Do me a favor and rewind way the hell back to the year 1891 for a second, when 24 year old English writer, Rudyard Kipling – despite being terribly named and, like most people in the 1800s, appeared a solid two decades older than he actually was – arrived in New Zealand on an 18 day Kiwi adventure spanning both islands, south to north. After visiting the lush and, I imagine, even more serene and far-flung destination of Milford Sound, which he would later go on to call the “eighth wonder of the world,” he wrote the fascinating New Zealand inspired short story, One Lady at Wairakei, and three years later, published a series of short stories called The Jungle Book.
Now, this has nearly zero relevance to our recent trip to Milford Sound, other than to remind you that people – and writers, especially – have been entranced with the natural beauty of New Zealand’s southern fiords – and by extension, the entire country – for as long as there’s been evidence of them visiting. That’s how gorgeous it is.
Alright, back to 2017. Recently Peter and I reached out to the delightfully adventurous folks at Milford Sound BBQ Bus to ask about joining one of their daily Queenstown to Milford Sound tours, which transports you the 360 miles (600 kilometers) there and back aboard a comfy compact tour bus, and includes a 1 hour and 45 minute cruise aboard the Milford Adventurer. And being the delightful souls the Kiwis are, they promptly said yes. Chur! Does that mean thank you, or hell yes? If so, thank you, and hell yes.
Milford Sound: New Zealand’s Southern Gem
Before we delve into the tour, here’s a little perspective on exactly what Milford Sound is, and why it’s worth visiting:
- What: A fiord, mistakenly identified and named a sound, carved by glaciers during the ice ages and surrounded by alpine rainforest and steep cliffs. It’s also the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand with an average of 250 inches (6,400 mm) of rainfall per year.
- Where: New Zealand’s South Island, at the northern end of Fiordland National Park, a 3 million acre park forming part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site called ‘Te Wahipounamu,’ or ‘place of Greenstone.’ Connecting with the Tasman Sea at Dale Head, Milford Sound has only one road in and one road out through Te Anau.
- Animal Life: Home to great white sharks, New Zealand fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, dusky dolphins, hectors dolphins, humpback whales, southern right whales, Fiordland crested penguins, little blue penguins, and a bajillion birds I couldn’t possibly be asked enough to research.
- Noteworthy: While Lady Bowen Falls & Stirling Falls are the only permanent waterfalls, hundreds more pop up after heavy rain. The most famous landmark is Mitre Peak, rising 5,551 feet (1,692 meters) directly from the sea. The water in the area is known for being especially dark because as fresh water falls from the mountains, it rests on top of the existing salt water and creates a top layer.
- Fun Fact #1: Our tour guide told us that President Theodore Roosevelt gifted moose to Fiordland National Park in 1903, but they are so rarely seen (the last sighting was around 2012, I’ve read), that no one really knows how many are still living in New Zealand.
- Fun Fact #2: To get around the fact that Milford Sound is actually a fiord (the only correctly named ‘sound’ is the Marlborough Sounds located much further north), they designated Milford Sound to lie within Fiordland National Park. Close enough, eh?
The BBQ Bus: Queenstown to Milford Sound
With an early start time of 7am, our tour guide for the day, Rob, picked us up conveniently just outside our apartment before grabbing the 9 other passengers joining us for the 12 hour excursion. Originally from Auckland, Rob got his degree in Tourism before working as a mechanic, moving to the UK, camel training in the Middle East, and finally, returning to Queenstown to share his love of New Zealand’s damn fine scenery. We’re thankful he did.
Maxing out at 15 passengers, the beauty of the BBQ bus is that it stops places other, larger tour busses cannot, thus saving you from feeling like you’re on a middle school field trip and rather an intimate, guided tour with a driver who (thankfully) still possesses a sense of humor and heaps of entertaining commentary.
Since sunrise in winter doesn’t happen until after 8am, the first portion of the drive included lots of on-and-off napping as we passed south through the tail bits of Lake Wakatipu and into snow-covered farmland, replete with sheep galore. About 9:30am and a little over halfway to Milford Sound, we arrived at our first stop of the day, the tiny town of Te Anau. With a population of around 2,000 people, the few local businesses here depend on tourists passing through – or staying overnight – to stay open, so do the nice thing and buy a cup of coffee or a snack and take a scenic walk around Lake Te Anau.
Only 30 minutes north of Te Anau, Eglinton Valley makes the perfect little side-of-the-road pit stop and photo op, with dramatic clouds, forested hills and snow-capped mountains in the background.
A quick stop just off the highway, make the short walk around the boardwalk to reach Mirror Lakes, a gorgeous reflective lake mirroring the Earl Mountains and surrounding plant life. Even though it was cloudy during our visit, the effect (and Mirror Lakes sign, which appears correctly when read through the reflection) was still rather radical.
Now an hour’s drive from Te Anau, Lake Gunn is one of the aforementioned stops included on the BBQ bus that large tour busses have to skip. In summer months, guests will enjoy their BBQ lunch here, while in winter months, you enjoy your lunch aboard the boat. Either way, the views are sweet as! Take a minute to enjoy the calm waters of the lake and mossy beech tree forest.
The Homer Tunnel
Continuing on, our next stop was located just before the manmade Homer Tunnel. Started in 1935, the 3/4 mile (1.2 kilometer) tunnel took nearly 20 years to build and is the highest elevation point of the whole journey at 3,100 feet (945 meters) above sea level. Let’s all just take a minute to appreciate those poor, freezing souls who headed out with their picks and shovels to start chipping away at this tunnel. And then let’s think happier thoughts of how we are not those unfortunate souls and raise a glass in their honor.
It’s also here where we were introduced to the Kea, which is apparently the “only true alpine parrot in the world” and also a major douchebag. Imagine that, a bird being a major douchebag? Cue my non-surprise (#birdsaretheworst). Anyway, it’s glorious to know that they, too, are capable of slipping and falling in the ice and looking absolutely foolish. Of course they then fly away and look majestic as hell, but hey, they still fall down. Ha. Ha ha.
Milford Sound Cruise
A few minutes after arriving at the harbor, we boarded our double-decker boat, the Milford Adventurer, for a scenic cruise around Milford Sound. Passing an array of gorgeous cliffs and waterfalls, the boat ride was one for the books. Or blog, rather.
Soon after, Rob announced that our BBQ lunch was ready – beef sausages, chicken and lamb kebabs, pasta salad, coleslaw, bread, juice, coffee, tea and water – and watched as the other passengers immediately cursed their own tour guides, none of whom provided food to go with the view. The only thing missing from the boat? A bloody bar, y’all! Considering we weren’t driving, the only thing that could have made the meal and view 10% more wonderful was a cold beer or two.
The captain made sure to stop just near the fur seals relaxing on the creatively-named Seal Rock, and also pulled up close to two waterfalls to let us appreciate the beauty and mist up close. Also it was windy and cold as hell, so if you’re visiting during winter months, be sure to dress accordingly.
At just under two hours, the cruise was an incredible way to appreciate the magnitude of the area’s beauty, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone traveling to New Zealand’s south island.
On the ride back, we stopped once in Te Anau to stretch our legs and possibly feed the alpacas in the neighboring field, though they were too far away on the day we visited and apparently enjoy spitting at people, so I’m just as pleased to have witnessed them from afar. Also ostriches are spawns of Satan and the worst birds of all time, so I encourage you to follow my lead if ever you find yourself in this exact location…
The hilarious New Zealand film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, was thoughtfully shown on the bus ride back, and now I want to be friends with a fictional character named Ricky Baker and sing his birthday song every chance I get.
My only two suggestions for the tour would be to offer reusable water bottles to customers (we thankfully brought our own), as well as some inexpensive snacks such as apples or breakfast bars, as it’s an extremely long day and who doesn’t enjoy free snacks. Other than that, we had an absolutely stellar time and would definitely recommend the BBQ bus (and Rob!) to anyone looking for a carefree, beautiful way to experience Milford Sound.
Holler at Milford Sound BBQ Bus to reserve your tour, and as always, if you’re reading this, know that we’re mentally awarding you 11 cool points.