Sounding Milford Out

Thursday, September 18, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Day 16:  Queenstown & Milford Sound

Milford Sound in Fjordland National Park is acclaimed as New Zealand's most famous tourist attraction, promising views of dramatic cliffs, majestic snow-covered mountains, and deep blue water filled with unique marine life.  It was a no brainer for us.  Of course, we had to visit this spectacular place.
When we arrived in Queenstown yesterday, we booked a helicopter flight to the sound, followed by a cruise in the fjord and a fixed-wing flight back to Queenstown.  On the way down, the helicopter was to make a landing on a glacier.  Sound too good to be true?  It was.

We knew that rain or snow could, and often did, cancel the flights, but the weather looked good when we started our day in Queenstown this morning.  Even though Milford Sound is only about 55 miles away, it's on the other side of the Southern Alps, and its weather has vastly different influences.  About half an hour before we were to be picked up by the airport shuttle, we received a call notifying us that our 9:00 flight had been called off due to weather at the sound.  The same fate had befallen the 11 a.m. flight, so there was no opportunity to reschedule.

Since we've planned only one more day in Queenstown, and tomorrow's forecast already calls for rain, we decided to drive to Milford today.  It's only 55 miles northeast of Queenstown, but there's one minor issue.  There is no road across those 55 miles; the drive is a bit more circuitous.

When we asked the GPS to calculate the route from our hotel to Milford Sound, it came back with 183 miles that went like this.  Drive 61 miles due south, turn right and go 40 miles due west.  After another right turn, go 82 miles more or less due north.

Road south
The road was bumpy and winding, ratcheting our average speed down to about 47 miles per hour. But that was fine, because the scenery along the way was something you wanted to slow down and gaze at anyway.

Deer farming in New Zealand
Not far from Queenstown, we saw the first of numerous deer farms.  As we were to learn, large scale deer farming started in New Zealand, and the country leads the world in the size and advancement of its deer farming industry,  New Zealand has no native mammals except a tiny bat.  Deer were first brought to the country from Britain in the 19th century.  They were released in this part of the country in the hopes that a wild herd would develop for hunting.

As with kudzu in the southern United States, the experiment was far more successful than anyone anticipated or desired.  By the middle of the 20th century, the population of wild deer had grown to such proportions that they presented a threat to native forests.  The government began to hire hunters to cull the herds and keep the numbers in check.  In the 1960s, enterprising hunters began exporting venison, and a new industry was born.  Rather than killing the excess deer population, industry pioneers began capturing them and putting them on farms.  Today more than 3,500 deer farms in New Zealand raise almost two million deer annually.

One scenic vista after another (much prettier than photo indicates)
As we approached Milford, the road began to narrow, often down to a single lane, an interesting prospect since many buses travel the route.  When the center line disappears, you know to watch carefully for who or what may be rounding the next curve.  By this point, we were driving through the base of very tall peaks.  Snow was in evidence along the roadsides and occasionally falling from the sky, though most of the steady stream of precipitation came in the form of rain.

Fifteen miles from Milford Sound
These conditions were definitely not boding well for the legendary views on the cruise.  Ten miles before the sound, we reached the entrance to Homer Tunnel, a single-lane, .75-mile underpass with unlined granite walls.  Though in an avalanche risk zone, the approaches to the tunnel are regulated by traffic lights to prevent dual access.

Waiting to enter the tunnel
By the time we reached Milford, the sky was completely overcast with low clouds hanging over the sound, blocking the view of the majestic peaks nearby.  We arrived just in time to join a cruise, which sailed out to the Tasman Sea and back.  Thanks to the view-blocking fog and rain, we saw only tree-covered hills, a few waterfalls and the water.  One can only assume the views would have been much better in fairer weather.  However, the minimal commentary was not affected by the weather.  For the $75+ fare, we expected much more narration than four or five barely audible comments in almost two hours.

Needless to say, our Milford Sound experience didn't nearly live up to the hype we had read about this scenic area.  Weather undermined our sightseeing, to be sure, but would it have been that much better?  We have no way of knowing and find ourselves comparing the experience with a Kenai Fjords National Park cruise in Alaska where the views were much more interesting and we had a park ranger providing live narration and interaction.

Nevertheless, the views on the route from Queenstown to Milford were exquisite and well worth the trip.  Tomorrow, we plan to see some of the sights around Queenstown before moving on to Mount Cook.

Road Noise

We met an interesting fellow traveler on the cruise today—a native Korean who is a Catholic priest working at a medical facility for leprosy patients on mainland China.  He is on vacation and was traveling alone.

Daily Stats
  • Started in Queenstown, ended in Queenstown
  • Mileage -   354    (Trip total:  13,447)
  • Weather - 36° to 54°, foggy, rainy, occasional snow
  • Deer on farms - 2,847
  • Sheep - 13,729

Our cruise ship

Waterfall we saw on cruise
Kea (New Zealand parrot) who greeted us as we waited for tunnel entrance
Alpaca farm we passed today
Another scenic view along the way