After Queenstown, we arrived in Te Anau, the gateway to the Milford Sound, a little tired and under the weather but excited for what was ahead.
Milford Sound is one of those things we’d been looking forward to almost the entire trip. If there is one quintessential New Zealand tourist activity, touring Milford Sound, whether by boat or by kayak, is it. It’s a long journey: two hours drive from the nearest town. But as we came to discover, the drive is just as beautiful as the sound itself.
We woke up at 5:00am and headed out in the dark to catch the sunrise at Mirror Lakes, about halfway between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Though it’s the middle of summer here, at 45 degrees south it gets pretty darn cold during the nights and mornings. We were wearing our warmest and armed with hot tea and so enjoyed watching the early sunlight hit the peaks at Mirror Lakes.
As we continued down the road and stopped at lookouts, we got to meet the famous and annoying local: The Kea. These are some of the only alpine parrots in the world; they are feisty and pushy with big personalities. They climbed all over people’s cars and tried their best to duck inside when doors momentarily opened, looking for food.
We drove on, through the mountains, to arrive at the Milford Sound terminal. Looking online, I saw that tours were insanely expensive, so I thought we could just enjoy the sights from the shore. But our Airbnb host, a local guide, encouraged us to take a cruise. We walked up to the Jucy desk, the same company as our car rental, and got a sweet deal: buy one cruise ticket, get one 1/2 off since we were already Jucy customers. Our total purchase was $44 – completely reasonable and within our budget! The cruise boarded within 10 minutes and we were off!
For 90 minutes, we enjoyed cruising around the sound. We saw insanely steep waterfalls, including the magnificent Stirling Falls. We sailed by a colony of seals sunning themselves on warm rocks. We were joined by a school of bottlenose dolphins, which we’re told is a rare sight. And we bent our necks at impossible angles trying to take in the massive walls of rock around us.
After our cruise, we walked along the shore for some additional perspectives of the sound. Then we went back to our car, put down the seats, and slept sweetly for an hour.
Upon waking, we decided to head back down the road towards Te Anau, and if we had enough energy, hike to Key Summit for some panoramic views of the three surrounding valleys. There were plenty of places to stop along the way and marvel at the mountainous landscape around us.
The hike to Key Summit was a good challenge; pretty steep but with wonderfully rewarding views at the top. This was probably the best effort-to-view ratio of any of the hikes we’ve done. A quick 3 hours return, it was an excellent way to spend the late afternoon.
Twelve hours after we left Te Anau, we rolled back into town and straight into the local pizzeria where we replenished all the calories we’d expended during the day’s adventures. Coming back to our shared Airbnb house, we greeted our housemates, showered, and fell asleep on top of the sheets with all the lights on around 9:00pm. Par for the course.
The next day we blissfully slept in, checked out the weather report, and decided to drive back in to do another hike. We hiked to Lake Marian, a clear alpine lake that we had good views of the day before from afar on Key Summit. The hike was a steady climb up a poorly maintained trail (rare in New Zealand) and through a hanging valley: a glacially formed valley that sits high above the rest of the surrounding valley floor.
When we got up to the top, the track abruptly ended and seemed to continue under water. One of the hikers gathered around the water’s edge was a local, and he told us the water level is usually much lower. When it’s low, you can hike around the lake to enjoy the views, but we could only slosh around in some mushy grass before being overtaken by the water. We still managed to get some great photos and enjoyed some granola bars on a little patch of grass we found.
At the end of the day, we returned to our house to find our roommates bottling beer, so we jumped right in to help and passed the night drinking homebrew with them and talking about travel.
Milford Sound and the Fjordland National Park leading into it were truly magnificent. It feels like nothing will compare to our first sight of pure geological beauty in Torres del Paine, Chile one year ago, but Fjordland National Park comes in at a close second. We both feel like TdP and Milford Sound were the perfect bookends for our year of travel. Though it’s not over yet, we are down to just weeks until we part ways for awhile and then transition back into domestic life. We’re savoring these sweet moments of surrounding splendor and awe for sure.