Sun in Fiordland: Key Summit and Milford

(This is the third in a series of posts about an 8-day roadie I took on the South Island with my friend Tiffany. If you want to read about our first two days, click here and here.)

After a fun time in Queenstown, we got up very early and drove from Queenstown down to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park. Fiordland is a huge mass of land in the southwestern-most section of the South Island of New Zealand; the region is virtually uninhabited, with fewer than 50 people living within it during the most recent census.

Fiordland is part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site, and boasts an area of 12,120 square kilometres, making it the largest national park in NZ. 

Te Anau is the gateway town, with only 2,000 permanent residences but more than 3,000 tourist beds! From there, the remote but beautiful Milford Sound Road (Route 94) winds its way northwest for 119 kms (74 miles) up to the most famous and most visited fiord, Milford Sound (incorrectly named by early explorers*).

The numbers and statistics, however, only gesture toward this amazing place and the scenery it offers. Our pre-dawn start enabled us to reach Te Anau just after the visitor’s center opened. We picked up our hut tickets for the Iris Burn Hut on the Kepler Track and I picked up a winter hat and some gloves at the recommendation of the DOC worker who said the next day would be cold and windy.

Then we were on our way up one of my favorite roads! Although the distance doesn’t sound very far, the road is quite windy, there are tour buses and motorhomes and teams of cyclists, and reportedly it’s the third most dangerous road in New Zealand as well as the third highest (elevation) in New Zealand.

I was very careful. Plus, you know we made it because I am writing this post.

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Eglinton Valley on the Milford Road

We stopped several times on the way up to our first hike of the day, the Key Summit on the Routeburn Track (another Great Walk). Funnily, we ran into two young guys coming down the Routeburn, one of whom was wearing a Wisconsin shirt; Tiffany went to grad school in Madison, so that was pretty fun.

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Me with the Key Summit sign; Tiffany at the summit; Milford Sound in the sunshine!; boating it up.

As we hiked up the Key Summit trail the breeze picked up. We could see down into the clouds in the surrounding valleys but instances of clearing revealed granite-topped peaks, some with snow, around us. We gained about 400 meters in the climb, the final bit in switchbacks, before reaching the top of the trail at 918 meters (3,111 feet). A boardwalk “nature trail” around the top was a loop and offered intermittent views of Lake Marian, a glacial lake in a hanging valley nearby.

key summit

We ended up eating lunch in the car because a) we are fast hikers and thus finished the hike more quickly than planned so we didn’t need to rush to eat and b) it was windy at the top and c) because the pavilion at the trailhead was full of stinky hikers.

From there we drove on through Homer Tunnel, an engineering marvel that looks like it was carved by “industrious third graders,” according to Tiffany. The inside walls aren’t finished and there are major potholes in the roadway, so I can see her point.

Nevertheless we made it through safely and then stopped at the Chasm, a really cool rushing waterfall that has carved the rocks out around it, before our final destination: Milford Sound.

We had intentionally booked a later-in-the-day cruise because many of the tour buses from Queenstown arrive late morning to mid-day, which means the middle of the day scenic cruises are busier and more expensive than the early morning and late afternoon ones. I had booked us a spot on the Southern Discoveries boat. It turned out that there were fewer than 20 people on our boat, which meant very little jostling for good views. As we boarded the boat for a 3:15 launch, the sun broke through and I had my first glimpse of Milford Sound in sunlight. It was beautiful, and in a different way than when I’ve been the other times and it has been grey and waterfall-crusted.

We could see the rocky peaks of the mountains around the fiord, some of them soaring to nearly 6,000 feet from ocean level (which is where we were, on the water). Tiffany said she was blown away by the sheer magnitude of the scenery. I don’t think photos can even hint at the majesty, but I’ll try anyway.

milford 2

The captain took us out to the Tasman Sea and also spotted a pod of about 12-15 Hector’s dolphins, who gamboled and followed the cruise boat, jumping and playing. It was pretty magical.

We ended the day with a drive back down to Te Anau, where we stayed right near the lake in order to get an early start on the Kepler Track the following morning. Check back soon for photos of that adventure. Hint: Tiffany’s ability to bring the sun and clear skies to frequently-rainy Fiordland continue!

*Fiords are valleys carved out by glaciers that are then backfilled by ocean water. Sounds are created when the sea floods a former river valley.  

///janel///

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