Milford Sound Things to Do Tips by Kakapo2 Top 5 Page for this destination
Milford Sound Things to Do: 119 reviews and 211 photos
On my first Milford Sound visit I cruised with Red Boats and was happy with it, last time I opted for Mitre Peak Cruises and was even happier.
The two reasons for my choice:
1. Mitre Peak Cruises is one of the operators who only have relatively small boats on the water, so they are perfect for independent travellers. No risk of being flooded with bus tour passengers.
2. Mitre Peak Cruises is the only operator who ventures out past the lighthouse into the Tasman Sea, so you get more out of the trip – including rough sea, perhaps LOL And the cruise takes 2 hours instead of 1:45h, as with most other operators.
The atmosphere on the uncrowded boat was indeed very relaxed. It nearly felt like a charter trip, just for us and some other people we might have invited ;-) The onboard comment was good and informative, there was free coffee and tea onboard, and on the base first-come-first-serve we good a very nice picture calendar.
We were lucky enough to spot a lot of wildlife, from seals to dolphins to seabirds.
If you want, they drop you off at the Milford Deep Underwater Observatory shortly before the end of the cruise and pick you up at the end of the next cruise. (At an extra cost for the entry fee, of course.)
We went on the second cruise of the day at 10am (exactly: 9.55am…). This cost NZ$ 74.
The first (8.55am) and last cruise of the day (4.30pm) are discounted and cost only NZ$ 64. Children always pay NZ$ 26.
They also offer package deals from Queenstown and Te Anau.
All prices as May 2009.
Please note: A minimum of six passengers is required. (So if Mitre Peak Cruises do not operate, just book on site with another operator, or lure other arrivals to Mitre Peak Cruises LOL This is the advantage of competition.)
Free Phone (0800) 744-633
Phone (03) 249-8110
Pricing and discounts are similar with other operators. Just the cruises are shorter.
Red Boats (from NZ$ 60 - 70) http://www.redboats.co.nz/home/
Update March 2011:
Red Boats have obviously become Southern Discoveries now:
Cruize Milford (from NZ$ 55 – 65) http://www.cruizemilford.co.nz/
Real Journeys (from NZ$ 68 – 88) http://www.realjourneys.co.nz/Main/MilfordSound/
Also overnight cruises available, and packages (coach or flight from Queenstown).
A final word: Even at peak times you do not have to be afraid that suddenly one boat after the other starts to criss-cross the fiord and cause a traffic jam. The distances between boats are still large, as the companies do not have huge fleets. Mitre Peak Cruises, for example, has only two boats. When we cruised from 10am to 12noon, we barely saw a second boat, just at the very distance sometimes. I think it is the size of the boat that makes the difference to the passenger.
Photos 2 and 3 show the Mitre Peak Cruise boat with Mitre Peak.
On photo 4 you see the inside of the boat.
It was really strange that we did not see keas (Nestor notabilis) on our last trip along the Milford Road. We heard them laugh in the forests but did not see any. This was just bad luck, as nearly everyone comes across some of those cheeky mountain parrots. I did not care too much, as we often get in touch with them at Arthurs Pass, not far away from home, and was much more interested in penguin and dolphin encounters which are much rarer for me.
From the signage alone you can see that keas are all over the place. And as hard as it is you should keep to the request not to feed the birds, as otherwise they might forget how to feed themselves if they are on their own.
On our first trip along the Milford Road we saw lots of them at carparks, and on one carpark even played with some of them for half an hour. We had shiny coins, and made the birds jump from the rooftop of our car onto the bonnet to make them open their wings, as the underparts are bright orange and quite spectacular, compared to the olive-green navy-look on the upper parts.
At some of the carparks you find no-feeding signs, at others very good info panels about the keas.
In front of Homer Tunnel we saw a 4WD vehicle completely wrapped into tarpaulin. Rather sure it was used as a kea protection cover… Still the parrots would have had fun biting into the tyres, as they are attracted to rubber, and perhaps they would have reached some rubber seals and the brake hose from the ground…As pleasant as it is to play with them while you can protect your belongings and your car, they can really be a nuisance if you have to leave your stuff behind…
I have posted kea photos and encounters in two travelogues at the bottom of this Milford Sound page.
More photos and information about keas in the travelogues on my South Island page.
Photo 2 shows an information panel about keas from one of the lookouts along the Milford Road.
View across the valley, from near the Key Summit.
If you have a day only for Milford Sound from Te Anau, and good weather, you have to plan beforehand which side walks you want to do along the Milford Road.
We chose the walk to the Key Summit from The Divide carpark. As we walked on a brilliant day we had brilliant views, well, really breathtaking. At the top you sit like on top of the world, on benches that are positioned in a semi-circle, like in an amphi-theatre – but you have a fantastic 360° view.
The walk to the Key Summit is the start/end of the Routeburn Track and should not take you longer than 3 hours return. The walk starts at an altitude of 532 metres, and the Key Summit is at 918 metres.
The first hour is through beech forest on the Routeburn Track. But there is more than just those trees to see. You have interesting undergrowth, with lots of different ferns and tiny alpine flowers. We heard a lot of birdsong, and some tomtits enchanted us by staying with us for a while and posing for photos, as they always do, those lovely smallies :-)
Soon after leaving the forest behind, you turn off to the right to the Key Summit. You are now in sub-alpine shrublands. There is an abundance of mosses and native grasses, and depending on the season, you will see mountain (Mt. Cook) daisies and lilies. Further up the zig-zag track you get to see bogs and some kettle lakes which are remainders of the time when glaciers covered this region. The views are now spectacular, with the Humboldt and Darran Mountain ranges in front of your nose, the bare rock faces in front of the blue skies, some dotted with patches of snow, the lower slopes looking like covered in olive-green velvet.
There should be self-guiding cards for a nature walk in the summit area – but the box was empty. So do not hold your breath for that and just enjoy the plants without learning their names…
Finally at the end of the walk (however, you can carry on, there is a track), sitting on those theatre-benches, you get a view over the valley and the Milford Road to Lake Marian. If you want to have a clear view to this lake, you have to be up there in the morning. In the afternoon you look straight into the sun. This, however, makes the mountain ranges in the east look the more spectacular. Whatever time you walk in good weather conditions: You will always have great views, as you are surrounded by mountains.
This walk is also good if you do not have your own transportation, as shuttle services from Te Anau and Milford Sound stop at The Divide carpark (primarily to pick up multi-day hikers of the Routeburn Track).
If you follow the Routeburn Track and do not take the turn-off to the Key Summit, you get to Lake Howden and the Howden Hut. It is not a big detour, so if you have about one extra hour on your hands, just do it ;-) There you have a shelter and toilets. From the Divide carpark to Howden Hut/Lake it takes you 3 hours return.
If you carry on after the shelter towards Mackenzie Hut, you get to the Earland Falls. They are 174 metres high. Can be dangerous in winter and spring, so get information first. In total, the walk takes you 6 hours return.
Other longish walks along the Milford Road:
Lake Marian (3 hours return): leads over a swingbridge and past several waterfalls, steep sections; one hour descent to Lake Marian. They recommend not to walk around the lake edge during the snow/avalanche season in winter and spring. Toilet at Lake Marian.
Hidden Falls (4 – 6 hours return): This walk follows the Hollyford Track. There is a hut with 12 bunks another 20 minutes along the track.
Gertrude Saddle Route (4 – 6 hours return): The walks starts shortly before the eastern portal of Homer Tunnel. From the top you can see parts of Milford Sound. After rain you have to cross some creeks, be prepared to get wet feet. DoC points out that you need alpine navigational skills and a navigational map for this walk, as there are no markers above the bushline, and some hikers misplace rock cairns. Some parts of the track are very steep. So this can absolutely not be recommended to the occasional hiker. Even experienced hikers should get information before they venture out.
Tutuko Valley (5 hours return): starts on the Milford side of the road. Great views from above the bushline. You can carry on after 2.5 hours and extend your tour, but from then on you have to be experienced in river crossings and in the mood of getting wet feet… ;-) In general not recommended to the occasional hiker.
Some short walks
Lake Mistletoe (45 min return): The walk starts at the hotel complex at Te Anau Downs.
Mirror Lakes: no distance at all from the carpark, just about 50 metres. Enjoy the reflections in the water. No need to stay longer than 10 minutes.
Lake Gunn (45 min return): This walk in the Eglinton Valley – between Mirror Lakes and The Divide - is even wheelchair-accessible.
Lake Marian Falls (20 min return): just some steps into the 3 hour return Lake Marian walk.
Humboldt Falls (30 min return): starts at the end of the unsealed Hollyford Road.
East Homer Nature Walk(20 min return): DoC advises that this nature walk cannot be accessed if avalanche danger closes the carpark.
The Chasm (20 min return): This walk is on the Milford side of the road. Leads over two footbridges over the Cleddau River. You see several powerful waterfalls.
See my travelogues with more photos of the walk to the Key Summit.
Having a lie-down on the rocks of Milford Sound.
There are not huge numbers of New Zealand Fur Seals at Milford Sound, but during your cruise you will almost certainly see some of them lying on the rocks. Stumbling over seals in Kaikoura every now and then, I am still pleased to see them anywhere in the South Island, and in some places in the North Island, but I do not get that terribly excited, as they are not rare anymore.
This is an extraordinary fact, as not too long ago the fur seals were on the brink of extinction, and have made a fantastic comeback. After Maori had hunted them for food and Europeans for meat and pelts, the seals were fully protected in 1894. Although they now seems to be everywhere, their numbers are still only 15 to 20 per cent of their former population. Estimates are about 100,000 seals but could be higher. The annual increase is around 20 per cent and more. This fact is not appreciated by everybody, especially not by fisherman who compete with the seals for hoki. Many seals drown when diving into the fishermen’s nets. Representatives of the Ngai Tahu, the biggest Maori tribe of the South Island, have even expressed the idea of going back to traditional seal harvesting. Funny people…
The New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) is a member of the Otariidae family of pinnipeds. Their most distinctive feature – apart from the cute look from their dark round eyes – are the sweet little ears and their pointed nose. They have a double-layered dark grey-brown coat on the back and lighter-coloured below. You might see some seals which look silvery. Those are the ones whose upper coat has light-coloured tips.
Adult females are tiny and very slim, compared to the huge males. They are up to 1.5 metres long and weigh 30 to 50 kg, whereas an adult male can grow up to 2.5 metres and weigh up to 200 kg. You can find those seals on any rocky coast throughout the country, and also in Western and South Australia. The Maori name is Kekeno. They dive deeper and longer than any other seal. Recordings exist of a 268 metre and of 11 minute dive.
I have more interesting information about NZ Fur Seals on my Nelson/Tasman page, and you find nearly everything about those sociable animals on this good website of the Department of Conservation (DoC):
A little info for my German countrymen: The NZ Fur Seals are neither Seelöwen (Phocararctos hookeri) nor Seehunde (Phoca vitulina) nor See… whatever, they are Seebären, and belong to the family of Ohrenrobben. Just say Robben, and you are right, if you cannot remember the Seebären. I have not read a single article in German (apart from the ones I wrote) where those marine mammals would have been named correctly. NZ Sea Lions (Phocararctos hookeri) BTW are rare and can mostly be seen on the subantarctic islands only.
The boardwalk along the Mirror Lakes.
The Mirror Lakes are THE standard stop along the Milford Road. As they are just about 20 metres from the carpark, it does not take you longer than 5 to 10 minutes to have a look at them. They have built a boardwalk along the lakes, and even around big tree trunks which are now in the middle of the boardwalk. (Proof that nature does not have to suffer from tourism…)
I recommend you stop on the way TO Milford Sound and not on the way back, first because the chance is higher that the water is smooth in the morning and you have nicer reflections, second because after having had all those miraculous views during the whole day they pale on the way back, and are just some wet spots in the landscape, and you might wonder why you have stopped at all ;-)))
To add a touch of humour to the Mirror Lakes, they have placed a sign post in the water, saying “Mirror Lakes” in mirror-writing, and the reflection on the water would show it in normal writing. In the moment I took my photo the wind picked up, so the result was not satisfying.
In good conditions you get to see a mountain chain reflected in the water. Surely there are more spectacular such reflections in New Zealand, but well, this is quite nice.
Although there was wind when we were there, there were tranquil areas on the water. But they were near impossible to photograph because they were sheltered by shrubbery, trees and flax.
Photos 2 and 3 show the landscape and reflections on not really tranquil water.
On photo 4 you see the Mirror Lakes sign in mirror-writing.
View from the lookout/start of the Foreshore Walk.
The Cleddau River delta is the only easily accessible coastal delta in Fiordland. The Milford Foreshore Walk leads right around the edge of this delta. You can explore the rocky foreshore and the local flora. I enjoyed the company of some small birds including some chirpy fantails.
There is driftwood strewn around, the flow of fresh mountain water and the twice-daily tides.
The loop track might take you 20 minutes. I already stayed 20 minutes at the viewing platform at the start of the track ;-))) You get thre just by walking along the water’s edge away from the wharf, best starting opposite the Blue Duck Café. The lookout is about 100 or 200 metres from the café.
If tides allow, you can also venture out onto the shores of Milford Sound, and you can easily spend two hours there.
Colourful panels at the start of the walk inform you about the features of the landscape, the flora and fauna you will encounter along the way.
Pitch-black and full of potholes: Homer Tunnel.
This is about the most horrible tunnel I have ever travelled through. It is pitch-black, only lit by your headlights, and the large pot-holes scar the surface of the road, and you hobble and wobble along in your car. Water is dripping from the rough rock walls.
When you once have crossed it, there are only about 17 kilometres to go to Milford Sound.
The Homer Tunnel pierces the Main Divide at the head of Hollyford Valley and is 1240 metres long. It has a slight gradient towards the western portal, so towards Milford Sound.
In the afternoon it is possible that you have to wait 15 minutes in front of the tunnel as they stop the traffic alternately. I think it is a good idea, given the shocking state of the road surface and the lack of lighting. Plus, the tunnel is narrow. When the bulk of the buses make their way through the tunnel it is really better to have only one way traffic.
We were lucky on the way back to get through the green traffic light. In the early morning (no buses yet) the traffic light is not operating.
So if you calculate your travel time and do not want to start early, add 15 minutes for waiting in front of the tunnel, just for the case. I think the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound took us about 2.5 hours, we stopped about 5 times. This was without any delay at the tunnel.
In 1889 William Harry Homer discovered Homer Saddle and suggested the possibility of a tunnel through the ridge below the saddle. The idea of a through-road and a tunnel was later proposed by J. Cockburn to the Southland Progress League in 1929. Excavation was started in 1935 and the tunnel pierced in 1940. Work was suspended on the road and tunnel during the Second World War, and in 1945 a very large avalanche severely damaged the eastern tunnel portal. Work was resumed after the war and the tunnel was officially opened for road traffic in 1953. In summer 1954 the first private vehicle drove through the tunnel.
There is a great photo of the building process on this page:
Interesting information about the engineering work here:
Pacing effortlessly in the bow wave of the boat.
There are cruises on which you will not see dolphins. I would be disappointed, as it is so very much likely that they show up at some point.
I admit, I had hoped for surfing, somersaulting and jumping dolphins on my last trip, and had my big camera ready for taking those photos at high shutter speed. I had the big lens on the camera – as a friend’s photos, taken with a small digital camera had not really impressed me. But well… We saw “only” four dolphins, and they did not do anything exciting above water, apart from catching breath from time to time. Instead, the two females decided they would teach their two young (one each) how to race in the bow wave of a boat.
We imagined they had a dialogue like humans who discuss if they should take their kids to the playground or the ice-rink. And so the dolphin mothers said: “Oh, look, there is a tourist boat coming. Let’s have fun in the bow wave.” The kids asked: “What is a bow wave?” The mother dolphins answered: “Be quiet. You will see. Just follow us and do as we do. There is not a lot to do. It is Formula 1 for dolphins. Just do not forget to breathe…”
The dolphins you see at Milford Sound are Dusky Dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus). They are very sociable and acrobatic, and live in the Southern Hemisphere. They are medium-sized. (Flipper BTW was a Bottlenose Dolphin. There are also bottlenose dolphins around but by far not as manz as Duskies.)
The captains are not allowed to look out for dolphins and approach them. They are only allowed to speed along with dolphins when the dolphins swim to the ship – and expect to be taken on a speedy ride ;-) That was exactly what happened.
So we really paced through the fiord, and most passegers hang over the railing, trying to photograph the dolphins. As you can imagine, this is not really easy, as the upper part of the boat is wider than the bottom, and the dolphins are near the bottom… So you have to hang out quite a bit. (Playing the waterfall of a hanging valley LOL) My friend had fun taking some photos of the people’s bottoms… ;-)
As I had left the small lens in the cabin and I would not have given up my premium spot, I remembered in time that the small digital camera I ALWAYS have in a pocket has video function, and so I filmed and photographed until my memory card was full. Only then I was willing to go into the cabin – and change the memory card… ;-) And only then I noticed that my hands were solid frozen LOL But it was worth it, I so much cherish the encounter with those amazing animals.
Photo 2 shows all four dolphins, but they are under the water, so the photo of of minor clarity.
Photo 3 gives you an idea of all the people leaning over the railing to get a better view of the racing dolphins.
Disshelvelled look of the moulting penguin.
As if the dolphin encounter had not already delighted us enough, we spotted a Fiordland Crested Penguin at the wharf. More correctly: When we came back to the wharf after our cruise, we spotted some people on the quay who stared at something they had spotted… And what can you spot in this region? Penguins, I concluded. What else? ;-)
Yes, and so it was.
But what a poorie! He was standing on the rocks, and some people nearby staring at him and wondering why he was not just jumping into the water and escape the attention. Well, me as a penguin expert – hmmm, hmmm LOL – could tell immediately that the poorie was in the state of moulting which makes penguins stay on land for several weeks, not able to dive for food, and more or less starving. However, when I got a good viewing spot, not too close, so he would not be scared, the penguin jumped into the water after a while for a drink, and could keep himself floating on the surface with the help of his flippers. Then he waddled back up onto the rocks, shook the water off his rugged feathers, and cleaned them.
Oh, how I wished I had had a raw fish in my pocket to feed him!
Later I spoke with one of the staff from the cruise terminal, and he told me the day before three such moulting penguins had waddled into the building! How incredible is this?!
The Fiordland Crested Penguin (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) is called Tawaki by the Maori. They are easy to recognise even during moulting, as they have those incredible yellow eyebrows – which, of course, is the crest. They are medium-sized and black and white, and grow to about 60 centimetres, weighing about 3.7 kg, so a bit smaller than the Yellow-Eyed Penguin (up to 75 cm; Megadyptes antipodes, or: Hoiho) which you find on the east coast. It has dark, bluish-grey upperparts with a darker head, and white underparts. The broad yellow eyebrow-stripe extends over the eye and drops down the neck. Most birds have 3-6 whitish stripes on the face.
On photo 2 you see the penguin taking a short swim for getting a drink.
Mitre Peak as you see it from the Foreshore Walk.
Do not nail me for once writing 1694 and then again 1692 metres. Whichever source I use, I always get different heights for this magic mountain that rises from the water off the shore at the head of Milford Sound and gives the fiord its distinctive look. On my map it is 1692 metres high. So better I keep to that.
Mitre Peak is named after its resemblance to a bishop’s head-dress, called mitre. Although you would not notice at first sight, its summit consists of five closely grouped individual peaks.
Whereas the waterfalls along Milford Sound are most impressive in wild weather and rain, you get the best view of Mitre Peak on a calm morning when the mountain is reflected in the calm water.
I have done some research on the Maori name of Mitre Peak which is Rahotu. On one personal website I saw that this person referred to “Rahotu” meaning: pen1s. But in the Maori dictionary the several words for pen1s are nowhere near that, there is no way of mistyping. “Rahotu” only refers to “mitre”, as in Mitre Peak. Apart from that I heavily doubt that Maori would see a pen1s rather than a mitre in this peak. Really.
The VT database does not accept the word pen1s, so I had to replace the i by 1. If I did not do this, you would only see *** - and this again could mean anything from *** to *** LOL (I typed the three stars on purpose ;-)
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