Saturday, February 20, 2021

Milford Sound - go now, thank me later

One of the various cancelled trips in 2020 (contributing to an eye-watering amount of Air New Zealand credit) was a week-long ride out of Dunedin.  The first half was going to be with Brendan through to Queenstown, and among the options I'd considered afterwards, was a ride out to Milford Sound - one of a few top-shelf tourist destinations in NZ that I've never been to.  

Even before COVID intervened, I'd ruled it out - the 240km return trip out of Te Anau would either have chewed up too much of my available time, or I'd have to rush and risk a superficial visit.  Neither appealed.

Some 12 months later, the border is still closed, and rather than griping too much about an inability to travel abroad, many Kiwis have sensibly thought about what to do at home.  In my circles, the pondering has extended beyond "what would I like to go and see...", to include "...while no overseas tourists are here doing the same thing?"  

Among my friends, Simon, and Karl at Ride Holidays, had both publicly noted that the traffic volumes on the Te Anau-Milford Highway (SH94) would be a fraction of their normal levels, and it was on my radar too.  That said, the trip materialised out of the blue one evening while hosting ex-Wellingtonian and now Wanaka resident, Ashley, for dinner.  An innocent "when are you going to visit again?" query turned into a flurry of calendar checking, web searches and online booking, and before she'd left for the evening, we were locked and loaded.  Ironically, we'd booked at a near-perfect time -  a couple of weeks into the school year, we could expect few tourists of any kind.  

A little over three weeks later, Ash picked Sarah and I up from Queenstown Airport off an afterwork flight, with some slightly disappointing news.  Her hubby, the handsome Park Ranger, was tied up with an emergency and wouldn't be able to join us.  The slight upside was that the car loading 3D jigsaw was ever so slightly easier to complete.  We had plenty to talk about, and the drive to Te Anau passed quickly.  

Friday - Te Anau to Milford

We woke to beautiful clear skies.  I'd unpacked our bikes before going to bed, and it was pleasing to note that my recently replaced rear tyre was finally holding air.  Despite Ash packing some breakfast supplies, we decided to head to a local cafe for a cooked breakfast.  

Suitably fed and watered, it was time to hit the road.  I made a quick dash across the road for some insect repellant, a few OSM bars, and some cash, and after brushing teeth, we were clipping in and rolling out.  Sarah and I initially rode alone, with Ash knocking out the first 30km or so to Te Anau Downs in the car.  

As per my usual approach to these things, I hadn't done any homework and knew little about the route.  Sarah, on the other hand, had driven it twice, once with Khulan about a decade ago, and again with her sister Saruul more recently.

The road alongside Lake Te Anau was undulating, and it took us a wee while to get our clothing dialled.  Aside from a few stops to re-adjust, the distance through to Ash's parking spot passed quickly.  We didn't see her car at the Lodge there, and nor did I make it out at the effective Milford Track trailhead (where the walkers jump on a boat to take them up the lake).

Sarah climbing away from Lake Te Anau, with Middle Fiord over her left shoulder

Ironically, once we got away from the lake, and started to ride up the Eglinton River valley, if anything the terrain mellowed. As expected, traffic was few and far between, and those vehicles that were on the road tended to give us plenty of space.  Eglinton Flats seemed to be a popular stopping point for cars, though one of the regular "No Drones" signs along the road reminded them they needed to do their selfies themselves.

Eglinton Flats

Not long after Eglinton Flats, we approached the Mirror Lakes.  Despite Ash still being ahead of us, the weather was so fantastic Sarah and I had agreed to stop and take a look.  Upon arrival, we found Ash's bike parked up, and consequently, we were able to enjoy the incredible effect without feeling the need to rush.

Must've been a still day when these lakes were named!

At the far end of the viewing boardwalk, not only did we find Ash, but also a very welcome coffee cart!  The cash I'd withdrawn before leaving Te Anau had been an afterthought, but a fortuitous one, since there's no better thing to spend it on than a coffee in the middle-of-nowhere.  The barista seemed very well set up, from his machine right through to the heavy coat and hat he was wearing.

Hot drinks demolished, the three of us set off together finally, and while Sarah and I had been moving a bit faster than Ash up to this point (while she was riding at least!!), there were no pace-related teething problems as we adjusted to riding as a trio.  

I was contemplating suggesting we stop at Lake Gunn for lunch - preceded by a short climb, it looks like it may have been formed by an ancient landslide blocking the river.  Fortunately, we continued on further up the road to The Divide shelter, where unbeknownst to us at the time, the sand-flies aren't quite as voracious.  The carpark there was a wee hive of activity, by virtue of it being the southern road end of the multi-day Routeburn Track, and a shorter walk or two.  

From what was displayed on my Garmin map screen, I couldn't quite get my head around the route ahead, having incorrectly assumed that the river valley we were about to descend into drained towards the coast.  I soon discovered my error, and after admiring the Hollyford River from a couple of lookouts on the steep drop into the valley, we started climbing again, up-river towards the Homer Tunnel.

Looking over the Hollyford River towards Lake Marian

The Hollyford River valley was steeper than the Eglinton had been, but the gradient was still very mellow, and the riding conditions really couldn't have been better - it was warm but not hot, and whatever wind there was didn't register.   

I usually completely miss these, and this time, I just missed myself

The valley was very impressive, with steep cliffs either side.  There were plenty of small waterfalls above the road, and it clearly would be a sight to behold during, or immediately after, heavy rain.  

Mt Talbot, if my map reading is half decent

About 3km short of the tunnel, we stopped and had a proper lunch by a stream.  At about 900m above sea level, and a kind of random place to stop, we were unmolested by sand-flies, and were able to enjoy sitting in the sun.  We filled our bottles from the stream and enjoyed the cool, fresh, and undoubtedly clean water.  

A late lunch spot.  Photo:  Ashley Peters

The last of the climb up to the tunnel was sweet, and sprinkled with distractions.  There was a road crew quarrying rock out of the riverbed, and a trailhead for the Gertrude Valley which seemed popular.  

Looking up towards Gertrude Saddle

The tunnel didn't come into view until the last few hundred metres.  After passing a phone box, we pulled up at a "wait here" sign.  From a loudspeaker came a voice:  "wave if you want to ride through the tunnel".  We waved up at a surveillance camera, and were immediately told to go up to the portal, and wait for the next command!   Once there, a few seconds later, we were told there were no cars coming, and that we could go through.  

The eastern portal of Homer Tunnel

The tunnel was not at all what I was expecting.  I'd imagined something like the single-lane Hataitai bus tunnel, or even the unlined Summit Tunnel on the Remutaka Incline.  Instead, I found a sealed and well-lit tunnel with what seemed like almost enough space to have two lanes for much of its length.  There was a crew working inside it, and between that distraction and the 10% downhill grade, the 1.2km seemed to pass by in no time at all, and with little time to fully observe the structure.  No need to worry about that though, the uphill passage would surely be done at a more leisurely pace!

The climb from Te Anau to Homer Tunnel happens over almost exactly 100km, whereas the full descent to Milford at sea level is only 20km.  It starts with a few switchbacks, before joining the Cleddau River valley at the Chasm.  We'd hoped to see the chasm ourselves, but the track was sufficiently well closed that we thought better of sneaking along it on foot.

Looking down-valley from just below the Homer Tunnel

Just above the crossings of the Gulliver and Donne Rivers, there was a random digit "2" painted on the road - I had just enough time to try to wonder what on earth it meant, before rounding a bend and riding over "SINGLE" "LANE" "BRIDGE" written in much quicker succession.  

A wee bit further down was a photogenic old suspension bridge over the Tutoko River, which we took, reserving the highway bridge for the return journey.  

Our accommodation, at the Milford Sound Lodge was the next thing we reached, but given the lovely conditions, we agreed to stay on our bikes and explore the village.  (We'd left Te Anau at 9am, and first passed the lodge just after 3:30pm.)  That didn't take long, but included a visit to the marina at Deepwater Basin, the airfield, a board-walked foreshore loop track, and the grand but slightly grotesque (for my tastes) cruise terminal.  Most of the residences were down a street marked as private, signage which we begrudgingly respected.  

Looking down the airfield towards Mitre Peak

We hit up a riverside path to get back to the lodge, only to discover it was a work in progress in places, necessitating a bit of walking.  It was a bit of an inauspicious way to end a fantastic day's riding, but thankfully the scenery made up for the hike-a-bike, and there were no complaints from my hard-core companions!

At check-in, we booked a table for dinner, and then retired to our rooms for unpacking, washing, and resting!  

Given we felt like beggars rather than choosers, we were all really impressed with the quality of the dinner.  The alternative for Sarah and I was OSM bars, though it wouldn't have surprised me if Ash, world famous for the quality of her snacks, had something more delicious stashed in her frame-bag.  

The walk back to our chalets started badly - Ash had stopped inside, and while waiting for her, I found myself surrounded by sand-flies.  Flapping of my arms and frenzied bug squashing didn't seem to be an effective strategy, so I resorted to running until I was safely inside our chalet.  

Saturday - Tourist Day

The next day started with breakfast being delivered to our rooms, and beyond that, we whiled away a few hours waiting to hear back about an enquiry with a local helicopter company.  Just as I'd never been to Milford Sound, nor had I been on a helicopter, and this seemed a perfect place to right that wrong.

Eventually, the call came, and soon after a great lunch at the lodge restaurant, we were reporting to the office at the airfield.  While low cloud was preventing us from landing at Tutoko Glacier - the option we'd originally requested - our pilot told us that the consolation trip we were doing up to the top of Sutherland Falls was, in his opinion, the better flight.  

Needless to say, the views were spectacular, and it was also fascinating to watch the machine being flown.  We were subjected to one very hard clmbing turn where my brain really struggled to understand quite what was going on - no doubt the point of the manoeuvre!

After flying up the top section of Sutherland Falls, we landed for 10 minutes or so at Lake Quill, from which the falls drain.  Then, it was back into the 'copter for the short trip back to the airfield.  

Lake Quill in the background, with Sutherland Falls below it

From the airport, we headed slowly down to the cruise boat terminal, via the foreshore walk again, and the Information Centre cafe.  Ash had booked us all on an overnight cruise aboard the Milford Mariner, and after stashing our bikes in their back office, we boarded (wearing most of our luggage!) and set sail.  

The format of the cruise was great - a "half cruise" of the fiord, before anchoring at Harrison Cove for the night.  Once at anchor, we were presented with an option of kayaking, a blat in one of two "tenders", or neither!  I'd left my board shorts and my riding gear with my bike, but FOMO prevailed, and I risked getting my evening-wear damp and joined the better prepared (and more keen) women.  It was more fun than I expected, and as always, better to regret something you did, than something you didn't!

Returning to the Mariner - which even has a special hole in the hull to streamline the kayak loading

After kayaking was a hefty buffet dinner, a good sleep, and breakfast fit for hungry cyclists about to ride back to Te Anau.  Once we'd finished our early breakfast, the engines were fired up, and we briefly popped out to the Tasman Sea, being treated to a few Fiordland Crested Penguins ashore on the way out, and dolphins on the way back (swimming, naturally).  Animals aside, there were wonderful cliffs, waterfalls, and forest in abundance.  Great success!!

Sunday - Milford to Te Anau Downs

The beauty of leaving our cycling clothing onshore, was that by the time we'd got suited up to ride, the drivers on the boat had all returned to their cars and driven off, giving us the road pretty much to ourselves.  

Before we got stuck into the ride proper, I stopped by the airfield control tower.  I'd happened to mention to our pilot the previous day that my uncle Colin's best mate had been an air traffic controller at Milford.  I was somewhat stunned to learn that about 40 years on, Perry was still doing it!  Unfortunately, Saturday and Sunday were his days off, so I was sad to be unable to say gidday, despite dreading having to admit that I haven't been in touch with Col for years.  

We knew the climb ahead was significant, but it turned out to be easily dispatched, well rested and fed as we were.  Having so recently ridden it in the opposite direction, it was not completely unfamiliar, though it is often difficult to anticipate what a fast descent will feel like when ridden uphill.

Unlike the other side, the tunnel was in view for a wee while before we reached it, by virtue of the switchbacks below it. You can't easily make out the tunnel itself, as the western portal is shrouded by an avalanche shelter, but the shelter sticks out like the proverbial.  

We had a longer wait at the traffic control point, albeit with a countdown, courtesy of NZTA.

With about 30 seconds left on the clock, we were given the green light, and got to the shelter just as a queue of cars emerged from the tunnel.  Our "guardian angel" on the loudspeaker was giving them a stern telling off as they passed - it seems that they'd ignored requests to wait and entered the tunnel under their own steam.  Tsk tsk!

True to form, it was much easier to observe the tunnel itself while climbing its 10% gradient.  

Lined, just inside the entrance.  Photo: Ashley Peters

I was fascinated that my GPS didn't seem to be bleating that it had lost satellite coverage, and on the contrary, it seemed to know exactly where we were (well, apart from the adjective being used).

Not quite, Garmin, but close!

Wholly sealed, but not entirely lined, the tunnel had regular signage indicating progress.  There was a fair bit of water in it, and around the midway mark was a shroud whose role seemed to be diverting water from the ceiling down into the gutters.  

Unlined, 1000m still to ride!

In the opposite direction, we'd had the tunnel to ourselves, but given our relatively low speed, it wasn't that surprising that oncoming cars were let through.  That said, bikes are wonderfully narrow, and it wouldn't have surprised me to learn that the cars had been warned of our presence.  Despite how long it might have actually been, even 1.2km at 10% goes fast when it is along such a fascinating stretch of road (the Wikipedia page is well worth a read).  

What goes up, must come down, and upon emerging from Homer Tunnel, we were treated to a very enjoyable gravity-assisted recovery.  I stopped to fill my bottles at the tried and true stream we'd drank from two days earlier, before using my superior mass to good effect and passing Sarah and Ash before we bottomed out at the Lower Hollyford Road turnoff.

I'd earlier gauged interest in checking out the dead-end, and between times had slightly cooled on the idea myself.  After initially ignoring the turnoff, I got told I was silly, and turned back with Sarah in tow!

Sarah and Ash about to cross the Falls Creek tributary

The road turned to gravel about a minute from the intersection.  The surface was really good, though in one place was wet, and we got a bit covered in lime spray, which was annoying.  We passed through Gunn's Camp, but deferred a stop until the return trip.  

A few kilometres short of the road's end, and the start of the Hollyford (tramping) Track, we came to a closure.  Judging by the many vehicles parked up, the track was still accessible on foot, but we chose not to proceed beyond the gate.  

Prior to reaching Gunn's Camp, about half way back along the 13km section of road, we were treated to sweet native bush, occasional fat kererū, and altogether very pleasant riding despite that we were now travelling upstream.

When we reached Gunn's Camp, it was a little unclear what had happened.  It was pretty obvious a landslide had come through, but when the road had been cleared, rubble had been piled up rather than removed, so it was a slightly confusing scene.  

While we were having a bit of a look around, we were accosted by a road-worker, who we engaged in conversation.  His disdain for our ignorance was clear as he explained the tragic events surrounding the closure of the camp, but in many ways, it was a fair tone to take.   He seemed to warm to us slightly as we listened to his history lesson, but frustration and anger at the events he was describing remained apparent.  In any case, the storm the locals endured back in February 2020 looks to have been a harrowing experience, and with the pandemic sweeping in not long after, it is no wonder that the community is feeling a bit neglected and overwhelmed.  If the stories he told about theft and vandalism at this site were true, his bitterness seemed well placed, but it was still annoying to be tarred with the same brush as the ratbags, and we seemed on a hiding to nothing - judged for having the ability to come in and put a bit of money into the local economy, rather than thanked for it (as had been the attitudes of the various operators in the sound).  

An old marine buoy, disguised as an "H-Bomb".  In better days, it read: "Property of the USA Government.  Deactivated by the New Zealand Prime Minister"

As we rode away, it took me a little while to come to terms with the conversation, but in the end, it was easy to empathise with the fellow whose community had been given the rough end of the stick, both by mother nature and their fellow man.

Before too long, we were back at SH94 and had knocked out the climb to The Divide.  Although we knew Ash would be waaaaay up the road by now, we pulled off at the far end of Lake Gunn, as I wanted to quickly check out the outlet.   

The first loop we rode was great fun - nicely manicured singletrack through beech forest - but a second track wasn't maintained for the types of bikes we were on.  It came with a just reward though, in the form of two musicians, who'd set up a recording studio of sorts, and were playing sweet, sweet music.  We stopped to listen for a bit, and I couldn't resist giving them $20 (the smallest currency I had!).  Ironically, we didn't hang around for the end of their second tune, given that the local sand-flies had become aware of our presence.    

Not what you expect to find when you're riding in the bush!

It was strange trying to play memories of Friday's ride backwards to work out what came next.  Strangely, I had absolutely no recollection of the accommodation at Knobs Flat, but when we passed the Deer Flat campsite moments later, knew that the Mirror Lakes were imminent.  The big question on my mind was whether or not the coffee guy would be there!!

HUZZAH!  His flag was flying, and not only was he there, but so too was Ash.  Fortunately, the buskers hadn't got my last twenty, so an order went in, and before it was delivered, we'd lathered ourselves with insect repellant.  It was surprisingly oily, which was frustrating in its own right, but made worse when I spilt a little bit of oil from our tuna-lunch sachet, and then couldn't work out which oil I should be wiping off, and which I should be rubbing in.

Before leaving, Sarah and I did a quick pass of the lakes, only to find that between a bit of breeze and a duck paddling around, the effect that we'd witnessed a couple of days earlier had ben completely ruined.  

Unfortunately for us, not only did that annoying breeze hang around, it intensified, and was in our faces for the rest of the ride.  While I did a good job pushing into it up front, Sarah and Ash did a good job in the back, and between us we made acceptable progress to the unmolested car at Te Anau Downs.  

Neither Sarah nor I had any appetite to continue, and were glad to be able to put our bikes on the car and change out of our riding kit!

What with Steven back in Wanaka, we'd suggested to Ash that she have dinner with us in Queenstown, before continuing home, a plan she endorsed.  En route to Queenstown, when not distracted by yet another sign to the Round the Mountains cycleway, I booked a room at the Sherwood.  After chowing down a rather large pizza at Sal's in Frankton, Ash dropped us there and we began the series of farewell hugs.

Monday - fun day

Our flight back to Wellington wasn't until 4pm, so a decent ride was definitely possible.  My first suggestion was Skippers Canyon, but Ash hadn't thought we would have enough time to do it, so after breakfast, instead we headed towards Glenorchy.  In theory, we had plenty of time to get there and back (about 100km return from Queenstown, with six hours to play with).   

Gravel path around Queenstown Gardens

The first few "off-road" paths we took were great - slightly slower than being on the road, but fast travel nonetheless.  That all changed on the Sunshine Bay track, and between that and the Seven Mile Track that took us unexpectedly into a mountain bike park, we started to haemorrhage both time and energy.  Sarah was in no mood to rush, and I was in no mood to worry about being late.

Sunshine Bay

I should have known better than to assume a lake-side road would be flat, and as we neared the dog-leg in Lake Wakatipu, it was clear getting to Glenorchy and back would be unduly stressful.  I had a bit of a look at my Garmin map, and we checked out a potential loop past Moke Lake.  One access track seemed to be someone's driveway, and another was walkers-only, so we continued towards Glenorchy for a while longer.  At Bennett's Bluff, a crew were working on a parking area, and after checking out an old track to a lookout, we decided this would be a perfect place to turn around.

Looking towards Glenorchy from Bennett's Bluff

The relatively early call gave us an opportunity to ride a few of the side-tracks we'd skipped after the mountainbike park.  Without the time pressure, the views across the lake and our more immediate surroundings were even sweeter.

Sarah on the jetty at Bob's Cove

An old stone ruin

We grabbed lunch on the Queenstown waterfront before riding back to the Sherwood.  My plan was to collect a couple of small bags with a change of clothes each, and ride to the airport, before getting changed and going back to pick up the bike bags in a cab.  Sarah didn't think much of my route to the motel - nor did I, to be fair - it was shockingly steep, but at least came with cracking views up the lake!

While I was getting our backpacks out, I happened to engage a woman standing nearby in conversation.  In response to a grumble about what a hassle it is to travel with bikes (while of course noting how wonderful it is to ride them!), she said she was about to drive to the airport, and offered to ferry our bike bags!!!  That offer kindly accepted, our arrival at the Air New Zealand lounge was half an hour earlier than it otherwise would have been.  While the buffet was closed due to a COVID level increase, at least our flight wasn't canned, as it might have been had we been going to Auckland.  

* * *

It is always lovely to see Ashley, and while we'd missed also seeing Steven, we were all still able to enjoy the (long) weekend's activities.  

I've been privileged to spend some pretty incredible days on the bike in places that are just off-the-scale - Taroko Gorge in Taiwan (Day 6, here) would probably sit at the top of the list; Las Cuevas to Los Andes (switchback doping on Day 3, here) was almost as incredible and a close second; any day in the Pyrenees or Alps in France from the 2013 trip; New Caledonia had some crackers, from which it would be hard to pick a favourite; The Road to Hana on Maui, was good enough to make number two on Sarah's all-time list (she also picks Taroko Gorge at #1). 

Reflecting on the ride from Te Anau to Milford, I'd be hard pressed to nominate a more spectacular one- day ride in New Zealand, and I'd not hesistate to place it in amongst the fine company above.  SH94 was amazing, and unlike those international highlights, it was surprisingly benign.  For the distance, and remoteness, you get incredible bang for your buck.  The way the scenery unfolds, and its quality, give you constant reward for your effort.  The tunnel is a nice bonus for those of us who get a kick out of engineering projects (or simply are glad not to have to climb over the top of whatever it takes you through).  The happy ending - a descent where you barely have to turn the pedals if you don't want to - is a nice way to add the final 20km to the ledger.  And the destination itself is something to behold (provided you're suitably lathered up with insect repellant).  

I've no doubt my experience was improved by the clement weather and the mighty company, but even absent those, I imagine this road would deliver.  Even if a trip there is not possible before the hordes return, I'd highly recommend both the ride, and the format we adopted. 

Until such time as the borders reopen, I feel very lucky to live in a country which happens to have managed itself so well through this pandemic, granting us access to fantastic locations like Milford Sound.   I feel lucky to have such fantastic riding companions, and lucky to enjoy one of the best sight-seeing modes of transport there is.  And, I'm glad I'm taking advantage of all of that.


NZTA publish State Highway Traffic Volumes online, and the data tables there make interesting reading.  Historically, traffic along SH94 peaks during the summer, at around 2500 vehicles per day, an order of magnitude less than typical Wellington commuter traffic, and less than half the traffic you might expect on the much tighter Remutaka Hill.  Short version:  even when it is busy, it ain't that busy...


  1. Wow, that looks and sounds amazing! And the photos are fantastic too!

  2. Thankyou for the tour! One of the bits of New Zealand that I haven't seen...I tend to avoid any tourist traps and anywhere full of people.
    Missing Aotearoa New Zealand like crazy...nearly got locked down there last year....and looking forward to when we can come back and see friends and relations and ride our bikes.