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Milford Sound is one of New Zealand‘s most celebrated landmarks, with its spectacular scenery punctuating the already pristine wilderness of New Zealand’s south island. Milford Sound, or Piopiotahi in its Māori name, is a fiord located in the south west of New Zealand’s south island, running 15km inland from the Tasman Sea. Milford Sound lies within the greater Fiordland national park area, which has been listed as a world heritage site since 1990. Of all the fiords in this area, Milford Sound is easily New Zealand’s most famous, and recognizable, attracting between 500,000 to a million tourists each year.
The region surrounding Milford Sound is uniquely shaped by its distinctive environmental conditions, which has the highest amount of annual rainfall of anywhere in New Zealand, and some of the highest in the world. This climate has shaped the fiord in a distinct way, with its huge vertical sheer cliffs punctuated by rolling waterfalls that makes for a dramatic vista, regardless of rain of shine. This deluge of fresh water also has the effect of turning the surrounding sea an inky black colour, with the runoff from the surrounding forests staining the top layer of fresh water much like a dye. This specific combination of salt and freshwater, combined with the depth of the fiord‘s inlet, has also had the effect of creating a unique biome around Milford Sound, allowing deep sea life to exist in relatively shallow conditions.
Milford Sound was first ‘discovered’ by Europeans in the year 1812, with Captain John Grono naming the fiord ‘Milford Haven’ after his hometown back in Wales. This name was later changed to ‘Milford Sound‘ some years later, despite the area technically being classified as a fiord. Famous British explorer Captain James Cook also passed by the entrance to Milford Sound upon two occasions around the year 1773, though the area was never fully explored until much later. Cook feared that the sheer cliffs and waters around the inlet would prove too treacherous for his expedition, and that his boat could potentially be trapped there by powerful winds. Cook instead opted to establish camp in Dusky Sound, a smaller fiord to the south where he stayed for approximately five weeks.
New Zealand’s Māori people have a far longer relationship with the area, stretching back over 1,000 years. Historically the area around Milford Sound was used by hunters and foragers as a source of food, as well as for the collection of ‘takiwai’ or greenstone, a rare, translucent type of Jade worn as jewellery by Māori chiefs. The name ‘Piopiotahi’ derives from Māori legend, where a great hero known as Maui was killed by the goddess of death Hine-nui-te-po, while battling to win immortality for mankind. Upon his death, his companion, a now extinct piopio bird, flew to the fiord to mourn and sing of their loss, with the name ‘Piopiotahi’ translating as ‘a single piopio’. Today both names are now formally used to refer to the area following the 1998 passage of the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act.
Nature and Wildlife
Milford Sound has an abundance of aquatic life, with its huge variety making it a popular destination for those on a tour or nature cruise, especially for those hoping to spot the area’s famous fiordland crested penguin. Characterized by its long and assertive yellow eyebrows, the fiordland penguin is endemic to the region and be spotted nestled amongst the rocks on the nearby shore, or darting through the water with surprising agility. Bottlenose dolphins are also commonly found around Milford Sound, comprising the southernmost population of the species found on the planet, along with seals, and even the occasional whale. In addition to this, the unique biome around Milford Sound also allows black coral to grow relatively close to the surface, usually found in the deep ocean, this coral is a striking feature that adds to the unique and otherworldly feel of the fiord.
Traveling to Milford Sound
For those looking to embark on a tour of Milford Sound, the two most common points of departure for the trip come from the nearby towns of Te Anau, and Queenstown respectively. Te Anau is the smaller of the two towns, itself also located within the Fiordland national park area. While in Te Anau it is worth exploring the famous glow worm grotto, a cave system lit by the bioluminescent life within, as well as Lake Te Anau, the largest of the lakes on the south island. The other point of departure for a Milford Sound tour is Queenstown, a popular resort town famous for its breath taking mountain views and towering peaks and valleys. Queenstown is a popular destination for a number of reasons; for those interested in skiing, Queenstown is a hub for New Zealand’s ‘southern alps‘, and for nature lovers, the sight of Lake Wakatipu reflecting the surrounding mountains is unforgettable. And of course if you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings, you can take a short trip out of town and find many of the locations used in the filming of the trilogy, including Beorn’s cabin, Isengard, and the Misty Mountains.
There are a number of ways to explore Milford Sound, whether that be a cruise, scenic flight, coach tour, or a guided walk through the national park, each offering a unique and interesting way to appreciate the environment, and glimpse the iconic mitre peak. Odyssey specialises in offering small group tours, partnering with local guides to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Milford Sound is the ideal location for a day tour, and whether you choose a boat cruise, coach tour, or the Milford Track and its incredible mirror lake, spectacular Milford Sound is definitely worth the effort.
Published October 2020
Escorted 13 day small group tour of the East coast of New Zealand’s North island. Off the beaten track, for like minded people curious about history, culture, wine and landscapes. Your tour director and local guides share their knowledge with you the traveller on this New Zealand tour for senior travellers.