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The Milford Road, Part 1

Published
October 20, 2022
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The Amazon Kindle and Kobo versions of my book The Sensational South Island, which has just been updated, are on special at US $2.99 and NZ $3.99, respectively, for the rest of October 2022. Click here for a universal shop link to the eBook versions. Or, you may wish to buy the paperback, which you can purchase on Amazon with white paper and Lulu with cream paper. Read on, past the image of my book's cover, for today's post!

This post follows on from Milford Sound/Piopiotahi and its Scenic Road.

TE ANAU DOWNS is 33 km from Te Anau township, along the eastern shore of the great lake of the same name. It’s the township from which a ferry leaves for the start of the Milford Track, and also from which the Milford Road leaves the lake shores for Milford Sound/Piopiotahi.

The Milford Track, marked in black and normally accessed via a boat service on Lake Te Anau (at the bottom), runs up the Clinton River, through the Mackinnon Pass and down the Arthur River to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, with a side trip to Sutherland Falls. The Milford Road (SH 94) is shown in red. Background map from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0, 2021.

Along this stretch of road there is another world awaiting you. According to the government website 100% Pure New Zealand,

“The first major highlight is the Eglinton Valley, which was once filled with glacier ice. The valley has steep rock sides and a flat, golden tussock floor - it's a surreal place. Further along the road are the Mirror Lakes - on a still day they display a perfect reflection of the Earl Mountains. Then you'll come to the Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain, where an optical illusion causes the approaching mountain to get smaller rather than larger. When you reach Lake Gunn, stretch your legs on the nature walk - an easy 45 minute loop track.
“The Homer Tunnel signals your descent to Milford Sound. This tunnel, which is hewed from solid granite, took nearly 20 years to complete. From mouth to mouth it measures 1270 metres. Before you reach Milford, get some fresh air on the 20 minute walk that leads to The Chasm - a spectacular waterfall where the Cleddau River has scoured its way through solid rock.”

The website adds that the Milford Road is a winding mountain road and takes much longer to drive along than you might think. East of the Divide, it follows the course of the Eglinton River and its headwater lakes Lochie, Fergus and Gunn; to the west, it drops into the valley of the Hollyford River / Whakatipu kā Tuka.

And, once through the Homer Tunnel, into the spectacular, vertical-sided Cleddau Valley on the way to Milford. Each of these three valleys is progressively more rugged, from scenic in the Eglinton to epic at the Cleddau Valley and Milford Sound / Piopiotahi end.

Here is a video I filmed of scenes all along the way in September 2022, from the bird sanctuary at Te Anau all the way through to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi by way of the Eglinton Valley, Lake Gunn, a hike up to the scenic Key Summit on the Routeburn Track, the Gertrude Saddle (which I have another blog post about) and finally the world-famous sound itself.

At the end of the video, I talk about the removal of the airport and car parking at the head of Milford Sound Piopiotahi. As of 2022, the New Zealand Government is taking advantage of the Covid-induced pause in tourism to bring in a far-reaching management revamp of the whole area. This is called the Milford Opportunities Project.

The plans include the development of a tourism hub at Te Anau, more shelters and bus stops on the side of the Milford Road, electric buses for the Milford Road, permits for self-drive traffic on the road, which is highly scenic but has a bit of a dangerous reputation for foreigners who forget that they are meant to be on the left, and also congested at times. It also includes a ban on cruise ships in Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, which is probably not a bad idea when you think how much pollution they put out.

A cruise ship in nearby Doubtful Sound. Photo by Chris Harris, 2018.

And, perhaps most radical of all, the removal of the airstrip at the head of the sound, on the grounds that it isn’t used that much and takes up space that could be used by people in search of a better view.

A recent, 5 October 2022 article on the local website Crux.org.nz says that the plan is not yet a ‘fait accompli’, however.

Here are photos I took along the way at the same time.

Eglinton Valley

Lake Gunn

A side stream

An information sign about kea

The trail to Key Summit

A tarn at the top of Key Summit

Alpine wetland information sign, at Key Summit

The Gertrude Valley, with the steep climb at the end to the Gertrude Saddle

Signs warning of Gertrude Saddle dangers

A view just before the Homer Tunnel, showing ice-sculpted hillsides

Information panel about landscapes shaped by ice

Sign at Milford Sound/Piopiotahi about the Sutherlands, the most longstanding residents. The nearby 580 m (1,904 feet) Sutherland Falls are named after Donald, a noted explorer.

Here’s a slightly comical one that I took on an earlier trip, in 2020.‍

A Covid-Lockdown Casualty

The third post in this series, 'The Milford Road, Part 2' will follow shortly.

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