Chasing light in Milford Sound

No trip to the south island of New Zealand is complete without a trip to Milford Sound. Located in the northern end of the 12.500 km² Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is easily accessible by car. The sound is located 120 km north of Te Anau, and is dubbed the 8th natural wonder of the world by many travel guides. Thousands of tourist take the trip every day from as far away as Queenstown (a 4 hour drive), to enjoy the breathtaking landscape as well as the diverse wildlife. Boats depart hourly from the Milford Sound wharf, taking you as far as the Tasman Sea, and if the sand-flies haven’t already gotten to you, the (mildly overpriced) cafe offers a variety of food and drinks.

When you hear people talk about their experience in Milford Sound, not many mention the actual 120 km drive there. I really regret not getting my camera out more during that time, as it definitely is the craziest road I have ever traversed in my life. Steep mountain walls tower over both sides of the road and snow covered mountaintops lead the road up to the Homer Tunnel, a 1.2 km tunnel built in 1953. The tunnel is located at an elevation of 1141 m, and once you emerge on the other side, it is all down hill until Milford Sound. The narrow roads made stopping at most places impossible however, so when we saw a chance to stop at 'The Chasm' waterfall, we thought it a nice opportunity to give the car a rest and take a little walk. The waterfall is just a 10 minute walk from the car park, and is definitely worth a stop if you have the time. As well as the waterfall itself, there are some pretty interesting rock formations located just on the other side of the fence - just make sure you have the right footwear, as the rocks can be slippery.


All this crazy nature almost made me forget about our actual destination. The road from The Chasm to Milford Sound itself is only 10 km, but with closely spaced forest blocking most of the view, so it was not until the easily recognizable green and yellow Department of Conservation sign with the letters “Piopiotahi” (the Maori word for Milford Sound) revealed itself on the side of the road, I realized we had actually made it.

We arrived at the Milford Sound parking lot at around 18:30, and at this point the excitement for the day was reaching peak levels. It is essential to mention here that I did not ever think I would see Milford Sound bathed in sun like this. Being the 7th most rainy place on earth, it is cloudy here a lot of the time. After a quick look-around we decided to wait for the sunset in the car, as the sand-flies in this area is the worst I have ever experienced. Stand still for 2 minutes and you’re encased in a cloud of them. Grant and I had already agreed that we would stay for at least two days, hoping to get some good light, so we were not particularly disappointed when the sunset two hours later turned out to be pretty bland, as there was not a single cloud in the sky.

A cloudless night did mean a good opportunity for astrophotography, so at around 11 pm we set up our gear for shooting some star trails. Despite the sand-flies having magically disappeared after sunset, we were not going to wait for the two hours it would take the camera to get all the exposures, so even though it felt really weird to leave your expensive camera out like that, I went with Grant to sleep in the car. To my relief, my camera was still there, and the picture below is actually the first picture I edited on my computer when I got back to Denmark. My first ever star trails.


I was really determined not to miss a single sunrise or sunset at this place, as we only had limited time, so of course I got up at 6:30 the day after, and even then there was not a single cloud in the sky. At this point I had quite some conflicting feelings about the weather. On the one side I was amazed to witness Milford Sound without any rain, but on the other hand I knew how much some golden clouds would do for the image I had in mind. Either way, you cannot control the weather, and luckily the still waters that morning made for a good reflection.


At this point, you have probably noticed that most of pictures I have taken has had this one mountain top in the frame. The name of this mountain is Mitre Peak, and is probably one of the most photographed mountains in New Zealand. At 1692 m above sea level, it towers above the sound itself. In fact, there is not a lot of other appealing compositions in this area. Also, being my first time at this place, I was obsessed with getting that perfect Milford Sound sunset. The rest of the day went with charging batteries as well as plowing through Game of Thrones (I read all 5 books during my stay in New Zealand) and just waiting around for sunset.

At around 8 pm we started to walk out to the same spot we had been at the night before, but we quickly realized we had time against us, as the tide was rolling in. Every minute or so we had to move our tripods back a meter, but despite this hassle, the sunset was looking to be a stunner. I did feel like my pictures lacked a bit of interest however, so I took a quick look up the coast line, and noticed this log around 30 meters away. Water was rolling in quickly though, so I hurried to the spot and set up my camera, and initially ended up with this shot - one of my favourites from New Zealand as a whole.


Not much more happened that day, aside from mending a few hundred sand-fly bites I'd gotten while concentrating on this shot. Grant and I decided that this was the sunset we'd come for, and had already booked the earliest available ferry-tour for the next morning. When we woke up the next morning the weather changed considerably, with low hanging clouds enshrouding the landscape. I could not have been happier though, as clouds and mountains are two of my favourite things combined, and as we headed out into the Sound, the sun started slowly breaking through the thick layer of clouds, allowing for some crazy light.

No matter where you pointed you camera from the boat, the light just made everything look amazing. I could not think of a better way to end off two days of chasing light and fleeing sand flies - with over 7000 mm of annual rainfall this kind of light is obviously quite rare.

That was more or less my two days in Milford Sound. Despite staying around the same spot for so long, I feel like I got the best of it, as well as some unique experiences. Looking back now, we were incredibly lucky to get three days like that. One day with clear night sky, one day with an amazing sunset, and one day with morning clouds. I only missed the average weather in Milford Sound: Pouring rain.