New Zealand’s most remote and dramatic region lies in the far southwest, an area known as Fiordland. The Fiordland National Park is the largest in the country covering some 12,500 square kilometres and, of course, much of it declared a World Heritage Area, giving international recognition to its natural value.
Shaped by glaciers in the last Ice Age, Fiordland has immense geographic grandeur with sheer-sided fiords, steep valleys, icy lakes, beech forests and towering mountains.
The most accessible of Fiordland’s natural attractions is Milford Sound and surely this is the most breathtaking road journey in the whole of New Zealand. Travelling the Milford Road, the immense landscape is enthralling on the 120km journey from Te Anau through glacial carved valleys – like nothing we have ever seen before.
About 100kms along the Milford Road we approached the 1.2km Homer Tunnel. Completed in 1954, this unlined tunnel, 945m above sea level, is a superb engineering feat, piercing through sheer rock to allow access to Milford Sound. Controlled by traffic lights which only change once every 15 minutes, the drive through the largely unlit tunnel is quite a daunting experience, even in a line of traffic.
At the road’s end, the valley opens into the deep, narrow fiord of Milford Sound, known to the Maori as Piopiotahi. The stunning beauty of the view, with Mitre Peak rising majestically from the water beckons you on board a boat to explore the passage that leads 15 kms to the open sea.
There are a number of different sized boats on which to cruise the Milford Sound, but we opted for a smaller one (with a maximum of 75 passengers) as Mitre Peak Cruises www.mitrepeak.com boasted “an up close and personal experience”. In fact, because we chose to avoid the busy midday period, there were only 15 people onboard, including the crew. The boat moved slowly away from it’s mooring to begin the one hour journey through Milford Sound into Anita Bay at the entrance to the Tasmin Sea. This is a popular calling place for cruise ships, though the waters are too deep to drop anchor, so they need to keep moving.
The glorious sunshine, blue skies and the odd fluffy white cloud were the perfect backdrop for the tumbling waterfalls from the sheer cliffs all around us. All along the length of the Sound we could see many thousands of beech trees, growing from the soil-less rock, clinging with their roots intertwined to support each other. We also came across a group of fur seals basking in the sunshine on some boulders in the outer reaches of the Sound.
On our approach to the Stirling waterfall, one of the largest in Milford Sound, the captain told us that he was going to take the boat right behing the cascading torrent of water, sending most of us running for shelter inside the cabin! WOW – This was truly a magical experience that the larger boats couldn’t hope to replicate!
All too soon, our cruise on the Milford Sound was at an end, so it was time for us to make the long journey back along the Milford Road to Te Anau, through the Homer tunnel. On the return journey, after the crowds aboard their coaches have departed, and the traffic lights have been turned off, you are left to take your chances through the single lane, dimly-lit tunnel, with passing places. So, when we spotted headlights and yellow flashing lights heading towards us, it was a scramble to make it to one of the few passing places before we met the maintenance vehicle coming the other way!
Hmmm yet another experience to be remembered today, along with the wonderful memories and photographs that will last a lifetime