There are 14 sounds in southwest New Zealand, although technically they are fiords, since they were carved by glaciers. All feature spectacular scenery – think craggy mountains, steep cliffs, verdant rain forest, and gushing waterfalls. We visited the two most accessible sounds in Fiordland National Park – Milford and Doubtful.
The only fiord accessible by road, Milford is also the most popular, with close to a million visitors in 2109. Yet in late February 2020 – during the height of the summer tourist season – the parking lots and day cruise boats were nearly deserted, and not because of the coronavirus. We barely made it ourselves.
With 250+ inches of rain annually (7 meters on average), Milford Sound is the wettest place in New Zealand. Rainfall of 8-10 inches in a day is not unusual. On February 3-4, however, the area was inundated with 39″ (1 meter) of torrential rain, causing extensive damage to the only road leading to Milford Sound and stranding hundreds of tourists and trampers who had to be airlifted out over the next few days.
Everything was shut down – the road, the lodge, the boat tours, the trails, and the campgrounds, with no timetable for reopening. Road crews were working around the clock to clear debris and construct a temporary road. It looked as though our 2-night stay in Milford Sound at the end of the month was not going to happen.
Then miraculously, just three days before our scheduled visit, Milford Lodge announced that the road was reopening on a limited basis for tourist bus caravans only and that motorcoach transportation had been arranged for their guests. We were back on, just in the nick of time!
And so we left Queenstown early for the drive to Te Anau, where we parked the rental car and boarded the bus (one of about 50 in the caravan) for Milford Sound. The trip took seven hours (total).
A few sights along the way:
Upon arrival, we immediately went out to explore, since it wasn’t raining at the time.
Our boat ride was scheduled for the next morning, and we were hoping for a day like this . . .
. . . but this is what we got.
Including the four of us, there were 15 guests plus the crew on this big boat designed to carry 240 passengers. Plenty of room to spread out! The cruise was wet and windy . . . but wonderful. Conditions were optimal for experiencing hundreds of amazing, temporary waterfalls.
We bravely battled the elements!
Back at the lodge, the hillsides also sprouted temporary waterfalls.
We had such a good time, so we signed up to do the cruise again the next morning. Although noticeably less wild than the day before, the weather was still rainy, and we never did get a clear view of those elusive mountain peaks.
Then it was time to take the bus back to Te Anau. We are so thankful to have had the chance to experience the magic of Milford Sound!
A few days later, the weather for our day cruise of Doubtful Sound cruise could not have been more different – picture perfect, in fact.
It was a longer outing, because accessing Doubtful Sound first required a 45-minute boat ride across scenic Manapouri Lake, the second deepest lake in New Zealand.
Then a 45-minute bus ride up and over Wilmot Pass, traveling on the road said to be the the most expensive per square meter in all of New Zealand.
And finally, the main attraction – nearly three hours cruising through Doubtful Sound all the way to the Tasman Sea and back. No disappearing waterfalls on this trip, but we saw plenty of stunning mountains!
After retracing our steps over Wilmot Pass and across Lake Manapouri, the excursion ended back in the town of Manapouri where we started. A fabulous day!
Other Fiordland Adventures: Day Hiking on the Kepler Track
New Zealand has thousands of miles of back country trails (“tracks”) for hiking (“tramping”), but the best of the bunch are known as great walks, of which there are ten. They range in length from 20 to 50 miles, with sleeping huts along the route that provide, for a fee, overnight accommodations for backpackers.
The Kepler Track, one of the ten great walks, is a 52-kilometer loop that was easily accessible from our temporary lodging in Te Anau. Our appetite, however, was limited to a day hike of about eight miles.
A cool feature along the way was a boardwalk spur leading to the Amoeboid Mire, featuring a tarn (small, mountain lake) and mire (bog). According to an informational placard, the sphagnum moss underneath the boardwalk is over 15 feet deep.
Our turnaround point was Moturau Hut, much larger and better equipped than we had imagined – 40 bunk beds with mattresses, cooking facilities, and flush toilets. Plus it was located beachfront on Lake Manapouri.
After relaxing on the beach, we retraced our steps to the car park. The Kepler Track hike was the perfect outing for this warm and sunny day.
Te Anau Bird Sanctuary
One more highlight from our five days in Te Anau – a visit to the local bird sanctuary, where the stars of the show were the takahē, a flightless bird endemic to New Zealand.
These distinctive birds were long thought to be extinct, until a small population was found living in the nearby Murchison Mountains in 1948. Since then, the Department of Conservation has worked diligently to protect the birds and increase their numbers in the wild.
The Te Anau Bird Sanctuary is one of several facilities that participate in the nationwide recovery program, and we enjoyed learning about the four resident takahē (plus one juvenile) and other interesting birds at the sanctuary from our knowledgeable tour guide.
In the photo below, adults Tara and Mohio (on either side) are feeding a juvenile takahē. They hatched the chick as foster parents last November and have been raising it since. The young takahē (as yet unnamed) will either be released into the wild or transferred to another breeding sanctuary in the spring. Pretty cool!
And Finally . . .
This large statue in front of the Fiordland Community Events Centre in Te Anau caught my attention:
Yep, that’s a bull elk. As it turns out, President Theodore Roosevelt gifted a number of wapiti to New Zealand in 1905, and the presence of this non-native species has been a source of controversy ever since. Click here if you want to delve into the details.
The gallery below contains a few miscellaneous photos from our magnificent stay in Fiordland. We could easily have spent many more days discovering and exploring, but once again, it’s time to move on.