Te Anau is the last main town on the way to Milford Sound. It is a cute little place that seems to survive solely on the tourism it gains from it’s location. We made a pit stop to get some groceries and gas and take in the view by the lake. We camped about 45 minutes outside of Te Anau toward Milford. The DOC site we stayed at charged $12NZD and was one of our least favorite campsites. It was busy and mosquito ridden and lacked the charm of most of the free sites we stayed at. Nonetheless, it did it’s job and was the cheapest and closest place to stay for the night. We got up nice and early the next morning to drive to Milford. We originally planned to do another kayak tour there but decided to cancel and change gears to do a cruise. Back in Te Anau, we asked a gas station attendant how long it takes to get to Milford. He said, “an hour and a half if you don’t stop”. I was thinking, oh cool we can make it in an hour and a half. Why would we need to stop? The answer to that question would soon manifest itself.
Along the drive, we passed countless lookout points, numerous picnic sites by rivers and lakes, and waterfalls coming off of cliffs in every direction. Ahh yes, an hour and a half will not do. We spent about 3 hours or so driving and stopping every few minutes to take pictures. We also finally found the busy, touristy area of New Zealand. The one lane road to Milford was flooded with busses, campervans, and cars. During one of our stops, we practically had the view to ourselves and within a few minutes a bus pulled up and the field was taken over by a cloud of Asian tourists snapping photos. When this happened, we would jump in our van and speed off so that we wouldn’t get stuck going 20km/hour on a windy road behind a tour bus. Regardless of the crowds, the drive was amazing and I fully understood why this region is so heavily visited.
We were nearly to Milford when we were stopped at a one-way tunnel to allow traffic to pass. When it was our turn to go, John turned our headlights on as instructed and proceeded into the black abyss. The other side provided us with a windy, steep road cutting through massive cliffs leading down to the fiord. When we got to the end, we looked to our left and there it was. Famous Milford Sound in all it’s glory. We realized why there were so few people in Doubtful Sound compared to Milford. Doubtful Sound cannot be accessed by a road. It can only be accessed by boat and shuttle. Milford was just right there in front of the parking lot. The town only had a few buildings, one of which gave the option to book tours. We approached the counter to inquire about a cruise and got in line behind a younger girl from Dunedin, New Zealand, who was obviously drunk. I say obviously because she turned around and started talking to us and said, “sorry, I’m a bit drunk”. We’re glad she started talking to us because she told us about an awesome cruise deal on GO Orange for $65NZD per person including fish and chips. Most of the cruises were around $80-90NZD and did not include any food, so we said, “heck yea” and bought our GO Orange tickets for 3pm and said, “Thanks! See you at 3!”
While we waited for our cruise to begin, we took a 20 minute walk around the edge of the fiord. We passed the drunk girl on our way to the trailhead and she was sitting by the fiord playing the ukelele. What’s up with ukeleles on this trip? They are everywhere! She told us she made the uke in Australia and started drunkenly playing some songs for us. We managed to slip away from her and off we went to get some better views of the fiord.
We boarded the boat and headed off for our 2 hour cruise. We were blessed with another gorgeous sunny day and were able to stand out on the deck for the entire cruise. The captain of the boat was really nice and knowledgeable and told us to make sure we stay out on the deck of the boat and enjoy the nice weather because most people are stuck inside. Again, we were told about how much rain Milford gets (nearly 11 meters a year!!) and how rare our day was. We passed heaps (heaps=Kiwis favorite word) of waterfalls and cliffs so high that we couldn’t even fully grasp their vastness. We ate our tasty fish and chips while we approached a waterfall. One of the crew members took two pitchers out and stood at the end of the boat under the waterfall catching the water. They then gave everyone a taste of the fresh water. Not surprisingly, the drunk Dunedinite ran up to the end of the boat and began showering herself, fully clothed, in the waterfall next to the crew member.
When we made it to the end of the fiord, we turned around and headed back along the left hand side of the cliffs to stop and see some cute little seals. The highlight of the cruise came when we pulled up to another waterfall and all of a sudden huge rainbows started to appear all around us. The captain said the time of day and weather was right for the rainbows, so again we were lucky. I was so amazed by what we saw, I expect the image of the waterfall, rainbow, and jagged cliffs in Milford Sound will stay with me forever. We finished our cruise and the captain thanked us and told us that we all must be really smart people because we booked the best, cheapest, longest cruise in Milford. GO Orange was a really great company and I would highly recommend them to anyone interested.
We were really glad we made the choice to do the cruise because it was relaxing and fun. The water was a bit rough in the fiord that day and we saw a group of kayakers bobbing along and fighting the wind. After our casual day on Doubtful Sound, we think we may have been disappointed if we did the kayak trip on Milford as well. With all the cruise boats and kayak companies, we also would not have had the same intimate experience. If you are going to fiordland, I highly recommend a visit to both Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound.
We headed back to our campervan and decided we would stop at one of the picnic sites up the road to camp for the night. As John turned the key, nothing happened. Remember when I said John turned his lights on to enter the tunnel? Yep, they were still on and the battery was dead. I ran into the nearest shop and asked about jumper cables (strangely were not provided to us with our rental) and they told us they would jump us for $20NZD. Jeez, that’s steep! I walked away without taking them up on their “deal” and by the time I got back to the parking lot, John had found a nice German man named Martin offering to help. We got the car jumped on the first try and let it run for a bit to charge the battery. We offered Martin a beer and he took us up on it. He was driving a campervan too, so we all three had camp chairs which we set up in the middle of the parking lot to enjoy our cold beverage. We chatted with Martin for over an hour about the last 6 months he spent traveling while we all swatted at sand flies trying to devour us. Again, the late sunsets were playing tricks on us and it was getting later than we thought. We said goodbye to our new friend and got back on the road to find a place to sleep.
We ended up finding a really awesome DOC site in the middle of the mountains. As the clock struck 10pm, the sky was finally getting dark and out popped the stars. John woke up around 3am to go to the bathroom and emerged from the van to look up at the best starry night sky we have ever seen. If one of us gets up in the middle of the night, the other does as well because ol’ Tim Tam’s sliding door isn’t the quietest. As such, I joined John outside and gazed up to take it all in. The stars were so clear and bright. We felt extremely lucky to have had not only a gorgeous day to see Milford Sound but also a clear night to take in the stars in the Southern Hemisphere.
We woke up the next morning to the native weather conditions of fiordland. It was cloudy and gray all around. The rain was holding out, so we decided to take a 3 hour hike up to the Key Summit. The first hour of the hike is part of the famous Routeburn Track, a multi-day hike where you stop at huts along the way. The rest of the hike is up to a spectacular summit that reminded us a lot of some of the hiking we have done in Colorado. John was a trooper throughout the hike even with his sliced foot from a few days before.
After finishing our hike we set out on the old dusty trail again to our next stop: Queenstown, the adventure capitol of the world!