Day one: Hike to Lake Marian
Driving on Te Anau – Milford Road must be one of the best scenic drives in the world. First, take in sweeping views of Lake Te Anau, then suddenly the open, grassy valley of Eglington appears, surrounded by mountains. You venture past the Routeburn Track exit before turning into the bush-covered Hollyford Valley. Just 2.5 miles down Hollyford Road is the start of the hike to Lake Marian. After crossing the Hollyford River, there is a spectacular series of waterfalls with cantilevered walkways over the river that hug the rock face. The track gets a bit more rugged, but just over an hour later we arrive at the beautiful alpine lake, nestled in a hanging valley and surrounded by snow-capped peaks of the Darran Range, most of which are over 2000 meters. The scenery is simply spectacular and as good as anything we have seen in Nepal or the Pyrenees, but without the expensive plane ticket! A picnic and a dip in the frozen lake of melted snow, then we go down the track and return to Te Anau.
Days Two and Three: Kayak in Doubtful Sound
A scenic but long drive took us across Lake Manapouri, then over the Wilmot Pass and into Doubtful Sound. After preparing and receiving technical kayak instructions, we set sail to explore the sound with 6 other people for a two-day trip. Confusingly, both Doubtful and Milford Sounds are not actually technically sounds (river valleys flooded by the sea), but rather fjords, valleys ravaged by the action of glaciers long ago. Paddling effortlessly along the calm fjord, our expert guide pointed out the scars left on the cliffs by glaciers and the extensive faults that have broken the rock in places. The wind picked up in the afternoon, so we tried kayaking: hoisting a sail by the paddles on the back of two linked kayaks and then holding tightly to the bottom of the sail at the front of the kayak. tired muscles rest.
Landing next to a freshwater stream at the end of the day to our relief, we found that the secluded campsite in the pristine rainforest had an insect-free refuge. Hordes of Fiordland’s famous sandflies, strangely not bothering you while in the water, crowded around us as we pitched our tents. As we removed the food-laden ballast from our kayak, we realized that we had massively overloaded and spent the rest of the night crouched over the gas stove and stoking the boilers of the other kayakers.
The morning mist was lifting over the surrounding peaks and the sand flies seemed to have slept as we packed up and dipped our paddles into the crystal clear waters and headed for another arm of the fjord. A small research boat followed some bottlenose dolphins playing, reminding us that despite the remote harshness of Doubtful Sound, other people, mainly tourists on day trips on cruise ships, are venturing into this wild place. After paddling around Elizabeth Island and learning all about the edible plants that grow in New Zealand bushes, we had a picnic on a white sand beach and cut the delicious birthday cake our Lodge hosts had provided for us. The cake was consumed and one last kayak was made with the quiet sound and we were greeted on dry land by several Keas, New Zealand’s most daring native bird. After draining the camera battery taking photos of his antics, we retraced our journey back across Lake Manapouri to Te Anau again.
Day Four: Exploring Milford Sound
Most New Zealanders have seen at least images of Milford Sound’s legendary beauty, but perhaps not as many have seen it from both above and below water. Starting early from Te Anau, we drove again along the scenic Milford Road, through the Homer Tunnel and up to Milford Sound, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1986. Few tour coaches had yet to arrive, so when we prepared and we were on our dive boat, it still felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. It’s likely raining when you visit Milford, as having twenty feet of rain a year makes it one of the wettest places in the world. For us, however, we were blessed with a clear blue sky and calm waters. After sailing along the fjord with its steep rock faces towering hundreds of meters above us, we moored just below the mighty Miter Peak. Unique diving conditions are created in Milford Sound due to high rainfall that creates a layer of freshwater that filters tannin-laden light onto the seawater. For divers, this means that sea creatures that would normally live at great depths, such as colonies of black coral, which are curiously white to view, can be seen as low as 15 meters. Fortunately, non-divers can also get a glimpse of the underwater world by discreetly descending through the specially built underwater observatory on the side of the fjord.
After exploring Milford’s beautiful and unique underwater life, our dive boat crew gave us a treat by pouring warm water into our diving suits – Milford Sound’s water registers a chilly 13 degrees even in summer. Dressing up with gusto, we explore the fjord by boat, the cameras clicking through the multiple postcard shots. Climbing ashore at the mouth of the fjord near the Tasman Sea, we explored the small stone ruins of a gold prospector’s cabin built in the 1930s. Reboarding the ship for the return trip, we witnessed how a sea lion repeatedly threw a fish above the water, playing with it mercilessly before devouring it. His friends lounged on the nearby rocks completely ignoring the intruding tourists and we passed, captivated by the impressive waterfalls and views of the typical mountains of Fiordland National Park, in our books New Zealand’s number one tourist attraction for New Zealanders.
Dock Bay Lodge:
What a treat we had in store when we decided to stay at Dock Bay Lodge, just a minute drive from Te Anau township. This newly opened hostel was the dream of Te Anau locals, Dawn and Mark Dowling, and opened in 2006. 5 spacious suites with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the manicured greens of Te Anau Golf Course, Lake Te Anau and towards the Kepler and Murchison mountains. The lodge has everything you expect, including king size beds, spa pool, gym, fluffy bathrobes, sumptuous breakfasts, wireless internet, complimentary mountain bikes, and golf clubs.
Guests enjoy genuine southern hospitality through Dawn and Mark, who established the business out of their love of hosting and helping people. Focusing instead on providing a memorable guest experience rather than filling every room every night, his simple yet friendly and professional style really made us feel at home. Dawn seemed to anticipate every need we might have had and was available to provide information, prepared packed breakfasts when we got up to do the pre-dawn activities, and added little surprises to make our stay memorable.
There are many activities within easy reach of Dock Bay Lodge, especially for those who love the great outdoors. Dawn, a national-level avid golfer, didn’t need much persuasion to join us at the tee from 11th fairway that merges with the lodge’s garden. Milford and Doubtful Sounds are just a short drive away, the entrance to Kepler Track is almost on the hostel’s doorstep, and mountain bike trails abound. Lovers of water sports can enjoy Lake Te Anau overlooking the Lodge, and lovers of fine cuisine can sample excellent New Zealand, Italian and Chinese cuisine in and around the city center.