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A New Zealand Travel Guide

Milford Sound and Fiordland

"a raw, elemental, awe-inspiring landscape"


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Milford Sound, Fiordland, New Zealand.
Dusky Sound. Photograph by Gilbert van Reenen, Clean Green Images Ltd. Purchase a print from him or take a photo nature tour.

Milford Sound is one of the most famous of all New Zealand images. Mitre Peak, an all but perfect triangle of a mountain, is an icon for tourism in this country.

I know that it's tired and unoriginal to say that a landscape is awe-inspiring. But wait till you see this . . . there is just no other way to describe it. You will, I promise you - unless you be made of the selfsame stone - stand in gob-smacked awe of these mountains and valleys. They will pour in upon your senses. Overwhelm you. Leave you standing mute and humble. This is indeed a landscape where God set the colour and contrast and man hasn't fiddled with the dials.

In my opinion (my opinions are never humble) the road to Milford Sound is the pre-eminent landscape experience in New Zealand.

The magnitude, the power, the scale of this landscape reveals itself slowly. You start at gentle Lake Te Anau, mountain rimmed on its far side, then rise and fall across Te Anau Downs before the climb into the mountain fastness that guards the sounds, climaxing with the exit from the Homer Tunnel and the descent to Milford through a landscape that reduces the human observer to an insignificant speck of dust. The greatest egos in the world, the riches, the power, the glory of human achievement are scaled to true dimension here. Compared to this landscape they are nothing!

Millions of years old they be, yet these are still young mountains with the brashness and rawness of youth. Carved and shaped by the colossal forces of an ice age or two, but still sheer and massive, granite-grey and formidable, they reduce we living things to the momentary passing irrelevance we really are.

Some years ago I wrote and produced a series of cassette tapes, intended to give the traveller a commentary as they traversed the countryside. On this section of the road a narrative is superfluous, irreverent almost. Instead, I used the music of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - the Chorale. I felt it was the only thing that could match these mountains for size, and majesty and all those other boggling adjectives people use, none of which is enough. Even though I say it myself, the effect was stunning. If you have the Ninth on tape, bring it with you for this moment.

Te Anau

Te Anau is a surprise for travellers. It's the sort of place that, but for the attraction of Milford Sound, they might elect to miss. But don't make it just a comfort stop on the way to or from Milford. It has many attractions of its own, especially if you value the true wilderness experience.

There's no question, however, that it's main purpose in life is as a gateway to and touring base for the Fiordland Region. There is very little in the way of accommodation at Milford Sound itself. There is a backpacker's hostel and that's it for the public. The hotel there is now used exclusively for Milford Track trekkers and is not open to the public. Thus Te Anau serves as the base camp for exploration.

Manapouri and Doubtful Sound

Manapouri is the more beautiful of the two lakes. It is the womb of the now-powerful NZ green movement. Back in the 60s the government of the day decided to pump up the pressure on the penstocks of the Manapouri power station hidden in the very roots of the mountains themselves.

The power station was a clever idea - instead of letting the overflow water from Lake Manapouri run "uselessly" down the Waiau River to the sea near Invercargill, they carved out a tunnel from the lake to Milford Sound, several hundred feet below the lake's natural level, using the thus-trapped water pressure to drive the turbines. If the lake's level could, on the other hand, be raised, the pressure would be greater and the power output increased.

To do so, however, would ruin the lakeshore. The drowned, dead trees would remain for decades as a monument to "progress". The locals rose up in revolt. "Damn The Dams" was the slogan. A pop song of the same name made the top of the charts. Under withering public pressure the government backed down. But for the protesters came the realisation that the pristine wilderness was badly depleted and if they wanted to stop the rot they had to fight for it. The eco-movement was born.

To me the stunning thing about the trip on Doubtful Sound comes when they turn off the boat's motors and the vessel just lolls in the gentle swells. Despite the fact that there may be a hundred or more people on board, there is utter silence. Silence that implodes on the inner ear. Silence that deafens the brain. And no wonder. With the shutting down of the engine, you are about as far away from anywhere in the world as it's reasonably possible to be without undertaking a major expedition.

Milford

From Te Anau to Milford Sound is one of the great adventure roads in NZ -- possibly the greatest. 1

Cruising Milford Sound

You can take your choice from a wide variety of ways of exploring this magnificent fiord - launch, kayak, or scuba diving.

Tracks & Treks

Milford Track - "The Finest Walk In The World

On 17 October 1888, Quintin Mackinnon discovered the mountain pass that made possible an overland route to Milford Sound. His fellow explorer, Donald Sutherland, developed a tourist route -- the Milford Track -- which quickly earned the description "the finest walk in the world". Thousands of people have traversed the Milford Track, yet as each one reaches the summit of Mackinnon Pass or catches a first glimpse of the lofty Sutherland Falls, the sense of achievement is the same as that enjoyed by those nineteenth century adventurers. Today, the trip is well within the capabilities of anyone who is fit and used to walking. Trampers of all ages have completed the Track with enjoyment. The route itself and the siting of the huts are virtually unchanged, but today's explorers take for granted comforts that would have been unthinkable for Messrs Mackinnon and Sutherland.

Kepler Track

Ranked as one of the country's "great walks". (There are eight of them). It is well prepared and surfaced with gravel. The track is for the most part well graded, but the mountain section needs a reasonable level of fitness. Takes three to four days - though the first section from the control gates to Brod Bay is an excellent day trip.

Hollyford Track

This is a relatively flat track which follows the Hollyford River from the sheer-walled Darran Mountains out to the coast. Operates all year round, including the winter. Its 56km takes four to five days. A popular option is to fly into Martins Bay and walk out.

Routeburn Track

Another of the Great Walk tracks. A 39 km one way track that can be walked in either direction - from The Divide (Milford Road) or Glenorchy.

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10 March 2012