Milford Sound isn’t technically a sound. It’s a fiord; a U shaped bed carved by an ancient glacier (a ‘sound’ is V-shaped, formed when a river valley is flooded by the sea). Either way, it’s stunning and attracts up to 1m visitors each year. It’s not just the sound (/fiord) itself but everything on the way from the local town of Te Anau. We hopped on board a Fiordland Tour bus and spent a full day exploring raging rapids, forceful waterfalls and of course, the tranquil beauty of Milford Sound.
Disclaimer: we were offered a discounted trip with Fiordland Tours however we would never recommend any service unless they met our standards and best expectations.
Who to book with
When researching Milford Sound, we discovered that most cruise operators pick up from the popular hub of Queenstown or meet at Milford Sound. Queenstown is 5-6 hours drive from Milford Sound so most companies pick up from your hotel before 7am and get back 12 hours later. That’s a long day with a lot of time in a coach!
Meeting for your cruise at the harbour means driving there yourself or taking a tour. There are positive and negatives to driving yourself, but given the time of year, the negatives far outweighed the positives! The Milford Sound road is spectacular with stunning landscapes the whole way. What this road also has is a lot of big coaches and tours racing to get to their boat on time. In peak season you will have to deal with busy roads and big coaches on narrow mountainous roads, in low season you have to deal with black ice and dangerous driving conditions. We saw at least one car down the side of a mountain and apparently, tourists end up in rivers and all sorts! Best leave it to the pros…
We decided to do just that and booked with Fiordland Tours, we have nothing but praise and good reviews for the day we spent with them! These guys depart from Te Anau (only 2 hours from Milford Sound) so you can spend more time stopping at interesting places rather than sitting in a coach travelling from Queenstown. Although they do offer a pick up from Queenstown, is there anything these guys can’t do?
Jono, our guide, was the absolute best. He was a great driver, making us feel safe the whole journey, and was incredibly knowledgeable and funny making our whole day was unforgettable. Fiordland Tours pick you up from where ever you’re staying in Te Anau at 8am (a lie in the Queenstown-stayers don’t have!). There are tonnes of stops on the way, which we will go into in more detail below – plus they only take small tours which makes for a really personal feel.
We can go on and on about how great this company is all day but instead of that, let’s get onto what’s involved in a day tour with Fiordland Tours.
On the way
There’s so much to see on the way or on the way back from Milford Sound so we’ll highlight the best ones we stopped at. Jono knew everything and anything there was to know about the wildlife, history and goings-on of Te Anau and Milford Sound so we’ve tried to remember what we can and popped it below (for anything we’ve missed, you’ll just have to take the tour!).
The lakes in New Zealand are particularly stunning. Due to the algae in a lot of the lakes around the South Island, they (astonishingly) projected a mirror image of what was above the surface. This was a quick stop with an accessible boardwalk and three photo spots.
As with any major tourist spot you may have to be patient (especially if a bus full of tourists turn up at the same time as you) but the results are worth it. Look out for the backwards sign in the water to show just how mirror-like the water is!
Lake Marian + Falls
The first waterfall stop on our trip and it didn’t disappoint. It has a good walking track over the swing bridge and up to the falls themselves. We went just after the rain so it was in full flow, the noise was incredible.
Our guide took us to the best photo spot of them all but we wouldn’t recommend this without a guide or at least someone else around (just in case!). If you’re not on a tour and you’re up for it, there’s also an advanced tramping track, which is three hours return.
Not many other tours get to stop at Gunn’s camp for homemade scone’s and a cuppa – trust us you’ll need it if you’re going in winter! If you’re there in the summer make sure you have your insect repellent at the ready, like most places on the Milford trail there will be sandflies. The camp was the perfect mid-morning tea with biscuits and coffee available too – the log burner was toasting the room nicely and the owners were so friendly.
Gunn’s camp has an interesting history, was run by father and son from 1951 to attract holidaymakers to the Hollyford (river). Unfortunately, the same river washed Davey Gunn and a 12-year-old boy away while they were horse riding. The rivers in New Zealand run really strong and sadly, they were never seen again. The camp was then taken over by his son Murray until 2005 when he retired to Te Anau. The camp and museum are now run by the Hollyford Museum Charitable Trust.
It’s a quaint little stop with a great back story (Jono will be able to tell you more!).
If you’re claustrophobic you may want to shut your eyes for this part! While the tunnel itself is an impressive nod to the hard work of the men who carved their way through the mountain with pick-axes and dynamite, it still feels like quite a tight squeeze for buses coming through.
The work started in 1935 during the Great Depression; with setbacks like WWII recruitment and a large avalanche in 1945 it ended up taking 19 years to finish. Before the road was finalised there was no way between Te Anau and Milford Sound, so without all their hard work, you wouldn’t be able to visit!
One of our favourite spots. Like the falls at Lake Marian, the river was roaring and raging under the bridge beneath us. Even more impressive than the amount of water, was the formations it had carved over the years. Gaping holes with smooth edges gave a sponge-like effect to the rock as water poured through every gap possible.
There are two footbridges that offer amazing views of the Cleddau River and the formations below.
Tutoko Suspension Bridge
This was a quick stop and the last one before the Sound itself. Built in 1940 the steel suspension bridge crossed the Tutoko river and completed the road to Milford Sound. The bridge offers interrupted views of Mount Tutoko, the highest peak in the Fiordland National Park, standing at 2,723m.
Our guide explained how the mountain was named after an important Maori chief who welcomed the first Europeans looking for gold. Mountains or maunga are held in the highest regard in Maori culture – mountains such as Aoraki (Mount Cook) have interesting and in-depth stories on how they were formed usually involving Maori deities. For a mountain to be named after a mortal chief is apparently a highly regarded honour.
Interested from this tour we did more research on the traditions of the Maori culture and the sacred beliefs of the mountains. According to this Culture Trip article,
…the great maunga are afforded the same reverence and respect as living elders and tribal leaders. It’s also why Māori will not stand on the peak of a mountain: in Māori culture, to stand on the peak of a mountain is to stand on the head of an ancestor. Thus, Māori tikanga (lore) dictates that the head is the most sacred of all Māori body parts as it is the pathway to knowledge which carries tribes into the future.Ngarangi Haerewa, Culture Trip
Around lunchtime, we arrived at Milford Sound with five minutes until boarding. We were handed our bespoke lunches with incredible homemade sandwiches in from the Olive Tree Cafe (Te Anau), juice, chocolate and fruit. Perfect for recharging on the boat before we got snap happy!
Through Fiordland Tours, our boat-trip was with Cruise Milford and consisted of two hours of cruising around the Fiord marvelling in the sheer grandeur of it all. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Milford Sound was named after Milford Haven in Wales by Captain John Grono in 1812.
The traditional Maori name is Piopiotahi after a small bird called the piopio. Our guide explained that it’s said the bird and the demigod Maui were inseparable. When Maui died trying to win immortality for mankind the bird flew to the area and cried so much it created all the water in the Fiord.
If you’re there in the right season there will be heaps of wildlife to spot – native penguins and fur seals make the surrounding rocks their home. There are also 60 different species of bottlenose dolphins and birds such as the kea. Unfortunately, we were unlucky and literally saw none of them (what are the chances!). You always have to leave something to go back for, right?
There can be thousands of small and temporary waterfalls around Milford Sound after storms and heavy rain. If you are going when it’s been particularly wet you’ll see water running over and through the vegetation on the rock-side.
What’s equally as impressive is the permanent waterfalls on the Sound. Lady Elizabeth Bowen Falls is Milford’s highest waterfall at 162m. It is the water and power source for the area so it’s the most important falls as well. It’s hard to believe standing underneath the waterfall that it can quadruple in size and flow during storms!
The second highest is Stirling Falls (151m) is the waterfall you can kayak under (if it’s warm) if not you can enjoy it from the comfort of your heated boat! We decided to brave it in 3 degrees from the front of our boat (madness) but we can officially say we’ve stood under a waterfall at Milford Sound. There’s a picture of the Stirling Falls at the bottom of this post in the slideshow, the falls are 151m so it really gives you an idea of the scale of the whole landscape.
The cutest was Fairy Falls, this is another the boat can take you directly under. We had great weather and enjoyed a light sprinkling rather than the drenching we got from Stirling Falls!
This was our favourite day in New Zealand and honestly, we believe it was down to our fantastic tour. After driving for a year around Australia it was a nice change of pace to sit back and enjoy the day and learn so much about the area and its history. If you’re looking at going to Milford Sound, you’ve got to check out Fiordland Tours and their amazing services!
Our Milford Sound tour was part of our 10-day trip to New Zealand’s South Island. Check out our full post, What to do in New Zealand – 10 days on the South Island!