I am embarrassed to admit that I knew of Milford Sound through Civilization VI. To that computer game’s credit, they used the Maori name instead of the English one: Piopiotahi. Regardless of the name, the breathless introduction to that wonder was sufficient: “this great?!” Words simply cannot describe this beauty.
Road Well(ish) Travelled
Milford Sound can be reached easily from Queenstown, via the picturesque town of Te Anau. Roughly 6 hours from Queenstown including stopovers, the journey by road is well worth it, despite the temptation of taking the flight straight in.
While driving is fun, the coach down from Queenstown is very relaxing, with commentary and well-appointed stops by the driver. Departing early from the Real Adventures shop in central Queenstown, as in 0700 (complete with pick-up), the ride down is leisurely. The thought of taking a nap will quickly disappear when the sights along Lake Wakatipu onwards start to come to perspective.
Te Anau is a quaint little town on the road to Milford Sound and is a frequent mid-way point on the journey. The town is pretty and the lake is stunning, and the pie shop near the Real Journeys stopover point is well worth it.
The journey from Te Anau onwards to Milford Sound is filled with stunning scenery, from Lake Te Anau, to the site of Eglington Valley which honestly looks like a battle field from Lord of the Rings, and depending on your timing, can either be relatively full or relatively quiet.
The next stop on the itinerary, after passing through what looks like a dense forested area, is the Mirror Lakes. Again, depending on the time of day, wind conditions and if fortune favours you, the lakes will be sufficiently still to enable a mirror-like appearance on the lake, well-framed by the glacial peaks and forested groves.
From here on, the journey becomes even more rugged, from the Cascade Creek with water so pure from the glacial peaks, I filled 2 water bottles worth of water, to raw, jagged peaks that just reek of adventure, to gorges and rivers that look as though Frodo had just passed through an hour ago on his way to Mordor.
Truly, the road to Milford Sound is stunning, but this good? I can see what Darroch Donald meant now after being on this road for a few hours. The last ‘obstacle’ is the Homer Tunnel, a storied site and a single-lane tunnel, which then descends to Milford Sound. From here, it is not hard to fathom how Sir Edmund Hillary found the drive to scale Mr Everest when Mt Christina peaks from the tree-line on the road down.
[Donald’s quote is as follows: But as I headed into the heart of New Zealand's fiordland that same child-like feeling, long lost, of pure unadulterated awe came rushing back. I knew the road to Milford Sound was good - but this good?”
A Quaint Harbour
The final approach towards Milford Sound is, in a word, stunning. Steep, hairpin turns at times, endless rugged vistas a constant, lush vegetation by your side herald an approach to a spot which without a doubt, speechless.
Once you are at the harbour, you might notice that despite its popularity, Piopiotahi is not overcrowded. With the right pricing and policies in place, this World Heritage Site does not feel like the other, well-known sites. Timing, again is everything, with cruises usually lasting 2 hours. I highly suggest taking the nature cruise, which goes out a bit further, and brings you back to harbour later than the other boats, and extra time enjoying the stunning sound.
Barely 5 minutes out of harbour, Piopiotahi delivers on the site, with the stunning Lady Bown Falls waterfall immediately on your right, and with the right weather conditions, an unobstructed view of the perfectly pyramidical Mitre Peak framed by the fiords.
My suggestion: beat the crowds on your cruise and head straight to the bow viewing deck. The on-board naturalist is on hand to provide commentary and insights, but half the time, you might get sucked in by the sight of the fiord and enjoying the noise of stillness.
Keep a look-out though: this is still a raw, natural place, with very limited human habitation and impact. I spotted a number of dolphins and seals on the cruise, and while there was a chance of catching a whale as we headed out towards the Tasman Sea, the strong waves and currents did limit out progress.
Other better, more skilled writers and poets have tried to capture the beauty and majesty of Piopiotahi in words and they admit they could not do it justice. I could barely come up with adjectives beyond ‘stunning’ and ‘majestic’ and ‘awe-inspiring.’
My fancy compact camera could barely capture the scale and beauty of the Sound, and professional photographers before me and on the cruise admitted they could barely capture an iota of what inspired them to look up and around and be mesmerized by the sheer scale of nature’s chisel which dwarfs any attempt in to a somewhat feeble exercise.
Capturing the waterfalls caught amazing shots but without context. Taking a video captured the surrounds but failed to capture the majesty. While it may be a cliché to say that ‘seeing is believing,’ this work of nature’s art is one which truly can only be appreciated in its full majesty in person.
I can now admit that whenever I play Civilization VI now, I try at all costs to get Piopiotahi within my civilization’s influence and ‘National Park.’ It is one way of ‘capturing’ it, as ridiculous as it sounds.
Drive or Coach?: You can drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, with a journey that takes roughly 4 hours, with stopovers at Te Anau. However, I highly suggest taking a coach, either from Queenstown or Te Anau, if not for the brief sight-seeing stops by the driver, then for the relaxing ride through the country.
Journey Options: I took Real Journeys on my trip to Milford Sound. They provide options for a Cruise or a Nature Cruise. Splurge a bit and go for the Nature Cruise.
You can either take a: a) return coach trip, which leaves at 0700 and returns around 1900, b) coach-fly, which leaves at 0700 and arrives around 1600, where you take a small plane from Milford Sound back to Queenstown, while flying low above the snow-capped peaks or c) fly in and out. The flying option is subject to weather conditions.
Feeling adventurous? Take the Milford Track, a hiking route over four days from Te Anau, through the mountains, to Milford Sound. Seasonal from October to April, and best during summer to avoid treacherous conditions.
Think New Zealand, and it evokes image of The Lord of the Rings, endless sheep on rolling hills and a population intent on testing every single humanly possible activity to wring out as much adrenaline as the human body could possibly handle. Hard to argue when on approach, you see rugged coastlines, jagged snow-capped peaks and a wilderness so tempting to explore, you can see what encourages so many thrill seekers to this natural playground.
Jagged Little Town
Located roughly in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island, Queenstown at first glance may seem like an unassuming little town. However, on approach, as you catch glimpses of the majestic Lake Wakatipu or the unreal blue of the Kawarau River or the peaks of The Remarkables range from the tarmac of Queenstown International Airport, you would rather it that way: let the natural surrounding do the talking.
The centre of Queenstown, focused on Rees St/Shotover Street, houses endless gear shops, tour operators specializing in every adrenaline sport imaginable, interesting bars and a host of accommodation. A walk around town and this little spot seems more cosmopolitan than you can imagine, with people from all over the world congregating in search of the next thrill.
Hemmed in by rolling hills, mountain ranges and a stunning lake, it is hard to not always want to stay outside in Queenstown, even in winter: the collegial atmosphere and natural beauty captures you, and all you can think of is enjoying a nice little drink on a floating bar. Yes, I spent a lot of time on Perky’s Floating Bar: it marries my love of wine, boats, water and natural landscapes wonderfully.
Pack a good, sturdy pair of hiking boots, a day-bag, extra camera batteries and a big SD card: there are a lot of good hikes within 15 minutes walk of the town centre, from simple walks up hills to more technical, steep ascents, but all are rewarded with amazing views of Queenstown, the mountains and Lake Wakatipu.
Queenstown Hill is a fun, easy hike, roughly 30 minutes from start to summit. Hike in the morning, as the cool air provides makes the summit magical with low clouds and mist. Stay a bit longer as the sun warms up the clouds, meditating on the lake views and artwork that dots the first peak.
Skyline Queenstown is a bit of a ‘cheat’ if you want to hike: there is the option of a very rewarding 1 hour hike up Bob’s Peak or a 15 minute gondola ride. Or of course, there is the option of a hike up and gondola down, or gondola up and mountain bike down. Waiting for the gondola and watching as mountain bikes are attached to the gondola up may give you even more suggestions.
Up at Skyline, there is a bar, a few restaurants, a Maori cultural exhibition, luge and of course more hiking trails. From the easy Skyline Loop that loops around the summit of Bob’s Peak or onwards towards Ben Lomond, pack lunch, stay hydrated and explore. You may even bump in to fellow ‘hikers’: of all things, I bumped in to a small herd of wild mountain goats on my way up Ben Lomond.
Apart from beautiful hiking territory, stunning cycling routes and adrenaline-pumping mountain bike trails, Queenstown has a range of activities on hand, from skiing in winter to, of course, the ‘Shotover Jet,’ the home of the very fast jet boat that whizzes up and down the Shotover River and Gorge.
While I did not opt for the Shotover Jet (or paragliding/bungee jumping/zorbing/base jumping), there are the tamer options of a day out at Walter Peak. A 30 minute cruise on the steamship TSS Earnslaw brings you to Walter Peak High Country Farm, a working farm and base for more genteel options. From an agricultural show of farm dogs herding sheep to cycling trips around the country, to just enjoying the view of Lake Wakatipu, Walter Peak is a quaint escape from the contagious adrenaline in Queenstown.
Walter Peak also has a very good horse riding trek around the lake and surrounds, and what better way to fan your Lord of the Rings dream than riding a horse in Middle Earth, as the jagged mountains recall Rohan and Gondor. Horses are well-mannered, the views rivalled by few and the peace serene.
Further beyond, the iconic image of New Zealand’s natural treasures beckon: Piopiotahi, or Milford Sound. While it was a bit sad I knew of Piopiotahi through Civilization VI, the trip from Queenstown was worth the entire day. From bus excursions, to bus-and-fly options to a full on multi-day trek on the Milford Sound, the scenery and experience of this journey to one of the natural wonders of the world is best experienced instead of described.
Yet after a day of adventures, Queenstown delivers on gastronomic and vino-related adventures. From the Perky’s Floating Bar to the world famous Fergburger which deserves its ranking as one of the top burgers in the world, to the genteel surrounds of The Lodge Bar, this adventure capital will serve you well.
One thing is for sure though: keep options open in Queenstown: this beautiful, unassuming town in the middle of rural New Zealand may capture you with her wonders. Sure, Queenstown is basically a tourist town, with tourism a major backbone of the economy, but it certainly does not feel like your standard issue tourist centre, what with the adrenaline adventurers, expedition explorers and bravado bikers around.
Taxis are a bit hard to come by: rent a car or get a ‘GoCard’ for easy bus rides. The ‘GoCard’ can be purchased at Queenstown Airport, at a travel counter on the left before the exit. Your purchase of the GoCard from the airport can easily cover the return fare from the airport to town.
Queenstown is an easy, walkable city. Sites further afield may require a private car. Most excursions come with transport provided from your accommodation.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.