Arriving in Milford Sound, you could be forgiven for thinking you have entered the Lost World. Jagged misty peaks carpeted in green forests tower high above you, while lower down the area is awash with beautiful mosses and lush bush; seeing a pterodactyl in flight wouldn’t seem out of place here.
During the high season Milford Sound receives thousands of visitors; many are day trippers who arrive on crowded buses to board various boat cruises. Few visitors choose to linger, and even fewer choose to explore the wealth of climbing available. With some of New Zealand’s hardest sport routes on offer you would expect the area to be more popular, however with 8 metres of annual rainfall, distributed evenly through the year, it isn’t hard to see why the cliffs in this remote valley are rarely busy.
Despite being one of the wettest places on earth, we optimistically booked a 4 night stay. During our time we explored 2 of the crags – Little Babylon and The Chasm. Little Babylon is situated high up a steep mountain face, and to reach the climbing you need to clamber up a steep track of tree roots and boulders. The Chasm is an atmospheric granite wall nearer the road, conveniently capped by an overhanging roof, which means rainwater pours off the lip of the crag and the rock stays permanently dry. Of the two our favourite was The Chasm – great routes on superb quality rock, with water cascading down behind you; a unique climbing experience.
Making our way up to Little Babylon
Roaming Worrior (25 / 7a+/b)
On our final morning, we joined the tourists on a boat cruise through the fiord (misleadingly named as a sound) towards the Tasman Sea. According to Maori Legend, Milford Sound was created by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, a god-like ancestor who used a digging stick to carve the fiord. In fact this isn’t far from the modern geological version, which explains that the deep valley was gouged out by successive glaciers, and subsequently flooded by the sea.
As you cruise through the fiord, it is easy to imagine its depth by the sheer cliffs which plunge below the waterline. Far below the surface the angle of the rock faces ease and a rounded valley floor forms the bottom, 400 metres at its deepest point. In contrast, where the fiord meets the sea the depth is only 40 metres, due to a built up barrier of glacial deposits.
The constant rainfall, in conjunction with the restricted water movement by the glacial deposits barrier, results in a 10 metre freshwater layer which floats on top of the saltwater. This top layer of freshwater is stained brown by the various leaf litter it has passed on the way to the fiord. Consequently, it is very dark just 30 metres below the surface, mimicking deep sea conditions. Because of this, Milford Sound harbours a host of corals and sea life which are usually only found deep beneath the ocean.
Cruising Milford Sound
Panorama from Mitre Peak to Mt Pembroke
Lady Bowen Falls (162m)
Stirling Falls (155m)
Beware the mountain parrot!
Leaving Milford Sound we drove to the lakeside town of Te Anau, located at the end of the long and lonely Milford road. This is 118km away, and the last place you can find either fuel or food. We stayed out of town in a beautiful wooden chalet, situated on a deer farm overlooking the valleys of central Southland. This was a pleasant improvement to our usual digs, and provided a perfect base for a well deserved rest day.
A view from Rainbow Reach, part of the Kepler Track
Moving onwards and upwards we headed to Wanaka, Queenstown’s quiet little brother. Well known on the skiing circuit, during the off season the glacial worn schist provides some of the South Islands most popular rock climbs. The featureless faces are scattered around the hillside, and the horizontal quartz provides small, sharp fingertip edges to pull on.
With a lot of crags it’s hard to decide what to get your teeth stuck into, and we spent several days trying out the different areas. Annoyingly the last crag we visited (‘Riverside’) turned out to be the best one, and we didn’t have enough time to give it justice. Luke tried a 3 star route called Lollapalooza (25 / 7a+/b), and with a bit of a fight managed to climb to the anchor on his first go. Frustratingly, after lowering off we spotted another bolt higher up, and it soon transpired that the route finished a few metres above. With tired arms and a sinking sun the second attempt didn’t go so well, and we had to accept defeat and leave the route for another trip.
Looking over Wanaka from the slopes of Roy’s Peak
Rusty Pins (18 / 6a)
Lollapalooza (25 / 7a+/b)
A lunchtime swing
Next stop is Dunedin, as we make our way towards Christchurch, our final destination in New Zealand.