The Road To Milford Sound
Departing Queenstown for Milford Sound we cross the one lane Kawarau River Bridge, a gold miner's folly. Built as a dam to allow gold recovery from the riverbed, the project failed because the Shotover and Arrow Rivers flowed back up towards the bridge at the outfall from Lake Wakatipu.
Once over the bridge we travel south beside the iconic Remarkables mountain range, one of only two mountain ranges in the world that run directly north to south. Today the Remarkables is one of Queenstown's favourite skiing destinations.
For the next 50 kilometres the road curls along the Devil's Staircase at the edge of Lake Wakatipu; the longest lake in New Zealand. At 80 kilometres long, Wakatipu is also very deep, between 378-420 metres deep in some places. According to Maori legend, Lake Wakatipu was formed when the body of a sleeping giant was burnt by a Maori warrior, who wanted to ensure the giant could never again kidnap his beautiful daughter. The fire burned a deep gouge in the earth and caused the ice and snow on the surrounding mountains to melt, forming Lake Wakatipu.
Across the lake at the mouth of the Lochy River is the Cecil Peak sheep station, then at Lake Wakatipu's southernmost point we pass the small township of Kingston, home of the famous Kingston Flyer. This steam train is a beautifully preserved piece of living history that takes visitors on daily excursions south to Five Rivers. Keep an eye out south of Kingston, and you will notice we pass through a large ancient river bed which used to be the outlet of Lake Wakatipu, before nature carved out a new outlet near Queenstown thousands of years ago, in the form of the Kawarau River.??Next, the road to Milford Sound then takes us through a large area of high country plateaus surrounded by mountainous hills. Passing the small hamlet of Athol we travel alongside the Mataura River, world famous for its trout fishing. Cresting the hill at Five Rivers we get our first glimpse of Southland and the farmland that has made the region so prosperous. Here we turn west to travel through rural countryside toward Te Anau. To the south you will see windmills on the top of the hills at Mt White Wind Farm which at full capacity can power almost all the entire Southland region.
Further on we pass through Mossburn, the self-proclaimed deer capital of New Zealand. From here the road follows the Oreti River passing the turnoff to Mavora Lakes, one of the locations used in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Our journey continues into the hills and passes through undulating tussock lands and valleys before emerging back onto the plains, eventually bringing us to the lakeside town of Te Anau. ??Lake Te Anau is New Zealand's second largest lake, its name is derived from Maori words Te Ana Au, meaning cave of swirling waters. Lost for generations, the existence of the caves became the stuff of legend, until they were rediscovered in 1948. Today the caves are popular with visitors, who descend into their depths, then take a small boat to glide through a grotto illuminated by glow-worms. On our journey to Milford we stop at the main shopping centre of Te Anau - this will be your last opportunity to purchase supplies or refreshments before heading into the Fiordland National Park.??The 120km Milford Road (SH94), from Te Anau to Milford Sound, is one of the world's finest scenic highways. From the Te Anau the road hugs the lake shoreline before entering the spectacular golden grassed Eglinton Valley where we stop so you can take photos and stretch your legs. This valley is the first major highlight of the Milford Sound road; it was once filled with glacier ice. The valley has steep rock sides and a flat, golden tussock floor - it's a surreal place. Anywhere in the world the initial drive beside Lake Te Anau would be considered gorgeous, and yet it pales beside the Eglinton Valley, where the road penetrates steeper into bush-clad mountains. Further along the road we will stop at the Mirror Lakes for you to take photos - on a still day they display a perfect reflection of the Earl Mountains. ??Now we come to the Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain, where an optical illusion causes the approaching mountain to get smaller rather than larger, then we emerge from the forest at Knobs Flat where you'll have another photo stop before carrying on to Cascade Creek.
Heading through bush clad valleys we pass the shorelines of Lake Gunn and Lake Fergus. From here the road passes through a saddle and emerges at the upper section of the Hollyford Valley. The Eglinton Mountains above Lake Gunn were used as a location in Peter Jackson's movie The Fellowship of the Ring where the actors walked along a mountain path with the Key Summit evident in the distance. The mountains here represented the Misty Mountains. It is ironic that Jackson chose to film in this area, as in the 1970's an Otago University student named several features near Lake Gunn after J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but the names were later rejected by authorities for being â€˜unimaginative'.
Emily Peak on the Routeburn Track can also be seen in The Fellowship of the Ring, as well as the Mavora Lakes near Mossburn.
After Hollyford, the road rises steadily along the valley to its highest point at the Homer Tunnel. At 1270 metres long the Homer Tunnel is the second-longest road tunnel in New Zealand. Hewn from solid granite, the tunnel took nearly 20 years to complete. We stop here for photos and hopefully some fun with the local Keas (mountain parrots). Back aboard the coach we wait for the green light to indicate we can pass through the blackness of the narrow tunnel. At the other end we are greeted with a spectacular view of the road winding down the bush clad Cleddau Valley towards Milford Sound.?
Our next photo stop is at The Chasm walkway, halfway between the Homer Tunnel and Milford Sound; where you may take a short walk through the forest, and cross footbridges over The Cleddau River, to experience dramatic views of powerful waterfalls and sculpted shapes and basins in the rock, which have been formed over thousands of years by the swirling waters.
The Milford Road section began in 1926 when John Chartres, a local Station owner, began making his own road south from Te Anau Downs harbour to the Te Anau Hotel, sparking a project that turned into the most scenic highway in New Zealand including iconic landmarks such as the Mirror Lakes, the Avenue of Disappearing Mountain, Lake Gunn, the Key Summit, Mount Christina, Mount Talbot, the Homer Tunnel, The Chasm, Mount Tutoko and Mitre Peak. Before the sealing of the road in the 1980s it was treated as a day's adventure from the township of Te Anau to Milford Sound. Modern marketing and faster buses have made Milford Sound a day trip destination from Queenstown. This route is part of the Te Wai Pounamu Wilderness Area.
It was a major undertaking to build the Milford Road, and it took nearly 30 years until both the gravel road and Homer Tunnel were finished in 1954. No-one thought it was an appealing job to work in the remote wilderness of Fiordland, being subject to all kinds of wild weather, floods, snow, avalanches, so most of the men who worked on the road were more or less forced by the Government to take the jobs up during the Great Depression.
The section from Te Anau to the Divide (that is where the Routeburn, Caples and Greenstone Tracks start/end) was completed in the 1930's. Work on the Homer Tunnel began in 1935. Difficult conditions and a break during World War II delayed the completion until 1953. The last stretch of the road was finally sealed in 1992.
The final stop on our journey along the Milford Road is also our destination - Milford Sound - where you will either board a comfortable boat for a 1hr 45min scenic cruise out to the Tasman Sea, or helicopter to the top of Sutherland Falls and fly around Mitre Peak.
The road is long, and in the end, the journey is the destination and in the case of Milford Sound, the destination is made even better by the journey.