Milford Sound & Alpine Parrots

We left Getaway Holiday park in Te Anau on a cold and grey morning. Bella and I have gotten used to efficiently packing up all our belongings. We loaded Doris and cleaned the cabin we had been staying in for nearly a month. The park cat came by early this morning. I fed her one last sardine breakfast. She hopped up on the bed and I felt like she could sense our departure. And just like that she jumped out the window and hopped over the fence. 

The maids were cleaning the room next door and one of them commented on our departure and how the rest of the staff would miss seeing Doris. We checked out and picked up groceries at Fresh Choice and Bella got a flat white and myself a chai latte from the Sandfly Cafe across the road. We made our way up along the Milford Road and stopped off at various lookout points.

There were so many places to stop as the mountains, trees, and pristine rivers cutting through massive grey boulders made everything epically scenic. The roads warned of avalanches and there wasn’t any cell signal the entire way. 

Milford Sound – Catamarans off to the right

The black rock shimmers in the sunlight as water is reflected from the recent ice melt. In the shade there is frost yet across the road the palms and ferns are lively, open, and praising the sun rays. Rivers with massive boulders that I imagine tumbling down from the hillside are covered in white crystalline frost and rest in the river. Road signs warn of black ice.

We entered a tunnel that cut through the base of a mountain and went downhill for nearly a kilometer before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, as well as three Kea birds in the middle of the road to greet us. The circus was in town. 

After zig-zagging down the mountain we went on further and were enveloped by shade and cool air and tree coverage as we made our way through a different kind of tunnel. The light at the end of this one was white snow-capped mountain peaks and one that was so smooth and white it appeared to be soft-serve ice cream. 

Eventually, we saw signs posted for Milford Lodge where we stayed for 2 nights. The next day we’ll take a 2-hour cruise of the Sounds. Right now I’m sitting in the front seat of Doris as Bella makes a racket cleaning and organizing the back. I’ve just poured myself a glass of Malbec. 

Hundreds of rock slides where waterfalls form during the rainy season which tends to be a majority of the year. The region gets 200+ days of rainfall a year and going three consecutive days without rain dries up the waterfalls, essentially a “drought” in Milford Sounds terms. 

Bella and I rushed down the trail along the river near the Milford Sound Lodge. We were told by reception the hike would be 30 minutes and we got worried we were heading in the wrong direction because the sign said terminal and we approached a landing strip for planes, not a boat terminal. 

With about 10 minutes to spare we made it in time and boarded the catamaran for what would be 2 hours of sunny, clear, epic scenes of the fiords and Milford Sound. Seals poked out and swam near the shore and one came close to the boat. Little penguins also made an appearance from behind the rocks. 

The tawaki, or Fiordland Crested Penguin, is endemic to the rainforests of Fiordland and is the second rarest breed of penguins in the world.

Known for their gleaming yellow crests that stick out like bushy eyebrows and their bright orange beaks, these little birds are as commonly found amongst the ferns as they are in the sea. In Maori mythology, the natives of Fiordland named the crested penguins for the god, Tawaki. It was believed that Tawaki lived as a mortal being among humans. People only realized that Tawaki was a god when he discarded his ordinary clothes and decked himself with lightning. Comparably, the gleaming crests of the Fiordland penguins embodied the lightning clothing of the god and were so named Tawaki.

The water was aquamarine green and blue and the sun felt great, but then would get blocked by the massive mountains and the shade and wind on the top deck made my hands and face go numb. We went out towards the Tasman Sea, the ditch between Australia and NZ. The guide joked that the weather was so clear that we may be able to spot the Sydney Opera House. 

Milford Sound with Stirling Falls in the distance

At the end of the Sounds, there were buoys that held crayfish. They’re kept there until the price is right and then they’re sold for between $75-150/kg. Dubbed “orange gold” as the rock crayfish have hints of orange coloring underneath. 

On the way back we were told stories about a stunt woman who spent a couple of hours contemplating a leap from one of the tallest peaks and into the bay. After much deliberation, she made the leap, landed in the water, got in the boat and the people filming told her she’d need to do it again because they didn’t film it. She was pissed but later relieved because the film crew was joking and they actually caught it. 

We then went into another bay and watched a small penguin try and make it to the water, it had a wee slip and looked cute trying to brace itself before finally making it to the water. The guide mentioned seeing a seal rip a penguin in half before. A grim reminder that nature is what it is and wildlife needs to survive. Following this, the guide then pointed out seal rock. He had mentioned the two seals on the rock would have most likely launched themselves up onto the rock when the tide was higher. Those that lay on the rock may be kicked out of the family. 

A couple of seals laying on “Seal Rock”

The guide joked that the seals reminded him of his family kicking him to the curb, but in his next life he wished to be reincarnated as a fur seal given that the rejects get to lay around, sunbathe, and can have up to 14 side fur seal girlfriends. After some more self-deprecating humor from the guide, we finally got to Stirling Falls and right up under the water. The falls got louder and the air became mistier. We were warned not to have cameras or smartphones out because water and electronics don’t mix, and that wouldn’t be very “smart.”

Stirling Falls is a famous movie spot for X-Men, and Hugh Jackman was filmed cliff jumping and bathing under the falls in the opening scenes. Mission Impossible 6 was also filmed here.

Stirling Falls

The surface of the water below where the falls hit struck the surface in the most mesmerizing way. Ripples like shock waves quickly spread out and mist filled the air and became stronger. We darted for the door and went back inside the catamaran. Avoiding getting soaked, we ended up sailing back to where we started and docked. 

After 2 hours we made it back and Bella and I went to the information Centre and Cafe. We ate our lunch up top a track that was a lookout. Then we came back down and went to the 20-minute loop. I sat out on a dry tree trunk that washed up on the bay and stared out in amazement at the fiords, the waterfalls, and the blue sky.

That evening, back at the Milford Sound Lodge, I was greeted by a couple of Kea outside the dining hall. They were scavenging for food and were galloping around the lot. The next morning more Kea came back and this time they flew onto the roofs of campervans and pecked at windshield wipers, tires, and even the electrical cord that ran from the main power to Doris. A group of Kea is called a Circus, and the Circus was in town this morning. A lady with a nice camera and lens was taking photos of the kea, and she stacked rocks and placed a stick between them. Kea are smart enough to use tools and have a unique intelligence when it comes to solving puzzles. 

I finally got a few decent photos of Kea and checked that off my bucket list. We packed up Doris and hit the road back to Te Anau. Along the way, we stopped off at Lake Gunn and did a short forest hike and sat out near the lake. Soon the sandflies came and we got back on the road. We also stopped to view the Mirror Lakes, and the signpost was purposely put upside down so that the reflection in the water read “Mirror Lakes” upright. The sun was out and the sky was clear which is a rarity in these parts. Once we got to Te Anau we saw trapped clouds hovering across the shore and knew we had made it back home.

Joseph Pallante
Joseph Pallante
An avid traveller, Joe enjoys spending time exploring the New Zealand countryside. In his spare time, he travels around in his campervan, writes about nature and how to live a frugal and sustainable lifestyle.

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