New Zealand

South Island Road Trip: Te Anau, Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound

It was nearing the end of our ski season when we first started planning our road trip. I say ‘planning’, but all that we had written down was a list of places to visit and a starting date, and even that turned out to be wrong. Like many of the friends I had made in Wanaka I had hardly visited anywhere on the south island, and so, after a group discussion, we decided that this was our opportunity.

We were all entranced by the possibility of the stereotypical road trip. You know, the ones in films where friends share stories around the campfire whilst the distant tune of a guitar plays in the background. Images of starry skies and turquoise lakes and beaches covered in penguins filled our heads; we were hungry for adventure.


With five days to go Dave and I had a challenge on our hands. Our little Nancy. The Honda Odyssey we had bought the month prior was far from live-able,  and in addition to preparing for our final staff party at work and cleaning out the houses we had been renting, we then had to: take out the back seats, build a wooden bed frame,  buy a mattress and sew together some curtains. I’m not really sure what we were thinking. We were going to live in this car, and it was so far from being finished. Thankfully our wonderful friend Alan offered his handyman services, and finally Nancy was ready to hit the road.

Nancy was to be joined by Betsy, with her owner Karen, and George, and his owner’s Sarah and Brett, but we were also anticipating the arrival of Cilla and her owner Lee. We were a mighty fine group, and as we headed out of Wanaka in convoy I could feel the excitement fueling our engines.

Te Anau

Our first destination was Te Anau. A bit further than Queenstown, it was the perfect layover on our way to the Sounds. We had a Doubtful Sound cruise booked for the following day and so we agreed that this would be the best place to spend our first night. We hadn’t booked a campsite or even planned where we would park up, so we spent the majority of the evening driving around to see where would be the best spot. As the darkness crept in we stopped looking for the best spot, and began looking for anywhere that we could park up that we wouldn’t be spotted. Not ideal, but it was late and we had run out of any other options.

We parked our cars up a narrow path that was infested with potholes and hidden by the trees lining either side of it. It was raining. It hadn’t stopped raining all day. Our gas stoves wouldn’t get us very far in the rain, nor would our thoughts of campfires and stargazing. It was going to be a long first night. Thankfully Karen found a small ‘shelter’  for us all to cook beneath and so we carted all of our cooking items through the rain and began to cook. Shivering beneath our rain coats and hovering over our tiny gas stoves, we laughed at our somewhat dampened spirits. For weeks Wanaka had been warm, nearly hot even, so this sudden wet patch had been unexpected. But we shrugged it off and made our way into our cars for our first night sleep.

It was cold. Again, we were not prepared for such dismal and wintery temperatures. It had been a long first night, but we were happy merely from the realisation that the  bed we had built hadn’t collapsed from beneath us in the night. What a success. Although that success was stilted by another realisation. The front passenger window was open, and had been open all night. The wintery chill in the air had been because we had left the window open – bloody idiots.

Doubtful Sound

The sun was out, the birds were singing and we were on our way to Manapouri for our overnight cruise. It seemed half of the Cardrona staff had also booked onto the cruise so we were excited to be reunited with our friends after four days apart. But more importantly we were excited by the prospect of showers and good food and a proper bed for the night – not to mention the antics that the night no doubt had in store for us…

Doubtful Sound was beautiful. Even covered in clouds and, even more, rain it was the most impressive landscape I had ever seen. Waterfalls and cascades sprung out of the sides of the mountains, trickling down through the bush and into the water below. There was so much to look  at I didn’t know where to begin. As the rain began to slow we took to the waters even more intimately with a little tender boat trip (whilst 95% of the rest of the boat went into Kayaks Dave and I thought we’d take the more scenic route), and were given a guided tour of the Sounds. Our guide talked about the creation of the Sound, of the native bush and of old myths and stories of the area. It was incredibly informative, and allowed us to take a whole variety of selfies – which is ultimately what boat rides are all about, right?3

Back on board it was finally time for dinner. A buffet. As backpackers it had been a while since we’d had anything remotely gourmet so we all took complete advantage. Plate after plate was cleared in a bid to sample a bit of everything: salad, pasta, beef, lamb, curry, vegetarian curry. We ate until we felt ill, because have you really experienced the buffet if you’re not groaning out in pain? Oh, and just when you can’t fit anymore in they bring out dessert, and then a cheese board. And tea. It was the most incredible food we had all eaten in awhile.

Doubtful Sound cruises are run by a company called Real Journeys, and Real Journeys also own Cardrona. Given that there were 50 Cardrona employees on the cruise it had been decided that a supervisor was required, just in case… Well, just in case things got out of hand. With the supervisor on stand by,  we waited for the riotous behaviour to begin. And we waited. But one by one we watched as the food coma’s set in, forcing dozens to set up camp in their beds. By no later than 10pm it seemed as though the party was well and truly over.

Not from our little group however. We were playing a pretty wild game of Cranium(!) That attracted anyone who had manage to survive the food coma. Acting and humming and drawing, we were having a great time! But it still seemed as though the supervisor had been brought in for nothing.

Our cruise reached its peak the next morning as we visited a seal colony. Tiny brown mounds decorated the rocks, leaving us to guess which was rock and which was seal. It was truly incredible to see them in their natural habitat, and the entire boat watched in wonder as they dipped in and out of the sea. The boat was heading back to where it began, and as we topped up our tummies with breakfast it gave us a moment to reflect on the last 24 hours. The rain had relented only to allow us our kayaking and tender boat trip, but apart from that Doubtful Sound had been coated in a layer of cloud and rain. Parts were hidden from us yet still we were able to appreciate the beauty that had surrounded us.

We returned to our cars at midday, delirious from all that we had experienced, to be greeted by Lee and Cilla. Our group complete we made our way back to Te Anau to decipher our next step. We had discussed at length the option of doing the Milford Sound day cruise, but costs had been adding up and we were concerned that it wasn’t a necessary expense. We visited the Go Orange shop in Te Anau to enquire further, and could hardly believe it as we were told that we could go on the cruise for free because of our Cardrona staff passes. Result! At that we headed back into the Fiordlands and over to the Milford Sound road.

Milford Sound

The road was lined with campsites, so here we parked up for the night ready for our next trip. It was still raining, and so we spent another night shivering under a shelter before getting an early night.

The road to Milford Sound had been closed for days prior because of he rain, so our early morning was stilted by yet another closure. We were reassured that the road would open later once the avalanches had been triggered to clear some of the collecting snow on mountain tops. So we visited a local water fall (nice but nothing special) before returning to our cars for the long wait. 5

A few hours later, as the rain left us and blue skies rolled in, we were allowed to pass through. The drive was the most incredible thing ever. Mountain after mountain, covered in snow that was made brighter by the bluest of skies. Waterfalls were created by the ridiculous amount of rain we had had, and now we were reaping the rewards. It didn’t take too long for us to reach the end of the road, and the beginning of the cruise. We were to spend the next two hours sauntering through the Sound. Not only that but we would be doing so in the sun!

And of course, as expected, it was incredible. Better than Doubtful, although no doubt the weather was making us a little biased here, we couldn’t quite believe our luck at having gotten the trip for free.

We saw Dolphins and Seals and Penguins (only two, and they were in the water, but I’m counting it) and there were snow avalanches from the mountains and I swear these were the green-est trees I’ve ever seen! And just as we didn’t things could get any better we were given free fish and chips, and everyone knows that things taste better when they’re free.

It could be seen that we only thought the Milford Cruise was so good because the sun was finally out, and we were finally getting some Vitamin D that was inevitably going to make us much happier. But I genuinely think the Milford Cruise was the best thing I’ve done since being in New Zealand.

It as a pretty great first few days to our road trip. Despite the rain we were all loving being on the road and sharing some incredible experiences. Little did we know that there was so much more to come.                 2

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