Day One: Trek to Lake Marian
Driving the Te Anau – Milford Road must be one of the best scenic drives in the world. First you enjoy expansive views of Lake Te Anau, then suddenly the open grassy Eglington valley appears, surrounded by mountains. You venture past the exit from the Routeburn Track before turning off into the bush clad Hollyford Valley. Just 4km down the Hollyford Road is the start of the walk to Lake Marian. After crossing the Hollyford River there is a spectacular series of waterfalls with cantilevered boardwalks above the river hugging the rock face. The track gets a little rougher but just over an hour later we reached the beautiful alpine lake, situated in a hanging valley and surrounded by snow-dusted peaks of the Darran Mountain range – most of which are over 2000 meters. The setting is simply spectacular and equally as good as anything we have seen in Nepal or the Pyrenees but without the expensive plane ticket! A picnic and a quick swim in the very chilly snowmelt lake then it was back down the track and back to Te Anau.
Days Two and Three: Kayaking on Doubtful Sound
A picturesque but lengthy trip took us across Lake Manapouri then over the Wilmot Pass and down into Doubtful Sound. After gearing up and being instructed in kayak technique, we cruised off to explore the sound with 6 others for a two-day trip. Confusingly, both Doubtful and Milford Sounds are actually not technically sounds (river valleys flooded by the sea), but are actually fiords – valleys scoured out by glacial action long ago. Paddling effortlessly along the becalmed fiord our knowledgeable guide pointed out the scars left on the towering cliffs by the glaciers and extensive faulting that has shattered the rock in places. The wind picked up in the afternoon so we tried kayak sailing – hoisting a sail up the paddles at the back of two linked kayaks and then holding tight to the bottom of the sail at the front of the kayak we cruised nicely up Hall Arm to give weary muscles a rest.
Landing next to a fresh water stream at the end of the day to our relief we found that the camping spot secluded in the pristine rainforest had an insect free shelter. Hordes of the famous Fiordland sandflies, which strangely don’t bother you while you are on the water, amassed around us as we raised our tents. Removing the food laden-ballast from our kayak we realized we’d massively over-catered and spent the rest of the evening crouched over the gas stove and stoking the boilers of the other kayakers.
The morning mist was just rising over the surrounding peaks and the sand flies appeared to have slept in as we packed up and dipped our paddles into the crystal clear waters and headed towards another Arm of the fiord. A tiny research boat shadowed some bottlenose dolphins playing, reminding us that despite the remote ruggedness of Doubtful Sound other people, mainly tourists on cruise day trips, do venture into this wilderness place. After paddling around Elizabeth Island and learning all about the edible plants that grow in the New Zealand bush, we picnicked on a white-sand beach and carved up the delicious birthday cake that our Lodge hosts had provided to us. Cake consumed and one last kayak up the peaceful sound and we were greeted on dry land by several Keas – New Zealand’s cheekiest native bird. After draining the camera battery taking photos of their antics, we retraced our journey back across Lake Manapouri to Te Anau again.
Day Four: Exploring Milford Sound
Most New Zealanders have at least seen pictures of the legendary beauty of Milford Sound, but perhaps not so many have viewed it from both above and below the water. Starting out early from Te Anau we drove the scenic Milford Road again, through the Homer Tunnel and down into Milford Sound – recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site from 1986. Few tour coaches had yet to arrive so by the time we had geared up and were on our dive boat, it still felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. Chances are when you visit Milford it will be raining, as having seven metres of rain a year makes it one of the wettest places in the world. For us however, we were blessed with clear blue skies and calm waters. After cruising out along the fjord with its steep rock walls towering hundreds of meters above us we moored just beneath the towering Mitre Peak. Unique dive conditions are created in Milford Sound due to the high rainfall that creates a tannin-laden light-filtering freshwater layer on top of the seawater. For divers this means that sea creatures that would usually live at great depths such as black coral colonies – which oddly enough are actually white to look at, can be seen at only 15m. Fortunately non-divers can also get a glimpse of the underwater world by descending the purpose-built underwater observatory build discreetly into the side of the fjord.
After exploring the beautiful and unique Milford underwater life, our dive boat crew gave us a treat by pouring hot water down our dive suits – Milford Sound water registers a chilly 13 degrees even in summer. Dressing up warmly we explored the fiord by boat, cameras clicking away at the multiple picture postcard shots. Clambering onto land right at the mouth of the fiord near the Tasman sea, we explored the small stone ruins of a gold prospector’s hut built in the 1930’s. Re-boarding the boat for the journey back we witnessed a sea lion repeatedly tossing a fish around above water, playing with it mercilessly before devouring it. Its friends lazed on the nearby rocks completely ignoring the intruding tourists and we cruised by, wowed by the many stunning waterfalls and mountain vistas typical of Fiordland National Park, in our books justifiably the number one New Zealand tourist attraction for New Zealanders.
Dock Bay Lodge:
What a treat we had in store when we chose to stay at Dock Bay Lodge, just minutes drive from Te Anau township. This newly opened purpose-built lodge was the dream of long-term Te Anau locals Dawn and Mark Dowling and opened in 2006. 5 spacious suites with floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the tended greens of the Te Anau golf course, Lake Te Anau and towards the Kepler and Murchison Mountains. The lodge has everything you’d expect including king-sized 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 because of a love of hosting and helping people. Focusing instead on providing a memorable experience to guests rather than filling every room each night, their down-to-earth yet friendly and professional style really made us feel at home. Dawn seemed to anticipate every need we might have had and was on hand to supply information, she prepared take-away breakfasts when we rose to do activities before dawn, and added little surprise treats to make our stay memorable.
So many activities are within easy reach of Dock Bay Lodge – especially for lovers of the outdoors. A keen national-level golfer, Dawn didn’t take much persuading to join us in teeing off from the 11th fairway which merges with the lodge’s garden. Milford and Doubtful Sounds are but a short drive away, the entrance to the Kepler Track is almost on the doorstep of the lodge and mountain bike tracks abound. Those into water sports can enjoy Lake Te Anau that the Lodge overlooks, and lovers of fine cuisine can sample excellent New Zealand, Italian and Chinese cuisine in the town center and environs.