A Southern tour with a Southern man – Milford, Wanaka & the West Coast

milford-sound-roadIn Te Anau we book into a motel and are warned of the length of the drive AND most important the difficulty of parking once at Milford Sounds. “Allow a drive time of 2 hours 20 minutes and up to 40 minutes to find a park” I am told.

With our cruise into the Sound leaving at 12.30 pm we are on the road by 8.25 am. 1 hour 40 minutes later we arrive at the Milford Sound car park. Must have been the time of the day I thought until I try to find a carpark. Wow! That takes some doing as it is almost full.

I need to comment on the scenery on the trip to Milford Sound.


There is mist around the top of the surrounding peaks (mountains?) but this didn’t distract from the magnificent scenery we viewed. Not just the native forest and lakes, or the trees arching over the road making a leafy tunnel to drive through, or the large number of mini waterfalls which could have kept me distracted from watching the road, and the magnificent sheer cliffs soaring into the air. We live in a beautiful country.

The cruise out into Milford Sound is the icing on the cake. Mitre Peak looked just as it does on the biscuit tin lids and I have a number of photos to prove it. Further out we are treated to magnificent soaring cliffs and waterfalls plunging into the water. At a depth of over 1,000 feet these sounds are deserving of their unofficial title of the 8th natural wonder of the world.

mitre-peakAdd to this the plant life clinging to the cliffs, the seals and the cry of many birds nesting in the surrounding plants and rocky clefts, it is a surreal experience. After 2 hours we are back at the dock and quickly on our way to re-experience the beautiful scenery on the return trip. Even the ride through the one kilometre long Homer tunnel is an experience in itself.

I want to come back to this beautiful spot when the rain is plummeting from the sky on its way to fill the 5 metre rainfall average for this reason. Only then will I truly see the glory of this region with its plunging waterfalls at every turn. Nothing will hold the water on the hillsides which is why to enjoy this region at its best you need rain and lots of it. The high granite cliffs light grey when dry or dark and sombre when wet, add to the ambience of an unforgettable place. No wonder so many cruise ships take advantage of this area.

Back to Te Anau in time to watch at the local pub the closing stages of the New Zealand PGA Golf tournament in Arrowtown. A fitting end to a memorable day with a Kiwi (Michael Hendry) winning the title.

Monday dawned fine and we are off again continuing our trip North this time the destination is Wanaka. We bypass Queenstown as it’s a ‘been there, done that’ destination for this trip. Although the temperature is down to 7 it is crisp and clear. The trip to Wanaka is uneventful if you discount the unbelievable scenery that unfolded at every turn. Highway 94 with a slight detour at Mossburn led us on to Highway 6. Although I am tempted to stop at Parawa, Athol, Garston and Kingston we kept on driving as the destination is firmly in my sights.

It is about here I realise that it isn’t about the DESTINATION but the JOURNEY. Here we are barrelling along eager to get to our destination and we are bypassing beautiful scenery that is just begging to be enjoyed. I’m relearning a very valuable lesson about travel.

Take time to enjoy.

For nostalgia, we took the Crown Range road. 48 years ago we drove it in the opposite direction on our honeymoon. Back then it was mostly gravel, forded the odd stream BUT had the distinction of being the highest highway in New Zealand. In 1968 we were already ticking off goals.


This time it is quite different. Totally sealed and no fords. The view from the top looking back at Arrowtown and the surrounding countryside with the odd tree starting to turn gold is surreal. We share the view with quite a few fellow travellers reacting to the magnificent vista spread out before us.

The next stop is the pub at Cardrona.

8592116It must almost be a New Zealand icon it has been photographed so many times with the old 1928 Chrysler out front. Inside it is warm and cosy with lovely meals available and so many delightful brews on tap. Tempting though it is we refrain from sampling any of the brews as we still have some distance to drive.

I just cannot get over the scenery of this region. Every way you turn it is magnificent. Craggy hills, tussock, streams meandering across meadows, sheep and cattle enjoying the grass and a wide variety of native plants interspersed with deciduous trees starting to turn gold. The hills are so high and valleys, as you drive into them, so flat and broad. What a contrast. If there is a river it meanders from one side to the other with boulders of all sizes enhancing the scene.

This scenery continues until we reach Wanaka. Here is another town that is really in its growth phase and will rival Queenstown as a more relaxed alternative. The lakefront is lined with cafes, restaurants and pubs serving every fare available. Plenty of places to sit in front of the establishments or down at the lakefront where the view is framed with varieties of willows dipping branches into the water.

Back from the shorefront are a host of shops with unique offers from clothes to souvenirs and jewellery. Most of it in this environment is very hard to resist.

Unfortunately we are only here for a night so after a beautiful meal at the Urban Grind we retire in preparation for what will be our longest distance north tomorrow.


On the road by 7.45am and the sun isn’t even up yet. Breakfast can wait. The trip north takes us along the shore of Lake Wanaka with hills soaring in the background and an uninterrupted shoreline. Blue sky, blue water and the sunshine starting to light the upper reaches. It is all I can do to keep my eyes on the road.

The road takes a turn and next we are driving past Lake Hawea. If I thought the landscape was great on Lake Wanaka, this part of the trip revealed an even better vista. Coupled with the lack of traffic made driving this stretch a wonderful experience as the road wandered along the shores of the lake with an occasional lift up the hill to enable a better view of the scenery. On a number of points along the road we passed a few Campervans and Motorhomes with the occupants preparing their breakfast while enjoying the view.

windy-west-coast-road-low-resThe road reconnected with Lake Wanaka and suddenly as if a switch has been thrown, the scenery changes from bare hills studded with tussock and schist to densely populated native bush. Also the hills start to become more sheer. No doubt the aftermath of glaciers from eons ago carving out these valleys.

This part of the journey becomes the longest of our trip so far.

Plenty of opportunities to stop at the many rest and tourist spots to see native bush, waterfalls and creeks or if energetic enough take a 3 hour trek to some far camp sites. Judging by the number of cars in the car parks, many people are doing just that. The scenery all the way through to Haast is again, sensational (I keep using that word but it fits!).

The drive up the coast to Fox Glacier reveals a part of New Zealand most don’t even know exist. Glimpses of high peaks with a smattering of snow, high hills closer in the foreground and farms on both sides of the road down to a seashore that has the constant roar of the Tasman Sea rolling in. It doesn’t matter where you stop on this coast you will be rewarded with unforgettable vistas.

Photographs will not do it justice as it isn’t just the scene you are looking at that takes your breath away, but also what you see in the peripheral vision that can’t be captured.

You must see it to believe it.


By Alex Sharp

Look out for Alex’s next post next week. In the meantime read more by Alex on GrownUps here or follow the rest of his trip below. 

  1. A Southern tour with a Southern Man – Dunedin