Sunday Funday: Milford Sound!
Named by a Welsh settler from Milford Haven – how nuts is that?!
Today is the third and final day of The Bottom Bus. We hopped on the bus and headed to the drop-off point (The Bottom Bus drops us off, and we hop back on the Kiwi Experience bus before making our way to Milford Sound).
We got dropped off at Garston
I can honestly say, I’ve never been so happy to see this big green bus during my entire journey so far. After what felt like a short drive, we stopped in Te Anau, translated in Maori as ‘The caves of the swirling lakes’.
I like this driver, he is very chilled out but very organised and no request seems like too much trouble (a couple of people are hopping off or arranging trips and he’s explaining where he’ll drop them and subsequently pick them up the next day). Oh, and he plays the BEST driving music ever.
Milford road / highway, is essentially the only road to Milford Sound, as you travel through the national park and fjord land. The idea for the road came about in the 1880s, when German explorers found the fjord land and set out plans to build a road, however, it wasn’t until about 40 years later that the road development actually began.
At around this time, NZ was affected by the depression, so building the road was a boost to the economy and jobs market. It wasn’t finished until 1952, taking 25 years to build including stopping for the war and funding issues. Even when it was finally finished, the road was still closed over the winter period because of avalanches in the area until the late 1970s.
This drive is now infamous, particularly as in recent years it has been voted one of the best drives in the world by National Geographic magazine, amongst others. Notably, this was the place where I have observed some of the worst driving so far on my travels (not by my driver, but for instance, a girl with a car full of passengers pulled out in front of our bus to do some kind of U turn, and there was a car with a smashed front and a couple taking photos in a very precarious location).
The national park is home to the second largest lake in NZ (second only to taupo). It’s a glacial lake, and is the largest body of fresh water in Australasia, with a depth of up to 400m! Back in the day, the best way to get into Milford Sound was via the original ‘Milford Track’. It’s a 54k walk including boat access at both ends and would be considered an advanced hike.
It was once described as ‘the most beautiful walk in the world’ by a London journalist and is one of nine great walks in New Zealand. Now, it typically has to be booked 6-12 months in advance, as only 80 people a day can walk it to minimise the impact to the environment, and because the tracks are closed during the winter months.
The mirror lakes are topped up by rain water, and the stagnation helps to keep the reflection (mirror lakes) it rains in the fjord land every 2 out of 3 days.
This area has been officially recognised as a national park since 1952 and is the largest in New Zealand. Roughly 1/3 of NZ is protected by the department of conservation. This includes nature reserves, national parks, protected areas etc. Technically this is a fjord (carved out by glacier in this case and flooded by the sea) not a sound (flooded by a river system).
Today it is hard to actually find wilderness, or areas largely untouched. But aside from the road here, this has been largely left alone and is a UNESCO World heritage site.
Southern beech forests are the most common around here in fjord land. It’s thought that these trees provide evidence that the continents were once connected as these trees are found in Chile, Australia and fossils are found in Antarctica too. Funnily, although we have beech trees at home (in the UK), but the only similarity they share is the name. The fact that these trees can be found on other continents supports the theory of Gondwanan.
Honestly, New Zealand is one of the most unique and fascinating places I have ever been. Annual rainfall is measured in meters here in the fjord land because it rains so much here, the most of any land area. The weather moves quickly because of the shape of the mountains and it rains hard which sustains the temperate rainforest.
The issue of mammals has again been brought up. Apart from marine mammals, the only endemic ones are two species of bat. This was due to NZ breaking away from Gondwanan 100 million years ago and mammals developed 80 million years ago. So there were mainly birds here. Until…
Maori hunted birds and eggs, some to extinction (Moa) and Europeans introduced mammals and hunted birds too. Funnily enough, the loss of habitat has been the biggest killer of native species of birds, not necessarily predation. Protected areas are designed to create a natural environment which in turn, should protect the birds.
At one of three lakes in this valley; (Lake gunn, lake Ferguson, lake Lockie), there is evidence of a Maori settlement, but not a permanent one. They mostly settled on the east coast but may have ventured this way to collect green stone which is only found on the west coast and is highly sought after by the Maori people.
The waterfalls in and around Milford Sound are temporary and stop once the rain stops, although there are a few permanent ones. This is because there isn’t much soil in the forest so water tends to trickle straight through. Falls creek is a permanent waterfall that fluctuates depending on the rain fall.
This road passing the falls used to be closed throughout winter as this is the most avalanche prone road, but they’re monitored throughout the year and sometimes if snow becomes dangerous helicopters might fly up and cause controlled avalanches. There are also issues with both land and rock slides, particularly during the summertime when heavy rain can be frequent.
Homer tunnel! We stopped and I could see a group of tourists taking a photo of something, noticeably not the landscape… A Kea! YAY! I have been waiting to see one of these parrots for so long! This is the worlds only alpine parrot and I had been talking about them only moments earlier. I am SO happy! They look to be sort of a dull green colour but when they lift they’re wings, they’re orange and bright blue like a rainbow!
A Scot named Donald Sutherland was the first person to settle here, known as ‘the hermit of Milford sound’, he came here looking for gold, he didn’t find much but he did discover many of the tracks here. There’s now a waterfall named after him. Milford itself isn’t much of a settlement as many of the people who live here are either seasonal or shift workers, typically catering to tourists.
There is a 3 meter layer of fresh water that sits on top of the salt water (this is a typical amount, but it’s dependent on rainfall).
We saw four temporary waterfalls in a row, ‘the four sisters’, which only appear with rain like today and disappear with 5-6 hours of sun. Stirling falls, uniquely comes from Pembroke glacier ice melt.
I stayed outside on the top deck in my ever desperate quest to see Dolphins in their natural habitat.
Unfortunately, I got completely and utterly saturated, to the point where I could feel my arms getting wet through my coat and I contemplated that I may indeed develop some kind of foot issue (aside from the increasingly worsening stench of my trainers – from keeping my wet shoes on for so long), and some odd markings appeared on my white t-shirt. The best way I can describe them is a rusty colour, so either the rain was an odd colour (weird?!) or perhaps the toner was running off my hair, but that seems odd too?
Anyway, I finally saw a critter. A seal on his back, drifting without a care in the world… Until our cruise ship nearly ploughed straight into him. He ducked under in lightening speed at the very last moment. I checked behind the boat to make sure he reappeared… He did. Phew! 😅
I got off the cruise, feeling the same way I had after ‘I saw’ Ha Long Bay in Vietnam… One of the greats that is still shrouded in mystery to me, as all I have are a few cloudy / foggy photos and a vague sense of: ‘this surely cannot be it’. So that was Milford Sound…
But, I did see two Kea so I’m pretty chuffed with that 👍