My first visit to Milford Sound was more than 3 decades ago. As a child, I was so deeply struck by its beauty that the image of mountains peaking above a sea of low-lying clouds and tumbling waterfalls never left my mind all these years. I knew I had to return one day.
No trip to NZ would be complete without a visit to Milford Sound, and many people choose to visit it as a day-trip from Queenstown. In my view, the best way to do it is actually to spend the night at Te Anau before travelling to Milford Sound at first light. Firstly, a return trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a grueling 576km! Moreover, when you start your journey from Te Anau first thing in the morning, you will be able to enjoy the serenity of the Sound, without having to contend with the massive crowd which descends upon Milford Sound each day, in the later part of morning towards lunch time. In NZ, oftentimes one can drive for miles without encountering another human being, but the opposite is true on Milford Road. During peak visiting hours, traffic entering Milford Sound can be crazy. When the main car parks are full, you will have to use a car park almost 2km away and take a shuttle bus to the cruise centre. Some people miss their cruise because they don't budget enough time to park and transfer. Milford Sound's official tourism site recommends allowing up to 45mins to park and transfer!
We had pre-booked the first cruise of the day by Southern Discoveries via Viator. We booked it several months in advance and it cost us under S$54.00 per adult and S$28.00 per child for an 1.5 hr long scenic cruise with a hot buffet breakfast on board included. Much cheaper than peak hour cruises which were selling at double that without hot food included.
On 11 December 2019, we began our 120km drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound at 0630 hrs. There were few cars on the road at that time, and we arrived at the main car park of Milford Sound shortly after 0800 hrs. Some parts of the road were narrow and winding, certain sections were rather steep, and there were one-lane bridges and Homer Tunnel to cross. It was certainly not possible to travel at the usual speed limit of 100km/h throughout. When you're stuck behind an oversized campervan, the trip will take even longer.
From the main car park, there was a 10min walk along a boardwalk to the cruise centre. We checked in for our cruise 30 mins before its departure at 0900 hrs, and were issued 2 vouchers each - one for the cruise and another for breakfast. Not everyone on board had chosen the breakfast on board option. We hadn't eaten anything that morning and were delighted with the breakfast spread. We finished our food quickly so we could enjoy the panoramic views from the outdoor decks.
It rains an average of 182 days a year in Milford Sound, and it is the rainiest inhabited spot in NZ. In fact, it is one of the wettest places in the world. Surprisingly, it was sunny and clear during our cruise. We saw seals sunning themselves on rocks, pods of dolphins frolicking in the calm waters, and dozens of waterfalls. Some were just trickling down the cliff face, whilst others were powerful, tumbling falls. The captain steered the boat close to 2 of these, so we could feel the cool spray of the waterfalls. It was an unforgettable experience, and we were fortunate that the off-peak hour cruise had plenty of room on the decks for us to savour the magnificent views of the Sound in serenity.
Time on the 1.5 hr long cruise passed quickly, and before we knew it, we had passed Bowen Falls once more and were docked at the cruise centre. There were no cafes or restaurants in the area, and we were glad to have filled our bellies sufficiently on board. We took our time to return to Te Anau, exploring the various places of interest along Milford Road.
Our first stop was at Tutoko Bridge, which overlooked the fast-flowing Tutoko River. No proper car park, just a small area to pull over on the left.
Next was the Chasm, a series of powerful, pounding waterfalls. This was a popular stop, and there was a large car park for it. We walked through a lush green, native forest to get to the viewing points. The return walk was 400m, and it was flat and easy.
There was no signage for our next stop, Monkey Creek. I noticed that bus tours had it in their itineraries for passengers to fill their water bottles from the creek and decided to add it into mine. We saw a bunch of coaches and hordes of Asian tourists by the side of the road, and quickly pulled over. We waited for the other tourists to leave, then drank from the fast-flowing creek. The water tasted great. It was clean, cold and refreshing.
Further down the road was a viewing point for Falls Creek. Again, there was no proper car park and we were lucky to secure a place to pull over on the left side of the road. We saw several kayakers having fun in the rapids, and a little further down on the opposite side of the road was Falls Creek Waterfall. I found Falls Creek Waterfall more impressive than the Chasm. I doubt bus tours stop here as I haven't seen it in their itineraries and there is no bus bay for this attraction.
We were in need of a washroom by then, and we endured till Knobs Flat, where there were proper toilet facilities. Sure, there were other public toilets along the way but they were the disgusting, vault-style, non-flushing types.
Our final stop on Milford Road was Mirror Lakes. A wooden boardwalk led us to the lookout points. To be honest, the view was uninspiring, saved only by a raft of cute ducks bobbing in and out of the water. Come to think of it, they probably disturbed the mirror effect of the lakes and ruined the view for us!
It was already 1400 hrs by the time we parked at Mirror Lakes, and there was still a constant stream of coaches, campervans and cars zooming past us in the direction of Milford Sound. We had made the right choice to base ourselves in Te Anau and have a head start over the rest.
We picked up more groceries from Freshchoice supermarket in Te Anau and cooked ourselves an early dinner. Some Asian comfort food was in order, and we made ourselves a big pot of chicken porridge. For a small town, the supermarket had a decent Asian selection. Hubby also bought some seasoned lamb chops and I seared them for him. He proclaimed them the best lamb chops ever! Much to my delight, as he's usually stingy with his compliments.
We had pre-booked the 1900 hrs Te Anau Glow Worm Caves tour, and we made our way to its meeting point at the Real Journeys Visitor Centre next to Lake Te Anau at 1840 hrs. The lady at the counter was surprised to see us. Our booking was made through Klook, and she claimed that they had already informed Klook that the tour had been cancelled due to flood. We didn't receive any prior notification, but should have seen it coming as the water level in Lake Te Anau was far from normal. Lakeside benches and boat ramps were submerged. The lady said the glow worm caves were flooded and could not be entered.
Left without a plan, we walked alongside Lake Te Anau and watched a gaggle of geese laze about the lawn as the sun went down.
There wasn't much else to do in town at that time, so we returned to our accommodation, prepared sandwiches for the following day's picnic lunch, and had an early night. We were off to The Catlins the next day.