We have long wanted to visit Milford Sound so, from the earliest stages of planning this trip, this was always one of our most anticipated days. We placed this outing at the end of our trip for a couple of reasons - "saving the best 'til last" and trying to increase our chances of better weather. The second reason almost scored a "Fail", as the road (yes, THE ONLY road!) to Milford Sound had been closed just before we arrived, due to heavy rain and the risk of landslides.
Because we had been unsure of what the road conditions may be, and also because we wanted more info than we could get from brochures and display boards, we decided fairly early to take a guided tour into Milford Sound and ended up choosing the Coach, Cruise and Walk tour with Trips and Tramps, from Te Anau. We checked with the company yesterday and they assured us the road was open and the tour would go ahead. Good news!
Our driver/guide, Ross, and trainee guide, Yvette, turned up bang on time and we set off in our mini-coach (six pax max) with just one other passenger. Ross and Yvette were excellent guides. Ross worked in the area as a Ranger for many years and his knowledge really shone through. He kept up a steady - but not over-bearing - and fascinating commentary as we travelled and answered every question we threw at him. Yvette has led a more diverse life, but is a local and her love for her region clearly came through. Along the way we stopped at a couple of interesting spots for short nature walks, including Mirror Lake, The Divide (for morning tea) and The Chasm, a beautiful and very turbulent series of falls through the rainforest.
It was at The Chasm where we saw one of the more curious bits of evidence as to why a small tour from Te Anau was the better option. As we pulled into the almost-empty car park, we saw a mobile coffee van! "Coffee in the rainforest?! How curious! I'll have one of those after the walk", I thought. 20 minutes later, we emerged from the walk and saw why the coffee van was there - about fifteen large tour buses were pulling in, taking a break from their already three hour plus drive from Queenstown! We very quickly abandoned coffee, hopped back on board our little bus and headed off! Our small group gave us the flexibility to stop and go quickly, as necessary.
Besides lovely walks, our journey also gave us incredible views, despite the rain (which was now easing) and the low clouds. We also saw evidence of recent landslides and drove through the Homer Tunnel. First proposed in 1889, the tunnel was eventually begun during the Depression and finally opened in 1954. This tunnel is the single most important reason for the accessibility of Milford Sound and is very impressive. The views, as one exits on the Milford side, are fantastic and the curious Keas, which we met in Arthur's pass, are here as well - they know where the humans stops!
On arrival in Milford Sound, the weather was increasingly promising. The rain had stopped and the clouds, while still shrouding the highest peaks, were lifting and allowed great views along the Sound from our foreshore walk. Ross and Yvette then delivered us to the Milford Mariner , our ride for the next two and a half hours. The cruise was excellent, helped by a very benign Mother Nature. The rain that had persisted for a day or two was gone, ensuring the waterfalls were flowing well and, as the afternoon progressed, we enjoyed increasingly clear skies that provided brilliant views of all the surrounding peaks, including the reclusive Mitre Peak that evidently spends much of its time hiding in cloud. The nature commentary on the cruise was just the right amount - enough good info without dominating the cruise - and of course we got up close, personal and wet with a couple of the larger waterfalls!
The return trip was just as interesting, with a couple of stops that we passed up on during the outward drive, due to the morning rain. We totally, thoroughly enjoyed this tour and appreciated the big advantages of this trip, including the small group size; starting in Te Anau, which meant we were in front of the numerous large coaches from Queenstown; and the very personal service.
We ended the day with a visit to the local cinema to see a beautiful local movie, Ata Whenua - Shadowland, that took us on a helicopter ride all around the Fiordland National park. Made without commentary and a lovely, low-key score, it was a perfect end to a perfect day. By all accounts, we were very lucky to get the early rain and clear afternoon combination that we enjoyed.
So, tomorrow is another road trip. We'll head back to Queenstown and on to Mt Cook village for the last stay of this incredible trip.