The road to Milford Sound is one of the prettiest that I’ve seen in all my travels through New Zealand and I’ve been through quite a few. Even though I was on a tour bus, there was never a quiet moment literally as everyone kept taking photos as the bus meandered its way through the scenic mountain pass.
I took a bus from Queenstown as I was daunted by the thought of a long drive through the mountains by myself. It didn’t seem like a good idea to drive myself since Milford Sounds is located in a remote area on the southwest coast of the South Island. From Queenstown, it was a 2 hour drive to Te Anau and another 2 – 3 hours on the road to Milford Sound. That was just one way there. So I decided to go with a tour experience instead and kept my expectations low to avoid disappointment.
As the bus raced down Milford Road to make it for the 11.15am ferry, a picturesque view started to emerge on both sides of the road. There were lush greenery all around and yet the glimpses of snowy mountain peaks in the far distance perked everyone up with the promise of more to come. The bus made one stop at Eglinton Valley for photos but those mountain peaks beckoned so off we went. We were on a tight schedule, remember? No time to be wasted.
And then as the roads started to wind up, the scenery slowly transformed into rocky, majestic cliffs which towered over the bus as it went along. The beauty of the mountains all around was just breathtaking. Snow was still evident at the tops of the mountains even though it was spring. It was also the point where we crossed the divide of the Southern Alps between the west coast and east coast.
My highlight of the drive on Milford Road though was the mountain tunnel. Homer Tunnel was named after the person who started the idea of a mountain road through the Southern Alps. At an altitude of 945m, it was the highest point of Milford Road and also the second longest road tunnel in New Zealand. All thanks to one person who had the greatest dream of all. I was totally blown away.
Going through the tunnel and emerging to the other side felt like entering a magical land where you just have no words to capture the essence of these big, huge, slabs of rock that surrounded you everywhere. In the simplest words, these mountains rocked! I wished I had some time to spend in that spot just to absorb the spectacular views all around me. You had to be there to feel the presence of the mountains yourself, photos don’t do it justice. I would totally go back and drive there just to see this again.
Well, ehem, tour bus, remember? Time waits for no bus or in this case, the ferry waits for no bus so it was an onward journey descending down the winding roads towards Milford Sound once we got through the tunnel. I can’t lie though. Passing through Milford Sound, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit anti-climatic.
Sure, sailing down the fjord with the ferry was undeniably scenic. We were presented with views of the waterfalls descending down the cliff surfaces into the water. Those brave enough to stay on the open decks were also treated with a waterfall splash. Nothing beats seeing the snowy peaks peeping through the mountain mists as the ferry moved towards the opening leading into the Tasman Sea. We didn’t see any dolphins but we did see seals sunning themselves on the rocks as we went along.
Like I said, the ferry ride was still quite enjoyable despite the tourists at every corner but all in all, it felt too similar to other ferry rides that I had taken in New Zealand. Do remember that I had been travelling for a few months so that wasn’t my first ferry ride in the South Island.
Would it have been a different experience in different weather? Perhaps. Could the views be even more spectacular during winter with more snow on the mountains? I guess. My opinion on it could also differ from those who are visiting New Zealand for the first time. I was still satisfied that I got to see the wonders of Milford Sound but for me, my highlight and personal favourite was still back at the mountain road.
Once we have disembarked from the ferry, it was time to get back on the road. Since the main event was over, the driver was a little bit more relaxed with our schedule and made brief stops at the Mirror Lake and The Chasm. I had a short walk around the area of the Chasm to see the waterfalls and the water-sculpted rock formations. And since time is a precious commodity on a tour, we were soon on our way back for the long drive to Queenstown via Te Anau.
As if he heard my thoughts, the driver gave us a special present as we drove through the winding mountain road up to the tunnel again. This tunnel was one-way only and it so happened that the bus had to wait at a red light while waiting for traffic from the other side of the tunnel to clear. As the timer on the red light counted down, he allowed us all freedom to get out and take photos of the mountain pass.
So like a zombie apocalypse, we all escaped into the wild as fast as we could to take as many photos as we could in that 2 minutes of stop that we had. Other drivers joined us in our frenzy the moment they caught on to our idea. A mad rush of photographers united in taking photos in the shortest time possible. And before you know it, the crowd of photographers escaped back into their cars as the lights turned green on our side. It was the last I got to see of these beautiful, wonderful, majestic, wild land.
They told me that Milford Sound was a must see for visitors to New Zealand. Well, I do agree but I would also recommend a self-drive there if possible rather than a guided tour. I had nothing against the tour that I had taken, I was well-taken care of during my time with them. I just wished I had more time to linger when I wanted to sometimes. If I had to visit again, I would probably stay a night or two at Te Anau so that I can take my time to explore the area near Milford Sound without having to rush back to return to Queenstown. To me, the beauty of the Milford Sound didn’t just lie in the ferry trip down the fjord but the road taken to reach it deserved to be appreciated just as much.
- I took a one-day Sunriser tour from Jucy for NZ$105. I was picked up at Queenstown around 5.30am and was back in Queenstown before 7pm. Lunch was not provided but the option to purchase one on the ferry was available. The entire ferry ride took about an hour and a half.
- If driving there, make sure to have a full tank before leaving Te Anau for the trip back as my bus driver told us there was no shops along the way there. Similarly, stock up on any snacks at Te Anau if you wish to have anything for the journey.
- Bring cash as there are no ATMs at Milford Sounds (as told by my bus driver)
- Bring a waterproof/ windproof jacket if you want to be close to the waterfall. The ferry usually goes very very close to one so be prepared to get wet if you remain on deck. It can also be quite windy if you choose to stay out on the deck the whole journey on the ferry.
- Take a picture of your tour bus number so that you get on the correct bus after the ferry returned as there will be a lot of other buses from the same company parked there.
What do you think? Would you have preferred a tour or self-drive through these roads? Please do share! 🙂