Our last day in Manapouri, and Milford Road is closed, again. There isn't much snow where we are, and the sun is positively shining so we decide to drive up – the road is not closed at Te Anau but further up at the Divide, which means that we should be able to at least have a look at the Mirror Lakes and some of the landscape even if we can't get to the other end.
The shining sun becomes somehow overcast as we drive past Te Anau, with a large board stating that the road is still closed, and now ominously, lower down at Knobs Flat.
We drive on, though, with occasional looks at the landscape and misty photo opportunities.
As the road starts climbing up, more and more snow appears; snow on the roadside, in the fields, on the cows and sheep. The sky is a white cloud, and snow starts to fall in slow, large, wet flakes. We drive through a patch of woodland and great clumps of snow slide with wet splats, of the heavy branches and onto the bonnet and windscreen. The road is getting snowy too, and as we drive out of the woods onto the flat area nestled among the mountains, it's a white-out. All colour is gone from the world, the dark green of trees appears black; the sky and earth are in shades of grey and white. A van is starting up the road, having left behind a "road closed" sign. By the sign, colourful splashes of other travellers' clothing, and a family of snowmen built by the roadside.
We turn round, defeated, again, by the Milford Road and the Kiwi spring.
On the way back, we stop for a walk to Lake Mistletoe. It's sunny, and the 45 minute return loop along a comfortable woodland track, then boardwalk, to a small, pretty lake feels like a different world to the snow-bound reality a few miles up the road.
Milford Road, part of the New Zealand State Highway 94, climbs up to almost 1,000 metres above the sea level in its crossing of the remote stretch of the Southern Alps. It provides access to the world-famous Milford Sound, the only of the Fiordland sounds accessible by road and the only one that can be visited without either paying for an expensive boat excursion (Doubtful Sound), having your own boat or trekking for days (Dusky Sound).
Milford Road stretches for 120km between Te Anau, the tourism centre of the Fiordland, and Milford Sound. It was completed in 1952 but the Homer Tunnel that cuts through the Homer Saddle in the Southern Alps was started in the 1935, as a public relief works project. It links the valleys of Eglinton and Hollyford Rivers to the east and that of the Cleddau to the west. The tunnel is 1270 m long and runs down from the 945 meters above sea level at a gradient of approximately 1:10.
Winter road closures
In principle, the road remains open all year, but as it is a high alpine route, and it passes very near mountains of almost 4,000m high, in the winter (May to September) snow, ice and avalanche risk force partial or complete closing of Milford Road.
New Zealand Transit which is the government agency that manages Milford road, have a avalanche prediction and control programme, but despite that the road closures still happen. Most of them are due to avalanche risk (it doesn't help that the entrance to Homer Tunnel is in the area with a particular high avalanche danger) and the road is closed for an average of eight days a year (this can be fewer or more in any individual year) between June and November. On some occasions the road is closed for part of the day (for example it closes at 3pm).
During winter, even when the road is open, cars might be required to carry chains. These can be hired at Te Anau. There is on average some twenty days on which chains are required and the cars are checked for that at a seasonal Transit check. The chains are a legal requirement and fines of up to 750 NZD apply to those who don't carry chains on the days when they are required.
To check the status of Milford Road, call Transit’s free-phone number 0800 444 449 or check the website at http://www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/milfordroad/RoadStatus.do
Driving the Milford Road: practical information
It takes about two hours to drive the 120km between Te Anau and Milford Sound, but it's much better to budget significantly more (even as much as a whole day) as there are many places to stop, look and several shorter and longer walks on the way. On the other hand, stopping is prohibited on long stretches due to rock or snow avalanche dangers
Many visitors travel to Milford Sound from Queenstown, which is approximately 300km and at least a three-hour non-stop drive, although five hours should be allowed for a journey that takes some advantage of the spectacular scenery on the way.
There are also tour buses that cover the distance (with photo and short walk stops on the way), operating from Te Anau or Queenstown and if you are not used to driving in snowy and icy conditions, you should seriously consider using one of those if visiting Milford Sound in the winter or even if you are not confident driving long distances on mountain roads (remember also that New Zealand drives on the left). Milford Road is the third most dangerous road in New Zealand and has significantly higher accident and fatality rates, much of it due to tiredness and lack of experience of drivers.
If you decide to drive to Milford Sound yourself, it's definitely much better to spend a night in or around Te Anau and start fresh in the morning. There is some accommodation at Milford Sound itself, and on the way, and camping in the summer.
However, there is very limited fuel beyond Te Anau so make sure you have enough (a full tank just in case is probably a good idea) for the 240km (almost 150 miles) round trip and any detours you might care to make. There is a fuel at Gunns Camp in Hollyford Valley (a detour off the main road) and at Milford Sound (cards with PIN only).
The traffic on Milford road is quite heavy in season (half a million people visit the Sound every year and the vast majority come via road) and as many visit the Sound as a day trip from Queenstown (and most of the remainder come for a day from Te Anau), the road is very busy towards the Sound in the late morning and very busy towards Te Anau in the late afternoon/early evening.
If you start from Te Anau early in the morning, or even better, camp further up the road or even stay in the hostel in Milford Sound, you will have much better chance of a less crowded visit.