New Zealand – Milford Sound

This continues my tour of New Zealand’s South Island with friends in November 2011.

We emerged from the Homer Tunnel at the head of a steeply sloping valley. Just above us a vertical cliff soared 1,700 feet before curving back against the sky. The entire head of the valley was surrounded by towering cliffs–some vertical, others at a steep angle. The summits above us reached 1,165 m. (3,800 feet) above the tunnel. Before we reached the sea we had descended 2,800 feet in only ten miles.

By the time we arrived at the head of Milford Sound, I knew we were in a special place. It was like we had stepped into a whole other, fantastic world. The scale of the place! It was out of scale. The depth of glacier-carved valleys with near-vertical sides measured in thousands of feet. Nearly everything except the water of the sound was steep.

The short side valleys have been hollowed out by glaciers until their sides rise in cliffs thousands of feet high, separated by narrow ridgecrests. The divides between Milford and the sounds to the north and south consistently rise to between 1,700 and over 2,000 metres. The valley of Milford Sound itself is off the scale. The huge fin of Mitre Peak drops in a sheer cliff over a mile to the water and keeps on going for hundreds of metres below. Other divides between side valleys end abruptly above the water in buttresses up to 1,518 m. (4,900 feet) high. Lush green rainforest fill the valleys below the cliffs, trumpeting the exhuberance of life!

The whole thing is too grand, too big and wonderful to be true–but it is! And the most wonderful blessing is that I’ve been made part of this along with each person on earth.

To gain a sense of the scale, wonder and feeling of this place, we needed to move around in it and get close to these walls. Fortunately, a well-organized tour boat business has grown up here for folks just like us.

Leaving the car, we walked the quarter mile to the tour boat terminal, a large modern building with a high, airy ceiling. Ticket counters of several tour companies lined the walls. Outside, through the large windows, the tour boats were lined up, some as large as urban ferries.

When loading time was called for our boat, we went on board. While my friends found a wide window in the spacious main deck downstairs, I climbed to the outside deck behind the bridge.

Casting off, we motored to the middle of the sound and began to have a sense of the true scale. Out in the middle of the kilometer and a half  to three kilometer wide upper end of the sound, we were surrounded by rock walls thousands of feet high. Moving to the southern side, we closely followed the base of the cliffs. Since these cliffs plunge vertically into the water and keep on going, we traveled often only a few tens of metres from their sides. The depth of the water near the upper end of the sound reaches 1,680 feet (512 m.).

In many places solid carpets of shrubs, ferns and forest trees have found root in cracks in the cliffs which often are vertical. The force and exhuberance of life!

Waterfalls fell free into the sound from hanging valleys. We maneuvered close to a couple to sample the spray.

In a few places we found fur seals sunning themselves on convenient rocks. they mostly ignored us.

Truly we are all part of a world wonderful beyond comprehension. What a blessing!

For Ricahrd Seaman’s pictures and descriptions visit . Note: Bowen Falls (162 m., 531 ft.) is the big slanting fall  just south of the boat terminal at the head of the sound, not in Harrison Cove farther down the Sound.

New Zealand’s Dept. of Conservation has additional information on Fiordland National Park, including activities and accomodations . For a zoomable, detailed topographic map of the area (and the entire country), go to . You can drag and zoom to get a very detailed view of any location.

Have you had experiences in Fiordland? What were your impressions?


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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