My hostel mate in Te Anau said that she almost did not do Milford Sound until someone told her “No, Milford Sound is why you come to New Zealand.” While Lord of the Rings certainly brought a fresh wave of unprecedented tourism to the country, Peter Jackson and his crew did little to no filming in the Fiordlands or Milford Sound. Yet this is a place to not be missed. The beauty and grandeur of nature will pull the words from your mouth, or the tears from your eyes in my case, if you take a boat ride or kayak along the sound.
When traveling as a traveler, I did not plan to spend a lot of money on the Sound. I didn’t want to come all this way and not participate in activities or see certain things like the sound, however a traveler takes opportunities as they come, while a vacationer makes their own opportunities. BookMe is a great friend to both Traveler and Vacationer. BookMe is where I found cruise tickets on the sound for $40 nzd. Opportunity knocked, and I answered! Flyers in all the hostels and brochures around the country had this cruise prices higher than $100 nzd. The cruise deal was for the early morning boat ride, which meant we would be staying in Jim at one of the campsites along the Milford Highway. This way we didn’t have to get up before dawn to take the two and a half hour drive to the sound in the morning, and we could stretch out the beauty of this scenic highway by enjoying many stops.
We left Te Anau around noon. There was not a lot of traffic, being that it is Spring and just before high season begins.
The road to Milford is breathtaking. We pulled over at a lookout in a valley. The boys played frisbee, and I worked on my handstands in a spongy, natural field with green and white mountains towering over me. We were able to run around and work off some of our excited energy in the most beautiful surrounding.
We stopped at Mirror Lake next. As our surfing friends know, the morning is the best time to go out because there is little wind to rough up the waves. Same same for any mirror lake – go early before the wind begins. We got to this Mirror Lake around 2pm – and were all sorely disappointed. Not only was the wind up, but the lake itself was small and littered with garbage and umbrellas that had fallen off the lookout balconies into the water from the flocks of tourists that stop here everyday. Even the Mirror Lakes sign had had enough, as it was hanging onto it’s post by one nail.
From Mirror Lake we headed up the gorgeous highway toward our DOC campsite – Cascade Creek. We first took the walk around Lake Gunn – an easy walk through a forest that transports you into a different world. This is a world before humans came through and disturbed nature.
A side trail by the lake turned into a river. Being back on the West Coast, the waters are blue blue blue again – and so cold as the water comes from the glacier melt. We trekked along the less traveled path beside the flowing river and came out of the forest at the Cascade Creek campsite.
This is a scenic DOC campsite, so it is $13/night. When we got there, the honesty box had no envelopes to pay. We were woken up the next morning by a ranger asking for payment and warned that failing to pay results in a $200 fine per person. Luckily he let us just pay him the $13 each, and warned us to keep checking the box if there are no envelopes.
Cascade creek is currently “under construction” (kiwi style) We never saw anyone working, but saw their equipment a ways down the camp. It looks like they are expanding the campsite so it will fit a looooot of campers, and added many nice drop toilet huts. When we were there, all the new bathrooms were locked, so we had to use the older drop toilet in the woods. (It’sa lot nicer than I make it sound here.)
We set up camp by the river so our tent camper could sleep to the sound of the water. The sandflies came to be too much for me next to the water, so we moved to eat dinner at one of the tables further away from the river. We enjoyed a night of playing hearts, drinking wine and laughing.
In the morning we woke up early so Jordan and I could catch our cruise boat on the Milford Sound! One of the advantages to camping along the Milford Highway is being able to take the second half of the highway early, when there are no other cars on the road.
We needed the lack of traffic, as Jim the van was not sounding too good. This part of the highway is a very steep climb up the mountain to the Homer Tunnel. As we waited at the light at Homer Tunnel (it is a one lane tunnel with a traffic light to guide which direction can go through first) Jim began to overheat bad. What could we do?
Homer Tunnel is a spectacular creation. The cloudy day set a somber and damp mood. Waterfalls traced the lines of the mountains every 50 feet or so, and it looked to me as if the sky was crying.
We weren’t sure what to expect at Milford Sound. Would there be a bit of a town, or simply a boat dock? Since only two of the three of us were taking the boat ride, we hoped for some good treks in the area, or at least a restaurant for Kenn to spend a few hours at.
What is actually at the sound is an adorable little cafe/ i-site that you can grab a coffee or beer and a snack while you look out the windows at the famous curves of theMilford Sound mountains. Since Fiordland is so cut off from the rest of the world, you will pay an arm and a leg if you want wi-fi, and there is no guarantee it will work. Service for your phone or gas for your car? Forget about it. You better be prepared for the wild once you leave Te Anau.
We asked the workers in the cafe where the lived – there was no way they were doing that long scenic drive everyday to get to work. No, they said, we live in the buildings just behind the cafe. Now that is prime real estate my friends.
If you have the huck, you can also stay at the nice hotel that overlooks the sound. Other than the cafe, hotel, and docks, there is not much in this secluded part of nature.
I mentioned sandflys earlier at our campsite. They are very prominent in Fiordlands, as it is the wettest part of New Zealand. Being that summer was just around the corner, I could only imagine they will get worse as the weather heats up.
Maouri legend blames Hinenuitepo, the goddess of the underworld, for the infestation of sandflys in Milford Sound. Legend says that when Hinenuitepo saw the beauty of the sounds (crafted by Tuterakiwhanoa), she feared humans would never want to leave such a paradise. She brought the sandflys to Milford Sound to remind humans of their mortality.
We took the Mitre Peak for our 2 hour cruise. All the boats will take you right under waterfalls, and close to any wildlife that they spot while cruising. We pulled up closer to a pack of seals thanI thought the seals would have liked. I hear some days in the summer you can even spot dolphins in the sound. Every day, even a cloudy one, has rainbows hugging waterfalls over the gorgeous fiord water.
When we finished the cruise and got back to the car, we were in for a surprise. Jordan didn’t turn the headlights off after Homer Tunnel, and so Jim was dead! Hot and dead. Luckily we were able to rent jumper cables from the cafe. This normally is a $20 charge, however Jim’s engine is so weird and old that they didn’t charge us for the jump. (Jim’s engine is under the front passenger seat. To get to it you literally have to life the passenger seat and center console up. The battery was really hard to find, and the two campers and two cafe helpers decided to ground the jump on the frame of the car. It was a learning experience for everybody!)
An hour later we were set to head back down the Milford highway! We stopped at The Chasm to check it out. Talk about your Kia hangout spot! There were 10 Kias or so hanging out in the parking lot and jumping into campervans and busses. Word to the wise – do not feed these birds and don’t forget to close your car doors!.
Kenn and I took the 15 minute walk to see the Chasm while Jordan sat with Jim. When Kenn and I got back to the car, Jordan had the passenger seat up and the coolant tube in hand. It seems that all the liquid inside the tube had hardened, and that was why the car was overheating. Poor Jim. Kenn offered to work on the car while Jordan and I went back up to the Chasm.
When on a heavily trafficked by tourists road like the Milford Sound, you want to time your stops so you’re not exploring at the same time as a tour bus. When Kenn and I went up the first time, you could hardly walk along the path because there were so may people. By the time I went up again with Jordan, there was no one on the path.
When in Milford Sound – stop at the Chasm. It is out of this world. The river has carved amazing holes and waves in the rock as it waterfalls down to meet the valley. the colors of the Chasm are vibrant greens and blues that you just don’t get anywhere else but at world’s end.
On the way back to the Cascade Creek campsite, Jim had to struggle back up the steep mountain. Hommer Tunnel’s cool air and downward slope seemed to cool him down a bit, and we were able to make it to the Divide.
When planning which stops to take along the Milford Highway, we really wanted to do the 3 hour Lake Marian trek. This trek would take you to waterfalls and up the mountain to a hanging valley. Before we crossed the first swing bridge, we went down to the blue river water so Kenny could fill up this water bottle.
I will stop and take a minute to talk about water when traveling and camping at world’s end. The water you get from faucets (if you’re lucky enough to have one present) all needs to be boiled before it’s safe to drink. If there is no faucet, you are either shit out of luck, or boiling lake or river water. The water in New Zealand is as pure as it gets. I’ve never been able to see to the bottom of the lake before, or seen even standing water so fresh. That being said, you still have to boil the water before consumption. If you are in a no fire area, which most of the areas seem to be, or lack in a barbeque pit with a grate you can place your pan on top of, or the wood is too wet to burn, well then you are shit out of luck and have to use your camp stove to boil water. This adds up fast, as butane is not free. We joked with a Singaporian at our hostel in Queenstown who cycled the North Island that he had the most expensive water in New Zealand – costing him $10/bottle after he boiled all his water. Kenny has a life straw from Sawyer that is so clutch. He’s been able to get water at every campsite. He said every bottle of water tastes a bit different, depending on the body of water he pulled from. Kenny also has a pouch from Sawyer that we were able to purify large bottles of water with at Movora Lakes. If you plan on being in a campervan, get this before you come to New Zealand or at Katmandu once you’re in New Zealand.
We headed up the Lake Marian trail excited and ready to go. When we got to the waterfalls, however, we had to stop in our tracks. Literally. A tree had fallen from the mountain side and taken out the trail with it. The route was closed and there was no being stupid here and moving along anyway. We turned around and headed back to Jim, where a group of Asian tourists were then crossing the swing bridge. They had seen Kenny fill his water bottle in the river and were trying to do the same. We giggled to ourselves as we watched the tourists faces turn to disgust when they tasted the unfiltered water. A 90 year old grandma who was so cute came up to me and spoke in a different language, trying to understand how Kenny was drinking this water. We showed her the pump and we hoped they understood they should not try drinking the river water without a filter. We’re sure they were talking amongst themselves and laughing at us, those dirty americans drinking dirty water! Oh communication errors in travel.
Let down from the disappointment of Lake Marian, we opted to take the Routeburn trek instead. You might notice that the Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks. We were not doing the entire 4 day trek that takes you from Milford to Genorcy. We only had a couple hours before sunset, so we went along the Routeburn for about an hour and turned around. You can sample the Great Walks this way, without having to pay the exorbitant hut fees during high season.
The Routeburn trail head is also the beginning of another trek I want to do – the Greenstone Trek. Unfortunately, I will have to see a doctor about my knee before I commence in any multi-day hikes. 🙁
As we got to Cascade Creek a bit later this time, there were not as many spots open. We paid our camping fee and passed out for the night under the light of the moon and close watch of the mountains. What were we grateful for that day? That Jim was able to bring us to this site and we didn’t get stuck on the Milford Highway in the Avalanche warning areas.