plumes of mist and occasional rainbows dancing in the swirling breezes.
Few waterfalls are named and only two are truly permanent but hundreds of cascades deluge daily and discover a path down the heavily scarred granite walls as an escape for the seven plus metres of annual rainfall. Some plunge as narrow jets of water while other spray elegantly like a delicate lace veil. The amount of falling fresh water changes the ecology with a few metres of semi-fresh water sitting on top of the standard ocean water below.
Luxuriant rainforest clings desperately to the cliff walls matting their roots in a constant struggle for survival. Bare vertical stripes of green felt rock are signs that a tree has relinquished its desperate grip taking all its colleague trees below to a watery grave.
Regularly noted is the fact that Milford Sound is indeed a fjord (carved by glaciers) rather than a sound (carved by water) – the same as for all “sounds” in New Zealand’s south west. Like strolling through a cathedral, Milford’s domineering rock walls and deep icy waters offer an overwhelming sense of nature’s scale, the sound of tumbling waterfalls intriguingly echo in the misty surrounds.
Rudyard Kipling honoured Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world which along with a convenient (and spectacularly scenic) access road, swamps the location with numerous visitors. Fortunately if you can escape the crowds, Kipling’s generous words are lived out, an awe-inspiring majestic experience of waterfalls, wildlife, verdant hanging valleys and towering granite cliffs which changes mood and feel as the weather changes from mist and rain to blue skies and sunshine.
- There are quite a number of operators offering basically the same loop trip out to the Tasman Sea (Anita Bay) and back travelling to the left of the fjord. If you have the time, select a slightly longer 2+ hour journey as the boat invariably travels slower and takes a little more time soaking in the spectacular scenery.
- Take your boat trip before 12:30pm and avoid the conga lines of bus passengers that arrive en masse around lunch time. It will likely result in a cheaper fare too.
- Leave early and give yourself plenty of time for the trip there and back along the Milford Road. The journey alone is a highlight of the day.
- Fill up with fuel in Te Anau as there are no fueling places on the way to Milford.