Milford Sounds is not really a sound at all. In geological terms, a sound is a passage that is formed from the freezing of river water, which turns into millions of tons of glacial ice. This ice tears huge chunks out of the neighbouring mountains. Over thousands of years the relentless pressures of so much ice split widen the gaps turning them into valleys. These valleys eventually fill with sea water to become what is known as a ‘Sound’.
Milford Sounds is actually a ‘fjord’, the difference being that frozen sea water caused the valleys – not freshwater rivers. Unfortunately this mistake was made long ago, and just to make it easier for everyone the people of New Zealand decided to keep the name ‘sounds’.
However, in order to please the die-hard fact-finders of the world, the New Zealand government duly decided to name the region around Milford Sounds the ‘Fiordland’. Unfortunately they spelt it wrong and now just leave it alone in the hope that no one brings it up…
Either way, Milford Sounds is probably one of the most iconic tourist attractions on the west coast of South Island New Zealand.
Being over 5 hours drive from Queenstown, it’s a bit of a mission to reach. But as we discovered – it’s worth every precious second.
We took the Jucy Cruise bus from Queenstown. It worked out at $300 for the both of us, but this included lunch, the fact we didn’t have to drive (which would have cost our van at least $100 in fuel for the return journey) and the cruise itself. We opted for the slightly more expensive ‘Vista’ experience which is basically a bus with a panoramic roof.
The panoramic roof is a clue as to what you might expect to find en-route to Milford Sounds. Clouds? Yes there are typically plenty of those, but also mountains, waterfalls and mountains and even more mountains.
We got up at something like 6am and were picked up outside our campsite in Queenstown (Creeksyde if anyone is interested – $58 per night, 10 minute walk to town). We were getting ready to sleep all the way but were told by our driver that the journey is in fact part of the overall experience and that you should especially stay awake for the second half of the drive.
The Stories of Milford Sounds
We complied and our awake-ness was rewarded with several amusing stories from our bus driver / guide. Every ten minutes or so there was another gem of a story – timed exactly with our location on the journey. If you’re going to travel by bus to Milford Sounds, please stay awake for the stories – I hope every bus driver tells them as they really make the 5 hour journey much much better.
One in particular that I’ll share involves the local Kea’s. The Kea is a parrot, one that is native only to New Zealand. They’re famous (or you could say infamous) for being rather naughty. Locals and tourists alike are constantly amused / frustrated as a rouge Kea would find itself perched on top of a slow moving vehicle, happily wrenching the antennae from the roof, or peeling the rubber windscreen lining from a parked car. It is said that Kea’s have the intelligence of a 7 year old child.
When the tunnel between Queenstown and Milford Sounds was being repaired one winter, the workmen set up cones along the interior of the tunnel in a straight line, presumably to help with the repairs. Well, off they’d go one night having laid all the cones out nice and neat, only to return the following morning with the cones in disarray. Confused, they’d realign the cones, get on with their work and leave once for the night once more.
The following day the cones would be all out of line again. Worried now that a ghost or some such was haunting the tunnel, the construction men decided to set up cameras and film what was going on. Lo and behold, they found that as soon as they left for the evening, the local Kea’s would swoop into the tunnel and pull the cones out of line.
They did this for apparently no reason at all. But the construction men noticed that every morning when they reset everything, there was a group of Kea’s in a nearby tree watching every move they made, their mischievous eyes never leaving the cones.
Anyway, sorry to wander so far from the path but it’s all part of the experience. If you think a 5 hour bus journey is going to be hell on earth, trust me – this was the greatest 5 hour bus journey of my life.
The Bus Journey to Milford Sounds
So not only were the stories great but there’s also a few stops to make on the way. The regimented stops were not too much to write home about, there was a large meadow, some reflective lakes and of course some bathroom stops. The best stops though were simply pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road jobbies when the view was just too stunning to miss.
Although you could spend the entire journey staring through the glass ceiling of the vista bus, it’s more impressive and more of a photo opportunity when you get out – which we did at least 4 or 5 times. It all depends on your bus driver. We must have gotten lucky, great stories and plenty of stops.
Why am I going on about the bus journey so much? What about Milford Sounds? Well, to be honest, Milford Sounds is just a boat tour, either 1 hour 45 minutes or 2 hours and they’re pretty slow going. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing and I’ll get onto it in a minute but if I’m truly honest, if we didn’t have such a fantastic bus journey and simply woke up, did the tour and magic’d back to Queenstown, I might have been a bit disappointed. Maybe, maybe not. $150 each? Probably yes.
We were dropped off at the Ferry terminal, think train station for ferries. Smallish ones. Maybe 120 people maximum per ferry. We got there at 12:45 and it left at 13:00. Clockwork.
It was a beautiful day – the first in a long time but for those going to Milford Sounds there are two perfect times to go – and it’s when the weather is at complete opposites. One is in bright sunshine, a warm day not a cloud in the sky and clear views of every rock face. The other, surprisingly is in the pouring rain.
So if it looks like it’s going to be a rainy day on your visit – don’t fear! You’ll see something that not many people ever will get the chance to see. And that is tens of thousands of waterfalls flowing from the cliffs as you tour through the middle. Although we couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant day – I still wish I could see Milford Sounds on a rainy day.
The Jucy Cruise around Milford Sounds
The boat tour, or at least the Jucy Cruise, takes you all the way to the mouth of the sea. On the way out, the cruise is typically battling against the wind – if you’re on deck make sure you wear something warm! Even on our scorcher of a day we would’ve sat inside behind the glass if we hadn’t brought our coats.
On the way back, the wind is hardly gusting any faster than the ship is moving so you hardly feel a thing.
Animal life is pretty much guaranteed, especially when it comes to New Zealand fur seals. There is a small pack that makes it’s home in the rocks just shy of the sea. They can be constantly spotted sunbathing on the rocks and not doing too much else. There’s a good chance to see penguins too but unfortunately we did not see any on our visit. Dolphins are quite often spotted too and we even heard that once in a blue moon, whales can be seen out to sea. Though I’ve personally yet to see real proof that whales even exist at all!
Waterfalls, rocks and water – that’s the biggest feature of Milford Sounds. When you cruise by these colossal mountains you are left pretty speechless- especially if there are 5 or more waterfalls bursting from the edges. Some of Milford Sounds many waterfalls that have been flowing for thousands of years if not tens of thousands of years. Others only last for 5 minutes after the rain stops.
One waterfall you have the opportunity to get up close and personal with. It’s a special moment as the waters peeling off the giant cliff face are glacial, they’ve never touched a human being before. They were held in place long before humans even walked the earth.
Be prepared though – the watery mist is certainly moist!
As you cruise along you’ll see many aircraft in the sky, helicopters and planes alike. These are all optional extras that you can choose to do either on the way to Milford Sounds or even on the way back to Queenstown. For around $400 each you’ll be flown back to Queenstown in a small aircraft and be treated to views of the glacier and sounds from the skies. We were shown a video on the bus as an up-sell. If we had the money…
The cruise returned to port at 2:45 ready for our bus departure at 3:00. The bus dropped us back at Queenstown at 7:30pm and was also very impressive- though we’d heard all the stories before….