On our 28th day in New Zealand Ash and I traveled to the iconic Milford Sound. Milford is, as some would say, the most iconic symbol of New Zealand. It has been called the 8th wonder of the world by others. As noted in the last post, Milford Sound really isn’t a sound, it is a Fiord. A sound is a sunken valley while a Fiord is a mountain that has been carved by glaciers down to sea level. The “sounds” got their name from the early explorers who didn’t realize they were looking at Fiords.
Milford was our final destination but the drive from Te Anau to Milford is quite an experience in itself. It is an hour drive, over one of the highest passes in New Zealand through the gnarliest, prettiest, and most diverse landscapes I have ever driven through. Fiordland National Park is known for unpredictable weather patterns and this day did not disappoint. It was sunny and dry in Te Anau and quickly became rainy and wet which turned into snowy and cold during the wildest parts of the drive. About halfway through the drive we went through Knobs Flat. Knobs Flat has to be the most beautiful mountain valley in the world. Even with grey skies the colors in this valley were the most vibrant I’ve ever seen. Golden tussocks, blue rivers, green ferns, white capped mountains, pure beauty… and we hadn’t even reached Milford yet!
Once we drove into Milford Sound we were completely taken by Mitre Peak, a commanding sight rising dramatically out of the water to a 1683 meter point. While there isn’t much too actually do in Milford we didn’t spend much time, especially since the weather was getting worse and I was afraid the pass might close trapping us on one side.
Milford Sound was initially overlooked by European explorers, because its narrow entry did not appear to lead into such large interior bays. Sailing ship captains such as James Cook, who bypassed Milford Sound on his journeys for just this reason, also feared venturing too close to the steep mountainsides, afraid that wind conditions would prevent escape (this refers to Doubtful Sound, so named as Cook thought it doubtful he would escape if he sailed in).
The fjord was a playground for local Maori who had acquired a large amount of local marine knowledge including tidal patterns and fish feeding patterns over generations prior to European arrival. The fjord remained undiscovered by Europeans until a sealer by the name of Captain John Grono discovered it in around 1812 and named it Milford Haven after his homeland in Wales. Captain John Lort Stokes later renamed Milford Haven as Milford Sound.
While Fiordland as such remained one of the least-explored areas of New Zealand up to the 20th century, Milford Sound’s natural beauty soon attracted national and international renown, and led to the discovery of the Mackinnon Pass in 1888, soon to become a part of the new Milford Track, an early walking tourism trail. In the same year, the low watershed saddle between the Hollyford River and the Cleddau River was discovered, where the Homer Tunnel was to be developed about sixty years later to provide road access.
As of the 2006 census, just 120 people lived in Milford Sound, most of them working in tourism or conservation.