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Queenstown to Milford Sound; exploring the stunningly beautiful South Island in New Zealand

1. QUEENSTOWN

Not being thrill-seekers, our stay in Queenstown had been only a stopover. We rose early to head south to our next destination, the town of Te Anau.

It was a glorious morning with just a few bubbly clouds in an otherwise deep blue sky. Before heading out we made a stop at the car rental store to exchange our car for something a bit larger – so much for travelling light!

Anyway, after a short delay, we were soon on the road. The scenery in the South Island of New Zealand is stunning, whilst somewhat similar to Scotland and the Lake District back in England, it had its own characteristics that made it very special. We made several stops en route including a picnic lunch on the banks of Lake Wakapitu at a point where several streams fed into it.

Lake Wakapitu
The scenery is very reminiscent of the Scottish highlands
On the banks of Lake Wakapitu

2. TE ANAU

After lunch, we carried on further south leaving behind the akes and imposing mountains to a terrain of rolling green hills and farmland, but nonetheless pretty. It took quite some time to cover the near 90 miles to Te Anau (which was only about 40 as the crow flies from Queenstown!). We arrived mid-afternoon and are instantly in awe of the amazing setting of this small town. Te Anau sits on the banks of the largest lake in the South Island. On the opposite bank rose the imposing mountains that form the Fjordland National Park. Eager to find out more we dropped our bags at the hostel and walked into town to go to the visitor centre. The area is reputedly the hiking (or tramping as the New Zealanders call it) capital of the World, with numerous multi-day journeys into the surrounding wilderness. Sadly, in our short time in Te Anau, we did not have the time to “tramp”, so we had to settle for watching the videos in the visitor centre.

The main street in sleepy Te Anau
The lobby of the YHA Youth Hostel in Te Anau
Outside seating at the Youth Hostel in Te Anau on New Zealand's South Island

3. GLOWWORM CAVES

Although we had reached Te Anau at the end of the day we had an evening adventure planned, an evening trip to the glow worm caves. The journey started with a 40-minute boat ride across the lake. It was a little chilly but we were warmed by the scathing humour of the boat’s captain and the glorious view of the mountains in the failing daylight. After disembarking our vessel we took the short walk to the Visitor Centre, where we were split up into smaller groups. Whilst some groups headed off to the caves we hung back to get the talk on the geography of the caves and the biology of the glow worms!

Company:Real Journeys 
Location:85 Lakefront Drive, Te Anau
Website:Real Journeys
Tour Duration:2.5 Hours
Cost:Adults: NZ$99 (US$70)  Children: NZ$30(US$21)
Hours: Departures: 10:15am, 2pm and 7pm

Glowworms aren’t a finished product in terms of their life cycle. They are actually the larval stage of a winged insect much like the fungus gnat (sounds delightful, eh!). The glowworms themselves are about the size of a match stick, and they stay in that form for about 6 to 12 months, depending on the food. Whilst glow worms sound like they should be cute and cuddly they are voracious carnivores.

They spin a nest out of silk on the ceiling of the cave and then hang down as many as 70 threads of silk (called snares) from around the nest, each up to 30 or 40 cm long and holding droplets of mucus. The worms glow to attract prey into its threads, perhaps luring them into believing they are outdoors, for the roof of a cave covered with larva can look remarkably like a starry sky at night. A hungry worm glows brighter than one which has just eaten. When prey is caught by a line the glow-worm pulls it up (at up to about 2 millimetres a second) and feeds. If the prey is scarce the larvae will turn to cannibalism, eating other larvae, pupae or adult flies. Not so cute or cuddly! The glow is the result of a chemical reaction that involves a waste product, in other words, glow-worm poo, and an enzyme. The glow emanates from a small area at the end of its abdomen.

At the end of the larva stage, the glow worm becomes a pupa, hanging down from the roof of the cave. The pupa stage lasts about 1 or 2 weeks and it glows intermittently.

The male stops glowing a few days before emerging, the female’s glow increases. The glow from the female is believed to be to attract a mate, and males may be waiting there when she emerges. The adults (of both sexes) cannot feed, and live only a short time. Adult insects are poor fliers and so will often remain in the same area, building a colony of glow-worms. The female lays a total of about 130 eggs, in clumps of 40 or 50, and dies soon after laying. The eggs hatch after about 20 days and the cycle repeats. Doesn’t seem much of a life!

Enough of the biology lesson! It was soon time for our tour. After a few steps from the Visitor Centre, we were at the mouth of the cave. The entrance was most definitely not built for Mark who almost had to bend double to get inside. Fortunately, after a few feet, the roof of the cave rose so we could all stand comfortably. The cave itself is relatively new in geologic terms so there are not many of the features you might look for in older caverns, in particular stalactites and stalagmites. What it does have is a very powerful stream of fast-flowing water, the noise of which is almost deafening inside the cave. Crossing a bridge over the tumultuous water we look down to see a 4-foot long eel quite peacefully hanging around in the water, this is not what you expect to find deep inside a cave. We walked a few yards further, where we came upon a gushing waterfall with a scary-looking whirlpool at its base. This was definitely not a place to fall in. Luckily there were some sturdy railings preventing this from happening. The next stage of our journey required us to climb into a somewhat rickety boat. The stream had been dammed at this point so it was not fast flowing so there was no danger of us being flushed over the waterfall. This boat was powered by our guide who used the ropes attached to the walls to navigate us along the narrow channel. This was to be the highlight of the tour. At this point, they turned off the lights and you could literally not see your hands in front of your face, but the scene around us was not gloomy because above our heads, only inches away, was an amazing display of light from the resident glow-worms. Because they are territorial the spacing between the lights was surprisingly even. It was astounding and we soon forgot the scary darkness around us. It was like looking up at a constellation of blue stars. Our journey took us to the end of the navigable cave and back, and we soon lost all sense of direction, which was a little disconcerting. As splendid as the display was it was reassuring to reach the dock and have the lights turned back on!

This was the end of our tour and we sadly made our way back to our boat. Despite being early fall it was a chilly night and as the boat powered its way back to port, sitting up on deck was like being in a force nine gale in the North Sea. Despite the cold, we braved the upper deck as it was such a beautiful, clear night. Karen and Jack were looking for the Southern Lights … but they never showed!

4. MIRROR LAKES

Sadly, the clear weather of the previous day didn’t make it into the next day, as we woke to a grey, cloud heavy morning. We had hoped for better as today we were making the 75 miles drive up to the spectacular Milford Sound. The ride itself is worthy of the journey. We journeyed north tracking the Southern Alps, passing through wide glacial valleys. Despite the not so good weather, we made frequent stops along the way to take pictures of mirrored lakes and ice-carved landscapes. The road steadily climbs into the mountains, which offers spectacular views of glacier topped mountains. Luckily the weather had started to improve so we were able to enjoy the unfolding scenery around us. These mountains present an impenetrable barrier, but some intrepid Kiwis decided to make a tunnel through them. It seemed they miscalculated the challenge of the exercise but eventually blew and hacked their way through creating the Homer tunnel, the gateway to Milford Sound.

The Mirror Lakes of New Zealand South Island
Even on a grey day the water of the Mirror Lakes is highly reflective
Family Photo

5. THE CHASM WALK

Shortly before reaching Milford we pulled off the road at a stop simply named the Chasm. Not knowing exactly what this was we had little in the way of expectations. We took a 20-minute scenic walk through the dense forest. Our peace only being interrupted by a noisy and somewhat dishevelled tour group. Crossing a wooden footbridge we suddenly came across the Chasm. This is an example of the beauty that can be created by the powers of erosion. Spectacular!.

6. MILFORD SOUND

Eventually, we reached Milford, which is very much the end of the road. Never one to miss a boat (apart from our honeymoon trip to Ireland) we were of course early and waited for our call to board. By now the weather had started to improve significantly, and by the time boarding had started the sun was beginning to shine brightly through the breaking cloud cover. We were very fortunate, as with a mean annual rainfall of 6,813mm on 182 days a year Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. Rainfall can reach 250 mm during a span of 24 hours. The rainfall creates dozens of temporary waterfalls (as well as a number of major, more permanent ones) cascading down the cliff faces, some reaching a thousand metres in length.

I had chosen a boat tour which included lunch, so as soon as we climbed onto the boat we joined a queue for the buffet lunch, which turned out to be excellent. But we did miss the early part of our journey whilst we ate at a table with not such a good view!

Company:Southern Discoveries
Location:Milford Sound Wharf
Website:https://www.southerndiscoveries.co.nz/milford-sound/cruises/
Tour Duration:1H 45 M to 3H
Costs:NZ$71.10 (US$50) to NZ$89.10 (US$62)
Hours:10:30 am, 11:15 am & 12:15 pm
Southern Discoveries tour boat at Milford Sound Wharf

Milford Sound is a fjord within Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. It has been judged the world’s top travel destination in an international survey and is acclaimed as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. Rudyard Kipling called it the eighth Wonder of the World. Having not seen the seven others it is difficult to argue with his claim! But it is certainly spectacular. The sound is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 1,200metres or more on either side. Among the peaks is Mitre Peak which rises 1,692 metres above the sound, the Elephant at 1,517metres, said to resemble an elephant’s head and The Lion, 1,302 metres, in the shape of a crouching lion. On the sides of these imposing peaks, lush rain forests cling precariously, punctuated by spectacular waterfalls. Milford Sound itself is only 14 km in length and opens out onto the Tasman Sea.

After about 30 minutes of travelling our beady-eyed captain spots a pod of dolphins and we pulled across to join them. Emily was in heaven as 10 or more dolphins ducked and dived around our boat in the glimmering waters of the sound –by this time the clouds had left us and we were bathed in sunlight. A rare occurrence in these parts!

Passing down Milford Sound
A pod of dolphins follwing our boat

Sadly, we had to move on and the boat travelled down to the point where the sound opens out into the Tasman Sea, which is one of the wildest areas of open-ocean in the world. If we carried on our journey west for a day or two we’d eventually hit Australia. Although the sea looked calm today our mission was not trans-ocean so our captain turned us around back to the safety of the Sound. Although we have been referring to Milford Sound as a sound, it is actually a fjord. Sounds are actually formed by the sea flooding a river carved valley, whereas fjords are valleys cut by glaciers which are then filled by the sea. Milford was formed by glacial carving! It was also the last of the great fjords of Fjordland to be discovered, by Captain John Grono around 1812. Previous explorers like James Cook had missed it on their travels due to the disguise of the narrow opening in the surrounding mountains.

Our return journey down Milford Sound was even more fun than the outbound journey. Firstly we sailed past Seal Rock, which is a more or less guaranteed place to see seals basking in the sun. On this day there was not a lot of action but we still had the chance to spot a couple of young seals hanging out. The seals here are typically young males who have been evicted by the aggressive dominant males from the main seal colony a bit further along the coast. The next stop was the ever spectacular Stirling Falls which cascade 189 metres down the sheer cliff faces. Our tour boat nudged within a few feet of the falls, enabling those who were looking for a good soaking to get to the prow. As we pulled away from Stirling Falls we were once again greeted by our friends the dolphins who enthralled the passengers with their underwater ballet.

A sealion sits on a rcok where Milford Sound joins the Tasman Sea
There are numerous waterfalls that spill down the side of Milford Sound

The last stop on our tour was Milford Deep Underwater Observatory which is nestled in Harrison Cove, beneath Pembroke Glacier. We disembarked our boat onto the floating observatory. There were a host of interesting displays telling stories of exploration and the geologic formation of Fjordland. Whilst these were informative the main reason for our visit was to see what was going on below the surface of the Sound.

Overlaying the seawater in the fjord is a layer of freshwater, the result of high annual rainfall in Fjordland. This, combined with the narrow shape of the fjord, causes a phenomenon known as deepwater emergence where light is not allowed to penetrate past the freshwater. This creates a similar environment to the deep ocean at a much shallower depth, allowing visitors the chance to see deep-sea species close up together with some wonderful examples of coral unique to this environment.

We descended 10.4 metres into the large, air-conditioned underwater viewing chamber where we were able to observe the intimate and undisturbed life of this vibrant underwater community.

Milford Deep Underwater Observatory

Sadly all good things have to come to an end and after glorious hours we returned to port and began our journey back to Te Anau.

In summary …

  • Milford Sound is one of the spectacles of New Zealand and well worth venturing down south for
  • If you are in Te Anau it you should take a tour of the glow worm caves – this is one of several in New Zealand so if you miss them here don’t worry
  • Take time to enjoy the spectacular scenery around the lakes and mountains
  • Queenstown is a party town full of young thrill seekers – if you want to avoid the nighttime partying and the noise stay somewhere out to town centre.

When to go to New Zealand South Island?

For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere the weather in New Zealand is at its best when it might be miserable back home.

  • Spring is a good time to visit New Zealand if you are looking for mild temperatures (great for hiking!) and fewer crowds. (September, October, November)
  • Summer is the best time to travel if you’re looking for warm temperatures, long hours of daylight, and days spent at the beach. (December, January, February)
  • Autumn is the best time to visit New Zealand if you want to avoid major crowds while still having enough daylight and comfortable temps to enjoy an array of outdoor activities. (March, April, May)
  • Winter is the best time to travel to New Zealand if you are on a tight budget, as this season brings the most discounted rates and the fewest crowds of the year. However, you must also be okay with colder temps, shorter hours of daylight, and some activities being shut down for the season. (June, July, August)

Where to stay in Queenstown?

1. REES HOTEL AND LUXURY APARTMENTS

If you are looking for something more upscale then the Rees Hotel and Luxury apartments might be worth checking out. The hotel is located a 10-minute drive from downtown Queenstown and is right next to the lake, and some rooms and apartments have views of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains.

They offer in-room massages which might be just what you need if you have been out hiking or skiing.

The rooms are well-appointed and there is a restaurant and wine lounge on-site if you don’t fancy going out.

2. SWISS-BELRESORT CORONET PEAK

Located just 7 minutes’ drive from Queenstown’s lively centre, the 3.5-star Swiss-Belresort Coronet Peak features a restaurant for breakfast and dinner, 2 bars and a bowling alley.

The hotel is out of town, so if you want to escape the hubbub of the lively Queenstown and be more in nature this place might be a good option for you.

As well as the bowling alley there are billiard tables, air hockey and Foosball in case the weather is not great.

Swiss-Belresort Coronet Peak is close to the Shotover River Jet area, which offers a range of outdoor adventure activities. If you are looking to get into the great outdoors for peace and quiet try out the nearby hiking and biking trails.

3. YHA QUEENSTOWN LAKEFRONT

A comfortable fully equipped hostel sitting right on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, offering enchanting views of the lake and mountains. If you want to experience the beauty and excitement of Queenstown but still get a good night’s sleep, then YHA Queenstown Lakefront is the hostel for you and it’s only a 10 minute walk into town. This is where we stayed as a family during our visit to Queenstown – the location was great and the room we had, which was a private room, was clean and comfortable.

Where to stay in Te Anau?

1. RADFORDS ON THE LAKE

Radfords on the Lake is an posh resort / motel just across the road from Te Anau Lake and very close to the centre of Te Anau if you want to check out the cafes and restaurants.

The apartments are really well equipped and comfortable and some have spa baths to soothe any aches from your day’s exertions.

2. ADEN MOTEL

If you are on the hunt for something more budget friendly then the Aden Motel is a good opton. 

A kitchen or kitchenette with a microwave and refrigerator is standard in all apartments. This is ideal if you are looking to save some money and prepare you own meals.

There is a small outdoor area if you want to grab some fresh air and the centre of Te Anau is only a few minutes walk away.

3. YHA TE ANAU

YHA Te Anau offers peaceful, stylish backpacker accommodation just one block from the shores of Lake Te Anau and a few minutes’ walk from the centre of town. This hostel has a wide selection of twin/double, en suite, family and shared rooms. Relax on the deck with a BBQ and use the fresh herbs growing in the Edible Garden to cook up your gourmet meal. The friendly staff will help you book activities and transport.

We stayed at the YHA in Te Anau in one of their family rooms. It was very well located and probably the best hostel we stayed in during our tour of New Zealand. 

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