Spring Roadie – Milford Sound to Te Anau
Aside from cruising down the fjord on one of the many boat trips, there is also a shoreline walk at Milford Sound that is always worth taking the time to do. By the time my brother and I had arrived back into dock in late morning, the tide was getting low, but the sun was much higher. The pier that sticks out into the water at the ferry terminal was a good place to start the shoreline walk from and after popping out to the end of it for us both to take some photographs, we meandered our way back towards the car park.
Beyond the other side of here is a small peninsula that juts out. A little trail leads through the bush here and with the low tide, there was plenty of opportunity to walk out onto the exposed stony shore and take in the view. It’s really hard to take a bad photograph here when the view is so stunning. Even though it wasn’t my first time, I still happily filled my memory card and in between times walked around with a smile on my face. It was a busy little waterfront by this stage with many of the tourists from the morning boat trips having the same plan, but despite this it was still tranquil and didn’t feel overcrowded.
But eventually it was time to push on, as the drive back to Te Anau is very scenic and there were lots of stops to be made. The first of these was the Chasm, not too far out of Milford Sound as the road starts its wind back up through the deep valley. The high volume of water through the valleys in Fiordland National Park has long been weathering and changing the landscape. In the case of the Chasm, a narrow channel of fast moving water has created a literal chasm in the rock causing the water to gush through a rocky channel and cascade over a drop. Whilst it is a short walk to see it, the bridge has been placed right over the waterfall which means it is actually really difficult to fully visualise the extent of the fall which seems to me to be a bit of bad planning. None-the-less, the gaps in the foliage as we walked through the bush to get back from it, offered a sneaky peak at the surrounding mountain peaks.
From there, the road winds its way uphill to the man-made wonder that is Homer Tunnel. It is particularly impressive to approach it from this side as the steep slopes of the mountains grow closer and closer as if they will swallow you, and all there is to see in front of you is a sheer rock wall. The effort involved in blasting this rudimentary tunnel through such solid rock would have been incredible, but without it, Milford Sound would only be accessible by sea or air. A series of S-bends raises the altitude and towards the top, a large area to pull in at is worth pausing at to appreciate the dramatic rocky sides of this magnificent valley. Snow melt meant there were plenty of little waterfalls cascading down the rockface.
Because the tunnel is unsealed and unwalled, the restricted width, height and constant dripping water throughout the length of the tunnel means it is classed as a 1-lane road, with traffic lights controlling the flow during peak season. Queuing to pass through is inevitable but it is efficient, and once back on the other side we again pulled in near the site of the morning’s kea encounter where we marvelled at the snow piled up by the roadside and once again watched the kea causing chaos. Further up the valley we paused at a lookout over the entrance to the Hollyford Valley, an area I’m keen to explore further on foot. Then beyond here, was our main stop on the drive.
Having lived in New Zealand for well over 6 years now, and having seen the increasing tourist numbers and the environmental effects that is occurring as a result, I’m torn about recommending my favourite places to go, because I want to keep them the way I found them: quiet and untouched. But if I was asked what one short walk shouldn’t be missed on a New Zealand trip, then Key Summit would be it. Reached from the Divide on the Te Anau-Milford Highway, it is also the start of the very popular Routeburn Track, one of the country’s multi-day Great Walks. But within 2-3 hours, you can hike up to Key Summit and be back at your car, and the views of the surrounding mountain ranges on a clear day are just incredible.
Like the last time I hiked it, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, but this time round, it was so bright that I had great issues with over-exposure of the photographs I was taking. About 3.5 years after the last visit, we pulled into the car park, and not only was it packed, but the extension (which hadn’t been present when I was there last time) was also packed, and a spill-over car park down a steep and rutted slope was also nearly full. I couldn’t get over the difference. The trail was also full of people coming and going and this is why I am torn to recommend my favourite places: I hike to be amongst nature and seek solitude, so I hate walking busy routes.
The initial part of the trail is amongst bush with just the occasional break in the trees to see a glimpse of the nearby peaks. It isn’t until close to the turn-off to Key Summit that the real views begin. Away from the Routeburn Track, the Key Summit route zig-zags up the mountainside until eventually it reaches a plateau where a boardwalk takes you on an alpine nature walk. From shrubs to tarns and the mountain peaks around it, I cannot do the view justice with words. Even the photographs fail to show the splendour of the view and I’m pretty sure my brother was blown away. He wasn’t in the country long enough to tackle any lengthy hiking trails, but here he was getting a good idea of what the country has to offer.
Although the plateau is Key Summit, at 919m (3016ft), there is a higher peak behind it which offers a really good view point back down over the tarns. This path had been completely upgraded since my last visit, as had the lookout itself which was busy, unlike the last time I was here when only myself and 1 other person had bothered to take the rudimentary track up the slope. Now a proper gravelled track led up here and I again pondered about the changes that were needing to be made to meet the demands of foot traffic. From this height though, it is just possible to make out a sliver of Lake Marian which sits hidden within a mountain valley near the entrance to the Hollyford Valley.
Returning to Key Summit, we continued the circuit of the alpine nature walk, crossing boardwalks, then rocks, absorbing the view around us. In shaded patches, stale snow lay on the ground and I left my brother to enjoy himself, myself slipping into my own wee world as I tend to do when I’m out hiking in nature. Had we had endless hours to spare, I could have happily sat up there with a picnic and just stared out at the mountains. As it was, the hours of the day were creeping onwards and so having had our fill of the fresh mountain air, we finished the circuit and made our way back down to the Routeburn Track, and back towards the car.
We stopped at the Mirror Lakes further along the road, which like last time I was here, was not reflective due to an afternoon breeze. Like many reflective lakes in New Zealand, early morning on a still day is the best time to see the effect. We stayed long enough for my brother to read all the info boards before we pushed on. As we cruised through the Eglinton Valley which had been cloaked in a mesmerising mist that morning, we stopped a couple of times at the side of the road just to appreciate the difference that full daylight made.
By the time we reached the top of Lake Te Anau, I was getting tired. It was still sunny overhead but the sun was dropping creating a glare across the water. We paused briefly at the pier that the Milford Sound track boat leaves from and eventually pulled into Te Anau in the early evening. We went out for pizza at an Italian restaurant near the main street before retiring to the hostel along the road to rest our legs from a day of activity. I adore Fiordland National Park, but I was just as excited to take my brother to another of my favourite places the next day.