With our first travel day done and dusted, we were feeling ready to take on the world. Coffee in hand and Mimi the van packed up tight, we left Te Anu and headed south towards Milford Sound.
The drive to Milford Sound has to be one of the spectacular drives in the world. Firstly you parallel Lake Te Anu, which is the South Island’s largest lake. As you weave through the windy, tree-lined roads you’re spoiled with views of the lake to one side and snowy mountains to the other. It was still quite dark as we drove along and the grey clouds hung low, dispersing every so often to give you a scene that makes you go ‘Wow!’.
Withholding the temptation to stop every five minutes to get out and take photos, we cruised along with our deadline of the midday cruise looming before us. Luckily, there’s only one road to Milford, so we can stop all we like on the way back to Queenstown.
As we got closer to Milford, the fog had lifted and the mountains majestically stood before us. The snow was not just capping the mountains but getting closer and closer to the road, making us more and more excited. We turned a corner about 15km from the Homer Tunnel and were greeted by a blanket of snow everywhere. Excited is probably the biggest understatement of the century here as the four of us fan-girled over the fluffy white snow. Finding the first place to stop, we scrambled over each other to be first onto the snow.
Feeling slightly insignificant against the Lord of the Rings-esque surroundings, we played in the snow, taking dorky selfies and having snowball fights. Having a quick panic that we couldn’t drive Mimi through to Milford, we were reassured by a fellow bus driver that the snow chains can stay put away as the roads had been cleared earlier that morning.
Now cutting it fine with the time, we jumped back in Mimi and drove about 20km/hr through the snowy landscape until we reached the Homer Tunnel. I’d read about the Homer Tunnel but it was nothing like I had expected. Narrow and steep, we put-putted slowly through the tunnel on a downward slant, praying that the brakes wouldn’t fail. It wasn’t until we saw the sunlight peek through from the other end that we took a breath of relief.
This breath however was quickly taken away again as we came out and viewed the hair-pin filled road downhill towards Milford Sound. It was truly a sight I cannot describe. We slowly made our way down, the snow disappearing as we got closer towards the sounds. We made it there with a bit of time to spare so in the car park we fixed a quick lunch and got our stuff organised for the cruise.
We checked in at the boat terminal for our three hour Nature Encounter Adventure Cruise and waited until we got the okay to board. Taking a moment to take in our surroundings, we were in awe of the dark navy water enclosed by the huge, sheer snowy glaciers. The clouds had lifted completely and the sky was a rich blue – a perfect day for a cruise. We were told we had lucked out totally, as this was the first clear day after ten days of severe rain and thunderstorms. The boat was relatively empty for what was supposed to be the most popular cruise of the day – ah the joys of travelling in off-peak season!
The cruise went for about three hours and we sailed up the Sound – which technically is a fiord, but Milford Fiord doesn’t quite have the same ring to it – and were gobsmacked by the incredible scenery. Our boat felt so small compared to the looming glaciers beside us and my neck started to cramp from constantly looking up towards to top of the glaciers. Our captain took us up close to the rushing waterfalls and we even witness some fur seals having a snooze on some rocks by the waters edge.
I definitely agree with those who say Milford Sound is the 8th Wonder of the World; it’s just so damn beautiful! Photos don’t do it any justice at all- it has to be seen to be believed.
Our cruise finished up around 3pm and we wanted to play in the snow before finding a camp spot for the night so we said our goodbyes to Milford Sound, took one last photo and raced back to Mimi and headed back up the mountains. As the day had been practically tropical for this part of the country, by the time we reached where we had stopped this morning the snow has melted and been replaced by spiky yellow grass and rocks. Disappointed, we continued on to find a campsite for the night, hoping that we would come across snow later in the trip. Again, time was going against us and we were racing to see as much as we could before darkness fell upon us.
K, who was a little edgy about our first night freedom camping in the middle of nowhere, saw a sign for emergency fuel and decided we need some, despite having at least half a tank. So we took the little turn down the Hollyford track, praying that there was actually a fuel station somewhere close by.
Now if you haven’t been to Milford Sound, let me try to explain how it works. Every single guide book, travel agent or local will tell you to fill your tank before you leave. There are no fuel stations after you leave Te Anu and the steep mountains can suck fuel out of your van/car much quicker than expected. We also needed fuel for our heater to work, hence why K was so eager to top up of fuel supply to avoid a freezing night. In all our naivety, we assumed that our half tank would require emergency fuel – though after we putted 10km very slowly down a dirt road, we were told by the man at the little shop in Hollyford, that we did not.
I’m pretty sure he thought we were a bit stupid so he gave us ten bucks worth of fuel just for our efforts. A little red-faced, we bounced along the rocky track towards the highway probably using up the fuel we just bought, when we came across a suspension bridge over rushing turquoise water.
Skidding to a stop, we jumped out of Mimi and onto the bridge. The azure coloured water was clear and looked ice cold. I don’t know how we didn’t see this on the way down, but were so glad we went for a little adventure down the Hollyford Track.
Getting back to the highway we drove on until we reached Deer Flat. The little clearing was desolate and quiet. The only noise you could hear was the rushing water of the stream about fifty metres away. Even in the darkness of the afternoon, the mountains surrounding us were clearly visible and just stunning. It was the definition of serenity. We set up camp for the night and got stuck into the wine and cheese again and talked nonsense, which occupied us for most of the night.
Next stop is Queenstown where we check into the resort town for a day or two and plan our next adventures.