Te Anau and Milford Sound

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

Traveling along the South of the Southern Island…

Everyone who has been to New Zealand and given me travel advice has told me I “must” see Milford Sound, and, if possible, Doubtless Sound. Recent flooding has made the road to Milford Sound potentially dangerous, and, if the road is opened, which depends on the weather, you can only get there via bus caravan. I’ve decided to go there from Te Anau for two key reasons. First, it’s less driving, second, more importantly, it’s cheaper than from Queenstown due to the shorter distance. You can also fly there and back, though the unpredictable weather makes it likely that one or both directions could be canceled.

With the floating old people mystery solved, I’m looking forward to my day trip to Milford Sound. (Tip – if you decide to do any tours in New Zealand, use BookMe which gets you great discounts.) I get picked up by a small bus that takes me, and other passengers, to a check-in area. We get assigned a bus number and led outside to six larger ones, and I suddenly feel I’m entering into an overly touristy escapade. I’m told to board bus number 16. As we make our way to Milford Sound the driver informs us that we’ll make a couple of quick stops, and by quick, he means, really quick because if we miss the convoy – this is the designated time that tourist buses are allowed to drive on the dangerous road – we’ll be turned away. He also explains much of the scenery we’re seeing as we drive along, and we stop at a beautiful mirror lake along the way.

One of many spectacular views out the bus window on the way to Milford Sound.

At this lake, there’s a bus of Chinese tourists. Just one, but I’m immediately concerned. Wasn’t New Zealand closed to Chinese tourists? Did they lift the ban? Was it safe for me to be near them? I hated these thoughts, but they came nonetheless. I ran along and took my photos then got back on bus number 16. We drove to a narrow road and waited a while. It looked like a small truck led the batch of buses – probably about 30 of them – along a narrow, winding road. This was the road damaged by flooding and, apparently, each day local workers have to decide if it’s safe to transport tourists. Along the way, the scenery is magnificent, apparently one of the mountain tops was used in one of The Hobbit movies. I snap lots of photos from the bus because every direction I look is stunning. If only I could get people’s heads out of the way…

One of two mirror pools on the way to Milford Sound.

Photographs by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020

We arrive at the boat dock and are told we’re really lucky because the weather is fabulous which it hasn’t been recently. In fact, we’re one of the first groups on these boats in a couple of weeks. We take off and pass a waterfall and I’m snapping all the photos I can. There are many mountain ranges that, once again, remind me of the movie “Moana”.  (Hint – if you haven’t yet seen this movie, make sure you do before visiting New Zealand. It’s a beautiful story and, I think, lets you appreciate the country even more.) As a whole, I have to admit, I was more impressed by Halong Bay in Vietnam. Perhaps it’s the layout there, or that you’re in a huge bay but it feels more intimate because you meet some people that live there and you your boat offers a cooking class and you meet your boat mates. However, what makes Milford Sound interesting are some of the pockets you pass by. There’s an amazing waterfall, and if it’s pouring, you’re treated to even more of them. There’s a patch of beach that almost reminds me of the Carribbean it’s so clear and blue. For a moment, we end up fairly close to the Tasman Sea. The water starts rolling more violently and I wonder whether I should have brought some sea-sickness medication. Happily, we don’t venture out to the actual sea! But, I was mere meters from the Tasman Sea! That’s pretty cool.

“Milford Sound is beautiful but I may like the mirror pools even more!”

Views of Milford Sound.

Photos by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

We return to the buses and, this time, there’s a longer wait for the convoy to cast off. Within 30 seconds, a bunch of the bus drivers have a cricket set on the road and begin playing. I run off the bus and snap some photos. I mean, in no other country have I seen people set up a quick game of cricket! Other people get off the bus and have a nice stretch. Eventually we’re signaled to get back on the buses. We depart and return to Te Anau and, in reverse, I get to appreciate the mountain scenery all over again. 

Spontaneous cricket match!

I now have a couple of days to explore Te Anau. What, at first, struck me as nothing more than a main street full of tourist shops and hotels, becomes more interesting. I walk a couple of miles to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. It’s a strange experience – seems like you walk and walk and walk around the lake, and then on a small dirt road that looks like it could be a road to nowhere. I almost miss the turnoff onto an even smaller road and this sanctuary ends up being quite small. I go there excited to see New Zealand’s blue bird – the Takahe. The first cages I see are not this bird, so I wander off to the section marked “Takahe.” I’m disappointed to learn that feeding time is 10am, and it’s late afternoon, so I’ve missed it. I don’t see any of the birds. I walk around the entire enclosure. Nothing. I return to the first set of cages and take in some of the other birds. They’re cute, but I really want to see the blue one. I decide to return to the Takahe enclosure.

My persistence is rewarded with a bunch of them feeding in the near distance. I walk around some more, and three of them come right up to the fence where I’m standing. They’re fascinating to see, however I think I’ve reached the point, after all my travels, that I don’t enjoy seeing animals in cages anymore. What I do like is that the Takahe is one of several species at risk of extinction in New Zealand, and the country is making amazing efforts to save them. More on that in a future post. For now, I wonder if I can see this bird outside captivity. I walk back to the town center and decide to see what else is around. There’s actually a movie theater, and an entirely other side of town, away from the lake, where other dining options exist at slightly lower prices.

The afternoon of my bus ride to Queenstown, my next stop, I get a coffee and some food at Sandfly Cafe one of the coffee shops on the less expensive side of town. I put my bag, with my camera, on an outside table, head inside, place my order, pay for it, and return to my table. My bag and all its contents are still there.  This is something I really like about New Zealand. It’s safe, and I don’t have to worry about someone cutting my bag or stealing it. A little later I head to the bus stop. Though I’ve booked with Intercity, they use buses from different companies. There’s a little confusion until our driver shows up (you book the bus in advance, and the driver gets your name, very efficient!) and tells us he’s parked around the corner. We’re soon off to Queenstown complete with a quirky movie, “The World’s Fastest Indian.” It seems like a movie about a race car driver, so I plan to ignore it. But, Anthony Hopkins’ character is so interesting that I’m soon entranced and drawn in to a very interesting film about a true story. Watching it while in New Zealand is even better.

A view from the bus on the way to Queenstown.

The ride is full of some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen to date. Rolling mountains surrounded by water and over and over again I see, in my mind, how Maui could have used his fish hook to pull each one out of the water. There’s an area that is so stunning on our way in that I want to return to take a photo. When I inquire about it, I learn that it’s called Arrowtown. I don’t have a car so will have to figure out how to get there. Sitting back with the beautiful scenery and the movie, I realize I’ve been moving locations roughly every two days; unpacking, repacking, taking a bus, staying in hostels and I’m tired. Queenstown was pretty booked up but I somehow managed to score a great room at The Millenial Hotel for less money than the hostels, presumably because it’s a little out of the town center.  It’s got a bathtub, a super comfy bed, and I’m so grateful to lie in it and snooze. Before I do that, though, I grab a quick meal at the hotel, because it’s now late, and everything else will likely be closed. This is where I meet Don and Dana from Arkansas. They’re staying at a place next door and have a car, and invite me to join them the next day to go to Arrowtown. Problem solved. This stuff happens to me all the time – I have a need and somehow the universe sorts me out.

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