New Zealand – the Road to Milford Sound

This post continues my road trip around New Zealand’s South Island with friends last fall (NZ’s early summer). We’re now in the southwest of the Island, about to explore the glaciated mountains of Fiordland.

Lake Te Anaou is one of those long lakes whose basin was scooped out by glaciers. It’s 65 km 39 miles) long and 417 m. (1,300 feet) deep. It lies along the line between the schist and greywacke of the Southern Alps and Lake Country and hard, massive granites and gneisses that once were part of ancient Gondwanaland. Those rocks stand tall in a mountain range full of massive cliffs carved by glaciers.

The moisture-laden winds of the “Roaring Forties” slam into the mountains of Fiordland. The western slopes recieve prodigious amounts of rain and snow: the airport at Milford Sound records a mean annual rainfall of 6,813 mm (268 inches or 22 ft., 3 in.) on 182 days a year. During glacial episodes this has fed huge glaciers that have hollowed out the sides of the valleys, leaving nearly vertical cliffs and a classic”U” cross-section. In these hard rocks, the cliffs remain tall and firm.

We pulled into the town of Te Anau on the afternoon of November 15. After getting settled in our motel, I walked down to the waterfront. I gazed across the lake to forested mountains much different from the flat country we had been traveling. A float plane waited patiently to take sightseers above the mountains and fiords to the west.

The next morning we climbed into the car for the trip to Milford Sound. As we drove north along the lakeshore, we could see the mountains becoming steeper and craggier to the northwest and north. The famed Milford Track winds through those mountains, in places cut into the sides of cliffs.

Eventually we entered long wooded Eglinton Valley running parallel to the lake. As we drove, the walls became higher and steeper. We stopped at a picnic ground. Across the valley to the west, forest rose steeply. Above the forest the mountain wall was made of vertical buttresses and faces indented by narrow snow-covered benches.

Finally we crossed a divide and pulled into a viewpoint above the Hollyford Valley on the other side.  The panorama took our breath away. High mountains rose above the deep valley to the north. Across the valley we looked directly up a perfectly U-shaped side canyou with nearly vertical sides. Amazingly, heavy beech forest clung to them. Beyond, at its head, a wall of rock and snow rose a mile above us against the blue sky.

Awestruck, we lingered to absorb the beauty and power of this place. Below us, the valley turned sharply westward toward the high divide separating it from Milford Sound and the Tasman Sea.

As we rounded a bend in this valley, it opened up. The floor became wide and flat, covered with green alpine shrubbery. On each side a thin strip of forest rose to the base of massive walls.  We stopped and got out of the car. Ahead of us a dark, massive buttress rose nearly vertically over 2,000 feet. It dwarfed the forest at its base. Above, a ragged ridgeline of cliffs and snow rose against the sky, a mile above the valley floor. Beyond, framed by the valley walls, rose another vertical face below a wide snow slope and a crowning crest of rock.

The scene had a sense of unmovable solidness and power;  of shelter from outside forces and pressures.  Here were strong, sheltering walls and a wide, endless sky. Here was a place of refuge for the weary soul.

Roughly two km. past the buttress, we turned a corner in the narrowing valley and found ourselves enclosed in an ampitheater of high, massive dark cliffs of the Main Divide. Here the road improbably plunges directly into this massive wall to emerge 1.2 km. later on the other side. This is the Homer Tunnel.

We pulled onto a wide landing beside the tunnel entrance and walked around, absorbing the scene around us. Two kilometers down the valley where it turns to the right, we looked up along that ridgelineof Mount Crosscut above the buttress. On the other three sides those massive dark cliffs rose steeply above us, then curved back against the sky.

I examined the broken surface of a boulder: tough gray granitic rock with a higher proportion of dark minerals than most of the rock in my native Sierra Nevada. The grains were solidly fused together by at least 140  million years of pressure and heat–as hard and tough a rock as you’re likely to encounter anywhere.

Work on the tunnel started in 1935 and it was opened in 1954. It was hard work in a remote location. Workers living in tents had to deal with storms and avalanches as well as the hard rock. http://www.ipenz.org.nz/heritage/itemdetail.cfm?itemid=128

Finally we got back into the car and plunged into this tiny-looking hole. Ceiling lights and headlights showed the unlined walls of the tunnel–the solid stuff of the mountain–no need for concrete to hold it in place. Exiting, we found ourselves on the side of another great ampitheater, deeper than the first. Switchbacking down an open slope, we gazed at waterfalls and cascades threading their way from the heights–ribbons against the rock. The upper portion of the valley dropped steeply away  before moderating in a deep U-shaped valley rimmed by cliffs.

At times the road took us beside the foaming river–obviously in a hurry to get to the sea. Arriving at Milford Sound, we had dropped 2,800 feet (850 m.) in ten miles (16 km.).

Here are two amazing U-tube videos taken on the road.   The first shows the upper part of the descent west of the Homer Tunnel on a rainy day–jillions of waterfalls all around. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kYq5NLge-I The second starts near the tunnel on the westbound approach, then takes you all the way down to a parking space at sea level–speeded up so the distance is compressed to under 11 minutes. This was after a light snowfall up high. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ej8NTHuba10

Here’s a description of the route with more information. Click on the pictures to enlarge them. http://www.backroadswest.com/nz/MilfordDrv.htm This is only one page of a comprehensive virtual tour guide of the South Island. Use it to explore. http://www.backroadswest.com/nz/Home.htm

What is one of your most inspirational scenic drives? How did/does it affect you?

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About David McCoard

After earning my MS in geology I've done various things including managing the ski touring program at a small lodge in the Sierra. In 2010 I retired from Contra Costa College in California. I've always been fascinated by the mountains and nature and have spent countless days hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing in the Sierra. The spiritual insights I've learned there have set the course for my life. Now I have time to share them and strike up a conversation.
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2 Responses to New Zealand – the Road to Milford Sound

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this wonderful and powerful picture and prose account of the road to Milford Sound!

    • Thanks for your comment–it’s gratifying! My purpose in publishing, besides sharing my experiences, is to inspire people like you with the wonder of our natural world. I feel it a privilege to have visted the mountains of New Zealand–it’s a special place!

      I’m working on my next post–on Milford Sound itself. -Dave

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