Discovering Milford Sound

Milford Sound is one of those places that are difficult to describe. You need to have been there and experienced the atmosphere in order to fully fathom what it’s like. Experiences may vary but there truly is something special about the place.
Heidornmännchen enjoying the views during their Milford Sound boat cruise.
Milford Sound was a truly remarkable place and well worth the long trip into the Fiordlands.

Most people, or at least most younger tourists, travel to Queenstown for one specific reason. It’s jam packed with outdoor sports and anything pushing the extreme. You can go skiing here, you can go hiking, you can mountain bike your heart out or you can go a bit extremer.

What do I mean by extreme? Well bungie-jumping, sky diving, indoor sky diving, all sorts of variations of jet boating, canyoning, white water rafting….if it’s extreme, they’ve got it in Queenstown. Mind you, all of the activities come with a hefty price tag. So if you’re on a budget, you won’t really be doing any of those things.

However, when you’re in Queenstown, another thing that many people do is to visit Milford Sound. Apparently there is some controversy amongst locals whether Doubtful Sound is nicer or not. Milford Sound is definitely more popular. We can’t really judge as we only did one of the two. We got the feeling that those who promoted Doubtful Sound primarily wanted to portray themselves as “in-the-know”.

So What is Milford Sound?

Milford Sound is a fjord in the southwestern part of the South Island of New Zealand. The entire region is known as the Fiordlands and Milford Sound is particularly popular as it combines the fjord (obviously) with the overarching Mitre Peak as well as rainforest and various waterfalls such as the Stirling Falls. Milford Sound is also home to tons of wildlife, including seals, penguins and dolphins.

The famous British author Rudyard Kipling once called the 8th Wonder of the World when he visited it in the 1890s. And it truly is a wonderful sight. The challenge here is getting the right weather. Most of the time it will be quite overcast, rainy and foggy in Milford Sound. It really comes down to pure chance whether you get a clear sky or not. We got lucky, we had absolutely ideal weather conditions which is also why our cruise was able to do an extra tour into the Tasman sea.

So How Do You Get There?

Now that’s the main challenge. The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound takes about 4 hours…if you’re lucky. Now, you can probably imagine that there are bus loads of tourists that get transported from all sorts of directions to Milford Sound. It is one of THE main attractions in the region. Cruises leave at least every 30 minutes and the first ones leave the wharf at around 9am in the morning.

There is only extremely limited accommodation in Milford Sound and most of the lodges are priced upwards of 1,000 NZD a night. You’ve got to be certifiably insane and/or filthy rich to do that because there’s literally nothing to do out there if that’s the usual way you travel the world. If that’s not your cup of tea, you could also camp on a nearby camp site, but rest assured, it will be packed and it will have very limited facilities.

So, you essentially have 3 options if you’re not going to stay anywhere in the area of Milford Sound. You can drive with your own car. You can take the bus (realistically, this takes about 5.5 hours ONE-WAY!) or you can fly. Yes, you read correctly. You can fly from Queenstown right to the doorstep of Milford Sound for the incredibly cheap price (*inject dose of irony here*) of 599 NZD. Obviously you also get a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Fiordlands. But you’ll have to decide wether that’s worth it for you. Particularly because these flights may be cancelled if the weather isn’t great.

Now, you could probably start to question how flying into Milford Sound fits together with a country that likes to boast it’s Eco-Tourism industry and overall way of dealing with nature. To be honest, I really don’t know. I guess it’s just really lucrative because planes were going in and out of the airfield in very regular intervals. I guess there are enough rich people out there, who just can’t be bothered to drive around like the common folk. So they fly from one spot to the next in New Zealand. We checked the stats from the NZ tourism department and the largest group of people who make use of these flights are (by a far margin)….the Chinese.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different airfields in immediate proximity of tourist attractions (Franz Josef Clacier, Mount Cook, etc). So it really seems to be a thing around here. I understand that it’s very appealing to take a helicopter up onto a glacier and seeing the mountains from the top. But I really don’t get how it fits into the country’s overall eco-tourism marketing strategy.

Either way, we knew we were going to drive there with our car because weren’t planning on returning to Queenstown afterwards. Not only because we’d already been there for 3 nights, but also because of the massively long drive. For us it was important to be able to leave Queenstown before the first buses because driving behind a bus in New Zealand is so horrifically frustrating (this also applies to so many other people who apparently do not know how to drive) thanks to all the 2-lane highways.

For us it was clear from the very beginning that we would drive to Milford Sound, do the cruise and then stay overnight in Te Anau on the way back. That not only cut our overall driving time but it also put us in a good position to cross over to the east coast the next day, where we were planning staying in Dunedin for 2 nights.

360° Photosphere Just Before the Tunnel Crossing

So How Was It?

Well, to be honest, I really can’t put it into words all that well. I guess Milford Sound is something that you need to experience for yourself in order to understand why it’s so popular. I could tell you that the views are stunning and that a fjord is simply a type of landscape which is so different from everything else you’d normally see.

But that would only be telling half the story. It’s the entire place as a whole. It’s like a live painting with all sorts of small details that bring it to life in a way that’s just special. It’s really no surprise that it was picked as one of the spots for various scenes of Lord of the Rings, such as Isengard and Lothlorien. There’s something mystical about it. And I’m sure that given some extra fog and clouds (which brings rain to the hill tops and thus bigger waterfalls in the fjord) you’d think you were in a fantasy movie.

Obviously my description is very colorful now and your experience may vary from ours. But I guess that’s why I’ll just let the photos and videos do the talking and leave you with that.

After thoroughly enjoying our time in Milford Sound we eventually headed back to Te Anau where we had booked a spot on another camp site. The weather was good, so it was ideal for a night in the tent. And you know what? We’re actually getting into the groove now 🙂

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  1. Pingback: Recap for Week 5 — One-Way to Somewhere
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