After the Divide, the road turns left, gets narrow and goes down in a steep ramp that ends at the bottom of the Hollyford Valley. Long ago, glaciers carved this place from the rock, leaving behind vertical walls that form a corridor for the intrepid visitor to follow.
To the right starts the Hollyford Track, a dirt road that follows the Lower Hollyford River for a while. Right at the start, a path leads up through the forest to Lake Marian. In April, I wanted to climb to Key Summit, but the walk, which starts at the Divide, was impossible because a bridge was damaged. So I chose Lake Marian, a 3-hour hike as well.
I started early, and it was freaking cold. I kept a swift pace on my ascent, so quickly, I was boiling. I didn’t slow down, and arrived to the lake faster than expected. The sun was lighting the east-facing slopes while frost still covered vegetation on the banks. The reflection was superb, but as the air warmed, a slight breeze broke it. I waited for the sun to reach me, then started to make my way down to the car.
Back to the Milford Road, the first stop was Falls Creek, a furious torrent that crashes next to the road, before merging into the Upper Hollyford River.
Then you’ll drive through an avalanche risk area, where stopping is strictly forbidden. I don’t think the risk was very high in summer, but it existed… I still saw people stopped there on one occasion, but well. At the end of it is Monkey Creek, a very popular stop for tour buses to unload tourists eager to fill their bottles with pure montain water. Sometimes, they emptied their bottles on the car park before filling them in the torrent’s flow… such a useless waste.
A few minutes, a couple of pics, maybe one with a Kea (Nestor notabilis) if the cheeky parrots are around, and on they go. That road really is a circus, but hidden gems reveal themselves to the patient explorer. Monkey Creek is known as a good spot for Blue ducks (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos), and that’s the very reason I spent some time there.
Further reading: Turangi and Tongariro, my first encounter with Blue ducks
The first time I came to Monkey Creek, I saw three birds flying around. They disappeared quickly, and I had other targets in mind, further. On my April trip, however, the ducks were high on my list. I didn’t have any good picture of the species, so my hopes were real. Spoiler alert: they delivered.
I put on my rubber boots, my (kinda-)waterproof pants, my waterproof jacket, and walked to the river. I spotted a pair of ducks along the bank, so I settled down in an open spot near the water and waited, hoping they would find their way downstream and swim just in front of me. They didn’t really do that, but still offered me interesting views.
They swam a bit further up the river, and I stayed there, waiting and hoping. As I started to despair, two new ducks flew from downstream and landed just in front of me with a splash.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, they were only a few meters from me, and the angle was perfect. I started shooting as they stayed in position, producing this whistling noise they get their Maori name from (whio, pronounce fee-oh). At first, I thought they were marking their territory against the other pair, but they showed no aggression towards them. Instead, they seemed to show off for me… was I bothering them?
I had not disturbed them to settle down next to the stream, and I was just lying on my belly during the whole scene, flat and silent but for my camera’s shutter.
I can’t interpret their attitude, but I can appreciate the luck I had that day. As they were vocalizing, they showed me the tiny “teeth” (they are not real teeth, birds don’t have teeth!) that they certainly use to filter the water, and one gave me this head-on look that made it look so goofy. And look at those big yellow eyes. Gorgeous, isn’t it?
Next stop on the road to Milford Sound? If you’re an adventurer, you’ll want to climb to the Gertrude Saddle. It’s a 4-6 hour hike, and all signs say it’s dangerous and you have to be experienced. I didn’t try it myself, but instructions for hikers in New Zealand tend to be overly alarmist, so I suppose it’s not that bad on a fine day. Don’t attempt it on a foggy or rainy day though, please. On my second visit to Fjordland, I had three days of stunning weather (much better than what one should expect for the region), and the saddle tempted me… but I was alone, so I safely stayed at the bottom of the valley.
The Hollyford Valley ends (or starts, I guess) in a cul-de-sac, but beyond lies Milford Sound, a popular tourist destination from early on, first reached by boat in the 19th century and then by foot through the mountains and the Mackinnon Pass (that’s now a famous “Great Walk”, the Milford Track). Pioneers envisioned a tunnel through the mountain, but it’s only in 1935, during the Great Depression, that the harsh work started. At the mercy of the cold and unpredictable avalanches, workers laboured until 1954 to open the way. Vehicles can use the tunnel in one direction at a time only, and many choose to have a break at the eastern entrance, where a large car park attracts both human and feathered visitors. That is where I saw Kea chew on car wipers and antennas.
Further reading: Keacophony, to learn more about the Kea
There’s a more discreet inhabitant at Homer Tunnel, but one much sought after by birders: the New Zealand rockwren (Xenicus gilviventris). Its relative, the Rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris), lives in forests, but the rockwren prefers boulder fields on mountain slopes, where it jumps from rock to rock in search of invertebrates to eat.
Just like Riflemen, they communicate with high-pitched but faint calls, and they can be hard to spot. The first one I saw was rather confiding, as it first flew towards me as if to check me out, then stayed around for a while. It was raining, but I had a great time nonetheless. In April, I met a pair, and they made me run through the scree, never staying in one place very long. It was much more challenging to take pictures!
I loved that place. The cliffs all around could have made me feel claustrophobic, but all I could feel facing such beauty was awe. Rain or shine, it was a dramatic sight.
I went through the tunnel once. There’s no light inside, and on the way to Milford Sound, it’s slightly angled downwards. Scary! On the other side, the road goes down the valley, first through meadows and then forest. One popular stop is The Chasm, where the raging Cleddau River carved its way through the rock. An impressive sight, testament to the force of natural elements.
I didn’t really explore this valley, for the birds on the other side attracted me more, but I know there are some walks to do. I drove down to the bottom, to world-famous Milford Sound.
There’s an air field, a few buildings and large car parks. Milford Sound only lives for its ship terminal, where all the cruises to the fjord depart. It’s not a place for people to live, even though some working in the tourist industry probably do. I didn’t do the cruise (just one more must-do I skipped in New Zealand), but the scenery from the shore was already spectacular. The iconic silhouette of Mitre Peak dominated the water, an almost vertical slab of rock looming at 1690 meters above sea level. I could imagine the last Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) roaming in Sinbad Gully, at its foot, before they were translocated to Whenua Hou/Codfish Island. The vegetation was lush, the air was warm, and I saw a few New Zealand kaka (Nestor meridionalis) fly over the forest. It was a good day.
Stay tuned, more adventures await!
Did you miss the first episode? Find it here: The road to Milford Sound, Part I
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