According to Maori legend, Lake Wakatipu was formed when the body of a sleeping giant was burnt by a Maori warrior, who wanted to ensure that the giant could never kidnap his beautiful daughter again. The fire caused the ice and snow on the surrounding mountains to melt, forming Lake Wakatipu. We drive past this turquoise glass-like lake from Queenstown, on our way to Milford Sound or Fjord land in the South Island of New Zealand, where the journey is touted to be as spectacular as the destination! We arrive at Te Anau which is the picturesque town that acts as the gateway to the fjords with the almost-perfect Lake Gunn. Its name is derived from Maori words Te Ana Au, meaning “cave of swirling waters.” These caves were forgotten for years till they were rediscovered in 1948. Today the caves are popular with visitors who descend into their depths, and glide through a grotto illuminated by glow-worms.
The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is often lauded as one of the most scenic highways in the world, reaching a height of almost 1,000m! The winding road enters the spectacular golden- grassed Eglinton Valley where we stop to take photos and stretch our legs. Standing in knee-high grass with snow-capped mountains in the background, it is hard not to feel like I am the heroine in a blockbuster! Some scenes from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (shot entirely in New Zealand) were based in the Eglinton Valley. We take a walk through a forest with primordial mystique that has silver ferns blanketing the floor of a beech forest—the moist environment gives rise to emerald mosses, old man’s beard and lichens. It reminds me of a forest from a child’s fairytale where elves and gnomes might just appear at the next corner! Moss and algae cover everything; the trees drip epiphytes. There is the earthy smell of leaf litter and moist soil in the air.
We drive past a landscape of snowy peaks, alpine lakes and primeval forests, in this massive World Heritage area with 14 fjords that slash into its coastline. This is also a region that gets up to twenty feet of rainfall every year. We walk to the glassy Mirror Lakes, whose sapphire waters reflect the picture perfect Earl mountains. We come back to the parking lot to see the brazen Alpine parrot called Kea sitting on our parked vehicle. It is notorious for its penchant for chewing the rubber off car windows, breaking in, and eating the upholstery!
Driving alongside green pastures, dotted with zillions of sheep, craggy peaks and high plateaus, we approach the Homer Tunnel built out of solid granite. This took over twenty years to build, keeping men employed during the Depression and I hear that they built it with just their bare hands and pickaxes. We stop at another viewpoint where I walk through a wooden walkway—a series of paths and bridges to the Chasm, a 400 metre loop with a series of swirling waterfalls, rushing water gurgling and racing deep underground, rapids and sensuous curves gouged out by millennia of erosion in the path of the Cleddar River. The force of the water and rocks being carried in the current have created sculpted rocks, basins and holes that remind me of abstract art.
We finally arrive at Milford Sound which is steeped in history and legend— the Maori attribute its creation to the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa, who was called away before he could carve a proper route, leaving high rock walls! The Maori are believed to have discovered the region over thousand years ago, going there to collect greenstone or pounamu, which they used to carve jewellery and weapons. They named the Sound Piopiotahi after a thrush-like bird, which is now extinct. John Grono was the first European settler in Milford in 1912; he renamed the sound Milford after Milford Haven in Wales. I hear that Milford is at its best in the rain, something that happens very often. And sure enough, within minutes of our arrival there is a light drizzle and every cliff-face sprouts a waterfall and the place looks even more magical, as a shroud of ethereal mist descends on us. Some of the waterfalls are slender and pencil thin, landing in a powdery white mist; others are furious and strong as they pour ferociously over the cliff edges.
We board our ship aptly named “Southern Discoveries,” and sail along the ancient path of ice. Our guide explains that Milford is actually not a Sound which is technically an area eroded by a river, but a fjord which is a drowned area created by a glacier. Milford is flanked entirely by sheer rock faces, some of which tower almost 5,000 feet high and the channel is more than 1,300 feet deep in some places, making this a very unique experience! Dominated by the steep slopes of the Southern Alps, it takes its name from the deep lakes and ocean-flooded valleys that resemble the fjords of Scandinavia! I take out my beanie, scarf and bundle myself in fleece as I step on to the deck of the ship. It’s a great feeling battling the elements and soaking in the jaw dropping scenery.
It’s all about sheer scale and size. I gaze entranced at waterfalls that plummet down the cliffs, woven with rainbows. In the distance, the iconic 1692m-high Mitre Peak (Mitre comes from the word for a bishop’s hat, which it’s supposed to resemble) rises tall from the water. We edge closer to the tallest waterfall—the Stirling Falls which is three times the height of the Niagara Falls and as the captain navigates the ship under its thunderous cascades, I scuttle for cover, covering my camera with a plastic cover! We see fur seals slouching and basking on a rock almost camouflaged by the colour of the rock. The sharp-eyed guide points to bottle nosed dolphins. Verdant palettes of moss ridden rock, the grey sheet of rain, the white foam of the waterfalls, all pass me in the blink of an eye, as I huddle under the cowl of my rain coat, on the upper deck of the boat. The occasional whale makes its way into the sound to play before disappearing back to sea. The haunting, misty ambience stays in my mind for a long time to come—no wonder Rudyard Kipling described the dramatic Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world! It’s truly Mother Nature at her best.
How to get there:
Fly to Singapore and connect to Auckland.
Where to stay:
Milford Sound can be done as a convenient day trip from Queenstown. There are many coach companies which do these tours with scenic stops on the way. You can also stay at Te Anau or the Milford Sound Lodge nestled beneath the towering peaks of the Darran Mountains; this lodge provides river view chalets near the Fiordland National Park There is also a campervan option. If you wish to see some of New Zealand’s most dramatic scenery in style, splurge on a helicopter to Milford Cruise from Queenstown.
Things to do:
No visit to Milford Sound is complete without a boat cruise around this iconic fiord. Discover towering waterfalls, lush rainforest, sheer granite cliffs and marine life. You can also kayak the inky waters in a small group. Fjord land is a world-famous hiking paradise. Whether you decide on a multi-day adventure like the Milford Track or a shorter day walk, exploring on foot makes for a rewarding experience.
Buy Pau shell jewellery, Maori carvings and Manuka honey.
Best Time to Visit:
An all year destination; but, since it is in the Southern hemisphere, December is their summer.
What to carry:
A waterproof jacket with a hood and an umbrella as this region is wet and windy.
Restaurant options are limited. Boat cruises serve sandwiches, cake, ice cream, and coffee. A good option is to carry a packed lunch.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog