Milford Sound was one of the places I was desperate to visit after arriving in New Zealand. Hidden away from the world in Fiordland National Park, in the far south-western corner of New Zealand, this iconic landmark was one of the reasons I wanted to move to the South Island. Having written countless tours where Milford Sound was a highlight, I couldn’t wait to see the glistening waters reflecting jagged Mitre Peak with my own eyes. After persistent coaxing, I eventually convinced Mr Right to book a few days off from work and we started planning our travel itinerary.
- Across the heart of South Island
- Queenstown to Te Anau
- Te Anau to Milford Sound
- Te Anau to Timaru via Dunedin
In terms of civilisation, there’s a whole lot of nothing in Fiordland National Park so the only real choice of place to stay is the town of Te Anau, which acts as a gateway to this vast, unspoilt wilderness. If tramping is your thing, then there are plenty of tranquil spots to set up camp. But if you prefer your creature comforts, you can choose from RV camps, motels and, in our case, good old AirBnB to find a warm place to stay. We definitely want to give the whole tramping thing a go but I’m not brave enough to attempt it with a baby in tow.
Across the heart of the South Island
From Timaru, we had the choice of travelling across the Mackenzie Basin, edged on its western side by the Southern Alps which run down the centre of the island like a spine, or driving down through Dunedin and up past Invercargill. We decided to take a looping route, beginning with the scenic drive through the mountains, past sparkling Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. Te Anau is around 500 kilometres away and whilst we could technically drive there in a day, it made sense to break the journey up for the sake of the kids (and our sanity) so we booked an overnight stay in Cromwell.
The weather was grim with grey skies as we made or way out through Pleasant Point and Fairlie. As we climbed up into the mountains, pockets of snow lingered in the shade. I only started to worry as fresh flurries began to fall, forcing us to forge ahead without much of a break. The last thing we wanted was to get stuck here if the roads suddenly closed.
We pushed on across the high plateau and through some of New Zealand’s most stark landscapes. Brooding mountains piercing the sky provided a backdrop to sweeping plains peppered with stands of trees and dissected by the lonely grey single lane road. The Mackenzie Basin is often used as a backdrop to film shoots, including one of New Zealand’s most famous, The Lord of the Rings. From the southern shore of Lake Pukaki, it is possible to glimpse Mount Cook in the distance on a clear day but New Zealand’s highest mountain was cloaked in cloud much to our disappointment. After passing through the small town of Twizel and crossing the Lindis Pass, our six-year old was climbing the walls, so we stopped at the northern end of Lake Dunstan. The clouds had retreated and bright sunshine glinted off the choppy waves of this manmade reservoir.
The historic gold mining town of Cromwell is set in the heart of Central Otago and is ringed by mountains. It lies at the southern end of Lake Dunstan so it was just a short journey to reach the motel we had booked for the night. After the long drive, we thought it would be good to stretch our legs and take a walk down to Cromwell’s ‘Heritage Town’ which we had seen advertised on a few road signs. We wandered down to the water’s edge which is flanked by crumbling old buildings, the last remnants of old Cromwell, most of which now lies at the bottom of the lake.
There’s a speedway in Cromwell and there was an event on that weekend so the sound of engines revving up reverberated off the valley walls. On the way back, we came across a real slice of Kiwiana: a trio of sisters setting up a lemonade stand. Child A was desperate to try some homemade lemonade and was withering away before our eyes under the hot New Zealand sun. We ended up hanging around for ages whilst the girls fetched supplies from their home, which was out of sight around the bend. When a pitcher full of ice-cold lemonade finally arrived, the guys gulped it down. Only later did they realise this was probably a mistake as they both had a stomach ache and Child A ended up being sick in the night (this might have happened anyway because of all the driving).
Queenstown to Te Anau
We got up early and decided to have breakfast in Queenstown, about an hour’s drive away. After so much open space, Queenstown was a jolt to the system. It has a stunning setting beside Lake Wakatipu and is one of New Zealand’s most popular resorts. Even at the early hour we arrived, Queenstown was heaving with action and we hit traffic for the first time on our journey. We couldn’t find parking and ended up having breakfast at McDonalds. As we were there at the end of the ski season, the restaurant was packed with snowboarders, reminding me of a winter holiday we a once had in Austria when we were much younger and a lot fitter! Even Mr Right commented on how nostalgic it made him feel and we made plans to at least consider getting in shape so we can tackle the slopes with the kids in the future.
From Queenstown, we cracked on with the last two-hour drive to Te Anau, arriving a little too early to get into the AirBnB. This gave us a chance to explore the town. The small high street that runs away from Lake Te Anau is lined with a few stores selling sporting goods and souvenirs. There’s a larger-than-life statue of a takahe, a large flightless bird which lives in the national park. They are rare and endangered so the chance of seeing one in real life is limited (although we did see a rare South Island robin whilst out walking one day).
The house was worth the wait. A spotless new build set on a new estate by a lake and surrounded by mountains. Scenically it was stunning if a little cold and windy. The house even had a bath! Thank god for small mercy’s.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
Rain, rain and more rain was forecast for the rest of the week so we decided that we should head out to Milford Sound the very next day whilst we still had the chance. We packed a picnic and coaxed Child A back into the car. You can imagine that a third day couped up was not his idea of fun but somehow we managed to convince him it would be worthwhile. We then set off for Milford Sound, about a two-hour drive away in the north of Fiordland National Park. I was really only concerned about getting to Milford Sound, but in retrospect, as with much of the trip, the journey was just as much a highlight.
Justly billed as one of New Zealand’s most scenic drives, it weaves a course north, past plains cloaked in golden grass and rocky river beds flanked by forested slopes. The road then starts to climb up towards the Homer Tunnel, a hand-carved tunnel that pierces right through a mountain. Its rough and ready walls glisten with moisture lit only by the headlights of our car. If you don’t like heights, prepare to close your eyes! The road to the tunnel clings to the side of the mountain and there were a few moments where I tried to climb out my seat and hide in the footwell. I really don’t know how my husband puts up with me sometimes!
We arrived at a packed car park but managed to find a space near the exit. The clouds we were rushing to beat rolled in around us, threatening to pour any second. We pushed our way through some bushes and there was Milford Sound. It really is a jaw-dropping sight even with low-hanging cloud shielding the summit of Mitre Peak which rises up above the water. We strapped Baby B into a baby sling and followed the crowds along a boardwalk to the cruise terminal on the hunt for a café and/or ablutions. As much as I wanted to go on a boat trip to enjoy gliding across the glass-like water of Milford Sound, we decided it really wouldn’t be fair on the kids, or the other passengers. By now the rain had started to fall, so after enjoying our picnic in the drizzle, we headed back to the car.
On the return to Te Anau, we paused to follow one of the tracks through the forest as the sun had returned. Moss smothered fallen tree trunks and the sun filtered through the dense canopy. We paused to admire a river tumbling over granite-like rocks and enjoy the serene beauty all around. Even though it is one of New Zealand’s most popular routes, it still felt off the beaten track.
Te Anau to Timaru via Dunedin
We only had a few days in Te Anau which we spent exploring town, visiting the birds at the small bird sanctuary and exploring the forest tracks. Waterproof coats and boots were an absolute must as the rain rarely let up. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Timaru, this time via Dunedin. This way led through rolling green hills blanketed in clouds. We stayed overnight in Dunedin but were beat so didn’t spare time to explore although we will be returning. What I saw reminded me off Scotland as it was so lush and green.
Our first holiday spent exploring our new home country was fantastic. The 4×4 proved her worth by taking the steep gradients and unmade roads in her stride. Next time, the only thing I would change is allowing more time to explore all the different places en route.