Milford Sound is the most talked about, photographed and visited place on South Island, in fact it attracts over half a million visitors per year! This amount of hype often means places are spoiled and leave you feeling disappointed. We were skeptical about how much we would enjoy our time there, especially the obligatory tourist tour boat.
The sound is one of the wettest places on earth, experiencing an average of 8 meters of rainfall per year. Yes, 8 metres! It was a challenge to find a good couple of days to visit but our wait was rewarded by the awesome views.
The drive to Milford was spectacular in itself, with scenic stops, hikes and waterfalls all along the route. A favourite of ours was the steep climb through a muddy forest to the serene Lake Marian, surrounded by sheer cliffs. The icy blue water made for a refreshing but very quick swim.
As the best way to see the sound is by boat and we had left ours on the North Island, we booked a cheap boat trip online. Guessing an early boat might be less busy we booked the first one of the day, thinking it was a little strange that the departure time was as precise as 8.05am. Arriving at the dock was like walking through an airport terminal. Buses pulled up to the entrance, disgorging hordes of tourists who were then efficiently processed through the ticket hall and out to the 15 docks where the trip boats were waiting. Other boats hovered in the vicinity, waiting their turn to dock, while small planes landed and took off every few minutes.
Despite the crowds, we could not feel anything but awe for the place. 5 minutes away from the dock, the noise and bustle was lost in the scale of the sound. Standing on the top deck we stared up at the vertical face of Mitre Peak 1,692 m above us, peered down at fur seals and got soaked by the spray flying from huge dramatic waterfalls.
To get a quieter, more relaxed view of the sound we took our inflatable kayak to the other side of the sound. The only access ramp we could use was right next to a commercial kayak hire/trip company with a sign to say all watercraft needed a permit. We were scared to ask permission in case they said no, so we inflated our kayak whilst hidden behind the car and then rapidly carried it into the water, jumped in, and paddled off without looking back. Around the corner, and out of sight of the slip, it felt like we had the place to ourselves, other than the odd fur seal snoozing on a rock.
We left Milford in agreement that the place is totally worth all the hype.
From Milford we began our return up South Island and we met up with our friend Linda (also travelling in a camper car).
Together we moved on to Wanaka, a small town on the edge of a beautiful lake, surrounded by mountains. A great spot for some kayaking/paddle-boarding in calm conditions.
Wanaka is also the location of the famous Rob-Roy peak walk, so we headed up to see what the fuss is about. Again famous equals crowded. Despite the, arduous 3 hour ascent, queues formed at some of the best photo points. The views were impressive but we yearned for a slightly less busy path.
If a hard climb wasn’t going to put other people off, maybe an hour’s drive up a gravel track would. At least that was the hope when setting off for one of our soon to be favorite walks, the Rob-Roy Glacier. Having only seen half a dozen vehicles, it was a promising start. After a beautiful walk up the tree lined valley we were greeted with the sight if a huge glacier towering above us. Waterfalls fell so far that the wind blew them away before they could even touch the bottom. We carried on for half an hour past the end of the walk before sitting on a rock to do nothing but drink in the magnificent view. While we were admiring the scale of the Glacier, a huge chunk of ice broke off before us, tumbling down the mountainside and smashing to smithereens as it went. The noise it created, boomed and echoed around the valley.
We spent time with Linda in Wanaka sheltering from the tail end of another cyclone that came through, bringing rain and strong winds. The upside of the weather was a trip to the cinema for the first time in years. The rain that we had in Wanaka had been falling as snow on the peaks, so as soon as it cleared we had our hiking boots back on for the Isthmus Peak. With the sun and blue sky back in force the 360 degree view of snow capped peaks was picture perfect. Without thinking, we had packed carrots as a snack, perfect for a snowman’s nose at the top.
Returning up the West coast of South Island would take use past the Fox and Frans Joseph Glaciers, another famous spot. We had heard that the glaciers were retreating but it was shocking to physically walk up the Frans Joseph valley to the face of the glacier. As we walked it was impossible to ignore the sheer scale of the retreat (around 10 meters per year). Matt’s parents had visited here in 2009 and were actually able to hike on the glacier. The glaciers have now retreated so far that the only access to them is by Helicopter. Even comparing our pictures with those of Matt’s parents, its hard to show the extent of the retreat, in just 9 years.
The month we spent on South Island was a major highlight of our time in New Zealand. Time in the country’s mountains and lakes gave us a real break from sailing. One month was long enough to be away from our floating home though, and we were soon aching to be back on board. Before setting off on this journey, we used to worry that we would feel cooped up on the boat. It’s been strange to learn that we actually often feel more claustrophobic ashore (OK we were living in a small van). Although the space we can move around in on the boat is relatively small, we usually have a clear view of at least one horizon and at least 20 meters between the us and the next boat. As well as some of the most beautiful scenery we have ever seen, South Island gave us a fresh appreciation of life aboard Florence.