Nestled in the middle of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I have ever visited. The winter I spent living and working in this wonderland was unforgettable.
After spending a summer working at a winery in Blenheim, New Zealand, it was time for a change of scenery and a new job. Spying a job opening at the Milford Sound Lodge, I quickly applied. I had visited Milford Sound once in the summer and remembered its beauty and felt it was a place I would enjoy. One interview later, I was driving down to Milford Sound, ready to start my new adventure!
Experience the incredible beauty of Milford Sound from the dramatic fiord and mountain vistas to the hidden waterfalls and alpine parrots!
Getting to Milford Sound
Milford Sound is located in a very remote part of New Zealand’s South Island where the closest town, Te Anau, is about 120km or a two-hour drive away. There is only one road into Milford Sound and it can close unexpectedly during the winter due to avalanche risk. My eyes were wide open with awe as I headed down Milford Road, billed as the world’s most beautiful drive.
Upon my arrival in Milford Sound, my new employer immediately whisked me aboard a cruise so I could have a tour of the fiord. Now Milford Sound is actually a misnomer; it is not a sound but actually a fiord because it was carved out by glaciers. When the British discovered Milford Sound they misnamed it, as well as many of the other fiords in Fiordland National Park. The British also decided to spell it fiord instead of fjord.
The fiord is the main attraction in Milford Sound. Busloads of tourists are brought in from Queenstown to embark on a 1.5-hour cruise to admire the stunning scenery. Luckily for me, in winter, these busses are fewer and less packed compared to summer. Perhaps the best perk of visiting Milford Sound in winter is the absence of crowds.
Out on the water, the cruise toured the fiord in a big loop and I was awestruck by Mother Nature. The enormous Mitre Peak towered over the water while water gushed over Bowen Falls, the waterfall that supplies the electricity and drinking water for the small town of Milford.
And speaking of waterfalls, the cruise took me right to the base of the magnificent Stirling Falls. The boat edged closer and closer to the falls until I thought we would crash into the rock face. Water poured dow from this glacial-fed falls and soaked those brave enough to stand on the bow. The captain announced over the ship speakers, “Here in Milford Sound we call that a glacial facial.”
Throughout the winter, I ended up going on countless more cruises whenever I had time. They were free for us locals working in Milford and I utilized this perk on my days off. I eventually tried all the cruise operators–each one offered something a little different. Some boats were more luxurious while others offered food and some even offered kayak tours and other ad-ons.
Rain falls about 200 days out of the year in Milford Sound and when it does, the fiord is just as spectacular. Thousands of waterfalls appear during a rainstorm making for an enchanting experience. Even in inclement weather, a cruise on the fiord was worth it.
Working at Milford Sound Lodge
Back on land, I was housed and employed at Milford Sound Lodge, just a five minute drive from the cruise terminal. The lodge is the only accommodation in Milford Sound and features camper van sites as well as luxury chalets. Situated on the Cleddau River just before it empties into the fiord, words cannot describe the view from “my office.”
Most of the time I worked front desk at the lodge. But in winter the lodge is only half-staffed and so we shared the other duties as well. When not at the front desk I waited tables during dinner service and helped with housekeeping. The latter was a task I did not enjoy but I couldn’t complain about my view while I worked.
All of us staff were housed on-site in our own mini-lodge. I had my own room but shared a common living area, kitchen, and bathroom. There were only a dozen of us that winter and so getting along was imperative. With no cell reception and the nearest town two hours away, it was necessary that all employees enjoyed outdoor activities and could handle life in such a remote location. I’d heard stories of new staff members who quit after a week, unable to cope with living in a town with no nightlife or social activities outside of work. Luckily for us staff, the lodge had recently upgraded its satellite internet and we were given unlimited data. Unfortunately it was too slow for any streaming.
My job schedule had me working ten days on with four days off. To make the most of my time I made sure to explore all that Milford Sound had to offer. A former employee had compiled a list of secret hikes and hidden places in the area and how to get find them. One such hike had me climbing up the water pipe that supplies Milford to reach the top of Bowen Falls. The trailhead was hidden but once found, the track was well tread by other locals.
From the top of Bowen Falls I was able to wade across the fast-flowing Bowen River to reach Cascade Peak. Now this adventure was without a trail and involved a lot of route-finding. The notes I was given were vague and warned of imposing doom if I lost my way. You can view the video of my Cascade Peak adventure here.
Secret Falls was a much easier hike, located on the other side of the Cleddau River from the lodge. I simply had to wade across the river and follow a stream to the base of the falls.
By far my favorite hike was to a nameless hidden overlook. The vista was on the way up to a cliff used by rock climbers called Babylon. Halfway through the jungle the trail opened to a stunning view of the Cleddau River with the towering Mitre Peak in the distance.
Exploring Milford Road
Though the drive into Milford Sound is long, there are numerous stops to be made along the way. Milford Road is the access point to several trailheads including The Chasm, just a short drive from the lodge. This quick hike crosses a river that dips dramatically into a gorge carved by water over thousands of years.
Farther down the road, about an hours drive from the lodge is the trailhead for the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The Routeburn, at over 33km in length, cannot be completed in the winter when heavy snowfall prevents passage over the mountains. I was able to make it into a day hike, walking as far as I could before the snow became too deep.
Near the beginning of the Routeburn is a short side track to the top of Key Summit. This spectacular overlook offers panoramic views of the mountains and makes for a great 3-hour hike. Mountain tarns, or alpine ponds, populate the summit.
One of my favorite day hikes was to Lake Marian, a glacial lake situated in a hanging valley, high in the mountains. On a sunny day the lake was just magical. I even dared to jump in its frigid waters with much regret!
Unfortunately, with only one road in to Milford Sound, we were always at the whim of Mother Nature. In the winter, snowstorms can frequently close the road due to avalanche risk. During these moments, guests and employees at the lodge would be stuck until the road was deemed safe for passage. With no cell reception, the lodge’s WiFi was the main source of information for weather and road updates. I often had to be the bearer of bad news, informing guests that their stay might be extended. Or alternatively that guests would not be able to make it to the lodge.
However, a small airport was located nearby. Most of the time it was used for sight-seeing flights but was also used for emergencies and supplies as necessary. Luckily during my stay the road was never closed for more than a few days. And speaking of sight-seeing flights, one perk of working at the lodge was the offer of snagging a seat on a flight, pending there was room. The price was a case of beer for the pilot.
While I enjoyed hanging out with my fellow coworkers, I had even more fun in the company of the native birds. The world’s only alpine parrot, the kea, lives in the mountainous regions of New Zealand. These cheeky fellows have the intelligence of a toddler and are extremely curious and mischievous. The beautiful birds like to hang out around the lodge, peeking in windows, playing with any items they find, and trying to peel the rubber weather stripping off our cars. We liked to leave toys out for the keas to play with and even caught one we thought to be injured. After taking the bird to the Department of Conservation, we were informed that the kea was actually faking the injury for attention!
Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I have ever lived or worked and I will never forget the winter I spent in this enchanting land. I highly recommend a multi-day visit to Milford Sound if you ever get a chance to visit New Zealand. And so I will leave you with a few more pictures, though they do not do this wonderland justice. For more adventures in New Zealand, check out my tours across the North Island and South Island.
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