Our time-locked, freeze-framed southern fiords of Milford and Doubtful Sounds serve up a dual journey of superlatives. With such a strong suit of natural treasures on its doorstep, Te Anau delivers a far richer encounter as a Fiordland base, than trying to speed-date the region from Queenstown.
Te Anau’s Wildife Centre, starring our endangered takahe, is an unsung gem on the township’s shoreline. Free to enter, I was enthralled by the swooshing kereru, kea, kaka, morepork – and best of all, the family of four takahe. You can even join the ranger in the enclosure at 9.15am for the daily feeding of Tumbles, Kawa, Hebe and Monty.
Board a Real Journeys cruise for the 30 minute trip across the lake’s western shores , before exploring the underground network of limestone caves. Navigate the limbo-bar like entry (some bending required here) and surrender to the twinkling wonder of glow worms. Expertly guided, you’ll glide along the cave river system, gazing upwards at the magical canopy of the glow worm grotto. With so many baby worms currently festooning the canopy, the spectacle is truly like gazing at a star-spangled galaxy.
On the day trip, you’ll enjoy a lovely dash across Lake Manapouri, the cradle of New Zealand’s environmental movement; an underground encounter with the Manapouri power station; and a breath-taking coach trip across Wilmot Pass, where you’ll marvel at the pristine, primeval rainforest and gushing waterfalls.
But the biggest drawers are unquestionably the mighty fiords, Milford and Doubtful. Doubtful Sound is Fiordland’s bridesmaid, being far less visited than its show-biz brother, Milford. But Doubtful is actually three times longer, and ten times bigger, bedazzling visitors with its towering, sheer rock walls, that plunge into the deep cobalt-blue fiord.
From Te Anau, the gateway to this epic world of wonder is from Lake Manapouri, just a short 20km hop away. Enjoy a great night’s rest back at Te Anau, before embarking on the journey to the camera-hogging superstar, Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. The 70km drive on the Milford Highway traverses the Eglinton Valley and Hollyford Valley before carving through the spectacular alpine terrain at Homer Tunnel, which is usually swarming with cheeky, inquisitive and vandalising kea!
En-route, stop by the Mirror Lakes, which will reward you with fantastic landscape reflections in its glassy sapphire waters. These are best viewed early in the morning before the wind or the wildlife have stirred up the small lakes. Much of the road through the Eglinton, shadows the river, which is where in the Lord of the Rings movie, Sam swims out to Frodo and almost drowns.
On arrival into Milford, mighty Mitre Peak commands your attention, strutting skyward, supreme and serene. Jump on board a cruise, for nature’s spooling reel of magnificent waterfalls, wildlife sightings, unspoilt waters and untamed rainforest.
It’s the Stirling Falls which sightseeing boats traditionally point their nose into. By the way, the underwater observatory is the only place in the world where you can see black coral, which is certainly worth a visit. Once back on land the short walk up to the lookout point will deliver you one last majestic photo opportunity.
In case you’ve been living in a parallel universe, Milford Sound is notorious for its high-density population of ravenous sand-flies. Make sure you are tooled up with insect repellent.
Set off from Te Anau to marvel at the picture-book landscape, before the galumphing juggernaut of Queenstown coach tours molest the magic. (They start swamping Milford Sound around 11am.) The Eglinton Valley’s slinky garlands of morning mist is well worth the wake-up call, alone.
Wrap up warm and head to Fiordland this winter for a bracing encounter with the elements. Thrifty offers plenty of handy pick-up and drop-off locations including Dunedin, Queenstown and Invercargill.