The most northerly and celebrated of Fiordland’s fifteen fiords is Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) with its vertical sides towering 1200m above the sea and waterfalls plunging from hanging valleys. Some 15km long and mostly less than 1km wide, it is also one of the slenderest fiords – and yes, it is mis-named. Sounds are drowned river valleys whereas this is very much a glacially formed fiord.
It is a wondrous place, though it is difficult to grasp its heroic scale unless your visit coincides with that of one of the great cruise liners – even these formidable vessels are totally dwarfed.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, Milford is at its best in the rain, something that happens on over 180 days a year giving a massive 7m of annual rainfall. Within minutes of a torrential downpour every cliff-face sprouts a waterfall and the place looks even more magical as ethereal mist descends. Indeed, Milford warrants repeated visits: in bright sunshine (yes, it does happen), on a rainy day and even under a blanket of snow.
None of the other fiords quite matches Milford for its spectacular beauty, but what makes Milford special is its accessibility. The tiny airport hardly rests as planes buzz in and out, while busloads of visitors are disgorged from buses onto cruises – all day in the summer and around the middle of the day in spring and autumn.
The crowds can certainly detract from the grandeur, but don’t let that put you off. Driving to Milford Sound and admiring it from the land just doesn’t cut it; you need to get out on the water, either on a cruise or kayaking.
Maori know Milford Sound as Piopiotahi (“the single thrush”), and attribute its creation to the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa, who was called away before he could carve a route into the interior, leaving high rock walls. These precipitous routes are now known as the Homer and Mackinnon passes, probably first used by Maori who came to collect pounamu. The first European known to have sailed into Piopiotahi was sealer John Grono who, in 1823, named the fiord Milford Haven after his home port in south Wales. The main river flowing into the Welsh Milford is the Cleddau, so naturally the river at the head of the fiord is so named.
The earliest settler was Scot Donald Sutherland, who arrived with his dog, John O’Groat, in 1877; he promptly set a series of thatched huts beside the freshwater basin of what he called the “City of Milford”, funding his explorations by guiding small numbers of visitors who had heard tell of the scenic wonder.
All visitors arrived by boat or walked the Milford Track until 1953 when the road through the Homer Tunnel was finally completed, paving the way for the phalanxes of buses that disgorge tourists onto cruises.