FolkestoneJack's Tracks

The road to Milford Sound

Posted in Milford Sound, New Zealand, Te Anau by folkestonejack on December 29, 2015

The 144 mile drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound presents one wonder after another, making it hard to resist stopping every time a sign highlights a new viewpoint, historic site or walk. However, it is quite impossible to do absolutely everything within a single day and still make it to Milford Sound in time for a trip on the water.

The Milford Highway

The Milford Highway

The skies were pretty grey when we made a start to our drive at 8.20am, choosing an early departure to give us a headstart on the coaches that come through here relentlessly later as morning progresses (the NZ Transport Authority advice states that most buses depart from Te Anau between 9am and 10am and advises independent travellers to hit the road before or after these times). The roads were fairly quiet, though we did have to weave our way through a flock of sheep along the way!

It is an astonishingly beautiful stretch of road to drive, even in the misty conditions that we faced this morning. At first you get delightful river scenes, fields full of pink and purple lupins and lakeside vistas but as you get closer to the Homer Tunnel the scenes become ever more mountainous and simply breathtaking with it. I anticipated this from everything that I read, but nothing quite prepares you for the scale of all this and the sense of wonderment you get from being surrounded on all sides by dramatic scenery.

The Hollyford River

The Hollyford River

Although you are, in effect, driving to the middle of nowhere, you know that you are not alone in your endeavour (in 2015 Milford Development Authority reported that 530,000 visitors had made it to Milford Sound whereas the figure forecast for 2016 is 650,000). A significant part of Milford Sound’s appeal comes from its remoteness and this impression is re-inforced by the notices reminding you that beyond Te Anau there is no mobile phone coverage and that there are no petrol stations or places to buy food on the Milford Road until you reach Milford Sound.

Over the years there have been a number of proposals to shortcut the route for visitors arriving from Queenstown (a five hour drive) including a road tunnel, a monorail and now an electrified railway with car shuttles which would run from a spot just beyond Glenorchy to a terminus near the historic Gunn’s Camp. Maybe the practicalities of providing capacity for the ever increasing numbers travelling here will make such a scheme a necessity at some point. However, I can’t help but feel that this would take away part of the magic of Milford Sound.

After a couple of hours driving we reached The Divide, the starting point for the hike up to Key Summit, and it was at this point that the first gap in the clouds opened up. I made a dash for the summit, fearing that the clouds would close in before I could take advantage of the change in conditions, but my luck was in today. In the meantime, most of the coaches between Queenstown and Milford Sound passed through, leaving the roads much quieter for our onward journey.

The Homer Tunnel

The Homer Tunnel

In the afternoon we continued our drive at a leisurely pace, stopping off at a number of scenic viewpoints over the Hollyford River and Valley before the entrance to the Homer Tunnel loomed before us. The tunnel was opened in 1954, some sixty five years since the idea was first proposed by William Henry Homer, providing a route through the Darran Mountains down the Cleddau Valley to Milford Sound. Traffic lights regulate one-way traffic through the tunnel during the summer months with a countdown clock on display to get you ready for your turn.

Before taking our position in the queue we had a wander towards the rockface where an impressively hefty block of snow and ice remained, having somehow defied the summer heat of the previous week. Everyone and everything seemed so small against the astonishing height of the mountains. A more sobering reminder of the power of nature can be seen in the memorial plaques to the men killed in the avalanches of 1936 and 1937.

A block of snow at the Homer Tunnel portal dwarfs a couple of visitors

A block of snow at the Homer Tunnel portal dwarfs a couple of visitors

Once we were through the tunnel we stretched our legs at The Chasm and enjoyed the rather more human-scale delights of the waterfalls on the Cleddau River. Our journey concluded in mid-afternoon when we arrived at the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal, a good hour or so ahead of our boarding time for an overnight cruise on Milford Sound.

The Department of Conservation have put together a good map showing the various stopping points on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Our chosen stops were:

1. Mackay Creek (51 km from Te Anau) for a good view of the wild lupins
2. Mirror lakes (56 km from Te Anau)
3. The Divide and Key Summit (83 km from Te Anau)
4. A couple of pull over spots where the Milford Sound Highway runs parallel to or crosses the Hollyford River
5. Homer Tunnel (99 km from Te Anau)
6. The Chasm (110 km from Te Anau)

It was hard to believe that so much natural beauty could have been packed into 144km of road before we had even boarded our boat to explore Milford Sound and we had only sampled a fraction of the views on offer. It made me appreciate once again that you need plenty of time to do this island any justice!


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