A day trip to Milford Sound – consistently rated as one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth.

Saturday 05/04/08

CONTEXT: Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most revered National Parks. Indeed, it is consistently rated as one of the most beautiful places to visit on the entire planet. According to Wikipedia, “In geography, a sound is a large sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay, deeper than a bight, and wider than a fjord; or a narrow sea or ocean channel between two bodies of land (see also strait).” All of this just mean that the sound provides some of the most amazing views to be had on Planet Earth, especially after rainfall, as hundreds upon hundreds of natural waterfalls cascade through the vegetation and into the water below.

The day trip to Milford Sound sees the coach drive through a huge man-made tunnel, to an area dedicated to coach parking and docking for boats. The main trip around the sound itself takes place aboard a large ferry, which cruises up to where the sound meets the sea, then back again. On the return, a small stop off inside a man-made underwater observatory is also included.

(Writing on 6th)

So, I slept long and hard that night. Actually, that is just a dramatic opening statement, I didn’t sleep long at all, just had enough beer so that I did not wake up when the gang came in, but luckily not sleeping so heavily that I missed my alarm going off. The room was pitch-black, so I did end up using my torch to get ready and move about. Still managed to lose my hairbrush and not get a different shirt on or ready for the day. So, I spent the rest of the day on my epic trip looking like a fashion nightmare. Bottom half ready for hiking/tramping, smart shirt on from the night before, casual oversized transformers hoody-jacket, unwashed hair and a pie hat. I looked ridiculous.

Still, an early pickup by our driver Mangee (odd names these drivers) who was an amiable fellow and was very chatty. He obviously loves his job, although I think he just does the Milford Trip exclusively, not the larger Kiwi Express routes. I know it is epic and beautiful, but surely even he would want a change? I didn’t talk to anyone on the trip, and only had a quick chat with Mangee about Transformers (of all things!) during the whole day.

It was a two hour drive to Te Anau, our first stop and chance for breakfast. He suggested sleeping on the way there, and I didn’t argue. I sat near the front of the bus as Koru had suggested, but the coach was virtually empty anyhow, so I had two seats to stretch on and to get more of this strange “shut eye” I’ve been having, which is a poor and groggy substitute for actual sleep.

A quick break in Te Anau was in order first, and I had quick scope of the YHA location (where I would be staying after the Milford Sound trip) from the coach window before grabbing more tea and toast. We were then back on the bus to head to Milford Sound itself. Mangee’s music selection was much better than Koru’s it has to be said, and it felt reassuring to be so comfortable with having a new driver straight away, so I shouldn’t worry so much about changing drivers once I wave goodbye to Koru in Christchurch.

Mangee took lots of quick stops for scenery and photographs on the way into Milford Sound itself. One location was an epic ‘flat’ valley carved out by a glacier, and my appreciationwas of course enhanced after having been up the Fox Glacier myself! Another stop was at Mirror Lakes (did exactly what it says on the tin) and another at a waterfall, and then another at a spring and more...
What was slightly worrying though, and perhaps illustrating the danger of not making any friends when on a new bus, is that Mangee would just ask “Is that everyone?” when he thought the bus was full. No head counts! Nobody to say “Hang on, where is Col?” Slightly worrying!

As we approached the mountain that separates Milford Sound from the Milford Road, Mangee explained that a ridiculous amount of TNT (20 tonnes?) had to be used just to blast 25mm of tunnel. The type of rocks that make up these mountains is just that hard! The tunnel is only one lane wide, and there is a 15-minute wait between the traffic lights. Luckily, we hit green both times. Driving through, Mangee played the remixed Mission Impossible music. As we emerged out of the tunnel and into the “Valley of 1000 Waterfalls” he played the score from Jurassic Park. Cheesy you might think, but both tracks set the tone and made things a bit more fun, the Jurassic score especially.

The Sound itself is hard to describe. I took millions of pictures, and I know it looks better on a rainy day, but it was still mightily impressive in the perfect sunshine.

(Continuing on the 9th)
Quick note as I write this in the diary. I was soooo bored on my day spent in Te Anau, and on the bus back, Mangee showed the film Superbad on the bus. I am days behind again on the diary I know, but there we are.
For some reason, I felt very odd at The Sound. Through a mixture of hangover, being on my own again for the first time in days and, bizarrely, how awkwardly dressed I felt! I couldn’t get it out of my mind for some reason.

Anyhow, we boarded the boat that would take us across the Sound, and dinner was served immediately. As usual, grabbed too much and ate none of it. A bizarre mix of lamb roast and oriental noodles. It was all horrid. Leaving a full plate behind, I went wandering about the boat to take in the views. With no company, I simply went snap happy with the camera.

There were still lots of waterfalls from previous rainfall, despite the warm sunshine. It was very impressive, and quite beautiful to sail out to where the Sound met the sea. On the way back in, we pulled up to a larger waterfall and got mildly wet, before heading onto the underwater observatory.

Basically, the Sound is deeper nearer the land, and a high ‘lip’ is present nearer the sea-end, creating a “pool” of seawater on the land-side of the lip, that is undisturbed by most of the tidal movement. Also, the material washed down through the trees makes the water in the sound exceptionally dark for its depth. This results in a deep-sea environment, complete with all the relevant marine life, in a relatively shallow and closed body of fresh water. The observatory was all very impressive, but I’m glad it was “free” with the ticket, I didn’t think it was worth paying for separately.

We eventually met back up with the bus, and on the way back to Te-Anau we stopped to see one of the native super-intelligent parrots (can’t remember their name) and to stop some American tourists from feeding them. I assume there were signs saying not do so, but Mangee had to get out and inform the tourists that our food could be poisonous to them. Apparently, they were quoted as saying “Awww, but Polly wants a cracker.” Idiots.

Eventually we get to Te Anau, and I jump off of the bus. Here comes the shocker. I asked what time the bus would be back for me the next day. Mangee simply said “Same time as now. 5:45 pm. There’s only me doing this bus run.” I told him the office had told me 10:30 am, but the woman in the office was obviously confused, as 10:30 is the time the bus goes INTO Milford. Which I had just done that morning! “No big deal” I thought, it just means that I have to kill a day on my own in Te Anau. I totally forgot that it would be a Sunday…

Anyhow, I unpacked and showered, headed out for a pizza, again ordering too much and stuffing my face. Then onto a random pub to sit with an ale and fill in the diary before heading back to my room for a relatively early night and for a well-deserved sleep with a super lie-in.

SOUNDTRACK: “Waterfall” by The Stone Roses.


I would hazard a guess that playing diary catch-up meant that I was speeding through writing to catch up on myself. I would like to think that I would have had more to say about my trip to Milford Sound, but perhaps the years have allowed that particular experience to ferment and have a much deeper impression on me than I realised it would at the time.

Being on my own again for just a day or two may have also had an affect – so much of our daily interactions involve us simply recounting what we have literally just experienced to one another (or at least, that’s how I used to operate), that it can be a real shock to the system when that simple interaction and replay factor is taken away.

The trip into Milford Sound itself held some of the most beautiful landscape in the world I’ve ever seen. I write about it above far too quickly, but in my defence, I hope my pictures show the beauty of these places, and how much I was trying to capture them in a way that did them justice, with the modest camera that I had taken with me on my travels.

Mirror Lakes in particular stands out as being especially tranquil. Throughout this part of the trip, the low hanging cloud vapour added a touch of magic to everything. You soon got used to it whilst you were there, but the idea of clouds hanging so low on the mountainsides is something you very rarely get to see in my native part of the world, especially if the sun is also shining. To this day, whenever I see images of similar low-clouded parts of the world, I get flashbacks to Milford Sound. Whenever I am in greener parts that remind me of New Zealand, or when Hazel asks me if some place “reminds you of New Zealand?” I always reply “Yeah, almost. But it is missing the clouds…”

Hopefully I have described it well enough above, but driving through a mile-long tunnel, with the opening score of Jurassic Park blaring through the speakers, and emerging into a valley of (mostly untouched) natural wonder, giant ferns, sloping forest and innumerable waterfalls, all thoroughly justified the use of the word Epic. Goosebumps.

The boat was fairly large, but I obviously wanted to try and get fed first! Once that experiment was over, I spent the rest of the time on deck taking pictures and just enjoying the ride. I suppose, actually, that there isn’t much to say about how beautiful that place was, and how special it felt to be there and to have access to it. It is something to live in the memory, or to be experienced. It remains simply as one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had.

The whole Milford Sound excursion was only mired by the complete cock-up I had made of the bus timings. It isn’t obvious above, but I had booked the day-trip under the assumption that one had no choice but to stay overnight in Te Anua, due to the long drive times. I cannot recall where I got this erroneous information from, but I had based all of my plans on this faulty info for the next 48 hours! Hence the confusion when Mangee pulled up in Te Anau at 5:45pm to drop “people off” and I was the only person who exited the bus! Turns out he was going back to Queenstown that same evening after all.

If I had of known in advance, I could have stayed on the bus and got back in time to party with the gang in Queenstown. As it stood, I decided to make the most of it. I had already booked accommodation in Te Anau, figured 24 hours to explore Te Anau on my own wouldn’t be too bad, and instead tried to focus on the positives. A quiet night, good food, no partying meaning no hangover, and the chance for a long lie-in. It almost worked.