Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Great Drives: Milford Sound

About The Route
Best time to Go: Weekdays from April to October
Places To Stop: Great scenic viewpoints found at Mirror Lakes, Homer Tunnel, Hollyford and The Chasm.
Total Distance:  117 km
Route: Starting point is the town of Te Anau, 45°25′S 167°43′E, where highway 94 winds drivers north-west, through thick lush rain forests into the rocky peaks of the Alps, finishing in the village of Milford Sound, 44°40′30″S 167°55′46″E.
Road Type: Smooth narrow tarmac road.
Warnings: Highly traveled road in January and February with an onslaught of oncoming tour buses. Watch for suicidal Possums, biting birds and epic rainfall.

You may have noticed that all the roads we have featured in the Great Drives Series have been situated in the European Alps. While this is a magnificent hotspot for great driving, it is not the only spot to get your hard driving jollies. And so we move to a different part of the world, from the European Alps to the Southern Alps, located in the land of the Kiwi bird – New Zealand.

Milford Sound is a town on the map of New Zealand, however, once you've arrived after this spectacular bit of roadway, you'll soon find that it's not so much a town, rather a gathering point for tourists intent on exploring the Fiordlands scenery by plane or whale watching by boat. However, the road to get from Te Anau, located on the eastern highlands of the Alps, to the sound is well worth the trip. Known as one of the greatest drives New Zealand has to offer, the Milford road lived up to its billing providing a wonderfully challenging road set through scenery that seems out of this world. There's a reason Sir Peter Jackson chose this area to make up a good amount of the Lord of the Rings trilogies back-drops.

Usually we run these roads with some sort of high horsepower, highly over priced exotic sports car. However, the sights of NZ are best taken in at a civilized speed behind the wheel of a campervan, which ideally doubles as your living accommodations once you've made you destination. Research tools such as rankers.co.nz are invaluable to ensure finding the campervan that works best to your needs and budget, while insuring you deal with a credible hiring service. At the top of the rankers list is the Auckland based Wilderness Motorhomes (wilderness.co.nz). The highly positive comments left by previous customers turned out to be quite real as we had a great experience with Wilderness staff, and our BaseJumper 2 had performance which tackled the Milford with ease, while providing a luxurious environment to relax and sleep.  

Heading out of the town of Te Anau, found far down the south island, on the 94 there are several signs warning of the implications of driving to Milford. There is only one road in, so you need to come back the way you came. The road can be closed if there is a heavy snow, as it is a high mountain pass. Finally, there is no gas station in Milford, so be sure your tanks are full when leaving Te Anau.

The first 30 km from Te Anau took us along lake Te Anau, which proved to be an easy drive with decent scenery. However, turning inland after Te Anau Downs, the narrow two lane road dives deep into the heavily forested highlands that lay before the towering Alps just beyond. While the road remains fairly straight for the most part, the foliage becomes a staring attraction, thick with prehistoric fern tress and bright green Mountain Beech tree's with black trunks. The vegetation is so dense that it feels like you're driving through a long winding tunnel, every inch of this land is bursting with colour and life. It's an amazing sight, only not so camera friendly as the road is mostly obscured with the thick wall of green. Sorry, no overhanging vista pictures of the winding road below to be had here to compare with the Southern Alps northern cousins.

The road to this point was driven with ease, although the performance of the BaseJumper 2 would soon be made apparent, soon after a stop at the Mirror Lakes for a walk through the rain forest. After the break we began to climb high into the Alps. The road now became even more narrow and started to twist, turn and undulate with the ever increasing ruggedness of the landscape. The lush rain forest started to get broken up with jagged rock cliffs, and it was long before we found our selves the center of a rock sandwich. Towering sheer rock walls of the 2000-meter tall Southern Alps looked down on us from both sides as we moved into a rocky valley, a spectacle just as impressive as any Euro Alp scene. And the road was quickly living up to its billing as well.

The BaseJumper 2 charged headlong into the narrowing chasm, our winding path lead steep up the side of the mountain, void of any zigzagging hairpin complexes, just a joyous winding charge into what seemed a dead end. Popping out above the tree line, we entered a rocky wasteland that stopped us dead in our tracks, surrounded on all three sides by massive sheer rock cliffs. Ahead was the infamous Homer tunnel and a red light, warning of oncoming traffic.

Construction of the tunnel began in 1935 as a work program to stimulate the economy of the region back during the depression. However, with workers only using picks and wheel barrows, it didn't open until 1954. Up until its paving just a couple years ago it held the worlds record for the longest unpaved tunnel at 1.2 km.

Sure enough, a train of tourist busses came rushing out of the tunnel just before the green light invited us to enter. After a dark decline through the mountain, we pop out into yet another rock incased valley, this one with the more typical views we were accustomed to, that of a strip of tarmac spaghetti strung down the mountain side. Steep downhills proved the weakness of the BaseJumper, its heavy weight overheating the brakes. Regardless, of the slow decent, our campervans size proving exceptional at dodging the never ending parade of oncoming buses. Soon, we left the rocky confines and dove headlong into the thick Mountain Beeches, and our vision was obstructed once again.

It was only 16 km later that we popped out of the thick bush, and out onto the fiord that is the Milford Sound. Along with an airstrip and harbour, there is only a few lodges and a couple cafes that make up the town. While a couple of nature walks and a spectacular view of several peaks plummeting down into the ocean make for a great place to visit, it was knowing that we had to drive that great road back through the mountains that made Milford Sound a highlight in New Zealand.