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An Introduction to the Milford Sound

If you’re planning a visit to New Zealand, then the chances are that the country’s spectacular scenery is a large part of the appeal. This part of the world is replete with eye-popping mountains, valleys, glaciers, and waterfalls – and there are few better demonstrations of this natural wealth than the Milford Sound.

The Milford Sound is a glacier-carved fjord described by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. It’s a popular draw for tourists, offering multiple ways to experience the sights. Why? Let’s take a look…

Where is the Milford Sound?

You’ll find the Milford Sound in Fiordland, on the Southwest coast of the South Island, beneath the shadow of Mouth Tutoko.

To reach it, you’ll need to take highway 94, which winds its way around a spectacular obstacle-course of mountains. The route is incredibly circuitous, winding its way through innumerable passes and craggy rock-faces on its way to the sound. You’ll need to take special precautions during the winter, when the road can get a little treacherous. The destination is, however, more than worth the trip.

Atmospheric forested road on the way to the Milford Sound

The roads to the Milford Sound are worth the journey alone. Image by Anderson Aquirre via Unsplash

The History of the Milford Sound

Despite what the name might suggest, Milford Sound isn’t a sound, but a fjord carved by a glacier. It was named by English and Welsh explorers who didn’t quite understand what a fjord was, and the moniker has proven unmovable ever since.

Interestingly, Captain Cook managed to sail straight past the place twice during his voyages without ever entering it – and so it was left to an explorer named John Gorno to discover it in 1823, and promptly name it after his birthplace; Milford Haven in Wales.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that this gem remained hidden for so long; the entrance to the fjord is deceptively small, offering no suggestion of the large bay beyond. Explorers of this era would have also been wary of the steep coastline, which might have made escape impossible, and so it’s easy to forgive the oversight.

Naturally, the indigenous population were more than familiar with the area by this point. According to Maori myth, the sound, along with the entire Fiordland coastline, was sculpted by a god named ‘Tu-te-raki-whanoa’ using an axe-like implement, Te Hamo, after which a nearby settlement is named. Another story recounts how the Maori came to name the fjord Piopiatahi, which means ‘single piopio’. According to the tale, the Polynesian hero Māui (whom Disney fans might remember was voiced by Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson in ‘Moana’) lost his life, and a long-extinct bird named the Piopio was said to have flown here in mourning.

For thousands of years, the Maori would be the only people to settle here – and during this time they developed a formidable knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna. The fjord provided a bountiful habitat, and tribes would venture here from far and wide in order to hunt and fish. The first western resident of the area, however, would be a Scotsman named Donald Sutherland. Having enjoyed a life as a sealer, soldier, and gold prospector, Sutherland decided to pack it all in in 1877 and live out his days in Milford Sound, eventually marrying in 1890 and building a hotel in the area to accommodate the steadily-growing influx of walkers looking to enjoy the Milford Track.

Cruising the Milford Sound

The best way to see what the Milford Sound has to offer is, naturally, by floating atop its surface. Take a kayak out into the centre of the water and you’ll get a sense of seclusion that’s almost unparalleled anywhere in the world. But you might equally go on a cruise-trip with a posse of fellow sightseers.

A dark and stormy Milford Sound from the water

Don’t let wet weather put you off visiting the Milford Sound. Rain and fog only make for a more atmospheric journey. Image by Adam Edgerton via Unsplash

Cruises over Milford Sound tend to come in two different sorts. There are day-long cruises, and there are overnight ones. Each cruise departs from Milford wharf, right at the end of the inlet, and sails along the length of the fjord and back again over the course of several hours. The exact length of the excursion will vary according to the sort of cruise you’ve booked, but you can expect at the very least to get a close-up look at the iconic Mitre Peak, Seal Rock and the Tasman sea along the way.

Overnight cruises are offered by selected tour companies, and provide a way to spend a little longer on the water, without crowds intruding on the experience. They tend to set out in the afternoon, after the other tour groups have set out for the long drive home. You’ll be able to enjoy a buffet dinner during your cruise, take a look at the stars, and then sleep in the cabin, safe in the knowledge that the morning will bring a peerless environment in which to enjoy breakfast.

Other Ways to Experience the Milford Sound

If you’re water-averse, or just want a small taste of what the Sound has to offer, then you could equally experience the sounds on foot, via a thirty-three-mile hiking route named the Milford Track. The journey takes around four days, and traverses some of the national park’s most breath-taking scenery. You’ll see rainforests, glacial valleys and waterfalls on your way to the finish line at Sandfly point.

Camping along the route is forbidden, but a trio of well-maintained and serviced huts provide accommodation along the way. As such, space on each walk is limited to around ninety people per day – and spaces tend to fill up several months in advance. The walking season runs between October and April (since the weather becomes seriously adverse at the height of winter) – but you can still try the route if you’re feeling brave. Be aware, however, that there’s no booking system in place for beds during off-season, and no running water, flush toilets, fuel or local rangers. As such, only experienced hikers should make the attempt.

Silver Fern Holidays operate a guided walk along the Milford Track which takes you from Auckland to Queenstown over five days.  

Milford Sound vs Marlborough Sounds

The Marlborough Sounds are to be found on the northernmost tip of the South Island. They represent an attractive alternative to the Milford Sound – but the scenery couldn’t be more different. While Milford is a relatively narrow, steep-sided fjord, Marlborough Sounds are far more expansive.

Size

The Marlborough Sounds are truly enormous, spreading over fifteen hundred square miles and containing three main sounds (these being the Queen Charlotte, the Kenepuru, and the Pelorus), along with more exposed Outer Sounds nearer to the Cook Strait. As such, it’s impossible to see everything they have to offer in a single trip – or even multiple trips. By contrast, the Milford experience lasts a matter of hours.

Cruising

With more area to explore, the Marlborough Sounds offer plenty of scope for cruising. If you’re just looking to spend a few hours out on the water, however, then Milford emerges the winner – particularly if your budget can stretch to an overnight stay on the water.

Remoteness

The Marlborough Sounds are far more accessible than those on the South coast. There are several small towns dotted around the perimeter, the most notable of these being Picton, and excellent road links to the rest of the country. If you’re staying in Wellington, you’ll even be able to get a boat in via the Cook Strait.

Cost

Another implication of the considerable size of the Marlborough Sounds is that there’s greater variance in terms of prices. It’s possible to enjoy the area cheaply, or spend a great deal on lengthy trips over multiple nights.

Fiordland offers an entirely different experience to Abel Tasman. While the former is packed with precipitous drops and soaring cliffs, the latter offers gentle beaches and rolling hills. There’s also latitude to consider; Marlborough is warmer than Milford, and especially so during winter.

Milford Sound vs the Doubtful Sound

The Doubtful Sound, by contrast, is just a stone’s throw from Milford Sound. With that said, the differences between the two are considerable.

Size

The Doubtful Sound is around ten times the size of its near-neighbour, and three times longer. Like Milford Sound, it offers a stunning range of scenery, but unfortunately this scenery is spread out over a larger area. Milford Sound is the more vertiginous and imposing of the two, with sheer drops, waterfalls and precipitous cliffs looming over visitors at every opportunity.

Cruising

While the cruises that run through Milford Sound are rigidly structured, those running through Doubtful Sound are more haphazard. With more room to spread out over, boats are afforded more freedom, and thus you’ll be able to stay out longer and take part in a range of activities.

Remoteness

Perhaps the biggest practical difference between the two destinations, however, is that Doubtful Sound is far more difficult to reach. There’s no road leading there; instead you’ll need to take a boat over the adjoining Lake Manapouri and then bus it through Wilmot Pass. This inconvenience might prove worthwhile, however, since you’ll have fewer tourists around to intrude on your solitude. On the other hand, the more popular Milford Sound can be reached after a two-hour drive from Te Anau.

Cost

As you’ll need to take additional transport to reach the Doubtful Sound in the first place, trips there tend to be more expensive. Moreover, since there are fewer people around with whom to split the cost of transport, boats tend to be smaller and thus costlier. You can expect a daytime cruise to weigh in at upwards of two-hundred dollars, and last for around eight hours.

In Conclusion

The Milford Sound is among the most spectacular natural wonders anywhere in the world, and draws sizeable crowds annually for good reason. Make a trip here part of your break, and it’s sure to be a memorable one!

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