The location of Milford Sound.
Milford Sound (Piopiotahi in Māori) is a fjord in the south west of New
Zealand's South Island, within Fiordland National Park and the Te
Wahipounamu World Heritage site. It has been judged the world's top travel
destination in an international survey, and is acclaimed as New Zealand's
most famous tourist destination. Rudyard Kipling had previously called it
the eighth Wonder of the World.
Milford Sound is named after Milford Haven in Wales, while the Cleddau River
which flows into the sound is also named for its Welsh namesake. The Māori
named the sound Piopiotahi after the thrush-like piopio bird, now extinct.
Piopiotahi means "a single piopio", harking back to the legend of Māui
trying to win immortality for mankind - when Maui died in the attempt, a
piopio was said to have flown here in mourning.
Milford Sound runs 15 kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea and is
surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) or more on
either side. Among the peaks are The Elephant at 1,517 metres (4,980 ft),
said to resemble an elephant's head, and Lion Mountain, 1,302 metres (4,270
ft), in the shape of a crouching lion. Lush rain forests cling precariously
to these cliffs, while seals, penguins, and dolphins frequent the waters and
whales can be seen sometimes.
With a mean annual rainfall of 6,813 mm on 182 days a year, a high level
even for the West Coast, Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited
place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. Rainfall can reach
250 mm during a span of 24 hours. The rainfall creates dozens of temporary
waterfalls (as well as a number of major, more permanent ones) cascading
down the cliff faces, some reaching a thousand metres in length. Smaller
falls from such heights may never reach the bottom of the sound, drifting
away in the wind.
Accumulated rainwater can at times cause portions of the rain forest to lose
their grip on the sheer cliff faces, resulting in tree avalanches into the
sound. The regrowth of the rain forest after these avalanches can be seen in
several locations along the sound.
Milford Sound was initially overlooked by European explorers, because its
narrow entry did not appear to lead into such large interior bays. Sailing
ship captains such as James Cook, who bypassed Milford Sound on his journeys
for just this reason, also feared venturing too close to the steep
mountainsides, afraid that wind conditions would prevent escape (this refers
to Doubtful Sound, so named as Cook thought it doubtful he would escape if
he sailed in).
While Fiordland as such remained one of the least-explored areas of New
Zealand up to the 20th century, Milford Sound's natural beauty soon
attracted national and international renown, and led to the discovery of the
Mackinnon Pass in 1888, soon to become a part of the new Milford Track, an
early walking tourism trail. In the same year, the low watershed saddle
between the Hollyford River and the Cleddau River was discovered, where the
Homer Tunnel was to be developed about sixty years later to provide road
The beauty of this landscape draws thousands of visitors each day, with over
550,000 in total per year. This makes the sound one of New Zealand's
most-visited tourist spots, and also the most famous New Zealand tourist
destination, even with its remote location and the long journey from the
nearest population centres. Almost all tourists going to the sound also take
one of the boat tours which usually last between 1-2 hours. They are offered
by several companies, departing from the Milford Sound Visitors' Centre.
There is also the option of extended overnight cruises on Milford Sound.
Tramping, canoeing and some other water sports are also possible. A small
number of companies also provides overnight boat trips. There is otherwise
only limited accommodation at the sound, and only a very small percentage of
tourists stay more than the day.
An underwater tourist observatory found in one of the bays of the sound
provides viewing of black coral, usually only found in much deeper waters. A
dark surface layer of fresh water, stained by tannins from the surrounding
forest, allows the corals to grow close to the surface here.
Transport in Milford Sound
By road, Milford Sound is 295 km from Queenstown and 279 km from
Invercargill (about four hours' drive), with most of the tour buses to the
sound departing from Queenstown. Some tourists also arrive from the smaller
tourism centre of Te Anau, 121 km away. There are also scenic flights by
light aircraft and helicopter tours to and from Milford Sound Airport. The
drive to Milford Sound itself passes through unspoiled mountain landscapes
before entering the 1.2 km Homer Tunnel which emerges into
rain-forest-carpeted canyons that descend to the sound. The winding mountain
road, while of high standards, is very prone to avalanches and closures
during the winter half of the year.
The long distance to the sound means that tourist operators from Queenstown
all depart very early in the day, arriving back only late in the evening.
This ensures that most tourists visit Milford Sound within a few hours
around midday, leading to some congestion on the roads and at the tourist
facilities during the main season. The peak-time demand is also the reason
for the large number of tour boats active in the sound at much the same time
Over the years, various options of short-cutting the distance to Milford
Sound from Queenstown have been mooted, including a gondola route, a new
tunnel from Queenstown, or a monorail from near Lake Wakatipu to Te Anau
Downs. All would reduce the current round-trip duration (which has to travel
via Te Anau), thus allowing tourism to be spread out over more of the day.
While a gondola is considered to be out of the running after the DOC refused
it for environmental reasons, the two other options are aiming to start
consenting processes in 2007.
Milford Sound can also be reached on foot as the final destination of the
several-day Milford Track.
On 8 February 2004 a spill of 13,000 litres of diesel fuel was discovered, resulting in a 2-kilometre oil spill which closed the sound for two days while intensive cleanup activities were completed. Apparently a hose was used to displace the fuel from the tanks of one of the tour vessels, and various government officials claimed it appeared to be an act of ecoterrorism motivated by rising numbers of tourists to the park, though more details did not become known. The spill has been removed and damage to the park's wildlife appears to have been minimal.