Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | January 13, 2014

South Island – Part 2 – Milford Sound

It is said that Rudyard Kipling upon visiting the Milford Sound described it as the eighth wonder of the world. Undoubtedly, one of the most picturesque places in the world, Milford Sound, is a fiord within Fiordland National Park, Marine Reserve. The park is also located in an area known as Te Wahipounamu and has been a World Heritage site since 1990. It lies on the Tasman Sea and is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand.


Before I embark on writing about our trip, for clarification fiord (or fjord) is a long, narrow inlet of sea, with steep sides gouged out by a glacier. A sound or seaway is a large sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay, deeper than a bight, and wider than a fjord; or it may be defined as a narrow sea or ocean channel between two bodies of land.


New Zealand’s Fiordland lie within the snow-capped Southern Alps and deep lakes. When the ice melted, the sea came in and filled the fiords and that is how the fiords in New Zealand were created. Of the numerous fiords in Fiordland, Milford Sound is the most famous (although there are arguments about whether it is a sound or fiord, it is beautiful and that is what matters). A visit to the part of the world we travelled is incomplete without a trip to Milford Sound hence despite its challenges we decided to book our day trip to Milford Sound.

Milford Sound is around 310 kilometers from Queenstown. Weather permitting our day trip was supposed to be of a minimum 12 hours including a one and half hour cruise on the sea itself. At around 7 am in the morning, we boarded our bus to Milford Sound. The bus was driven by our guide Russell and had a glass roof. On our way to Milford Sound, our first destination was Te Anau, around two hour from Queenstown. While we were scheduled to stop at Te Anau only briefly for little refreshments, Te Anau itself has New Zealand’s second largest lake. As we reached Te Anau, we knew that we were in New Zealand’s wettest region. It was raining cats and dogs and while Russell’s impressive commentary was keeping me glued, I only hoped for a miracle: give us a little sunshine.

The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound through Homer Tunnel is scenic but is very prone to avalanches and sudden closures. It passes through Englinton Valley, (apparently once filled with glacial ice), the Mirror Lakes (apparently on a still day you can see a perfect reflection of the mountains), then the Homer Tunnel and The Chasm – a massive waterfall.

Russell kept on telling us that as it is raining we will see waterfalls like never before and he was so true. As we drove past, we saw waterfalls by the count of hundreds if not more. On our way we crossed the Homer Tunnel, which was around 1.2 kilometer long. The tunnel is historical in itself as there was no road access to Milford Sound before this tunnel was built. This tunnel pierced the mountains that divided Milford Sound and the valley. Given the inclement weather and difficult terrain, the construction of the tunnel was very challenging. Apparently, the idea of the tunnel was mooted in 1889, the construction started in 1935 and eventually the tunnel was opened in 1954.  

There are traffic lights in front of the tunnel. Since, this place is extremely avalanche prone, the risk makes it unsafe to stop and queue in front of the tunnel (especially in winter and spring). Hence, traffic lights managing the traffic only operate during the summer season. Our bus waited for five minutes before traffic from the other side passed. Some of us wore our raincoats outside and enjoyed the waterfalls.  Even though the place attracts a significant number of tourists, the risk of avalanche makes any further widening of the tunnel a very risky affair. This is despite the fact, New Zealand has one of the most advanced avalanche warning systems in the world. It was indeed special passing through Homer Tunnel. All these stories of avalanches and the surroundings did give a little shiver down the spine. In fact, due to the risk of avalanches and other environmental reasons, any proposal of further construction on this track is scrutinised heavily by Department of Conversation in New Zealand.  

Russell knew a lot about the region and told us interesting anecdotes. His stories ranged from the history, flora, fauna, climate, geography of the region to people. It was interesting to know how quite a few people came to this place accidentally and ended up living here. I don’t remember all the names he mentioned but one such story was of a certain Dave, who came here and ended up living here. Once in one of his trips to the town he met a widow and married her. She came to be locally known as the ‘Lady of Milford’ and started the first ever commercial inn around this area. Also, the stories of works men who do road work on these tracks were quite touching. I am sure a lot of work men on the Himalayan terrain face similar danger (or even more) but hardly ever people remember them.

As soon as our bus reached Milford Sound, my prayers got answered and magic happened. The rain (definitely heavy by my standard but according to Russell, the rain we faced was nothing compared to what he refers to as heavy rain in the region) stopped and it started clearing up to slowly become sunnier.

We were greeted by the majestic Mitre Peak (1,692 metres) at our Ferry terminal. It is indeed astonishing that one could see reflection of these mountains on the clear water. I wish I had better camera to capture the sight that my eyes captured watching Mitre Peak.



I tried to take as much advantage as I could of the boat ride. It was bumpy and not extremely easy. However, the scenery was stunning and made up for the troubles. As it had stopped raining, I could station myself on the open top deck of the boat. The boat went through the mountains and waterfalls. Because of the rains, there were hundreds of waterfalls all around running down the rock faces. I could not sight any penguins or dolphins but I did sight a bunch of seals. The boat also went through a waterfall and drenched the people on the top deck (including myself).

Even though there were so many tourists and a few tourist boats, the sound itself was quiet, almost eerie.

The sights were spectacular and left me awestruck. We were lucky as we got both rain as well as sun. Once the cruise ended, I just felt like going once more.

The sun continued to shine on us, while coming back from Milford Sound through the same road.

A trip to Milford Sound is once in a lifetime experience and we were lucky that we could go there.

We took around 1,500 photos of our trip to South Island and sharing only a handful of them.

Image Image


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