Saturday, May 19, 2007

Great Rides - Milford Sound

Great ride number one: Te Anau to Milford Sound, 240km return.

The reason that this ride rates as a great ride is simple: it combines absolutely stunning scenery with a great road. It doesn’t even matter that the road is a dead end and you have to turn around and ride it back – this just gives you a double dose of motorcycling heaven.

As this ride is in the Fiordland in the deep south-west of the South Island the weather definitely needs to be considered when tackling this ride. It would definitely be no good in the winter and the road is generally closed by snow a few times each winter. It also on the tourist route with a huge number of buses and campers using the road to get to Milford Sound and the boat cruises based there – you need to be patient with these guys, there’s not much room to pass in some places.

I’ve now ridden this twice and have been very lucky with the weather. On the first occasion I had ridden through from Invercargill to Te Anau, obtained some accommodation, dumped some gear and then took off to Milford in the afternoon. I then took one of the boat cruises to take in the beauty of the Sound and then raced back to Te Anau by 5:30pm or so. Not long after that it started raining and didn’t stop until I reached Queenstown the next day – glad I was not staying in a tent as some were.

The second time I went into Milford was in late April and we left Te Anau pretty early in the morning and got to Milford Sound by around 10am. It was quite cold all the way there was snow within 400m of the road in a couple of places. Perhaps ice would have been a concern if we had left any earlier in the morning. It did make for a beautiful, clear and sunny day – great for photography.

And now for the ride itself: leaving Te Anau you initially pass through some open tussock country with Lake Te Anau to your left and hills to your right. After a while you enter a more winding road which is surrounded by a beautiful beech forest – this looked truly spectacular in April with all the leaves having changed colour. There are a number of spots to stop along the way and there are tramping tracks leading off into the hills everywhere.

When you come out of the forest you find yourself in a huge valley carved out of the mountains. Picture it: a wide open valley with a river running through it and mountains surrounding it on both sides – remember to keep your eyes on the road. The road crosses the river and starts winding up a hill. Once again you are in a forested area with the river on your right and at one stage you cross a bridge with a waterfall tumbling down on your left.

Now you start working your way up the hill a bit more and the country opens out to tussock again before the entrance to Homer Tunnel. There’s plenty of room to park up here and take photos of the countryside or talk to the local kea population – don’t let them eat your bike. The Homer Tunnel (picture is from the Milford side) is one way and controlled by traffic lights and as it is 1.25km long you can be waiting a while for the light to change. The first time I went through it I was all on my lonesome (no other traffic) and it seemed quite dark in there – lights definitely required. It is also quite steep but the thing that really freaked me out was I could hear the rushing of water and I knew that the road was wet but wasn’t sure if I was going to end up hitting a great stream running across or down the road. Luckily the water was just running in a big drain at the side of the road.

Once exiting the tunnel you start dropping into Milford and the road is very steep with two really sharp corners (not sure if they’re signposted as 15 or 25 km/h). You then enter another beech forest and wind your way over a couple of one lane bridges before finally arriving in Milford Sound.

There’s not much there – just an airfield, cafes and the boat cruises but straight out in front of you is the famous Mitre Peak. It’s well worth it to take a cruise and see more the stunning fiords, mountains and wildlife and then you get to ride back out.

Obviously the ride out is a repeat screening but you get to ride up that great road from Milford to the Homer Tunnel and then drop back down the other side. Before you know it you’re back in Te Anau.

Maybe it’s just because it’s only been a few weeks since I did this ride and it’s still fresh in my mind but this ride is definitely worthy of the Great Ride tag. If you’re down south don’t miss it – you have to go out of your way to get there but you’ll be glad that you did.

Other points:

- Get fuel in Te Anau before you leave – it’s a 240km trip and I’m not sure
if there’s any at Milford.

- The road is generally in good condition – I did hit a bit of metal in one
corner this time around but the rest of the road was fine. I’d be real careful
on a frosty morning though…

- Watch the tourists: buses, campers, rental cars and push bikes. They’ll
be looking at the scenery – not for bikes.

- Take ya camera!

Link to Google Earth Image

Link to Google Map of Route

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