As soon as we piled onto the tour bus, I could tell our trip to Milford Sound with Real Journeys was going to be spectacular.
First of all, it was the only bus I had ever ridden on with seats that angled outwards to give us all a better view through the windows. The windows themselves were so large (covering not only the sides of the bus but the roof), that we felt like we were being shipped around in a portable greenhouse.
A child at the front of the bus began to wail, to which the driver responded, ‘We have one loud child on board that will need to be calmed down’, and I liked him immediately.
HISTORY AND FOLKLORE
As we trundled along the highway heading west towards Te Anau, our driver regaled us with stories of ancient history, remembering a time when there were, according to him, sandflies the size of pterodactyls. He explained that wild moose had been released in the area in 1910, some of which were still believed to be roaming freely.
‘Watch out for the loose moose!’ he shouted, before cackling to himself. Apparently, one or two people had also claimed to have seen members of a lost tribe standing by the water’s edge wearing black skirts and holding spears. He urged us to take a photo and sell it to him if we were lucky enough to see one ourselves.
NATURE AND WILDLIFE
Our guide went on to explain that, while the tallest bird ever to have existed – the moa – and a 55-inch long earthworm were now extinct, one particular creature had grown in numbers to reach a staggering 70 million. The possum was considered a pest in New Zealand and our driver advised us to help support their demise by buying possum-hair gloves and willy warmers. Failing that, he said ‘Aim your headlights towards a possum and turn it into a squashem.’
We had been on the road for a little over half an hour and the sun hadn’t yet risen fully, but I already had a good sense of the kind of entertainment we could expect for the rest of the 5-hour journey!
POINTS OF INTEREST
As is the Kiwi way, the journey was broken up into sections, with regular stops to stretch legs and explore points of interest. Mid-morning, we had the chance to grab some breakfast or admire the misty lake in Te Anau. A little later, we pulled up into a field and took photos of each other with spectacular mountainous views in the distance.
One of the most memorable stops was the Mirror Lakes, so called because they reflect the striking scenery so clearly it’s hard not to feel disorientated as you peer at the inverted landscape.
Another highlight was a stop by a boardwalk to some high-velocity waterfalls. While they were definitely worth the effort, some keas in the car park definitely stole the limelight, parading around on the tarmac and drinking water that was leaking from our parked bus.
Keas are exceptionally intuitive alpine parrots that have a reputation for tearing away the rubber surrounding the windscreens of parked cars. As a tourist, they’re fascinating to watch, but it’s easy to see how they’d rapidly become a nuisance.
Finally, we made it to the small ferry port and boarded a boat for the highlight of the day: Milford Sound. Milford is actually a series of fjords and the only true sound in New Zealand is Marlborough Sound on the north of the South Island. As we moved away from the port, the peaks of Mitre Point and one hundred other cliffs rose imposingly out of the water on either side.
Misty water tumbled effortlessly from sources we couldn’t make out with the naked eye and we were surrounded by a deathly silence. The sheer magnitude of the rock faces was astounding, and to think that they continued for over a kilometre below the surface of the water made them even more mystifying.
DOLPHINS AND SEALS
Our captain made a show of raising three sails on our boat, despite the fact that it was powered by a motor. ‘We’ll make all the other boats jealous,’ he said. And then we went in search of some wildlife. After previous failed attempts to see dolphins in the wild in New Zealand, a whole pod started to follow the shoreline in the direction of our boat. We also saw a group of seals lazing on the rocks as we made our return journey.
A CLOSE ENCOUNTER
It’s surprising how close the boats go to the cliff faces and, as we neared the ferry port once more, our captain decided to take us for a dunking. The boat edged slowly towards the expansive cliffs until we felt certain it would crash. A panicked crowd of eager onlookers rushed back towards the hull to avoid being drenched. It was the perfect end to a stunningly beautiful cruise.
GETTING TO QUEENSTOWN
Intercity Buses provide services to Queenstown from the following popular destinations (rough times in brackets): Wanaka (1 hour 30 mins); Mt Cook (5 hours); Franz Josef (8 hours); Christchurch (8 hours 30 mins). Further transfers are available from these locations. See the Intercity website for a full list of their services and bus pass options. They also offer day tours. To find out more, by click the banner below.
WHERE TO STAY
Finding accommodation in Queenstown can be tough. It’s the adventure capital of New Zealand and people flock there year round. In the ski season in July, hotels were filling up weeks in advance. I didn’t book ahead and it resulted in me having to stay in three different hostels in five different dorm rooms. If you don’t fancy checking out and in every morning, get your reservations in early. Of the three places I stayed, Haka Lodge was by far the best. It’s clean and sociable, with all the amenities you could need. There are outdoor decks and two kitchen areas as well as a large TV lounge, and all of the beds have curtains for added privacy.
For an alternative experience, why not try camping at Gunns Historical Hollyford Valley Camp the night nearby Milford Sound the night before your cruise, as Agata from Null ‘N’ Full did. That way, you can make sure you’re on an early cruise before all the day trippers arrive.
I was offered a free trip with Real Journeys. They did not request that I write a favourable review and any opinions expressed here are my own.