Fiordland and Milford Sound
The region of Fiordland is located in the south-western portion of New Zealand’s South Island. This area is famous for its sheer natural beauty which has been largely undisturbed for thousands of years. Fiordland is a densely packed maze of mountains and valleys defined by the flow of melting glaciers on land over extended periods of time.
Milford Sound Geology
The famous tourist destination: Milford Sound (Piopiotahi), is in fact a fjord, a deep u-shaped valley carved into a mountainside by the flow of glacial ice. As this glacial river retreated, sea water swept in to fill the steep chasm. This natural geological phenomenon has created a unique ecosystem overtime. The fjord at its deepest point is 265m and is mainly filled with seawater however the first 10m is rainwater runoff that flows into the fjord from nearby rivers and waterfalls.
In addition, the densely packed mountainous landscape of this region influences its weather patterns and climate. The annual rainfall in Fiordland is the highest in New Zealand with at least 200 days of rain to be expected throughout the year. The weather can dramatically change in this region, so be prepared with rain gear and warm clothes when you visit. The true beauty of the area, needs to be experienced during rainfall as mini waterfalls erupt down the copious mountains.
Milford Sound wildlife
Milford Sound is renowned for its local wildlife, and is famous for the diverse marine life that can be experienced at the Milford Sound underwater observatory. It is possible to view sea animals like: eels; octopus; sea stars swimming amongst the famed Fiordland black coral reefs. The fjord is also home to two different types of dolphins the dusky and bottlenose dolphins. There is also a local colony of fur seals that can be seen sunbathing on the rocks of the fjord. The Fiordland Crested Penguin is a rare and reclusive penguin breed that has evolved independently in this remote part of the world and can be viewed in the area during their breeding season from July – November.
Getting to Milford Sound
In the past there were only two ways to get to Milford Sound, either a four-day hike through Fiordland or via boat along the coastline. However with the completion of the 19 year engineering project of carving out a 1.2km tunnel directly into the Darran Mountain Ranges. The option of driving directly into this remote part of the world is now an easily accessible possibility. Driving access into Milford Sound is weather dependant and roads can be closed during the winter months due to snow and risk of avalanches.
Our drive to Milford Sound commenced in Wanaka and was a five hour trip by car, making this the longest leg of our entire South Island trip. Given the long drive we were keen to break up the travel by staying a few nights in Milford Sound. We took a short driving rest break in the township of Te Anua to purchase groceries and fill up the fuel for the car. This is the best place to prepare for your trip into Fiordland and speciality hiking needs and food can be readily purchased from the local supermarket in Te Anua. Te Anua is the closest township to Milford Sound and is still 2 hours away by car. The drive from Te Anua to Milford Sound is gorgeous though as you drive through the Fiordland National Park.
The Milford Track
Getting to Milford sound in the past required a three to four day journey on foot with an overwater boat crossing at the beginning and the end of the journey. This walking trail is still accessible and is known as the ‘Milford Track’. It is one of New Zealand’s great walks and requires forward planning and booking as only 100 people are allowed to be on the track on any given day.
The Milford Sound village or township is tiny, it has one fuel pump and the cost of petrol here is expensive! There is one cafe that caters to day tourists and serves mainly fast food. If you are planning on staying in the area for a few days it is best to come prepared with a full tank of fuel as well as food and supplies that you will require for your trip. There are no supermarkets so be sure to stock up on all the things you need before you enter Fiordland. Another thing to note is that there is no cellular reception in Fiordland. That’s right no phone or internet access for the duration of your trip!
Accomodation: The Milford Lodge
To truly experience Fiordland, it is best to stay overnight in the area. There is only one accomodation option open to the public: The Milford Lodge. As you can imagine accomodation is limited so it pays to book your trip well in advance. The Lodge is a well designed blend of a boutique wilderness resort mixed with hostel facilities and a camping site. The Lodge has a selection of well appointed self-contained chalets, as well as dorm bunks and powered camper-van sites. As we were booking our accomodation late we did not have much choice in our accomodation so we ended up booking beds in the dorm rooms.
The dorms were actually cabins which consisted of six beds and were generally booked out each night of our stay. The rooms were clean and well maintained. Bedding and towels were all supplied although we did have to pay a small hire fee to have access to these.
The Lodge was well designed to cater to travellers staying in the dorm rooms and in the camper-van sites. Communal bathroom, kitchen and lounge facilities were clean, spread out and well maintained. There was plenty of space available for everyone to use these facilities. The kitchen was also equipped with a range of cookware, although there was no oven available.
The Milford Sound Lodge also accommodated for travellers who wanted some luxury during their trip. The reception staff were incredibly knowledgeable about the region and helped to organise all our activities during our stay. The Lodge also had some fantastic dining options if you were feeling too lazy to cook or came unprepared. The Pio Pio Cafe served breakfast, lunch and dinner whilst the small kiosk in the reception foyer was stocked with snacks and served good quality coffee.
We ended up eating at The Lodge restaurant: Pio Pio Cafe, a couple of times during our trip. The produce was all seasonal with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. For the remoteness of the location, the quality of the meals was unbelievable! The wine list was a real delight, as it allowed us to explore some fantastic New Zealand wines from the South Island. We had received the recommendation to eat here from a few people and the high praise did not disappoint. Both the quality of food and service was fantastic at the restaurant.
Things to do
The Fiordland region is beautiful with its jigsaw of peaks and valleys. The best way to truly experience it is by hiking, preferably to an altitude that gives you a panoramic view of the surrounding area. There are soo many hikes you can do in this region. If you are here for a couple of days definitely take the time to explore the walking trails.
Milford Sound Foreshore walk
The Milford sound foreshore track takes you along the fjord and points out the plethora of wildlife that has taken up residence in the majestic surrounds. It is also a really beautiful way to soak up the misty landscape of the Milford Sound mountains.
Milford Sound Lookout track
The Milford Sound lookout track is an easily accessible track in the township that takes you pass Donald Sutherland’s grave (the first European settler to the area) and onto the lookout point where you can see the fjord below.
Key Summit Hike
This is a hike to the summit of mountain that provides stunning views of Fiordland. The Key Summit Track commences at the same starting point as the Routeburn Track and takes about 3 hours return to complete. The hike consists of quiet a few switch backs as you reach the alpine elevation, making it an easier hiking experience. The hike meanders up from the forest floor into the canopy and opens up far above the treetops for fantastic views of the alpine skyline. There is also a short loop track to complete on the summit of the mountain. Here we learnt a lot about the glacial landmarks on nearby mountains and the alpine flora growing in the nearby summit meadows.
This is a track for experienced hikers and climbers. It is one of New Zealand’s most accessible alpine trails which is 7km in length and takes 4-6 hours return. The view at the lookout point allows you to see out into Milford Sound with the backdrop of the Darran Mountains. We were interested in this hike however were informed that there are areas marked only by stone markers and requires some climbing over rocks at altitude!
This was recommended as a must do activity during our trip. We booked with Milford Kayaks and were asked to arrive at 6.45am to prep for our sunrise kayaking adventure. Our early start time was due to the fact we were doing the beginners tour, which runs when the water is at its calmest. We were provided with all equipment and clothing including thermals that kept us toasty warm out on the water. It was a fantastic experience having the opportunity to get up close to the native fur seals, kayak around the waterfalls and into the inlet of the fjord.
There is an underwater observatory that you can visit during your trip to the area. It showcases the complexities of marine life in the area and allows you to view the famous black coral of the region.
Milford Sound Cruises
We had received mixed reviews about taking one of these touristy cruises, however the receptionist at our accomodation highly recommended it. We chose to do the nature cruise which is longer in length and gives you the chance to see more wildlife. On our way back we were lucky enough to spot some dolphins making their way out to the sea!!
You will also be able to spot the seal colony during your cruise as the seals languish on the rocks of the fjord throughout the year. During the cruise we had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the waterfalls in the fjord. We were completely drenched by them but it was definitely a fun experience.
- Fill up your car in Te Anau, there is only one petrol station in Milford Sound and it is very expensive!
- You can book your own activities through the Internet. However we found that the service and quality of activities we booked through the Milford Lodge were exceptional
- Be aware of the road conditions before heading out into Fiordland, during winter the roads can be closed due to snow
- We had no cellular or internet reception in Fiordland. It is possible to purchase wifi at the Lodge. However you may want to let friends/family know you will be out of contact for the time you are in the area
- It rains for the majority of the year in Fiordland. So make the most of any sunny days in the area. The rain can put a damper on your day trip/holiday however the whole Fiordland area is shrouded in mist and waterfalls appear on the mountainsides everywhere. It is definitely a beautiful experience worth viewing