After visiting the southernmost point of the country in Bluff, we headed back up north a little to Te Anau, a small but very pleasant town and the gateway to the great Fiordland National Park; the biggest in the country. It is so big in fact that all of New Zealand’s other national parks could fit inside it.
We arrived in Te Anau on the Friday with the intention of spending the following two days in Milford Sound, which is a particularly beautiful and very accessible section of the national park. Te Anau is like many of the other small towns we’ve visited in New Zealand in that it’s very much based around tourism, which being on the edge of the country’s most impressive national park inevitably attracts. It is an extremely nice town in its own right though as it sits beside a stunning lake of the same name and enjoys a horizon filled with mountains and forest.
We spent our day in Te Anau strolling on the lakefront in the sunshine before having a drive a little further around the lake’s edge.
The holiday park we stayed at was just a few minutes drive out of town and was subsequently much cheaper than the ones in town. It was probably one of the nicest ones we’ve stayed at though; the brand new bathroom blocks looked like they’d been taken from a luxury hotel! However, despite being just a few minutes out of town, this was the first of three nights without any phone signal! Tough times.
The next day we began our journey into the wilderness that is Fiordland National Park. Milford Road extends from Te Anau and terminates a couple of hours later in Milford Sound, so we would be coming back through Te Anau no matter what. There are what seems like a million different providers offering day trips to Milford Sound, but we decided to take ourselves so we could enjoy the stunning drive at our own pace and also spend a couple of nights in the remoteness of Milford Sound itself.
I am not exaggerating when I say the drive was stunning; Milford Road is genuinely the best road I’ve ever driven in terms of the scenery on offer, surpassing the section of state highway 6 near Wanaka that we’d driven a week earlier.
After the first thirty minutes or so, the road becomes surrounded by mountains, the tops of which were unfortunately hidden by the clouds as we passed that morning. That in itself though was still an impressive sight. There are several points along the journey that will make you pull over and reach for the camera… there is no way you can make it through the journey without stopping at least a few times! Knobs Flat, Mirror Lakes, Monkey Creek and Lake Gunn are just some of the highlights of the trip.
At one point you reach a tunnel that takes you directly through the mountains, allowing access to the amazing sights on the other side. There was a good opportunity to stop before entering the tunnel to take in the scenery that surrounded us. A tall, rocky valley with snow at the top and waterfalls trickling down the sides in several places – unbelievable scenes. And then things got even more exciting!
Shortly after pulling over, we heard some noises from the roof of our car. After peering through the sunroof we realised we’d been joined by a kea, the world’s only wild mountain parrot!
It hung around for a long time, pottering on and around our car before tucking into some berries it was given by a driver of one of the many coaches.
It was quite amusing at one point – with the kea chilling next to our car, a coach pulled over and it’s entire load rushed out and over to our van with their cameras ready! From a different angle, it seemed they were all just really taken with our beautiful campervan!
As we arrived at our accommodation, Milford Sound Lodge (which I believe is the only accommodation in Milford Sound), we were amazed at the deafening sounds of the crickets in the trees; it even overpowered the sound of the engine as we drove in. It was the not so noisy bugs that would prove to be the source of much annoyance though.
As we parked up in the trees, we were immediately surrounded by swarms of sandflies! They are absolutely tiny and barely make a sound, but they are possibly THE worst things to exist in the world… ever!! As I write this, we have about 60 odd bites between us (literally) and they are driving us INSANE. And yes, we did use bug spray. And no, it didn’t work!
But anyway, it was ultimately a small price to pay for the outrageous natural beauty offered by Milford Sound. However, we did decide that just one night would be sufficient to explore the area, with the intention of spending the second night at one of the many DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites along Milford Road.
At the very end of Milford Road is the boat terminal where many tourist operators run cruises around the phenomenal fjord, Milford Sound. Even without taking to the water though the scene was pretty incredible…
Although the views are amazing from the shore, you really can’t visit Milford Sound without enjoying one of the cruises. The boats vary in terms of size and quality, but they all have inside and outside areas and you’re there to see the sights anyway, not to sit in a comfy seat. We chose the cruise offered by ‘Go Orange’, which seemed an obvious choice as it was both the cheapest and the longest. You’d think there’d be a catch but there definitely wasn’t… the boat was comfortable with plenty of different indoor/outdoor areas, the commentary was good and we even got a free orange juice and BLT! And because we opted for the early 9am cruise, it was only $49 each – an absolute bargain.
The scenes were absolutely spectacular as the boat cruised around the cliffs and mountains and out to the mouth of the Tasman Sea before returning back again. The highlights included several stunning waterfalls, more wild seals and the highly impressive sea cliffs/mountains.
The views from all angles were just outstanding…
After our cruise, we headed back up Milford Road to check out the DOC campsites in order to be a little closer to our next proper destination, Queenstown, some 4+ hours away from Milford Sound itself.
Around an hour in we turned into a lovely spot called Lake Gunn, which also happened to be a DOC camping spot. These campsites are dirt cheap at $6 each and really are back to basics, with the only amenity being a long drop toilet. It was a fantastic spot though; the lake was completely clear (fine to drink after boiling) and the background was filled with more aesthetically awesome mountains.
We parked up right on the lake’s edge (quite literally) and spent the day relaxing under the glorious sunshine and enjoying the breathtaking scene we were within. We cooked a beaut of a meal (pasta based of course) on our gas stove and we felt like real campers out in the wilderness! We did come prepared though with fully charged devices so we could watch a couple of Breaking Bad episodes (which is awesome by the way), so we weren’t completely unplugged from the world!
As we got into the van with the sun starting to descend, it was quite surreal when we looked out of the window to see nothing but the lake and it’s surrounds – we were so close it gave the sensation that we were actually ON the water at times. This was definitely one of my favourite spots and nights that we have had during this epic adventure (sandflies notwithstanding); it was just such a perfect scene.
The next morning we woke early to press on to our next and final destination, Queenstown, with a quick stop for breakfast in Te Anau along the way. After nearly 7000kms, the end of the road is near. Just 2 and a half weeks left before our kiwi adventure is over. Sad times indeed.