If you want your senses drenched in Fiordland’s wilderness, vastness and beauty, without being drenched in that seemingly perpetual rain, take a top road for unbeatable scenic highs: the Piopiotahi Highway from Te Anau to Milford.
Start your engines. Gently. It’s only two hours.
Fill up with gas at pretty little Te Anau, take chains in winter and check conditions before you go. Roll past the rolling farmland on one side, the second largest lake in the country on the other, the snow-capped peaks in the distance. You’re on your way.
You’ll head past Te Anau Downs, the launch point to walk the Milford Track. This marks the beginning of the Fiordland National Park – the beginning of something else, really. There are so many amazing lookouts along the way you’ll likely double that estimated travelling time. The Mirror Lakes are unlike anything you’ve ever seen or had reflected back at you, almost dreamlike in their quality. Oh wait, there’s more?
At 480m above sea level, Lake Gunn is stunning, the mountains seemingly disappearing into its still waters; you may well spot the aptly named paradise ducks, too.
It was from here where local Māori would head to Anita Bay at the seaward end of Milford Sound to look for greenstone or pounamu, as priceless and more sacred than gold was to later prospectors. At the southern tip of the lake is Cascade Creek; there’s an exquisite and relatively short nature walk here if you feel so inclined, waterfalls and a campsite located in one of the world’s more dramatic spots.
Then you’re at The Divide, totally appropriately named, being an east-west pass through the Southern Alps. You’re very clearly, and quite suddenly, in mountain territory here, with sheer slopes crowding down on seemingly all sides (they seem close enough to touch).
The next thrill is the Homer Tunnel. Rough-hewn, functional but far from modern, it is in keeping with the eeriness of the whole place. Eighteen years in the making, from the Depression years on, and a feat of engineering and human spirit, really. It’s 1.2km long and climbs steadily until you emerge, blinking at Cleddau Canyon on the other (Milford) side.
It’s worth doing the 10-minute Chasm Walk to see where the Cleddau River plunges through strange rock formations.
Then on, more rivers – the Tūtoko, across the bridge and views right through here of Fiordland’s highest peak, Mt Tūtoko, and then into Milford Sound itself. Even if you’ve seen pictures of it a thousand times: nothing prepares you for its stillness and eerie beauty. That’s a drive, Clive.