NZ South Island Road Trip Stop 3: The Very Long Road to Milford Sound

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Rudyard Kipling declared it the 8th wonder of the world – and it receives almost one million visitors a year – but let me tell you, Milford Sound is not easy to get to.

Located on the notoriously wet western coast of New Zealand, Milford Sound has an annual rainfall of 268 inches annually – making it the wettest inhabited spot in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. Up until the 20th century, the Fjordlands that surround Milford Sound were some of the least explored areas of the country. These days however, the 9 mile fjord flanked by 4,000 ft walls makes the small airport located here one of the busiest in New Zealand.

We were warned before leaving for our road trip that the commonly bad weather shut down the remote mountain roads leading to Milford Sound often in the winter – and many of our friends told us stories of long drives only to be turned around by avalanches or rockfalls. But I only had 2 weeks on the south island, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to at least try to get to this famous, if not somewhat elusive, destination.

So even though we had called ahead and knew the last portion of the road to Milford Sound was closed due to avalanches, we woke up at dawn on our first Queenstown morning to start making our way east towards the Tasman Sea anyways.

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There are three ways to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown. If you have the funds, there are tons of airplane and helicopter tours to choose from that will get you in and out at convenient times in half-day trips. Otherwise, it’s a full day adventure, with tourist buses leaving both Queenstown and Te Anau – the last town before the Fjordlands – early most mornings. We opted out of both the planes and buses in order to drive ourselves and save a little money.

While I was initially enviously eyeing those airplane brochures, I’m really glad we wound up driving on our own. The trip from Queenstown is about 4-hours each way, but the sights were so beautiful that we hardly noticed. The second half of the drive takes place entirely in Fjordland National Park, and I was happy to have the flexibility of our own vehicle to pull over and see the sites wherever we wanted.

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We had heard word that the road may open at noon, but the down faces of those waiting at the closure when we arrived at 11:45 clued us in to the reality – there was still more waiting to do. A worker at the gate told us they were hoping to open at 2, and so we took the opportunity to do more exploring of beautiful Fjordland National Park.

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The park itself was so stunning – full of rushing water and swinging bridges and dramatic peaks – that I told Tom as we approached the gate for the second time that it didn’t matter if we made it to Milford, the beauty of this day was already worth the drive. I felt bad for the tourists who had arrived on buses. While we were out hiking they sat on the side of the road the entire 2 hour wait. Tom and I pulled out our cooler and made sandwiches when 2pm came and went without a lifted closure, and we started to feel weary when we saw the tourist buses turning around. Those operations would lose a lot of money today, and we were worried they knew something about the closure that we didn’t.

Finally, Tom and I decided we’d give it another 45 minutes – if the road wasn’t open by the end of that time slot, we’d turn around. By this time we’d missed the boat tour we’d booked for 11:45am the night before, and the tour we’d rebooked for 2:45pm that morning, but we held out hope that since no one was getting through via road, the boats would wait, and we settled in for our last stretch of sitting roadside.

Lucky for us, just as we reached the end of our 45 minute agreement, the gates opened! We followed a long line of cars through the last and most dramatic section of Fjordland National Park yet, pausing one more time for a bridge to open while curious keas charmed the crowd.

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And then we were off, through the mountain tunnel that spit us out into a sparkling, snow-covered valley. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me as they adjusted from the darkness of the tunnel – it seemed as though the sheer rock walls were moving. But it wasn’t a trick. Soon I saw them clearly – hundreds of waterfalls were cascading down the cliffs – the last of the precipitation that had kept these roads closed for the past four days.

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Tom and I drove quietly, with stupid grins glued to our faces. I found myself literally reminding myself to breath as we made our way out of a thicket of woods to see our first view of the famous Milford Sound.

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Tom was stressed that we might miss yet another boat, but I was giddily calm. We had made it this far, and for some reason, I was sure we wouldn’t have trouble with our boat tour. My premonition was confirmed when we reached the tour desk, where a smiling agent informed us that our boat had waited, and would be leaving in ten easy minutes. Around us stressed visitors were being informed that their tours had left without them, for this and many other reasons, I cannot sing the praises of Cruise Milford more. Of the dozens of boats that give tours of the sound, I only saw two others go out that afternoon despite the tourists who had waited all day at the closure. In addition to accommodating us, our boat was much smaller than the others touring the fjord (which I imagine might make a difference on a more crowded day – though there were only 12 on our boat in the end). Plus, our captain and crew were impressively cheery and informative.

Alright, plug complete.

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The next two hours on the fjord defied words.

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It was cold. I am a person who is not naturally warm, and I typically have a very low tolerance for cold. But I was so stunned by Milford Sound that I did not go inside the heated boat cabin for the entire tour. It was truly one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen, and I could not believe our luck as we pulled into the mouth of the Tasman Sea just as the sun began to set. I thought of all the cars and buses we saw turn around at the gate earlier that afternoon, and how all of those people were probably wishing now that the road had not been closed. But even though I knew we’d be driving home in the dark, I was so thankful for all that time spent waiting.

Had the road not been closed, Tom and I wouldn’t of had those hours to explore Fjordland National Park. Had the road been open, our boat would undoubtedly be full and we would have shared the sound with many more boats than we did. Had we been able to board our original midday cruise we would not get to see the reflection of that periwinkle sky on that calm jeweled water.

The four hours home didn’t pass as quickly as had the way there, but it wasn’t tedious either. Both Tom and I were tired, but full. It was a long day, but truly the most beautiful either of us had ever experienced.

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Don’t stop now! Don’t you want to know what happened at Stops 12, 4, 5, 6, and 7??

8 thoughts on “NZ South Island Road Trip Stop 3: The Very Long Road to Milford Sound

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