Te Anau – The gateway to Fiordland National Park

Breathtaking Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass

Te Anau is a small town with a population of around 2,500 sitting on the edge of Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island of New Zealand.  Lying at the borders of Fiordland National Park Te Anau is the gateway to this wilderness area famed for tramping and spectacular scenery.  Most tourists come to Te Anau to visit the famous fiords of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.  The town is also used as a base for trampers on multi day walks of the Kepler Track and Milford Track, two famous walks in the area.

Lake Te Anau

Arriving in Te Anau we immediately researched the weather forecast, found the least rainy day and booked a 7 hour day trip to Doubtful Sound.  We had some early morning light rain but to our immense pleasure, the skies cleared and we were rewarded with partly cloudy skies 🌤  The Maori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea which translates to “the place of silence”.  An appropriate description of this remote fiord.  With no direct road access Doubtful Sound is not an easy place to reach, making it all the more special once you get there.  Beginning in Manapouri, a 20 min drive from Te Anau, we took a boat across Lake Manapouri to the Manapouri Power Station.  It was a beautiful and brisk early morning ride across the lake, taking about 50 minutes.

Manapouri Lake at 7:30 am

From the lake, we rode a bus up and over the Wilmot Pass, pausing at the top to experience the dense Fiordland forest and views of Doubtful Sound glistening below.  Certainly a WOW moment and worthy of the header photo for this post.  The Wilmot Pass road was the most expensive road built in New Zealand.  Completed in 1965 and taking two years, for the purpose of transporting machinery for the building of the Manapouri Power Station.  With the power station completed the road is now used to transport visitors to this amazing destination.  The Wilmot Pass road is home to incredible moss gardens, towering waterfalls and fantastic scenery as you travel through dense rainforest.  It is one of the wettest places on earth with rainfall of 7 to 9 meters per year…more than twice as much rain as the Amazon rainforest!!  The fern walls were stunning.  We had no idea the moss grew up to 1 ft thick, encouraging the growth of ferns as well as trees on the sheer rocks.  Our guide mentioned that when a tree becomes uprooted from the moss it creates a tree avalanche as opposed to a landslip, that would be interesting to see.

Blair sticking his arm deep into the moss growth

At the end of the road we arrived at Deep Cove, harbor for the very few boats running in Doubtful Sound.  We boarded our boat for a spectacular 3 hour tour around Doubtful Sound, the second longest fiord in the park at 40 km in length and the deepest fiord at 421 meters.  Rather than travel straight out the Sound to the Tasman Sea our skipper chose to take us to the end of Crooked Arm where he shut off the engines so we could enjoy the complete silence of such a remote location.  The breathtaking scenery, grandeur and serenity of this fiord is a place we will never forget ❤

Doubtful Sound

We booked our Doubtful Sound tour with Go Orange at a cost of NZD $235 (USD $153.60) each leaving from Manapouri at 7:15 am.  We chose the earliest time in the hopes it would be less busy and luckily that turned out to be the case, there were only 26 of us on the cruise.

Doubtful Sound

Not only one of the most scenic roads in New Zealand, the Milford Road is one of the most scenic roads in the world.  Beginning at Te Anau, this stretch of highway heads deep into the remote Fiordland National Park, eventually leading you to awe-inspiring Milford Sound.  This road is incredibly dramatic and takes you through some of the most impressive landscapes you’ll see including glacier-carved valleys, the Mirror Lakes and dense, lush rainforest.

Left: Mirror Lakes – Right: Milford Road

The Homer Tunnel, a single-lane, 1,270 m tunnel that has literally been hacked through the center of a mountain, signals your descent into Milford Sound.  The tunnel is an amazing feat of engineering taking 19 years to complete.  We left Te Anau at 6 am allowing plenty of time to stop at sights along the way, arriving to Milford Sound around 8:15 am.  Lot’s of time to check in for our boat cruise.

Homer Tunnel, left is the East entrance, right is the West entrance

Milford Sound, one of the worlds top travel destinations, is the busiest and most popular place in Fiordland National Park, more easily accessible than Doubtful Sound.  Milford Sound is just 15 km long from the Tasman Sea, surrounded by sheer rock faces rising 1,200 meters or more on either side, with a few famous waterfalls.  Like our Doubtful Sound tour, we booked the first trip of the day at 9 am hoping for less people, and it worked out well once again.  It was a cold morning out on the lake but the blue skies made up for it.

Milford Sound and Fairy Falls

We were happy with our Go Orange experience to Doubtful Sound, booking with them again for our Milford Sound cruise.  Tickets for this cruise cost NZD $55 (USD $36.20) each including a 10% discount for being our second booking with Go Orange.  Milford Sound was reasonably busy when we arrived but with all the bus parking available I can imagine it must get horribly busy later in the day.  Our boat was only about 1/3 full which made for a nice 2 hour cruise taking us the full length of Milford Sound and out into the Tasman Sea to view the rugged coastline.  Milford Sound is definitely popular with quite a few boats on the lake and endless helicopters and small planes buzzing overhead, many from Queenstown which is not that far as the crow flies.

Stirling Falls in the photo below drops 146 meters, 3 times the height of Niagra Falls, from a beautiful hanging valley.  It is the second largest permanent waterfall in the fiord fed by glaciers high in the mountains behind.  Named after Captain Stirling when he brought the HMS Cleo into Milford Sound during the 1870’s.  Legend say’s that the waterfall’s water makes people younger, so tour boats get very close to the base of the falls so you can sprayed, if you believe the legend.

Milford Sound and Stirling Falls

One rainy afternoon in Te Anau we headed downtown to the Fiordland Cinema to see the movie Shadowland. (Ata Wenua in Maori)  This 30 minute film takes you deep into Fiordland National Park by helicopter to places man has never set foot.  Stunning fiords, towering mountains, rare birds, dramatic coastlines, mountaintop glaciers, lakes and waterfalls…the cinematography was fantastic and a wonderful break on a dreary day.  The tickets cost NZD $12 (USD $7.90) each and if you want to see the movie it is available on Vimeo and itunes (search for ata whenua)

Besides touring the fiords and tramping there is nothing much else to do in Te Anau so we enjoyed a few restful days, and some time at the gym, the weather being too wet to be outside.  Fortunately our Airbnb was a brand new house and very comfortable to spend time at home.  From Te Anau our next destination is the city of Dunedin where we will celebrate Christmas.

Happy Holidays from down under…   🎄🤶🎄🤶



Trip Tips

We booked our Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound trips with Go Orange.  Both excursions were well organized and on smaller boats than some others we saw out there.  Tickets can be bought online here and a discount is offered if you book more than one trip.  If possible, book the first tour of the day, generally there are less people on this one.

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