In the beginning the only permanent sign of man at Te Anau was a gantry for unloading wool bales at the present Real Journeys Visitor Centre, steamed down the lake from Te Anau Downs. Richard Henry lived in a hut closer to the Waiau River outlet and Quintin Mackinnon lived at Garden Bay, near the glow worm caves.
In 1889 after the Milford Track opened a Newfoundlander previously working at Te Anau Downs, Thomas Broderick brought a steamer, the Te Uira (lightning), later renamed Ripple, to Te Anau. He built a boat shed and the first house at Gantry Bay. Brod Bay on the Kepler Track, where firewood was taken on board, is named for Broderick.
In 1890 William Snodgrass built the Lake Te Anau Hotel and the Marakura Hotel soon followed. The 70 foot Tawera was launched in 1899 and faithfully carried tourists to the start of the Milford Track under various owners until 1997 when it was decommissioned due to rust.
It was not until the Homer tunnel and the Milford Road was opened in 1953 that Te Anau began to develop into what we see today.
Milford Sound was first named Milford Haven by John Grono, a Welshman from Newport, who was sealing on the coast of Fiordland as early as 1809.
It was renamed Milford Sound and first surveyed by the HMS Acheron captained by John Stokes in March 1851, another Welshman who named many features after his hometown Milford Haven, including Pembroke Peak and the Cleddau River. They hunted ducks, kakapo and kiwi and sighted takahe.
The Maori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi after a now extinct thrush the Piopio. Expeditions to Piopiotahi by waka were made from both the North and South Island. Most Maori artifacts have been discovered at Anita Bay/Piopiotahi where a type of greenstone or takiwai which means ‘tear drop’, used for pendants and ornaments, is found. Eel were also hunted on Lake Ada and some artifacts found at the head of the sound. Piopiotahi is important in Maori mythology.
The earliest European habitation was a sealer’s hut at Anita Bay/Piopiotahi. In 1871 the HMS Clio commanded by Captain Stirling and carrying the governor George Bowen visited and the Stirling and Bowen falls were named.
Donald Sutherland first visited on 1 December 1877 from Thompson Sound in an open boat with 2 dogs, finding signs of Maori he cautiously camped on an island, continuing North to Jackson’s Bay 8 days later. He returned and built a 3 room house at Freshwater Basin in 1878. Sutherland was instrumental in exploring the interior but the Mackinnon pass linking Lake Te Anau with Milford was discovered by Quintin Mackinnon on 16 October 1888 from the Te Anau side.
Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell of Manapouri were employed by the Chief Surveyor of Otago to cut a track up the Clinton Valley at the head of Lake Te Anau. They set up camp on 7 September 1888 and topped Mackinnon pass 1 month and 9 days later, continuing down the other side they reached Sutherland’s Beech Hut near the present Quintin Hut in the Arthur Valley. They supplemented their rations along the way with kakapo, blue duck and occasional kiwi, hampered by wet weather. On their way down the Arthur Valley Mackinnon and Mitchell met up with a surveying party on the way up.
The government first used prisoners to develop the track from the Milford end but they didn’t get much done and a work gang of 13 men under Edwin Price was eventually employed in their stead.
Mackinnon subsequently became the first guide on the Milford Track. In 1892 Quintin Mackinnon was lost on lake Te Anau, only his boat was recovered by a search party at Te Anau Downs. Donald and Jack Ross succeeded Mackinnon as government track guides.
The first unguided freedom walkers from the Otago Tramping Club crossed in 1964 after which huts were built for independent walkers.
In 1927 John Chartres began construction of a road from Te Anau Downs to Te Anau. It took a year to finish and seventeen bridges were built. Public Works took it over in 1929 and the road was improved and continued up the Eglington Valley. Trees were cut with cross cut saws, stumps blasted with dynamite, and timber milled for bridge building at roadside saw-pits.
The road reached the Divide in 1934 and a decision was made to build the Homer Tunnel, road construction began from Milford Sound. In 1935 the Te Anau end of the road reached the Homer Saddle and they began excavating 100 meters of loose scree with picks and wheelbarrows on the 4th of July, eventually reaching the rock face in early 1936.
Since the tunnel slopes steeply down towards the Milford end, water had to be constantly pumped out and its dimensions were reduced to 14 by 9 feet until they breached in 1940 and it could be expanded without the inconvenience of pumping. Tunnelers drilled holes into the rock with compressed air, blasted and cleared debris out with light rail pulled up to the entrance by an electric winch. Electricity was provided by a temporary hydroelectric power station on the Hollyford River and a backup diesel generator.
There were three fatalities during construction due to avalanches on the Hollyford side, there is a memorial to them on the entrance wall of the tunnel.
In 1942 work was stopped because of the war and expansion work did not recommence until 1951. The tunnel was opened to walkers in 1947 and road traffic in 1953.
The Milford Road follows the Eastern shore of Lake Te Anau to Te Anau Downs where it climbs a low ridge to avoid boggy territory and then descends into the Eglington River Valley.
It follows the Eglington through farmland but soon enters Fiordland National Park, winding through forest and grassy flats. By the time It reaches Lake Gunn at the head of the main West Branch of the Eglington the climate is wet and the forest verdant.
Soon it crests The Divide, after which all water flows to the West Coast, then descends steeply to the Hollyford River which it follows to its head at the Homer Tunnel. The Upper Hollyford Valley is formed by the Earl Mountains to the South East and the Darran Mountains to the North West, this is the alpine section of the Road most affected by snow and ice, it is not thickly forested and offers spectacular mountain scenery, unique on mainland New Zealand for its angular granite boulders.
The descent after the tunnel is fast with multiple tight switchbacks. The Road quickly enters ever thickening coastal forest and the tumbling, crystal clear Cleddau River is followed until Milford Sound.
There is very limited habitable land at Milford Sound and parking can be somewhat limited in the peak summer season, December to March. However Milford Sound is almost completely empty early in the morning and late in the evening. The autumn and winter months are much less busy. Approximately 850 000 people travel by road to Milford Sound each year.
Sixty percent of our land mass, including the Southern Alps, is made up of Greywacke. Greywacke is recycled Granite and ours is from somewhere unknown within Gondwanaland. Fiordland is one of very few places in New Zealand free of Greywacke, or choss as it is colloquially known.
In Fiordland igneous rock 99 to 385 million years old, originating from the Median Batholith of Gondwanaland and formed deep within the Earth's crust, is exposed due to tectonic uplift. The Homer Tunnel, Mount Tutoko and Mitre Peak are all carved from metamorphosed granite or orthogneiss. The hardness of the rock has preserved the steep angular shapes carved by glaciation during the last 2 million years.
Milford Sound, which is the first of Fiordland's many fiord's is 400m deep in places. It is covered by 4 to 6 meters of fresh water, which is why the forest grows to the high tide mark. Also in Fiordland is Lake Hauroko which at 463 meters deep is New Zealand's deepest lake. Lake Te Anau is the second largest lake in New Zealand, 417 meters deep. It has 3 spectacular and seldom visited fresh water fiord's of its own.
Te Anau tends to have a warm, sunny summer by Southland standards. It can get very dry after Christmas. In the months before Christmas it can be windy. February is traditionally warm, sunny and dry.
Spring is often wet and very changeable with satisfyingly varied photographic conditions.
April is reliably calm and cool and may be the best time to visit.
Usually the winter starts with a spell of bad weather in May and it often calms down considerably in June. Te Anau is prone to localised fog over winter. Fog sometimes limits the daytime temperature and along with the thermal mass of the lake moderates the extremes of cold.
July is the coldest month of the year, the mountains and the Milford Road are at their most spectacular. We expect snow to lake level every winter, it usually melts quickly.
The Milford Road is closed from time to time over the Winter due to extreme alpine conditions, though in 2016 only one full day. The Road can be very icy and often snow chains are required. Snow ploughs and grit trucks work tirelessly to keep the traffic moving safely. The Homer Tunnel is exposed to avalanche risk which is actively managed by the Milford Road Alliance using helicopters and a team of alpine specialists.
There can be considerable risk involved in driving the alpine sections of the Milford Road for varying periods of time during winter.
Milford Sound has a completely different climate to Te Anau. It gets almost 7m of rain per year on average, but then it is at its best in the rain.
Mid summer is the best time to enjoy the verdant beauty of the coastal forest.
Chances of seeing wildlife are better in the winter. Winter also favours photography with calm weather, snow on the mountains, the sun at a low angle in the sky and dynamic light as it skims the peaks. The Sandfly's are least bothersome over winter.
There is never a bad time to visit Milford Sound, it always has something special to offer.
It can snow on the alpine sections of the Milford Road any time of year, though in the summer it melts quickly.
It is likely to rain at some point. You need to be warm even if you get wet, heavy cotton clothing is not a good idea. Wear good sturdy hiking clothing for your visit and make sure you have a water proof layer, consider an umbrella or brolly in rainy weather.
It can be a good idea to cover up to avoid the sandfly's, but perhaps in warm weather bug repellent will be more functional.
Winter conditions can be cold and the days are short, so if there is a chance of being out past 4:30 pm you will need to be prepared with an extra layer, a woolly hat and gloves.
Ultra violet radiation is very high during the spring due to ozone conditions, a strong sunblock should always be used to prevent sunburn over the spring and summer. During the height of summer the sun sets as late as 10pm, evenings are often the best time to be around.