The tour coach zig-zags down into the depths of the Cleddau Canyon and turns under a dense canopy of rainforest into the village at the head of the sound.
Across the silky-black waters, a sharp-edged pyramid of rock rises abruptly out of the depths and soars 1,700 metres to a conical peak that appears to pierce the sky. This glaciated, sheer-sided slab of rock called Mitre Peak, dominates the sound. The waterway’s entire 22 km length is enclosed with similar vertical rock faces topped by mountain peaks. It is a mystical, breathtaking scene and perhaps New Zealand’s most renowned iconic landmark.
The grand scale of Milford Sound is best appreciated on one of the many boat cruises on offer. Most travel out to the open sea, passing under a waterfall torrent to thrill the passengers. The excellent commentaries explain how a giant glacier gouged out the sound leaving its terminal moraine at the entrance, thus impeding tidal flows and allowing fresh water to form a 10 metre layer on the surface of the sound. As a result, black coral can be found at relatively shallow depths inside the sound.
An underwater observatory gives visitors a visual inspection of the marine community without getting their feet wet. Local inhabitants include bottlenose dolphins, fur seals and Fiordland crested penguins.
Heavy rainfall is a regular feature of this region with up to seven metres being experienced in some years. There is an upside however. On rainy days the whole landscape takes on a brooding, mystical quality and the sheer granite walls burst out in a hundred spectacular waterfalls. Whole mountains come alive with waterspouts and cascades, creating a very dramatic photogenic ‘mood’ scene.
Even the road into Milford via the Eglinton and Upper Hollyford valleys, is a scenic extravaganza with beech forest climbing steep slopes to snow-capped summits. In winter the Homer Tunnel approaches can be a complete whiteout fairytale scene.
The Milford Track starts from the head of Lake Te Anau, crossing Mackinnon Pass and descending to Milford Sound with a side trip to the 630 metre high Sutherland Falls. The track is known as the ‘finest walk in the world’ as it passes through unspoiled, pristine wilderness.
‘Awesome’ is about the only superlative that does justice to Milford Sound, whose towering granite walls simply dwarf cruise liners and leave human impacts on the landscape looking like a world in miniature.