The magic of Milford

posted in: Travel | 1
Looking up the fjord from the sea

I loved Milford Sound in the rain last time we visited but I confess I was hoping the weather would be a little kinder to us. And it was. Mind you, at Milford Sound they measure rainfall in metres – around seven to nine meters per annum, so rainy days can be expected to be the norm.

Milford Sound, or Piopiotahi, isn’t a sound, ie a flooded river valley, it’s a fjord, created by a glacier. Maybe it’s time they changed the name. The Māori, of course, knew all about Milford Sound but Captain Cook sailed past the narrow entrance twice. It wasn’t until a sealer ventured inside the entrance that the extent of the place was known to Europeans. This excellent page will give you the details, including the building of the narrow tunnel through a ridge which is kind of the entrance to Milford.

From Te Anau we drove past the last of the farmland into Fjordland National Park. It’s a narrow, winding, two-lane road, often underestimated by overseas tourists who have hired a camper van. It is also regularly closed after an avalanche or rock fall, but not at this time of year.

We were booked on a cruise on the fjord at a specific time but Linda got us on the road early to allow for any delays and maybe a stop or two. At Mirror Lake the park had built a long board walk to allow visitors to admire the view and learn a little about the bird life.

Mirror Lake and a duck

From there we were on our way into the mountains. Snow capped the peaks, and many wore a misty veil. Dense temperate rain forest crowded close to the road with occasional gaps as we crossed rocky streams.

Our next stop was at Monkey Creek in a valley at the base of several mountains. The shallow creek ran out of the rain forest, bubbling over its rocky bed. Linda told us if we were going to see keas, the New Zealand mountain parrot, it would be here. We heard them in the forest on one side of the valley. Wait, we were told. They’ll come.

Monkey Creek

And they did.

So did another couple of coaches and a few camper vans. The birds were not at all fazed, landing on the road and on cars while everybody thrust mobile phones at them. Then, since there wasn’t any food to be had, they left and we all climbed back into our vehicles and carried on. We had another kea encounter later, when we stopped for road works. Again, the curious birds landed on cars and the road and quite a traffic jam ensued.

Note this bird is not banded
They love rubber. Given some time, this bird would have ripped out all the seals around the windows

They’re the world’s only mountain parrot, enjoying the cold. Learn more about these fascinating birds. It’s around 45 minutes but well worth your time.

As our coach climbed higher, the rain forest was replaced by alpine meadows. Waterfalls cascaded down the rock surfaces and the mist was so low I could only catch a glimpse of a mountain peak through the occasional gap. At the top of the road we waited our turn before entering the tunnel that would take us to the fjord.

Into the tunnel
The road down to the town

We were booked (with lots of other people) on the Milford Mariner for our cruise. Without any breeze or rain, the local sand flies had turned up for the feast. They’re small, but they’re mighty. We would be having a picnic box for lunch – a cardboard hamper with a sandwich, a couple of pieces of fruit, and a (very nice) tart for dessert. I ate the tart but not the sandwich 😊 and we could buy coffee, tea, and drinks on board.

The cruise took us out of the fjord to the edges of the Tasman Sea, where we saw lazy sea lions and one of the world’s rarest penguins, then we sailed back down between the towering cliffs to Milford, where we boarded our coach for the trip back to Te Anau.

That’s a pretty big waterfall
One of the rarest penguins in the world – Fiordland crested penguin or ‘tawaki’

I was interested to know that “at 265 metres deep, most of the sound’s water is salty, but the top 10 metres or so is actually fresh water. It comes from the seven to nine metres of rainfall that the area gets every year, emptied into the sound via its many rivers and waterfalls. On its way, this runoff picks up tannins from plants and soil that stain the fresh water the colour of tea. It’s still completely clean and natural, but it blocks much of the sunlight from the lower salty layer.

The seawater layer is calm and a few degrees warmer, if a little dark. When you reach about 40 metres deep there is very little sunlight getting through, so all the marine life hangs out near the surface, including many species that normally live much deeper. We’ve got a unique mix of dolphins, penguins, fish, sea stars, seals, rare black coral and much more, so there’s plenty to look at.” [source]

It was a very different experience to the one we had in 2019, when it rained all day. We did stop at Mirror Lake but we didn’t see the keas or the other wildlife. That would have been on account of pouring with rain and blowing a gale.

Tomorrow we’d leave Te Anua and take the short trip to Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the south.

By the way, if you’ve happened upon this page by accident and you’d like to read more about the tour, go to the tour page where you’ll find the rest of our adventures.

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