The Southern Loop- Stewart Island and Milford Sound

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 The South is not so fun in the rain!

It’s the 9th Feb and another classic Stray early morning start- 7am with our new driver called Digger- to do the southern loop (Stewart Island- Milford Sound- Te Anau- Queenstown). From Queenstown we weaved our way through a stretch of road called the Devils Staircase and then through the Southland Plains- the flattest bit of land in NZ according to Digger. And then it was onto Bluff. It was rainy and dark outside and made the place look pretty bleak. Bluff is one of the oldest towns in NZ; established in 1823 it had 14 years of being a lawless rum filled whaling post before the Waitanga Treaty was signed. Bluff is also the location of the start/end of Highway 1 with Cape Reinga being the start/end in the North Island. So its pretty cool that we’ve been to both tips of Highway 1 which runs right down the centre of NZ’s 2 islands. We got to Bluff at 10.30am, ready for our 1 hour ferry across to Stewart Island at 11am. The weather was foul and we began to doubt the idea of going to the island which everything to do is ‘outdoors-ie’, but we got on the boat all the same! Our skipper told us a surprising, and scary, fact as we crossed the sea to Stewart Island…the waters hold the 3rd largest colony of Great White Sharks in the world after Oz and South Africa. So  that’s an obscure achievement which we can cross off our list at the end of this trip- visiting all 3! So why go to Stewart Island…85% of it is covered by the Rakiura National Park and so its a top destination for nature, in particular penguins and dolphins so we were still pretty excited to check that out. We checked into our hostel (Stewart Island Backpackers), put on our walking shoes and our waterproofs and headed straight out on a 3 1/2 hour walk of the coastline. After reaching Ackers Point, getting completely drenched and seeing absolutely no wildlife, let alone a penguin, we decided to cut the walk short and get a curly whirly from the local shop to have with  warm cuppa back at the hostel! It was less than 10 degrees for sure and so we wrapped up warm and sat drinking hot drinks in the hostel for the rest of the day. I devoured  whole book, 300 pages in one afternoon and evening whilst an older french man played classical piano pieces so beautifully the whole evening. A lovely, comfy, relaxing time. But not what we paid to come to Stewart Island for. A bit of a waste of money on reflection!

Next morning and time to take the ferry back to the mainland. The rain had stopped but it was still overcast and cold. But our destination for today was Milford Sound and as we got closer, travelling through Fiordland National Park, the sky cleared and the sun came out- hoorah! As we got close we had to go through Homer Tunnel which goes straight through the mountain for 1219m at a gradient of 10 to 1. So you really felt as if you were traveling to the centre of the earth! As Digger got onto the last bit of road to Milford Harbour we got our first sight of the sounds and it was a proper WOW moment. Very very beautiful and the water glistened in the sunshine. The mountain sides seem to jut out of the water at 90 degrees to the surface and the waters wraps and weaves around them. We were on the 15.00 scenic cruise with a company called Real Journeys. It was  big boat, too big really, with coach loads of people on it but we got a good point on the top deck to take in the scenery so we were okay. So some facts about Milford Sound…the first European to discover it was a sealer named John Gruno who was a Welshman from Milford Haven and thus named the area after his home town around 1820. While known as Milford Sound, it is really a Fiord as it is a flooded ice carved valley, not a flooded river valley which is what a Sound is. Silly European!

So started from the harbour wrapping around Mitre Peak, passing Sinbad Gully and Copper Point. Wind funnels through the area and at this point we had gusts of over 20 knots, but apparently it can get up to 100 knots of wind! 20 knots was windy enough for us! We then sailed out into the Tasman Sea, turned and then came back into the Sound passing Dale Point- the most northern entrance to Milford Sound. We saw sea lions on a rock and then it was onto Stirling Falls- 155m falls where the boat literally went right up close and Hedd and I who had moved to the bottom front deck got absolutely soaked by the spray! It was great fun! We returned to the top deck to dry off as we traveled past Mt Kimberley- also known as Lion Rock as it looks like a sitting lion (if you squint a bit!). Then we beared left into Harrison Cove where we had a spectacular view of the snow-capped Mt Pembroke. A very beautiful end to a great 2 hour cruise.

Before we knew it we were back on the Stray Bus, making our way to our base for the night at a place called Gunn’s Camp. It was originally a camp for the families of the Milford road and Homer tunnel builder’s in the 1930’s, with many children being brought up here. It was a tough existence- the camps in the middle of nowhere- but the community was known to make the best of things. After the tunnel was finished the families left and the camp was bought by Davy Gunn to run horse back holidays from it. Gunn was famous in the area, knowing the mountains like no other. He even has a mountain named after him. He tragically dies on his horse travelling across a river on Christmas Day and his son Murray took over and its been called Gunn’s Camp ever since. The place looks pretty much as it had done back in the day- little wooden or tin huts dotted about a river. We stayed in a hut called ‘Wanderer’. It is now powered by a generator that switches off at 10pm. The hot water if delivered by a wood fueled boiler and there is no fridge. Rural to say the least! And A LOT of sand flies- they are officially on Hedd and I’s hate list! But it was a fun place to stay for 1 night.

Next day (11th) and back to Queenstown. We stopped at Te Anau for lunch and Hedd and I used the time to go to the little cinema in the town to watch the locally famous Ata Whenau- Shadowland film. It’s an award-winning film of Fiordland filmed across extremes of season, climate and terrain all from the perspective of a helicopter. I really enjoyed it- the musical composition plus the images gave we goosebumps! A great thing to watch if your thinking of coming out for a visit. Then it was back on the bus to complete the remaining 2 1/2 hour journey back to Queenstown. On reflection I don’t know if I’d do the Southern Loop with Stray again- too much time on the bus. Perhaps a better idea would be to use Queenstown as a base and take day trips or overnight trips to Milford Sounds and Doubtful Sounds. Hmmm, next time!

The Southern Loop in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Lousy, with 1 great day of sunshine for the Milford Cruise
  • Food= Pasta with tomato sauce (tightening our purse strings!)
  • Drink= L&P!
  • Top tip= If you want to go to Stewart Island, spend at least 2 nights there- better chance of having a good weather day
  • If I were to come back I would do…= …A trip to Doubtful Sound

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

I don’t have many regrets from this trip so far, however not spending more time in the Fiordland National Park is one. In hindsight I think we shouldn’t have bothered with the Stray Southern Loop and hired a car for a few days from Queenstown and explored the area on our own in much more detail. I would have loved to have gone on a less commercial cruise through Doubtful Sound. But saying that, Milford Sound was beautiful and we didn’t have the time or money to do anything else. I guess we’ll just have to come back to do the rest…

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