Milford Sound is one of the most sought after places to visit amongst travellers to New Zealand, and it’s a ‘bucket list’ experience for people all over the world. Milford Sound is in the heart of Fiordland, New Zealand’s biggest national park, at 1.25 million hectares (12,500km2). The national park is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its cultural, historical, and scientific significance, and is protected by international treaties.
The Naming of Milford Sound
Milford Sound is a fiord in the southern region of the South Island’s west coast. Confusingly, the sound has been incorrectly named – it is a glacial valley, rather than a river valley, that has been flooded by the sea. The name Milford Sound was chosen by the first Europeans to visit the area, Captain John Grono and his crew, in 1812. Grono named it after his hometown of Milford Haven in Wales. However, the Maori population on the South Island referred to the wonder as ‘Piopiotahi’ (meaning one Piopio, a thrush-like bird), a name which has since been imparted alongside the European name, so the full title today is Milford Sound/Piopiotahi.
The Road to Milford Sound
The driving distance to Milford Sound from Te Anua is relatively short – only around 120km (75miles). However, the driving time is longer than expected (usually around 2 hours) due to the nature of the State Highway 94, leading in to Milford Sound.
The road enters Fiordland National Park almost immediately after leaving Te Anau, and passes Te Anau Downs on the shores of Lake Te Anau, from where the boat service to the start of the 3 night 4 day Milford Track departs. The road continues to wind through some of New Zealand’s most stunning scenery. Eglinton Valley is one of the highlights, and looking down to the far end you can see the Disappearing Peaks, a group of mountains that never seem to get any closer even as you drive towards them. You’ll also pass Mirror Lakes – a short boardwalk alongside some beautifully reflective water (when conditions are right!) – Key Summit on the Routeburn Track, and the Hollyford River, before arriving at the divide, and the Homer Tunnel.
Construction of the Milford Road began in 1926, as part of a work relief project, and road construction arrived at the Divide in 1935. The Divide – today the entrance to the Homer Tunnel – was a significant point in the construction process. Over the course of the next 18 years, punctuated by the labour shortage caused by the second world war, and some very difficult weather conditions, a group of men carved out the 1240m long tunnel through the granite foundations of the Gertrude Saddle, at a falling gradient of 1:10 – and broke through on the western side in February of 1953.
What the Milford Road, and Homer Tunnel represent today is achingly tough manual labour, in extremely difficult conditions, to arrive at the goal – Milford Sound itself. The construction process had many setbacks, and cost a handful of young men their lives. But that traditional can-do Kiwi attitude still resonates today here, and aside from their legacy as some of the world’s toughest men, the Milford Road builders have left us with one of the most impressive engineering feats of modern times.
Visiting Milford Sound and Things to Do
Visitors to Milford Sound go there for a number of different reasons, but none would deny the magic of the place. The draw cards of Milford Sound include: the world famous Milford Track, the stunning, sheer granite mountains jutting straight out of the ocean, a number of beautiful waterfalls (a number which multiplies dramatically during heavy rain), the incredible diversity of wildlife including whales, dolphins, penguins, birds, and fish, and the breath taking scale of the surroundings. In Milford Sound itself you can go for a day cruise or an overnight stay on the fiord, kayak below the majestic Mitre Peak, explore the underwater observatory, or go for one of several manageable day hikes to appreciate the natural beauty of the place.
A visit to Milford Sound with New Zealand Walking Tours offers a unique perspective of a place visited by so many – most of whom take a bus in and out again like clockwork without really taking the time to experience the majesty of the place. Author Rudyard Kipling referred to Milford Sound as ‘The eighth wonder of the world’. We’ve come up with itineraries which let you take your time, escape, and indulge, and really experience it without the throng of tourists present in the middle part of each day.
Timing a Milford Sound Visit Just Right
On our ‘Pristine New Zealand’ and ‘Beautiful South’ trips we’ll arrive into Milford Sound as the procession of tourist coaches drive in the opposite direction – we are lucky enough to be able to spend the night at Milford Sound’s only accommodation provider, Milford Sound Lodge, and it’s absolutely stunning.
On our way to Milford Sound we’ll walk a section of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. By the time we show you to your gorgeously appointed, exclusive mountain-view chalet for the night, you’ll have wined and dined on local New Zealand specialities, and be ready to recharge your batteries for tomorrow’s leg-stretch on one of the world’s most famous trails, the Milford Track. To top off your Milford Sound experience we’ll take a cruise on the fiord, 15km out to the Tasman Sea, and back again.
Timings on Our ‘Elegant South’ trip are slightly different, but we’re still careful to avoid the busy periods. We’ll depart Queenstown in the morning, and stop for a walk on the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Afterwards we’ll enjoy a sumptuous lunch spread in the Hollyford Valley, before arriving in Milford Sound for a cruise on the fiord mid-afternoon, after the majority of the crowds are on the move back to Te Anau and Queenstown. In the evening we’ll have dinner at Milford Sound Lodge, and retire to our immaculate mountain-view chalets.
When you wake up the next morning you’re in for an experience of a lifetime, and one that few people in the world can say they’ve had – a helicopter flight over Milford Sound, and out to Martins Bay on the rugged West Coast. We’ll have a delicious lunch at Martins Bay before a two-hour walk to the lodge where we’ll spend the night. The following morning it’s a jet boat ride across Lake McKerrow to walk a section of the Hollyford Track, before heading back to Queenstown for a farewell dinner.
Milford Sound is undeniably beautiful, and the magic of the place is only accentuated by its serenity during the time frames that we’ll visit. However you choose to experience Milford Sound, be sure to take your time, and indulge in the natural beauty of the place, because you’ll never experience anywhere quite like it again.
Approaching the west side entrance to the Homer Tunnel it’s clear to see the magnitude of the task of burrowing through the mountainside.
Meeting the local population of kea at the Homer Tunnel entrance.
With around 7m (23ft) of precipitation per year, the conditions in which the road builders worked, relentlessly, were treacherous – avalanches are common here.
The Milford Track is regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful multi-day hikes.