We woke up early, made ourselves a coffee, and tilted our beds back to seats. The night had been gusty but warm enough for us both to sleep. Despite spending the night at the closest campsite to Milford Sound we still had 43 km to drive before our cruise at 9am. The drive started well, we had the road to ourselves and we passed the Hollyford road junction to find that the road was OPEN. We were happy and it felt like luck was on our side once again. We were prepared for a windy and slow drive but actually the road was no different to the usual windy kiwi roads. We reached the historic Homer tunnel easily. The Homer tunnel was opened in 1953, is one directional and was once the world’s longest gravel lined tunnel.
The valley up to the tunnel was a little snowy, but the road was clear and dry. We got the green light and set off through the tunnel. Inside it was pretty dark, but went straight through the rocky mountain. It wasn’t long till we saw the light at the end. As we turned the bend under the avalanche protection, our luck deserted us. The road was white, coated in a 2cm coating of snow. We had to leave the shelter, but as we did we tested the brakes. Our wheels juddered on the snow and the skid warning light flashed on the dashboard. We could see the road beneath us snaking down through the snow.
Great driving weather if you own a snow mobile
We made the first bend but saw a car coming back up. We asked them if they had made it from Milford, but the lovely American couple had just turned around and were struggling to get back up the incline. We didn’t want to, but we turned around too. Without snow tyres or chains the road was just a little too dangerous. It did not help that our tyres were quite worn. Both cars failed to keep enough traction to get uphill and Matthias did a good job pushing our new friends up and then helping our car out too. We had to wait for the lights to turn green again, but that left us waiting on a hill. We knew this left us at risk of getting stuck so we were forced to pass the lights and waited on the flatter section. A lorry came through the tunnel and somehow made it down the road with a car following in his tracks. We didn’t dare follow in case we got stuck, so we went back through the tunnel. On the other side we informed the queue of cars what the conditions were like and then pulled over into a stop area. We really didn’t want to give up and miss Milford Sound so we waited to see if the cars who went through would come back. Around 10 minutes later they all returned and ended up waiting with us. A Kea also came to keep us company. New Zealand’s Kea is the only alpine parrot in the world and it certainly was bizarre to see a parrot hopping about in the snow. Sadly Zoë had to tell off some tourists who decided that they should feed the Kea. We still don’t understand the ignorance of some people or why people feel the need to interfere with every wild animal they see.
Around 8am someone from the transport agency arrived. We asked him what was happening and he told us he was going to check the road directly. So we decided to wait and see what happened. The lights stayed red a long time and we debated if we should leave and try again the next day. So far New Zealand’s fickle weather had come right just in time so we hung on to wait for news. When the lights went green we re-joined the queue and took a second journey through the tunnel. The Milford side of the tunnel was still white, but the few cars who had dared to risk the road had made tracks in the snow. The road conditions were much better and the snow plough and snow brush were at work. We followed the queue of cars slowly through the snow with much better grip than before. We made the steep descent safely and as soon as we reached the trees, the snow vanished. The rest of the drive was steady and easy but we knew we had missed our cruise at 9am. We parked up and made our way to the office. Matthias ran ahead and got us transferred to the next boat instead and sadly our cooked breakfast became a picnic lunch. It didn’t really matter because we made it and as a bonus the sun was shining.
Our new cruise was a nature cruise on the smaller boat named Lady Bowen and included a trip to the underwater discovery centre, picnic lunch and tea and coffee. The crew welcomed us on board and we set sail. We grabbed a window seat and were joined by a Hungarian couple. We chatted a little but soon the scenery grabbed our attention and we went outside on deck. At the bow we could shelter from the wind and let the views unfold around us. Milford is wrongly named and is in fact a fiord, not a sound. A sound is formed when a river is flooded by seawater, whereas a fiord is carved by a glacier and flooded by seawater. The only true sound in New Zealand is actually Marlborough sound (another place for a great boat ride).
On deck we could really appreciate just how sheer the cliffs where and admire the plants clinging to the sides. There is water everywhere, filling the fiord, running down the walls and forming waterfalls everywhere you look. The famous Mitre peak towered above us and all the mountains had snowy hats on. The clouds were rising and clearing as we went towards the sea while the wind was getting very gusty. Our skipper somehow managed to bring us alongside some basking seals, who happily waved at us while one groomed itself and the other slumbered in the sun. The wind was bitingly cold but we didn’t mind as our eyes were occupied between the peaks and waterfalls. One particular waterfall was blowing across the rock face and the water shimmered in the sunlight creating two vivid rainbows ahead of us. We had plenty of time for photos and to chat to some of the other passengers.
As we neared the Tasman sea, the waves ahead of the boat were whipped into rainbows and our crew warned us that it was about to get windy on deck once we turned back. They weren’t lying and as we turned the corner the wind buffeted our boat and took away the breath we were just trying to take in. We retreated inside to get warm and have our breakfast. Once we were warmed up, our boat neared the famous Stirling waterfall. Some passengers donned waterproofs to bravely stand under the falls. Our boat was steered excellently under the cascade of water and everyone on deck was drenched with glacial water ‘courtesy of mother nature’. We weren’t right at the front but we still got pretty soggy, necessitating another cuppa. We were expecting to disembark and visit the underwater discovery centre. Sadly it closed abruptly due to the strong winds which were reaching 30 knots and blowing straight into their pier, making landing too risky for the captain. We were a little disappointed that we would miss the black coral and underwater life but the sunshine quickly let us forget about it.
Our final stop was at Bowen waterfall which actually supplies power and drinking water to the Milford sound town. We waited a while to dock and made it through the strong gusts safely back onto dry land. All we could both think was Wow! Milford sound is an incredible feast for the eyes and totally worth the journey come rain, shine or snow.
There isn’t much to do in Milford tourist town unless you are cruising, kayaking, flying or diving, so we set off back through the snowy mountains. We stopped to see the Cleddau river run through the Chasm and meet another Kea. The Chasm is a deep channel with some beautiful curvaceous rock formations. Before long we were through the Homer tunnel for the fourth time (lucky us) and bound for Te Anau.