The southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island is home to Fiordland National Park. The region is a vast wilderness of rugged mountains, deep lakes, and jagged coastline. Milford Sound (which is actually a fjord, not a sound) is the most popular tourist destination in this region, if not in all of New Zealand. We definitely wanted to check it out, and so several days ago we booked tickets on a morning boat cruise through Milford Sound. It’s a 2.5 hour drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound so we got an early start to allow time for a little sightseeing on the drive there. The drive was indeed scenic, but after we crossed through a tunnel we were driving in a heavy fog and couldn’t see much. Thankfully the fog thinned as we drove downhill and approached sea level. Milford Sound gets up to 268 inches of rain a year, so we were lucky that it turned out to be a sunny day for us. An interesting thing about all that rainfall: it creates a layer of fresh water on top of the salt water in the sound. This layer of fresh water can be over 30 feet thick!
The boat ride was as scenic as advertised with several tall waterfalls (some of which are only active after a recent rainfall) and steep rocky mountains towering above us. I was interested to learn that they have “tree avalanches” here. The abundant rainfall encourages many bushes and trees to grow, but the hard rock doesn’t always allow the roots to gain a secure purchase on the steep mountainsides. We saw several sections of bare rock where the plant life had yet to regrow after just such a tree avalanche. After reaching the Tasman Sea at the far end of Milford Sound, we turned around and headed back to our start point. Along the way we were lucky enough to see a small pod of dolphins swimming into the sound. Apparently they come into the sound to wash off salt water parasites in the fresh water layer, and also to rest with their young.
On the return trip to the marina, our boat stopped at the Discovery Center and Underwater Observatory. As the name implies, it’s a chance for people to go underwater to see some of the sea life that is found in Milford Sound. Another feature of the fresh water layer is that it’s the color of dark tea, which prevents a lot of sunlight from reaching down into the salt water below. This means that creatures usually found at great depths in the ocean can be found a mere 30 to 40 feet underwater. Caroline and I had paid a little extra to be dropped off at the Underwater Observatory and we were glad we did. After walking down a spiral staircase we were in a round room with windows in every direction. Outside the windows we could see rare “black coral”, fish and invertebrates. For a non-diver, it was the best way to see the underwater world of Milford Sound.
It was still a clear, sunny day when we got back to our car, so we took our time on the return drive to Te Anau. We were both struck speechless at the magnificent scenery leading up to the Homer Tunnel. We both felt it was some of the best scenery we’ve seen in our lives. High praise from people who live in Colorado and who have recently seen the North Cascades, the Oregon coast, Devil’s Tower, etc. The other side of the tunnel was as scenic as it was in the morning. We stopped at The Chasm which is an amazing channel carved in the rock by the Cleddau River. Then we stopped at Monkey Creek where we had also briefly stopped this morning. As we pulled in we saw a crowd of asian tourists crowded in one area. This was a sure sign that a Kea bird was there seeking handouts from the tourists. It’s unfortunate that people feed these wild birds, but I guess we might not have seen one up close if others didn’t toss them the occasional cookie.
Here are a couple videos showing the humorous nature of the Kea as it was looking for handouts:
Finally, if all the above isn’t enough, here’s all our photos from this day: https://www.flickr.com/photos/colovelo/sets/72157649887297357/