My friends, in all their years of wisdom in planning holidays for others, were insistent that we do the coach tour to Milford Sound. The husband and I were equally sure that we wanted to drive the entire way from Queenstown. They argued that the route was so stunning, we would stop every few minutes and not get to our Milford Sound cruise on time. But what was the point of a road trip if we had to park the car in town and take the bus on one of New Zealand’s most scenic routes?
Keeping their advice in mind, we got on to an early start from Queenstown, driving along Lake Wakatipu, which hugs the town and kept us company for the next many minutes.
Driving in New Zealand means driving on curvy mountain roads almost everywhere. And so it was on this drive, as we looped along the mountain range, aptly named The Remarkables. The sun was just coming up across the lake in the distance, painting the skies a flattering shade of pink and orange. The mist stayed low, giving us only occasional glimpses of snow-capped mountains.
On those spectacular roads, our car ate up the miles and we pulled up at the town of Te Anau just a couple of hours later. Now, Te Anau is a sleepy provincial town, like dozens of others we had passed on our drive across the country. It has earned its place in the sun because of its location midway from Queenstown to Milford Sound. Plus, Te Anau is the gateway to fiordland, which marks the most picturesque — and remote — part of this drive.
A fiord (spelt with an ‘i’ here in New Zealand instead of ‘j’) is a U-shaped valley carved by glaciers and replenished by the sea; the 14 fiords in Fiordland National Park were created over 1,00,000 years of glacial activity. The park is a World Heritage Site, described by the Unesco as ‘superlative natural phenomena’.
Part of the Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is its most popular attraction. Indeed, it is the top tourist destination in New Zealand — located in the west coast of the South Island — attracting half a million visitors each year. And we were booked on a cruise at Milford Sound around lunchtime, and therefore, Te Anau on, aimed to step on the gas.
It was a feeble attempt, I must admit, since the drive was through the Southern Alps, which means winding roads and more stunning scenery. Our friends’ warning ringing in our ears, each stop on the way was all too brief.
We ignored several alluring walks signposted along the way — short and long, for various fitness levels. I felt a sharp pang of envy at those campervans ambling on these roads, which could, and did, halt anywhere. And finally the Homer tunnel appeared, running for 1.2km, cutting right through the heart of the mountain, and then Milford Sound.
Many young people fitter than us walk the Milford Track, a trail of over 50km and considered one of the finest walks in New Zealand. As for us, we were content to walk from the parking lot to the main terminal. And in a day filled with photogenic vistas (which we had no time to stand and stare), we had our first real jaw-dropping moment: a distant view of the sharp-angled Mitre Peak that seemed to be rising from the very sea.
After the peaceful drive, we were taken aback by the babble of voices on the cruise ship. But even the Mandarin that rose above the others quite effortlessly, faded into silence as the ship made its way into the deep blue waters. Milford Sound is a moody place, with over 6,800 mm of rain every year, and just 150 sunny days. Proffering thanks to the patron saint of sun-seeking travellers, we stepped out on the open deck. The wind brushing our cheeks, ears and every exposed body part, we soldiered on, marvelling at the rugged mountains lining the water on either side.
On our way back — having come within waving distance of Tasman Sea — we stopped for seal-watching. Lazy animals these, they lay sunning themselves on the rocks all day. We also made side trips to the base of waterfalls cascading down the mountains. Much later, I read somewhere that Rudyard Kipling had once called Milford Sound the eighth wonder of the world. The man clearly knew what he was talking about.
Your best bet is to fly Malaysia Airlines or Thai Airways to Auckland and take a flight onwards to Queenstown.
The cosy Heartland Hotel comes with stunning views of the Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables.
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound takes four hours one way. Add to it the cruise and time spent at Milford Sound; be prepared for a long and tiring day. Fuel stops are limited on the route, so remember to fill the tank before you leave Te Anau.
Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer-photographer