Exploring Milford Sound Fjord, New Zealand
The breathtaking Milford Sound, with its vertical, plunging cliff faces, rainforest, dramatic waterfalls and abundant wildlife is absolutely a must-see when in New Zealand. As New Zealand’s premier tourist attraction and only Fjord, it attracts around 1000000 people visit each year.
Milford Sound is located in the Fiordland National Park, in the southwest corner of the South Island and is part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What exactly is Milford Sound?
Technically a Fjord, and not a thing you can hear, Milford Sound was carved from the movement of glaciers during the ice age. This movement carved into the cliff faces as it moved towards the sea, creating a 15km fjord that was flooded by the Tasman Sea when the ice retreated. Milford Sound has a maximum depth of 291 meters, while its highest peak, the Mitre peak, reaches 1692m above sea level.
Milford Sound was first inhabited by the Maori people as early as 1000 years ago. According to Maori legend, a godlike figure called Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa shaped the Fiordland coastline with his adze (an ancient axe-like tool) as he chanted powerful prayers, creating Piopiotahi, the Maori name for Milford Sound. Since then, the first explorer to enter Milford Sound was in 1823 when a seal hunter entered and called it Milford Sound.
What can I experience at Milford Sound?
Aside from the incredible site of steep cliff faces and gushing waterfalls, Milford Sound is home to a vast array of wildlife and flora, both above and below sea level. Home to a colony of seals, and dolphins, with the occasional whale visitor and incredibly rare and endangered penguin species called The Fiordland Crested Penguin. These are often visible from the boat when you do a Milford Sound boat tour.
A fascinating phenomenon of Milford Sound is the water within it. As the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, there is an enormous amount of rain entering the Sound. Most of that comes from water moving through the rainforest above and flowing down the cliff walls into the Sound below. This creates a 10cm layer of freshwater, that sits above the saltwater below.
Not only does this create a spectacular environment, but the freshwater layer is dark, from tannins collected from the ground as the water made its way into Milford Sound. This dark water appears as the inky black water of the Sound, but also creates darkness below. The light levels at 10 meters below the surface in Milford Sound is the equivalent of 70 meters below out at sea. In this darkness, corals have flourished with over 7 million colonies of coral, including rare corals and the worlds largest forest of black coral trees.
A tour of Milford Sound by boat is exciting. You can’t help but feel so small when you gaze straight up at the towering cliffs. Before we arrived at Milford Sound, we had no idea what to expect. We had already done a boat tour of Doubtful Sound and we assumed it would be similar. However, Milford Sound is different to Doubtful Sound. It’s higher, narrower and more intense.
Sitting outside on the deck of the boat, the wind in your hair and the spray from the waterfalls rushing over you is exhilarating. The west coast of New Zealand is known as the ‘wild west’ and when you’re out immersed in nature on Milford Sound, you can see why.
Inside the cabin on the boat, you can relax. It’s quieter, except for the other people of course. Protected from the elements, you can get lost in the scenery and beauty of it all. As you approach the junction of Milford Sound and the Tasman Sea, the water begins to get a little choppier, but it stays surprisingly calm inside the Sound.
Useful information on visiting Milford Sound
As the only Sound in New Zealand that is accessible by road, it is easy to visit Milford Sound. Bus tours operate from Queenstown and Te Anau regularly. You can also drive yourself if you have a campervan or car and there is a large car park for parking.
The road to Milford Sound, known both as Milford Road, and State Highway 94 is actually a tourist destination in and of itself, and one of New Zealand’s top road trip routes. There are plenty of places to pull over and admire the view as you wind down through the valleys. Some incredible sights can be found in the Cleddau Valley and the Eglinton Valley where you’ll find the Mirror Lakes, about 400meters off the side of the road. If you’re doing a tour your bus driver will stop at these places to let you out.
If you’re driving yourself, you can book your own boat tickets. Take as long as you can and enjoy the whole journey from Milford Sound however, I’d recommend aiming to arrive at Milford Sound well before your boat is set to leave as the one road in and out of Milford Sound can get really busy and you could get stuck in the traffic. There are a couple of short walks that you can do around Milford Sound if you’re early.
If you’re doing a tour, especially from Queenstown, allow a full day. Queenstown is around 3.5 hours from Milford Sound. Te Anau is an hour and a half away. If you want to stay a little closer you can also stay in Milford Sound or do an overnight cruise.
Milford Sound is a great experience and one that should be on everyone’s New Zealand Bucket List.
About the Author
Christine is an Australian travel writer currently based in the Netherlands and the face behind Travellers With Time. Christine and her partner Ben spent 5 glorious weeks travelling around New Zealand in a campervan, freedom camping and enjoying New Zealand’s incredible nature before heading to Europe to do the same thing. Currently, they are based in the Netherlands and getting out to explore parts of Europe in their caravan whenever they can.
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