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Cruising Fiordland

Posted by on March 3, 2018

From Southland, we drove the rest of the Southern Scenic Route until we reached Fiordland. Both Jeff and I have been here before in our past lives, but never together, so this was very exciting for us.

We monitored the weather and booked day cruises in the 2 of the fjords – Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. But more on that in a minute…

Introducing Fiordland

To orient you, Fiordland National Park is just under 5000 square miles (~12000 sq km) in the southwest portion of the South Island (see map below). It is the largest national park in New Zealand and over 95% of it has never seen people. Woah.

It is mainly undeveloped due to the rugged terrain as well as the large amount of rainfall the area gets each year. To give an idea of distance, it is about a 10- to 12-hour drive from Christchurch.

There are over 12 major fjords in Fiordland, of which Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound are the most traversed.

Dusky is the largest and can be reached by boat, Doubtful is second largest and can be reached by boat then car, and Milford is the most accessible and most popular perhaps because it can be reached by car alone. All can be reached by air. Scenic flights are very popular in this area.

Fiordland National Park – Southwest portion of South Island of New Zealand

Spelling and nomenclature

Ok, for those of you who are grammar geeks (I can say that, since I am one!), let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. Fiordland is spelled as a variant of the Scandinavian word fjord. Not sure why, but anywho.

As one might expect, Fiordland is made up of fjords, meaning they are carved by past glacial activity. But they were originally named Sounds and the name has stuck. So Milford and Doubtful Sounds are actually fjords. New Zealand “righted” this naming wrong by calling the national park Fiordland.

Ok, enough of that – let’s get to the pix!

Road to Milford Sound

As mentioned, Milford Sound is the only sound in Fiordland that can be reached by road. It is about a 2-hour drive from the closest town – Te Anau (~75 miles or 120km away). So not a fast drive.

The feats of engineering required to build this road are incredible. It is a notably scenic and sometimes challenging drive. The road to get there is almost as impressive as the actual sound itself. Well, almost.

All that said, the first part of the drive was rather uneventful…well, or so we thought until we ran into our first sheep mustering! And sadly, I mean this almost literally. As we rounded a bend, we came face to face with this flock of sheep headed directly at us. Thank goodness Dolly has good brakes!

Travel tip: Now we understand what that sheep sign temporarily propped up against a post meant…how were we to know, since there are signs for sheep everywhere here?!?!?!? Others, be forewarned.

In all seriousness, it was fascinating to watch the muster. And particularly how good the sheep dogs are at herding them.

Sheep heading to the right at first…

…until a renegade group decided to go left…so Dolly (our van) was surrounded by sheep! So cool!!!

So for us, the trip to Milford was already a success…before we even really got started! But now let’s go to the rest of the story…

We drove into Milford on a rainy, dreary early evening. Since it rains over 250 days of the year in Milford Sound, seeing it like this seemed very fitting!

Eglinton Valley – one of the first stops on the road to Milford Sound

We were not only mesmerized by the gorgeous scenery but also by the hoards of buses that were leaving the area. This area is hugely popular for day trippers, mostly coming from Queenstown and Wanaka. We were happy to see them go.


Road to Milford Sound on a typically rainy day


Panorama on the road to Milford Sound

One of the most impressive feats of engineering, besides the fact that the road was carved into the sides of rugged mountains (!), is the creation of the Homer Tunnel.

The Homer Tunnel is ~1.2km long and took 18 years to build (from 1935 to 1953), with delays along the way including a depression and world war. It travels through a mountain at a 1:10 gradient (~6% decline). The inside of the tunnel is still raw granite, making it look as though it were only blown out yesterday.

The view once you get through the tunnel (below) tells the tale of what’s to come on the drive. There are many switchbacks until you descend down to the sound.

Coming out of the Homer Tunnel

We stopped on the side of the road just outside of the tunnel (to cool Dolly’s brakes), and a kea came to greet us. Kea are New Zealand mountain parrots that are currently an endangered species. They are quite cheeky, as they love anything that sparkles or shines, and have been known to eat the windshield wipers off cars, etc.

I couldn’t take a great picture of this one, as every time I tried to put my camera out the rain-splattered window to take a pic, he looked at it greedily as if he were going to fly up and take it from me! Can’t have that!

Cheeky kea outside of Homer Tunnel


Another sight was Falls Creek, where torrents of water were flowing through. It’s always best to see Milford (the road and the sound) after or during a rain, when the waterfalls are at their best.

When I looked through our pictures, I found these 2 interesting. Can you tell which one Jeff took?!?!? Clearly, I’m not the photographer in the family.

Falls Creek waterfall

Falls Creek waterfall

There were also beautiful streams running alongside the road full of crisp, blue, glacial waters.

Stream running alongside road to Milford Sound

Finally, at the end of the road we hit the head of Milford Sound. To give you a peek, here is what it looked like on that overcast, drizzly evening. Quite dramatic. Rudyard Kipling called this the 8th wonder of the world.

The pièce de résistance- Milford Sound in cloud; the foreground is a tidal estuary.

Milford Sound

Ok! So you’ve stuck with me on the road to Milford. Now, once at the sound, we stayed overnight at a powered campsite in the Milford Sound Lodge before taking a 10:45am cruise with Cruise Milford.

The only notable part of this overnight stay was that it cost $20 for sufficient internet for me to post that previous blog post. Ouch! While it’s a bit understandable in this remote area, lack of wifi throughout parts of New Zealand is something they need to deal with in order to accommodate the increasing number of tourists with their ever increasing expectations of connectedness.

Travel tip: Do not count on having wifi during your travels through parts of the South Island. 

Oh, and perhaps the second notable part was Jeff spotting these cute weka – one of New Zealand’s flightless birds.

Weka at Milford

We specifically chose Cruise Milford since it has smaller boats that touted having more room to move around the cabin and take pictures. We were thrilled with our cruise and would highly recommend them.

Cruise Milford

While still overcast at the start, we had a non-rainy day for our cruise. Yay!!

Travel Tip: The main parking lot fills up quickly, so the park and ride is likely your best option. Buuuut….the park and ride doesn’t have signs indicating how often they come (it’s about every 15 minutes, as we learned later), so we ended up hoofing it to the cruise terminal, making it just in time to catch our cruise. Hello, adrenaline rush!

Now, on to the sound. Below is the iconic view of Milford Sound, with Mitre Peak in the center.

Mitre Peak rises 5,560 feet (1,692m), ie, approximately 1 mile out of the water. Below water, it does much the same, going straight down for over 200m, making it the second highest mountain to rise out of the sea. To prove that the peak continues to go straight down, the skipper drove us right under a couple of the waterfalls, soaking those who chose to stay out on deck. Ummmm, no thanks, I think I’ll pass on the glacial shower!

Mitre Peak (centre) in Milford Sound

The rest of these pix will give you an idea of what we saw on the ~2-hour cruise, which went from the head of Milford Sound out to the Tasman Sea and back. Milford Sound is approximately 16 km long and 3 km wide.

Let me emphasize that NO picture can do this experience justice. You truly have to be there and soak in the atmosphere, the grandeur, and the majesty of the mountains that drop straight into the water.

Go, if you get the chance.

As the cruise began, we learned there are 2 permanent falls in the sound – Bowen Falls, immediately at the start of the sound, and Stirling Falls, more towards the Tasman Sea. All other waterfalls (>95%) appear as the result of rainfall in the area.

Here are the Bowen Falls, looking back from the start of our cruise…

Bowen Falls

And the Stirling Falls are below…the most notable here being the size of the quite large boat relative to the falls. WOAH!

Stirling Falls

But even more impressive, below is the larger view, to provide context of how that very same boat and Stirling Falls fit into the bigger picture of Milford Sound…(see the weeeeee boat to the far left? That’s the same big boat!) Are you starting to understand now while Milford is such a popular place to visit? It is humbling, indeed.

Stirling Falls with boat as context for size

Perhaps the most telling vista is the one below. It says the whole story, really, since everywhere you turn for the full 2 hours you see vistas like this. Amazing!

Panorama of Milford Sound

In and amongst the beauty was the occasional fur seal.

Fur seals chilling on the rocks

And while there wasn’t much wildlife to be seen above water, there is stuff to see underwater. For that reason, they have built a floating underwater observatory.

While Jeff and I didn’t visit it, the intent is that you can go down into this “observatory” and watch the wildlife and black coral in their natural habitat. Or who knows, maybe you are the one on display, and the wildlife is looking at you! A reverse aquarium, if you will.

You can see the observatory to the far left of the below picture.

Milford Underwater Observatory (to far left)

From the observatory, it was back to port at the end of the cruise.

The glory of Milford is that while the Sound is clearly the main tourist draw for the area, there are other options as well, including the 4-day Milford Track walk (which I did with friends in a past life). This is an excellent way to really experience the area. It is so popular that you have to book months in advance.

Additionally, as I’ve mentioned before, you can see this area by scenic flight from Queenstown or Wanaka (I can recommend these as stunningly gorgeous) or you can take a bus trip from either of those places (no thanks, I would rather be shot).

The vast majority of people visiting Milford Sound are daytrippers, or so it seemed to us, since the evening at the campsite, while full, was much quieter than we expected.

Travel tip: If you have time, stay overnight in Milford Sound. It gives you the unique experience of seeing the sound by sunset and sunrise, but more importantly, to experience the area when there are considerably fewer visitors and you can actually find some quiet time. During the day, the area is abuzz with the cacophony of tourists of all nationalities.

Now from Milford Sound, it’s on to Manapouri for some fishing before the next day’s cruise of Doubtful Sound.


Manapouri is a small town of less than 1000 people, situated on Lake Manapouri, the starting point for the trip to Doubtful Sound. It is about 2.5 hours south of Milford Sound by car.

Jeff booked us a campsite (at Possum Lodge) that was within walking distance of the lake as well as the boat dock (brilliant!), so we parked up for a couple of nights. We had begun to realize that we (and by we, I mean Jeff), had been driving every day, so it was nice not to drive for a change.

The weather was gorgeous and we had a really tough time of it here, clearly, as Jeff fished…

Fishing at Lake Manapouri

…while I read in our hammock. It’s a hard life…

(But if you are starting to curse us…never fear…there was the occasional bumblebee and the 8-minute burn time that we had to contend with. Even paradise exists in reality.)

Jen enjoying the hammock and a good book!

Since we were in Manapouri for my birthday, we had tried to splurge and book an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound, so we could kayak and fish and other such fun stuff, in addition to the cruise, but alas they were all booked.

Travel tip: Book the overnight cruise in advance, if you want to take one. In our case, they were booked solid for at least the next 6 weeks, so we’d recommend booking at least 2 months in advance. That doesn’t work well with our unplanned campervan adventure, but is necessary for those with a planned itinerary.

Instead, we took a day cruise which involved a 1-hour boat trip across Lake Manapouri, a ~45-minute bus ride across Wilmot Pass to meet the cruise ship in Deep Cove for a 3-hour cruise of Doubtful Sound. We went with Real Journeys and would recommend them.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is larger than Milford Sound and is more isolated and harder to get to, making it a bit less desirable for much of the tourist population. (Which if you know us, you know we like to shed tourist crowds when we can. Who doesn’t, right?!?!?)

The Maori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea – meaning place of silence. It is the perfect name for a very serene place. While Milford Sound is dramatic in its beauty, Doubtful Sound is understated.

But both are equally beautiful.

To begin our trip, we took the boat ride across Lake Manapouri (pictured below). It was stunning in its own right, especially as the clouds lifted by the afternoon.

Lake Manapouri

The most notable thing about Lake Manapouri is the hydroelectric power station located at one end of the lake (below). It is the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand and the second largest power station in New Zealand.

Since it is over 200m above Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound, they built a power station to harness the power of this drop. They dug out over 1 million tons of rock to build the underground power station as well as the 10km tailrace tunnel. I have to ask — who thinks of this stuff?!?!?!? I am completely amazed.

The power station wasn’t open at this time, so we could only view it from outside.

Hydroelectric power at Manapouri Station

Once we docked, it was now on to a bus to travel the 22-km Wilmot Pass to get to Deep Cove. Along the way, there was more of the same as we’d seen in Milford, beautiful streams…

Stream on the Wilmot Pass drive

…as well as waterfalls finding their way down the rock faces. In addition, the road was strewn with ferns, mosses, lichens, and native NZ trees, making it a beautiful, lush drive.

Falls on Wilmot Pass

But the most impressive stop, hands down, was at the lookout where we could see Doubtful Sound for the first time. And better still, the clouds had lifted and we got a bright blue sky. Oh glorious day!

Travel Tip: The weather on one side of a pass can be completely different than on the other side of a pass (Wilmot or otherwise), so we always held our breaths going over passes…since we never knew what we would find on the other side! So, don’t always believe the weather predictions…

First view of Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass

Doubtful Sound is the deepest fjord in Fiordland, at over 400m deep, and is 40km long from Deep Cove to the Tasman Sea. It has 3 arms. There is no such iconic image of Doubtful as for Milford. Rather, it is a fjord full of natural, untouched beauty. Everywhere you look is breathtaking. I felt very at peace here.

Here is one such image.

Doubtful Sound

Again, here is a picture for context of size…see the large boat at the bottom that looks tiny? Again, it’s not tiny…

Doubtful Sound – with boat for scale

Looking into the sun, the silhouette is also impressive…

Doubtful Sound in silhouette

And the wildlife put on quite a show for us. Jeff got this action shot of 3 bottlenose dolphins doing all kinds of flips and tricks for us. (The 2 just out of the water are easy to spot, but see the third one above them, doing a flip? Very cool.)

Frolicking bottle-nose dolphins

This small rock island stood out among all the green…

Small island in Doubtful Sound

And, of course, there were fur seals as well, though we saw little other wildlife, besides the dolphins.

Doubtful Sound fur seals

The picture below gives you an idea of the tree avalanches that occur in this area. Since this is all rock, there is a particular order that leads to successful growth. Lichens and mosses start to take hold on rocks, followed by ferns, then allowing trees to take hold with their roots among them, forming an intertwined matrix.

But sometimes, wind or an event will cause the trees to slide, causing a “tree avalanche.” Once the trees fall, they tear the moss, lichens, and ferns away with them, leaving the bare rock face.

Of the 3 “scars” you see in the picture below, the far left and far right are tree avalanches and the one in the middle is actually a waterfall that starts at the top of the mountain and works its way to the bottom. 

Nature truly is an amazing thing.

Tree avalanches in Doubtful Sound

For a better idea of the vastness and solitude of the area, see the panorama below…

Doubtful Sound panorama

…as well as the view once you get out to the Tasman Sea. Luckily for us, the swells were minimal, but on windy days the ride can be quite rough.

Doubtful Sound where it meets the Tasman Sea

And from there, we turned back to return to Deep Cove. On our way back, we turned into the Crooked Arm of the sound (below) to experience a moment of silence. Since Doubtful Sound is the “place of silence”, the skipper turned off all the engines and implored all passengers to turn off all phones, stop talking and taking pictures, for a minute of silence.

Jeff was on the top deck, where everyone obliged and had their peaceful moment. I was on the lower back deck where morons insisted on using their cameras and people walked around completely oblivious to the skipper’s request. Errrrrrgh! See why I hate tourists?!?!?!? (And yes, it’s not lost on me that I am one, but at least I try to be a respectful one!)

I tried very hard to get lost in my own moment of silence, but it was harder than it should have been. But the place does feel rejuvenating – an overnight cruise would be good for the soul, no doubt.

Looking into the crooked arm of Doubtful Sound

Overall, the ride was wonderfully serene and peaceful, with awe-inspiring views at every turn. Again, clearly pictures cannot do this place justice…you must go visit yourself. We highly recommend it!

After our bus ride back over the Wilmot Pass and boat ride across Lake Manapouri, it was time to resume our fishing and reading positions by the side of the lake.

What a magnificently wonderful way to spend a birthday. I’m a lucky girl.

And as a post-note, 3 days after we cruised Doubtful Sound, over 330 people were stranded by a 25m long slip of Wilmot Pass that blocked day tours getting back to the Manapouri boat dock. Approximately half of these were evacuated by helicopter, while the others were bussed out once the slip had been cleared. Tours resumed as normal the next day. I’m glad we missed that bit of excitement!

Hope you guys enjoyed cruising Fiordland with us!!!

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