Milford Sound: Living amongst Giants
January 1, 1970
A Reflection on Living in Milford Sound
It is fitting that I sit here and type out a reflection of sorts on the one-year anniversary of my arrival to New Zealand. Full of nostalgia I reflect on how memorable a year spent in the shadows of giant mountains fully affected who I am. A year ago today, my partner Chelsie and I boarded a coach full of day-tripper tourists to Milford Sound. Ours was a one-way trip though, as that was our destination and would be home for most of the year. (Advice tip #1, don’t be a day-tripper from Queenstown, I’ll get back to that). That first drive into Milford I will never forget, the pronounced beauty is comparable to nowhere else, and the sight of mountains and rainforests, then the pronounced drop from the Homer Tunnel down into the Cleddau Valley summons deep emotions. Driving the 120 kilometres between Milford and Te Anau dozens of times, I never tired of any portion of the drive-in ways I looked forward to it. And I could ramble on, detailing every part and parcel and mood of the Milford Road, but I will spare you that.
Plenty of other people have blogged, tweeted, and described the Milford Road and Milford Sound. You can search that and find heaps of links, and I would be the definition of redundant if I did the same here. Similarly that goes for the activities, day-walks, and plenty of other tourist activities in Milford. However, this is sort of a truthful advice column for would be travellers into Milford Sound. I may come across as blunt in ways, but, hey, that happens after working reception at the only accommodation in an ever-popular tourist spot. The #1 destination on the South Island the marketers tell you (there is reason to believe that). I repeated the same spiel countless times every day to a steady, often intimidating, stream of guests that either booked well in advance for our limited accommodation or were out of luck. And I mean truly, out of luck. Without a booking during peak season-which now is stretching for most of the warmer months from October into April, those unlucky individuals had to drive all the way back to Te Anau. Despite the countless times daily, I told that to would-be guests, I still felt empathetic for each guest I couldn’t help (I know because I travel without making advance bookings). (Advice tip #2, make a booking when travelling during busy season, its worth it).
Perks of Lodgie Life
I loved my job at Milford Sound Lodge as a so-called “Lodgie” and living in Milford Sound in general. I loved it so much, I stayed an additional 3 months while my girlfriend Chelsie traveled the South Island and then moved back to Australia. The reasons I loved it are more apparent than ever a month removed from my 11 month stint there. Essentially the reasons I loved it boiled down to the same reasons the day-trippers loved it. The sight of the world’s tallest sea cliffs (fact: Mitre Peak is the highest sea cliff in the world), which are precipitous and vertiginous (words I loved to say to bewildered guests) beyond imagination humbles us individual humans. The effects this has on most people would be evidenced by their enthusiastic ecstasy on walking in the door to our Lodge. That’s awesome to see. For me, a lover of nature, to see that reaction on a daily basis, made me smile even on the most hectic days.
Our Lodge’s marketing and its partners recommend staying overnight in Milford Sound. And of course they would considering the Lodge is the only option, unless you want to illegally bush camp- which some do find exhilarating. I don’t initially trust marketing, nor tourist brochures, nor anything where somebody is trying to sell me something. However, in all honesty, it is worth the overnight stay; either at the Lodge, camping on one of the Great Walks nearby, or on the Real Journey’s overnight boat. On a clear night, you can look up and only see a portion of the stars because the sheer cliffs on either side of you block the rest-as you are in an extreme U-shaped glacial valley. Occasionally the moonlight will reflect off of the granite cliff sides, creating an eerie nighttime site. All of it, awesome.
As a former resident of the Milford Sound community, I could ramble indefinitely about the place. But that would all be from personal experience. I encourage you, reader, to visit, but heed some words of wisdom. You don’t have to follow, for everybody views the world differently, and this is just an opinion of one of the few who would voluntarily live at the end of the road, bottom of the Earth, without regular Internet (gasp!) access. So maybe I hold opinions slightly different than the mainstream.
Advice from a Local
firstly, what is this Queenstown? Queenstown is the hub of adventure tourism on the South Island and full of businesses trying to sell you their experiences. Make of it what you want. I grew to hate and love Queenstown at the same time. However do not travel from Queenstown to Milford Sound and back in a day like most of those poor souls. Don’t get sold that tour, unless you enjoy spending 9 hours on a coach.
If you can’t stay in Milford Sound overnight, then stay in Te Anau. Te Anau was our re-supply and surrogate hometown. All of us Milfordites had a soft spot for the place. It has a sense of character and feel of the real New Zealand, qualities that schzisophrenic Queenstown can’t seem to figure out. Visit the bird sanctuary (provide donations!), eat at the Redcliffe, watch a film, and enjoy the views and have relaxing time.
For the drive to Milford Sound, don’t trust Google Maps on time estimates; in fact don’t have a time estimate. Enjoy your drive to the fiord, but just make sure to leave Te Anau before 10am, otherwise you’ll be terrified of all of the speedy coaches tailgating you.
There is no town in Milford, despite the misconceptions that people tend to make. Not their fault, considering it looks like a settlement on road maps. Really there is a bitumen landing strip surrounded by a cluster of buildings-most of which are staff accommodation. For the public there is the Lodge, the ferry terminal where the coaches unload their gaggles, two petrol pumps that work most of the time, a cafe/tourist shop, and, surprisingly, a very busy airport. When in doubt, take foodstuffs- actually overall a personal hard lesson learned from many hungry days traveling is always have some snacks on you.
If you do nothing else while in New Zealand, take a scenic flight, whether in fixed-wing or heli, in Milford Sound. In fact its worth visiting the South Island just for that. Each of the flights I jumped on, with Fly Fiordland, Air Milford, and Milford Helicopters, individually would be up there in the Tom’s Top 10 of experiences worldwide.
Hope for rain. But you probably won’t be able to fly if it is rainy, nor do you want to because you won’t see too much except the inside of a aeroplane. Rain makes Fiordland look other-worldly. On sunny days you easily recognise the place as Planet Earth, but when the clouds creep in and the water falls, wow does the place change. My favourite was a good storm. The sheer amount of water that would rush down the sides of the mountains, creating heaps upon heaps of temporary waterfalls was astounding. That is the whole water-cycle there: moisture off the ocean dumping on the mountains, falling straight back into the fiord/ocean. Love that. And film crews know how unique the place is; they come to the place to make it seem like other worlds. A quick Google will show you what I mean there.
If you can’t fly because of the weather, then you will be on a cruise boat. Some people drive in, have a look, then drive back out. Fair enough I guess, but you just drove 120km one way and you didn’t have a full look at your goal destination? Hop on a boat tour, and get on one, doesn’t matter which, before or after the midday window when the place feels like a busy airport terminal
I miss the place. The simplicity of life; waking to the sounds of kea parrots; the curiosity of the avian life in general; seeing dolphins love life in the fiord; living as a family at the Lodge; the scary storms. For a lover of nature it is a paradise of sorts. However most will just be visiting for a day or two during their holidays on the South Island, and it will be easy to get lost in the masses. Try not to do that. The Queenstown money-machine can do without a few less people. Support the local Te Anau and Manapouri businesses, or stay at the Lodge if its not fully booked already. Chill out and enjoy. I’m glad that so many humans are attracted to a place for the natural beauty of it alone, and visiting the region without stopping by Milford would be a crying-shame. See and admire the place. Be inspired by nature, its easy there if you just quietly admire the vertiginous scenery.