After a month spent on my dairy farm in Southland, Julie, the young woman from the farm takes me to Te Anau in Fiordland to see her parents. Jill and Alan live in the small village of Te Anau on the edge of Fiordland National Park, located in the south-west of the South Island. We leave the farm, accompanied by Isla, Carter and Chloe, Monday September 5 after the evening meal. I do not distinguish much from the landscape, the night having fallen. Te Anau appears around 10pm and Jill and Alan welcome us. Transportation of sleeping children in their respective beds and I don’t mind going to bed too. Tomorrow I am going to visit Milford Sound.
Te Anau is the perfect place to explore the Fiordland region. From the village, it is possible to visit a good part of the region’s fjords and to do a lot of hikes including three Great Walks (the so-called best multi-day hikes of New Zealand). I had planned to content myself with hiking, cruises in the fjords being far too expensive and too touristy. But Julie found, a few days before coming to Te Anau, a cruise on the Milford Sound at a reduced price. $90 instead of $175. Although it is still too expensive, I let myself be tempted. Comfort shuttle of only eighteen places, photo stops, short trips during the journey, two-hour cruise with buffet. And it is Julie’s cousin who’s driving the shuttle. He will come to pick me up directly from Julie’s parents’ house at 8am tomorrow morning. Touristy but great opportunity… when the opportunity presents itself, sometimes you have to seize it.
The next day I wake up with a superb weather. The view from the living room is magnificent. Pretty houses with large gardens and the snow-capped Murchison Mountains in the background. I get dressed, eat breakfast quickly and Justin arrives to pick me up. We are only three passengers. Two young Australians and me. The day will be quiet. Justin introduces himself and explains the course of the day to us. Approximately two hours of journey with photo breaks / walks to arrive at the fjord around 10:30 am. From there we embark on our boat at 11am for a 1h40 cruise. Justin then picks us up around 1p.m. to be back in Te Anau around 3:30p.m. It is a bit shorter than I imagined but it is like that. We follow Te Anau lake, which gave its name to the village and I am impressed. The lake is gigantic (344 km2) with many arms that sink through the mountains. The difference in temperature between the cold night and a day that promises to be warm produces a light haze in places. We arrive at Te Anau Downs, a large farm on the edge of the lake where a little harbor is also located to reach the start of the Milford Track, the best known of the Great Walks, only accessible by boat. From there, the road leaves the lake to enter the Eglinton Valley, a superb valley once occupied by a glacier. It is filled with a meadow of yellow herbs and bounded by steep mountains. The place is covered with mist this morning, which makes the landscape extraordinary.
We make our first stop along small Mirrors Lakes to stretch our legs and appreciate the reflection of the Earl Mountains in the waters of the lake. It is freezing cold. The Disappearing Mountain plays an optical illusion for us. As we get closer, the mountain seems to shrink. Second stop for a photo break in front of the waters of Lake Gunn. The perfectly calm water allows an absolutely incredible reflection of the landscape. At the end of the long valley we cross the Homer Tunnel. This old tunnel cut out of solid granite required twenty years of work. It measures 1270 meters and is one-way. A spectacular view of the valley awaits us on the other side.
A short forty-minute stroll to see The Chams, waterfalls in the tumultuous waters of the Cleddau River. They have sculpted the rocks surrounding the waterfalls for thousands of years, giving them strange shapes. Back at the parking lot where Justin is waiting for us, I meet a Kea, the largest alpine parrot in New Zealand. It is the first time I see a wild one. It is not shy at all, walking quietly between the few cars parked in the parking lot. Justin explains that the Keas are alpine parrots living on the South Island and endangered. They are very curious, mischievous birds who have not learned the concept of the danger that men / cars / dogs can represent. Generally in a group, they don’t hesitate to climb on cars, peck the rubber around the windows or rummage in the bags left unattended. This can cause some problems with the many tourists who visit Milford Sound. (A link to listen to the particular cry of the Keas).
About fifteen minutes later we arrived at the entrance of the fjord where there is a very small village (a few huts and lodges) and the boat center. Not a single cloud in the sky. Justin drops us off and we embark on our VIP boat, the Milford Sovereign with a group of twenty Asians. With the exception of the group, the place is not yet full of tourists. The advantage of leaving Te Anau early in the morning allow us to avoid the many tourist coaches from Queenstown arriving at the fjord around noon. For the moment it is still relatively calm. Once embarked on the boat, the two Australians and I rush to the buffet in order to eat as quickly as possible and then be able to enjoy the cruise. Different dishes (with a majority in an Asian style) await us. I take a little of everything. It is very good and I conclude the meal with a small vanilla ice cream.
Once the feast is swallowed, I rush to the deck of the boat, in the open air, to appreciate the landscape. It is absolutely beautiful. The high mountains which delimit the fjord are covered with New Zealand beech forests. Several waterfalls pour their torrent into the crystal clear waters. The rays of the sun cause contrasts between the mountains. I feel like I am in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn cross the Argonath, the huge statues carved in stone on both sides of the Anduin River. Milford Sound, from its Maori name Piopiotahi, is a fjord about fifteen kilometers wide with a depth exceeding four hundred meters. The surrounding mountains are abrupt walls and culminate at Miter Peak at an altitude of 1692m. It is one of the wettest places in New Zealand.
We stop at Fairy Falls, where the sun’s rays cause pretty rainbows and then reach the Tasman Sea where the boat turns around. A small fishing boat accompanied by a horde of seagulls passes by our side. From the sea, it is very difficult to notice the entrance to the fjord. It is hidden by the curves of the landscape. We leave in the opposite direction, this time along the other side of the fjord. Four fur seals await us on Seal Rock, a particularly aptly named pebble. Apparently a mom with little ones. Stirling Falls, the most iconic waterfall on the fjord, offers us a free shower delighting the Asians.
The end of the cruise ends with a visit to Harrison’s Cove, a pretty cove largely covered by a swamp where there is an underwater observation center. The last waterfall of the cruise, Bower Falls, is right next to the boat center. It is the prettiest of the three, I think. The Sovereign drops us on the ground and I take advantage of twenty minutes of free time to appreciate the landscape and the power of the place. It is absolutely beautiful. But the calm has disappeared. Buses from Queenstown have arrived and approximately three hundred people are waiting to board. For the departure at 11am we were about thirty people on the boat. While for the departure at 1p.m., the Sovereign will accommodate around 200 people! I did well to choose the morning cruise. Between the absolutely magnificent time and the few people present at the beginning, it was very good. A little more free time to roam the fjord freely would have been appreciated though.
The return happens quietly. I chat with Justin about my job on the farm and the kids he knows well. Unfortunately the weather is cloudy. We come across a Kea again during a photo stop. Return to Eglinton Valley for another photo stop but the magic of the morning is gone. Justin drops me off at Julie’s parents ’home in the late afternoon where I share my enthusiasm and joy after the visit. The evening ends peacefully with a couple of New Zealand family friends, who have come to share the meal. I fall asleep, stars in my eyes and my head buzzing with desire to explore the rest of Fiordland.