New Zealand- Chapter Nine- The Milford Sound Road

I left Manapouri on the high of my night on Doubtful Sound, but there was no time to rest, as I had campground reservations in Milford Sound, and I knew I was going to need the remaining five or so hours of daylight to drive the Milford Sound Road, one of New Zealand’s most scenic and most challenging.

For the first part of the drive, I followed the Eglinton River through it’s glacier carved valley.

My first stop along the road was at Mirror Lakes. They are more like ponds than lakes, but their perfectly still waters do reflect the dramatic mountain scenery quite well.

The best part of Mirror Lakes wad the bird life playing in the pools. My two favorites were species endemic only to New Zealand. The first is the paradise shelduck. James Cook called them the Painted Duck when he first spotted them in Dusky Sound in 1773, and they are one of the few birds that have gone up in number since human settlement in New Zealand. The females are especially easy to recognize from their white head.

The second type of bird, and one that would quickly become one of my very favorites, is the New Zealand Scaup. These cute little ducks can be seen in lakes and ponds all over the country and are especially good divers. I sat and watched the little birds as they dove to catch food. It was amazing to see how quickly they went under- only to emerge 20-30 seconds later in another part of the pond. I tried to capture their dives on video, the in photos, but they were always too fast and dove without warning. 

The day was an extension of my morning in Doubtful Sound, overcast, with low clouds, and that only slightly took away from the scenic aspects of the road itself. As it proceeded through the Eglinton Valley, I kept pulling over to take pictures of the road itself as it headed toward the sound, seeming to run almost directly in to an impenetrable wall of snow-capped peaks. 

Shortly after Lake Gunn, the road began to climb upward toward the Divide, the lowest east-west pass in the Southern Alps at 1742 feet (531 meters). 

Near the top of the divide was a waterfall running into a pool of glacially blue water and gorgeous views of the Hollyford Valley, Mount Lyttle and Mount Christina. For this overlook, it’s easy to see the glacially carved aspects of the area.

The road had been mostly flat, heading in an upward direction, but after the Holyford Valley Lookout, it began to go sharply upward and become more winding. 

I could see the mountain peak recieving a fresh, wet layer of snow from the low clouds that obscured their peaks from view. There were many warnings about icy conditions along the road, but the temperature stayed just above freezing and there was seldom more than the slightest of drizzle close to road level. 

It was late afternoon when I arrived at the east side of the Homer Tunnel and pulled off to survey the way from which I had just come. I didn’t linger long, as I wanted to make sure I made it down in to the sound before darkness crept up, and I had read that the road beyond the tunnel was fraught with switchbacks as it made it’s way downward.
The Homer Tunnel was started in 1935, but both construction delays and World War II caused the tunnel’s completion to be pushed back until 1954. The Tunnel is single lane, and run straight upward, from east to west, for three-quarters of a mile. The single lane aspect of the tunnel is usually not a problem, as most of the tourist crowd goes through it eastbound in the morning, heading for day trips in Milford Sound, and most of the traffic in the afternoon was in the reverse direction. I, of course, was heading eastbound late in the day, but it wasn’t a problem- it was another instance where I was happy to be visiting New Zealand outside of it’s peak tourist seasons. 

The views on the other side of the tunnel were as awesome as I had read. Although I was trying to get down the valley and darkness was approaching, I still spent quite a bit of time admiring the view, as did every vehicle that came through the tunnel after me. I promised myself that if the next morning was clear, I would drive back to the other side of the tunnel before my 9:30AM cruise of Milford Sound to get some pictures of the pass on a clear day.

I made one more stop heading down the Cleddau River Valley and into the village of Milford Sound, and that was at the Chasm, a point where a twenty minute hike leads to a waterfall carved by the Cleddau (and the many stones and pebbles it carries down from high elevations) through solid rock. 

The path to the chasm was lined with ferns and moss-covered trees, a testament to the incredible amount of precipitation the Fiordland receives each year. Milford Sound heralds itself as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand. 

I made it to the small hamlet of Milford right as the light began to get dimmer. What I found was a virtual ghost town. Even during peak tourist season, the town has limited accommodation and food options, with over 80% of visitors doing so on a day trip. 

It didn’t take me long to look around and get my bearings as to where to go for my cruise the next morning, before heading back up the road a little more than a mile to Milford Sound lodge, where I’d reserved a campsite for the evening. I headed to bed early, hoping for a clear day, so, much like I had at Doubtful Sound, I would get to see the spectacular fjord’s two faces. 


NEXT: Chapter Ten- Milford Sound and The Hollyford Road
Links to the Day Nine Photo Albums- Facebook    Flickr

Other Links:
Milford Sound Road Map (PDF)
Putangitangi, the paradise shelduck
Papango, the New Zealand scaup
Milford Sound Lodge
Milford Road Conditions (NZTA)

The New Zealand 2012 Series:
New Zealand 2012 by the Numbers
Chapter One: Christchurch in One Word: Broken
Photo Essay- Sunrise outside Christchurch
Chapter Two- The Banks Peninsula & Hector’s Dolphins
Chapter Three- Washed Out at Tekapo
Photo Essay- Moeraki Boulders Sunrise
Chapter Four- The Secret of Dunedin
Photo Essay- Speight’s Brewery Tour, Dunedin
Chapter Five- The Otago Peninsula
Photo Essay- Otago Peninsula Wildlife
Chapter Six- The Edge of the World in the Catlins
Chapter Seven- Southern Scenic Route
Chapter Eight- Cruising Doubtful Sound (Pt.1)
Photo Essay- Lake Manapouri Cruise
Chapter Eight- Cruising Doubtful Sound (Pt.2)
Chapter Eight- Cruising Doubtful Sound (Pt.3)
Photo Essay- The Two Faces of Doubtful Sound

7 Responses to “New Zealand- Chapter Nine- The Milford Sound Road”

  1. The road to Milford is equally as stunning as the sound itself, in my opinion! All the stops are so lovely and break up such a long drive. I've done it twice now, soon to be a third time this summer, and I'd forgotten that the Homer Tunnel is a single lane!

  2. city says:

    thanks for sharing.

  3. Lauren says:

    So gorgeous — and it looks just like I remember! The second and fourth shots are killer.

  4. Margyle says:

    I remember that tunnel but I didn't know what it was called. It's interesting to see your drive to Milford Sound because mine was in the dead of winter and was a wee bit treacherous. Still such a beautiful place…

  5. Leah Travels says:

    The views on the other side of the tunnel are awe inspiring. I never wanted to leave, and that's the truth. I could have stayed in that moment for the rest of my life. Wonderful photos, Erik.

  6. Simon Flood says:

    I love Milford Sound. I went during a sunny day and the road was awesome! It looks really cool with the snow and mist though!

  7. Hogga says:

    This takes me back… can't get enough of Milford Sound…

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