Wow!! Where do I start I guess the answer to that is at the beginning and that started Friday when Ray from Fiordland Tours called into the NZMCA camp in Te Anau and talked to us about his tour although at that stage we had thought about driving in. On Sunday after speaking to a couple of people about driving there all had said parking is terrible take a bus tour. With this in mind we booked with Ray’s company to be collected from the camp Monday morning.
Just before 8am Jono arrived at the gates in one of the company Toyota Coaster buses, I used to own one of these in my rental business but it wasn’t as nice as this one which had plush seats as well as much more leg room. The tour consisted of only 15 people a number both Sarah and I where really happy with as we hate crowds. We also had Wally and Raewyn joining us from the camp who ended up sitting just in front of us as we sat in the back row. With only one other couple left to pick up we ended up with the whole back seat to ourselves, very spacious!
First stop was a view of Lake Te Anau’s South Fiord. At this point it became obvious that we had chosen a good company to run with as not only was Jono a fountain of knowledge pointing out various facts but also by choosing one of the smaller companies we where making stops that the larger ones wouldn’t as a couple of large tour buses sailed past.
Second stop: Te Anau Downs the starting point of the Milford Track as well as the bay where the original farm sent the wool into market from the wharf. The people that owned the original farm also constructed by hand the first part of the road from Te Anau to their property, getting the Milford road underway.
Next it was onto the Mirror Lakes with this specially crafted sign that reads correctly only in the image created by the lake. A short 5 minute walk along the boardwalk provided other photo chances as well as masses of tourists who had also chosen this moment to stop. The amount of traffic on the road together with over 100 tour buses a day creates an influx of tourists that cannot exist anywhere else in New Zealand in quite the same numbers.
The Mirror Lakes was despite the crowds a very pretty place.
Next was a quick comfort stop at Knobs Flat with the sky still looking a bit ominous we were a little concerned that once we arrived at the Sound it would all be covered in cloud but Jono assured us that cloudy this side of the Main Divide makes it clearer on the other side.
We arrived at the Homer Tunnel which these days have a set of traffic lights to regulate the flow down to one way, judging from when we were inside I would say this is a great idea. According to our tour guide Jono the first 100 metres on this side was dug by 5 men using pickaxes, shovel and wheel barrows. Apparently they also slept in tents year round. It was only later that they started using TNT with the whole tunnel taking almost 20 years to complete although construction was interrupted during WW2. From here it was a clear run onward to Milford.
As we arrived into Milford Sarah and I looked at the carpark situation to see if we could have driven the camper it appeared that every space was already taken, There was a campervan as well as a number of cars circling looking and it was only 10.25am. It made us glad we had taken the tour imagine arriving and not being able to find a park with your boat about to leave!
With the clouds lifting and cameras at the ready it was onto the boat to begin our Milford Sound cruise. There are a number of boats in the marina most seem to be run by the companies that are also busing in the tourists. All of these were larger than the boat we jumped on and all appeared a lot fuller.
First port of call was the Fairy Falls with the boat coming right into the cliff face so that those in the front of the boat actually got soaked by the falls. Because the fiord was carved out by glaciers it is as deep as it is tall. Since the cliff face rises 200 metres it also falls directly into the water by the same amount so their was no chance of running aground.
The sun had really started to break through as it became a really nice day. With mountains and waterfalls almost every way you turned it was hard to stop clicking the camera.
No trip on the water in this part of New Zealand would be complete without spotting some Fur Seals who according to the boat captain are the staple diet of Great White Sharks who congregate in greater numbers in Fiordland than anywhere else in the world. The cruise took us out into the Tasman Sea which was almost like a millpond, most unusual.
Like all traffic in New Zealand the boats keep left so coming back towards the docks we approached the Stirling Falls these are glacier fed so the water falls even in times of drought. The captain telling us that the water is up to one million years old.
The Captain also announced that if you were outside and had anything loose to hold onto it as well as be prepared to get wet. Sarah put on her rain coat just in time as the swirl of wind and water caused by the fall inside the area protected by the cliffs was like a category 5 cyclone. Sarah went from bone dry to drenched in seconds, if I hadn’t been holding our bag it might have been blown overboard. In all of this I missed the chance to take any decent photos of the drowned rat (Sarah) but you can see in the photo above she still has the wet hair after taking off the raincoat.
Coming back into the dock after one hour forty minutes aboard we both agreed that it was well worth it and with the clouds clearing allowing us a glimpse of Mitre Peak it finished of the cruise nicely.
We stopped to have lunch on the grass outside the Mitre Peak Hotel I cannot think of anywhere that I have eaten that had such great views. With the clouds now almost completely gone I was regretting putting on the jeans and a long sleeved top this morning to try to stop being bitten by the dreaded sandflies that infest this area. We were told the only reason they built the airport here was to enable the sandflies to take off and land again they are so large. Actually we had been really lucky with both of us hardly getting bitten at all.
With lunch out of the way it was time to start the slow journey back to Te Anau stopping at a number of places to view the sights on the way. First was the Tutoko Bridge an old suspension bridge that has been restored to allow foot traffic access. The bridge offers amazing views of Mt Tutoko the highest in the area although it was a little obscured by cloud on our visit. Below the bridge the fast flowing river cascades down to the sound, the clarity of the water has to be seen to be believed it just looks so pure.
Next stop was The Chasm, to get there is a 10 minute walk through some spectacular Beech forest that offers a different shade of green at almost every corner and then when the sunlight shines through it all changes again.
The Chasm is a 22 metre deep ravine that funnels the water through Diorite Rock causing the wierd shapes you can see in the photo above. The noise from the falls suggests a huge volume of water rushing through a very small area so you would not want to fall in.
The road winding up to the Homer Tunnel from the Milford side really winds up and up with the queue for the traffic lights you would want to make sure you had a good handbrake whilst waiting for the lights to turn green.
We stopped on the Te Anau side of the Homer Tunnel for a photo opportunity. It is an amazing piece of engineering at 1.4kms long with some of it dug by hand just unbelievable.
Falls Creek is a new bridge that spans the Homer River presenting some marvelous photo points. The water is so clear according to our guide Jono because the Milford area receives up to 10 Metres of rain a year there is no soil to be washed away only sediment from the rocks.
Across the swing bridge at the start of the track towards Lake Marian and you come across the Cascade Falls where again thousands of litres per second are pouring past you in a swirl of water. All of these tracks are clearly defined with wooden footpaths here straddling the side of the cliff to make viewing better.
Coming back down the path Jono had stopped to show everyone a small cave that contained some glow worms as Sarah tried to get around one of our tour to get a better look she stepped off the path and next second with a small scream to go with it she’s dropped off the path and is ten feet down the bank. Thankfully Sarah was OK just a bit of mud on her jeans and a fright more than anything.
The penultimate stop of the day was at Gunn’s camp in the Hollyford Valley. The history behind this camp is really interesting with the original Gunn taking ownership of the land back in the 20’s when it was expected that the road would go through from Haast to Te Anau however this never happened, hence the sign above. The camp was then taken over by the Ministry of Works when they built the Milford Road. When the MOW finished the road Gunn’s son took over the lease on the land but when he died the land went unwanted and fell into disrepair.
The land was taken over by DOC who put in managers to run the camp and it’s now used by school groups and tramping parties as well as our tour company who served afternoon tea to all of us in the kitchen.
The final stop was the beautiful Gunn Lake a quick pull off stop from the road with crystal clear water lapping a nice stony beach a very pleasant final destination.
The tour was the perfect length not to short so that you felt rushed not long enough that you felt bored. As we drove back towards Te Anau I felt almost like going to sleep it had been such a full on day.
We got back to the campsite just before 6pm after Jono had dropped off the other passengers as well as giving us the rundown on all the local restaurants in town as we drove through. I guess that’s the advantage of local knowledge.
Sarah and I are not coach or guided tour people and would never have taken this trip had everyone we talked to told us to do so. I have to say it was one of the best days of our lives a terrific tour made even better by Jono the tour driver.
We recommend Fiordland Tours and the boat trip 110% great companies, great service, great people. Check out www.fiordlandtours.co.nz or call the office on 0800247249