The Homer Tunnel is 1.2km of hand carved access through the mountain
As it turns out however, I wasn't alone in thinking all those flashy images were too good to be true. Fortunately, Liam was to learn the truth far sooner than I did. We left our little cabins at Manapouri early to beat the traffic and were soon on our way. 'This is the end of civilisation as we know it', I smiled to Liam as we headed out of Te Anau and onto the only road which leads to Milford Sound. Fiordland National Park is the largest of NZ's 14 national parks and until 1953 Milford Sound was inaccessible by road. Fortunately a couple of enterprising and rather helpful chaps, one of whom was named William H. Homer, thought it would be rather a good idea to build a tunnel through the saddle they had recently discovered. This commenced literally with five men using picks and wheelbarrows and thanks to avalanches and other disasters, the project took 18 years to finish. You only have to drive through the Homer Tunnel today to see what a monumental achievement it was, and as a result well over half a million people now visit Milford Sound every year.
Milford Sound on a typically broody day
You don't get waterfalls like these on a fine day!
There was just one thing which put a dampener on our day - literally - and that was the rain, which whilst it wasn't torrential, was pretty much incessant. Despite people telling us that the rain was actually a GOOD thing, we found it hard to believe. Last time Gareth and I had visited, it had been clear and sunny and we couldn't have hoped for better. Still, seeing as it rains in Milford Sound around 250 days of the year we couldn't be picky and besides, we had a boat to jump both on and in, with wet weather gear assured. Two hours later, we arrived at Milford Sound and I could see Liam was impressed as Mitre Peak loomed massively in front of us, all dark and brooding and shrouded in mist. Rain or shine, it's impossible not to be blown away and for what was going to be many times that day, I was very grateful to that nice man Mr Homer for his tunnel.
The dainty looking but drenching Fairy Falls!
The rain kindly stopped as we boarded our Southern Discoveries vessel, the Lady Bowen for our Encounter Nature cruise and as we sailed out of the dock I was immediately impressed both with the ship and our friendly and informative skipper. Our vessel was busy but not overly crowded and Gareth, Liam and I were able to secure a prime spot at the front of the ship. As soon as we hit the water I had to eat my words about 'touristy things being overhyped and not worth it'. Already this was better than anything we had managed to see in our last visit! Seriously, you just can't compare standing on the shore admiring from a distance to literally being close enough to touch it. There is so much more to Milford Sound than we realised, so much more depth and sheer size that you simply won't see any other way. We passed colonies of fur seals, lounging on the rocks, who waved lazily at us with their flippers and got very wet at Fairy Falls, which is one of the few permanent waterfalls at Milford Sound which actually has a name. The reason that so few of them have names is because whilst there are literally thousands of waterfalls streaming down the mountains on a wet day, they quite literally disappear half an hour after the rain stops. This means that you will never see Milford Sound looking the same two days in a row as most of these waterfalls are completely unique. Cool, huh? It also meant that once again I had to eat my words, as the whole place takes on a completely new dimension when it rains that you don't get treated to on a sunny day. It's true what people say, Milford Sound really IS better on a wet day!
Looking glamorous after stopping at Fairy Falls!
Which is just as well because we were getting incredibly wet on our cruise, even with our raincoats. You didn't have to - the boat was incredibly comfortable and well equipped if you wanted to sit inside but we didn't want to miss a thing! The Fairy Falls was one of my favourite stops, not only for its beauty but also for the story behind its name. It got its name from a group of sailors who had been away at sea for a very long time. Upon seeing land for the first time in months, they were so delighted they hit the whiskey big time and went on a bender for three days, by the end of which the captain was convinced he could see fairies dancing at the foot of the waterfall! Our own skipper also delighted here in being able to guide the front of the boat actually into the waterfall, drenching unsuspecting passengers as they prepared to take the obligatory selfies!
Where the fiord meets the Tasman Sea
It's not surprising Captain Cook sailed past here twice!
On we cruised, marvelling at our surroundings with each second that passed. Liam isn't a fella who says much as a rule, he's not one to gush or enthuse about things but you know he likes something when he starts taking photos and he took a LOT of photos! 'So this is where the cool stuff is', he grinned, looking around. 'Honestly, you see all these videos on TV and the likes of Unilad and I always thought "Where the hell are these places? Are they even really in NZ, 'cos I've sure as hell never seen them?!" but now I know they're real. Now I know where they are'. 'Yep, this is where the cool stuff is hiding!' I laughed. Eventually the water started to get a little more choppy and we reached the watery gateway to the Tasman Sea, where it was time for us to turn around and head back. From this direction it is actually very hard to see the entrance to Milford Sound and Captain James Cook, when exploring the area in his ship the Resolution and compiling his map of NZ actually sailed past it twice, completely missing it! The man responsible for first discovering the Sound by sea was actually a Welsh chap by the name of Captain John Grono. He named Milford Sound after Milford Haven in Wales, although it should technically be called Milford Fiord, as it's not actually a Sound at all! Sound or not, Grono's arrival was very bad news for the native fur seals. Over the 20 or so years which followed, seal numbers in the area went from two million to less than 50,000; until the government discovered what was going on and seal hunting was banned nationwide, along with Grono and his men.
You just don't see any of this from the shore!
As we passed Seal Rock, where seal numbers today thankfully flourish, the view was quite possibly even more spectacular heading in the other direction. The rain may have eased but our drenchings were still not finished, as we sailed into the final two permanent waterfalls - the 146 metre-high Stirling Falls and the landmark one which can be seen from the shore, the 160 metre Lady Bowen Falls. This was first named after one of NZ's first governors, Sir George Bowen, who declared it to be one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen upon laying eyes on it for the first time and decided to earn some serious brownie points with his wife (who was standing on the deck next to him at the time) by naming it after her.
The spectacular Lady Bowen Falls
So how did our taste of commercial tourism compare with doing Milford Sound under our own steam, as we had done the previous year? Quite simply, you cannot compare the two, the cruise wins hands down. The experience and value we got from Southern Discoveries far outweighs anything we were able to see previously and we learned so much along the way, none of which any of us knew before. Seriously, I could keep talking all day about the things we learned - and our adventure wasn't even over yet, we still had to go kayaking! Our advice to anyone thinking of seeing Milford Sound by boat? Just do it, you won't be disappointed; in our opinion it is some of the best money you can spend on a tourist activity and is worth every cent. Huge thanks must go to the team and crew at Southern Discoveries for taking us out and showing us such an incredible time! These guys are super professional, their gear and facilities are great and we would recommend them to anyone. But don't stop there - wait until we tell you about the kayaking!
Thanks for an awesome cruise Southern Discoveries!