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Luxe Tours Owner: My Favourite Part of Milford Road

Luxe Tours Owner Toby Pascoe

As one of the co-owners of Luxe Tours, and a guide, I get to experience the Milford Road several times a week, each day usually different to the last in this dynamic environment. I know all the 'wow' moments that are coming for my guests but it is still priceless when I hear them each and every time. So which is my favourite part of the 120km journey to Milford Sound?

The last part of Milford Road, right before you reach Milford Sound, often gets all the glory. And it certainly deserves all the glory it gets. It has giant mountains that look like something out of a fantasy film, the feeling of being completely disconnected from civilisation, and a sense of stepping into a world almost untouched by humans. But one part of my job that I thoroughly enjoy is showing guests that the beginning of Milford Road is just as beautiful, enchanting, and full of interesting social and biological history as the end.

As I often say to my guests, a trip to Milford Sound is as much about the journey as the destination. When I take guests down the first part of Milford Road I get to ensure that their trip to Milford Sound is fascinating and magical from the start. That’s why the first part of the road, from Te Anau Downs to Knobs Flat, is my favourite part of the journey to Milford Sound

Te Anau Downs

Departing from Te Anau, we head to the first stop on our journey to Milford Sound: Te Anau Downs. We’re not in Fiordland National Park yet, but with Lake Te Anau and the Murchison Mountains in the distance, you start to get the first sense we’re turning away from civilisation. 

Te Anau Downs, Milford Road, Luxe Tours NZ

It may not look so significant at first glance, but the history of this area is interesting, and I enjoy talking with guests about the Te Anau Downs Station, which has been the Chartres family home since 1925. It’s a large sheep and beef farm of thousands of hectares, and bordering the national park, we often liken it to our own little Yellowstone story. The area has a complex and conflict-filled recent history with regulatory agencies, to do with some of their stock and native trees.

While it’s not up to us to pass judgment one way or another, it’s nice to discuss these things with guests, as it’s a common issue throughout New Zealand where farming is everywhere, with an average ratio of five sheep to one New Zealander. Protecting our environment while accounting for people’s livelihoods is an issue we’re always going to be navigating here in NZ, so awareness of that is important. 

Te Anau Downs is also where explorers begin their adventure on the world-famous Milford Track, and we take some of the first photos of our trip at this stop, where everyone is bubbling with anticipation. An occasional highlight in this area is if we strike a day when sheep are crossing the road that runs directly through the middle of the above station, and while we stop and let them pass, they surround the van and peer in inquisitively, which is often a wow moment for guests, and I always enjoy the surprised looks plastered on everyone’s faces. 

Entering Fiordland National Park

After we finish at Te Anau Downs, we head along the road again, flanked by rolling farmland and occasional farm out-houses, watching the landscape gradually transform into more rugged and wild terrain.

We continue along the winding road with civilisation disappearing behind us and huge, dark mountains rising in the distance until, almost within the blink of an eye, we enter a tunnel of native forest, with the tree-cast shadows and deckled light letting us know we’re officially in Fiordland National Park.

One of the highlights here is playing a recording of birdsong from one of NZ’s predator-free Islands. It really enhances the atmosphere and showcases what could be if we continue protecting and restoring our precious native environments. 

When we reappear in the open, we get magnificent views of the Earl Mountains to the left and the Livingstone Mountains to the right. As we slow down for the tight bends in the road, we get our first glimpses of the Eglinton River, a beautiful, pristine river that comes right up beside us, following us around the corners as we go. Because we travel in the mornings, we often see the sun as it just begins shining down onto the river, and it always looks amazing. 

The river flows from Lake Gun, located within the park, and flows South, collecting crisp, pure water from alpine streams before meeting Lake Te Anau’s eastern shores. I’m very fond of this river. It’s one of the best trout fishing rivers in NZ, and it has provided me with many a joyful day of fishing down where it meets Lake Te Anau. 

I enjoy discussing fishing with the guests as we soak in the views of the river flowing over open land through tussock-covered banks. As long as you can keep a secret, I will give you some of the best spot locations.

The views of the river are always amazing, and like many places in Fiordland National Park, they’re often different. Some days the river is crystal clear, and on others, it's a vibrant turquoise colour due to the glacial melt flowing down from the mountains. Some days it’s restful, and on others, it's roaring, but no matter its mood, it always provides stunning views for our first tastes of the National Park scenery. 

Into Eglinton Valley

Eglinton Valley, Milford Road to Milford Sound, Luxe Tours NZ

We then drive along into the flats of the Eglinton Valley where the surroundings change into a narrow stretch of road cutting through rippling tussock grasslands with towering mountains all around. The dark, tree-adorned mountains create a striking contrast against the golden tussock, and we always stop to breathe in the fresh mountain air, which is particularly cool and invigorating during the spring to winter months.  

Carved out by ancient glaciers thousands of years ago, the vast Eglinton Valley is a very popular stop along Milford Road. I always arrive earlier, before the crowds roll in, and find a quiet spot on our own so we can experience it the way it should be, in peaceful, hushed silence, broken occasionally by the distant call of the Kea or Kaka parrots.

Lord of the Rings film locations, Eglinton Valley

One of my favourite things about this area is that it’s so stunning that film stars and production studios want to come and film here, with the Earl Mountains serving as the Misty Mountains in Lord of the Rings or most recently involved in Avatar, and the back of the Livingstone Mountains featuring in Mission Impossible Fallout. As we stand in amongst the spectacular scenery, taking it all in, it’s easy to see why it’s a desired filming location, and it almost feels as if we’ve stepped right into a film ourselves. 

Mirror Lakes

We then venture further into the national park to the first nature walk of our trip at the Mirror Lakes. The large ponds of still water were not always there and have an interesting formation story. Once just gentle meanders in the river, they formed when a large weather event caused the Eglinton River to change its course, resulting in the formation of the surrounding wetland area and the water supply being cut off from the river bends, creating the famous oxbow lakes we now know as Mirror Lakes. 

Mirror Lakes, Milford Road, Luxe Tours NZ

From the car park, we take a stroll along the boardwalk beneath the tree canopy, listening to the chorus of birdsong. After just a few seconds, we reach the Mirror Lakes, and on a calm day, they put on an incredible display of their world-famous mirror imitation. The surrounding Earl Mountains provide an excellent reflection in the water, and on particularly calm days, it's nearly impossible to distinguish the reflection from the mountains themselves.

Mirror Lakes on the way to Milford Sound, Luxe Tours NZ

Katelyn, our Guest Experience Manager, took a brilliant photo here on a previous trip, and I like to challenge our guests to beat her photo and take home a prize. I really enjoy dishing out tips on how to achieve the perfect Mirror Lakes photo. 

Mirror Lakes is not all about perfect pictures, though, because this stop is also a great opportunity to appreciate all the forest bird songs and view some of the wildlife that have taken up residence in and around the pools. We can often hear kākā, NZ’s large forest parrot, causing a ruckus in the forest, and sometimes when looking up, you can see their silhouettes against the sky as they fly through the treetops. Tūī and bellbirds are also abundant here, and there are often friendly and curious Robins on the ground hopping right up to our feet. In the pools, we can often spot trout and native long-fin eels slithering along the bottom, as well as native Paradise ducks and Scaup, NZ’s smallest duck

Knobs Flat

We then load back into the van again and continue through Eglinton Valley to Knobs Flat, one of my favourite stops on the road to Milford Sound. Here is where the workers building the Milford Road and Homer Tunnel camped until the 1980’s. Today, there is accommodation available here, and it's a popular accommodation option for hunters and fishers in the area, especially with the Eglinton River just across the road. There are also populations of long-tailed and short-tailed bats living here, the only native land mammals in New Zealand, and I enjoy talking about them with the guests.

Looking out from the visitor's centre to the left, you can see a series of small hills below the mountains which are where a retreating glacier left its final mark on the valley. These “knobs” gave the area its name and were formed when glacial meltwater washed gravel into the hollows the glacier left behind. 

This is a favourite fishing and camping spot of mine because the unique, dynamic environment is always changing, and I witnessed it firsthand during a recent camping trip down by the river with my son. Rain was forecast for overnight, but we had no idea there would be such a downpour. We woke up to find one whole section of the riverbank had been completely washed away, revealing a whole new look for that river section. 

I also love this spot because we bring guests down here to enjoy morning tea in peace beside the river. Larger vehicles & the big buses can’t get down to the riverside, so it’s the perfect opportunity to break away from any crowds and enjoy the tranquil setting amongst the tussocks, birdsong, and the bubbling river in front of us with a backdrop of tree-cloaked mountains. Getting to start so many mornings like this and sharing it with our guests is one of the greatest parts of my job as a guide and the perfect beginning to the incredible journey along the Milford Road

Want to join me in my office (our beautiful Luxe small group coaches)? Check out our full Milford Sound Tour here.

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