What to do in Milford Sound Milford Road

Milford Sound Road

Essential Information & Current Milford Road Status:

The most scenic drive in New Zealand

As you travel along the Milford Road and enjoy all that it has to offer travellers, spare a thought for the men and women who battled the elements to make your journey possible.

Conceived long before the modern machinery we have now, this road is a true labour of love, built with picks, shovels and sheer willpower and woven all through with the life stories, struggles and dramas of the people who built it.

Avalanche Awareness in Winter

Avalanches have always been a feature of this landscape, in fact they have helped shape it. They can flatten a forest in seconds and the wind blast that accompanies them can rip the concrete from bridges.

So the better we are able to predict them, the lower the danger. When this road was being built, several workers were killed by avalanches, but we haven’t lost anyone since a local overseer died in 1983. The Avalanche Awareness Programme was put in place very soon after. It’s one of the most advanced and extensive in the world.

The avalanche zone is a 21 kilometre stretch of the Milford Road which spans the Homer Tunnel. It’s a no-stopping area bound by avalanche control gates and is the only stretch of public road in New Zealand that’s affected by avalanches. Forty avalanche paths run across this stretch of road, but we know where they are, and they’re monitored as part of the programme. The many systems in place have ensured that although 1000 cars and buses can travel this route every day, no drivers have been injured by an avalanche for more than a decade.

Monitoring Avalanche Danger

Downer EDI Works, which is contracted by Transit NZ to monitor the snow, has an observation post up at 1800 metres on Mount Crosscut, from which they get a clear view of this valley and the Homer Tunnel.

During certain weather events, teams of technicians head up there to a little hut, perched high on a crag and built to withstand winds of 300 kilometres an hour! Inside they have a small living area, sleeping quarters and a separate toilet. It’s insulated and has its own generator, so in a bad snowstorm they can hunker down and stay cosy. Going out to the bathroom, though, could be a hazardous expedition involving crampons, an ice-pick and a bathroom door blocked by snow!

The guys can be up there for days at a time and need excellent alpine skills. They also have the job of collecting and analysing snow data. The technicians must make regular trips to the snowfields to assess snow stability based on a series of complex measurements. Information also comes in from five high-altitude weather stations that give a clear picture of conditions, and a network of satellites can help with forecasts.

After a five-year study of these mountains in conjunction with the US University of Washington, scientists were more able to predict how our snow behaves in certain weather conditions, such as warm sun, heavy rain, blizzards or high winds. With the new equipment and study data, technicians can now tell where the snow builds up, what its temperature is and where it would go if it slipped. By combining and analysing all this information, they are pretty good at evaluating and minimising the risk and can close the road if necessary. When a build-up looks precarious, they can use explosives to bring the avalanche down safely while the road is closed.

Keeping the Road Clear

Down in the valley, Transit New Zealand also spends a great deal of money each year clearing the road of avalanche blockages, day and night, sometimes in horrendous weather. They deploy convoys of snow ploughs, trucks and even helicopters to help clear the road as fast as possible. They’re also quick to rescue any broken-down or bogged vehicles, because stationary traffic is obviously more at risk than moving traffic. Keeping this stretch of road in good working order is a constant challenge, especially in winter!

Outside of these valleys, the whole scheme is backed up with a public education campaign, and a well-drilled search and rescue team on standby.

So with a combination of risk analysis, snow clearing, public awareness and road closures, we’re able to drastically reduce the odds of anyone being caught in an avalanche. Having said that though, nothing—especially nature—is one hundred percent predictable. The only way to absolutely guarantee motorists’ safety would be to close the road permanently. And look at what we’d be missing out on!

Early History: Proposed but not Started

The Milford Road was first proposed around the time that the Milford Track was built in the late 1880s, as it became clear that the Track would not be suitable for vehicles. The Otago Provincial Council wanted a route from Queenstown to Milford so they could send the area’s gold out more easily. It would probably have followed the Greenstone or Caples Track from Lake Wakatipu, crossed the Divide and then continued along this route.

One of Jamestown’s early settlers, Mr Henry Homer, explored the area and discovered the only thing hampering access to Milford—a mountainous ridge that became known as the Homer Saddle. He figured out that drilling a tunnel through this wall of rock would make the whole thing possible. He pressured the authorities to build it, and in 1890 a surveyor did a feasibility study and concluded that it could be done.

For some reason, no action was taken at the time and the findings were filed away for 30 years. The Otago gold rush faded away and the focus moved to Te Anau rather than Queenstown. In the mid 1920s, work began on the first stretch of road along Lake Te Anau. It was very narrow and precarious in places, but you could just about squeeze a car through, which was good news for the local farmers who had previously had to transport their wool by boat.

The Depression Hits & Work Starts

In 1929 the global depression hit and countless men lost their jobs. Pondering the crisis, some bright spark in the government found the ideal way to create a few jobs. They employed 200 men to widen and improve the new road along Lake Te Anau, initially to Te Anau Downs. As the depression continued, so did the road’s progress, with construction passing the Downs and reaching right up to the Divide by the end of 1933. Homer’s old tunnel campaign and the feasibility plans were taken out and dusted off, with a view to linking the new road into it. Suddenly the Milford Road was all happening.

Forty-six years after Homer had first had the idea, five men armed with picks and shovels hacked through to the solid bedrock of the Homer Saddle and brought in the heavy machinery to start drilling.

Early Life on the Road

Because it was such a remote area, the road-builders and engineers lived in makeshift camps along the road. As the road pushed forward into the mountains, the camp would pack up and move with it. In fact, you can see the remains of the old concrete bakehouse from one of the camps on the left as we approach Milford, so keep an eye out for that.

In 1934 one engineer, Lex Brotherston, lobbied for his wife and new baby to be allowed to join him. It was the first time a woman was permitted to live at the road camp. Twenty-four year-old Mary arrived in the wilderness in the back of a van in pouring rain with her baby daughter in her arms, and was ushered into a small 10-foot wide tent which flapped in the wind. Their only furniture was a metal bed with a straw mattress, and a few wooden boxes. Despite the high altitude and cold nights, all cooking and washing had to be done outside on open fires, and fresh water was collected from melted snow.

You might not think these were ideal conditions in which to raise young children, but the family soon grew with the birth of a second daughter followed by a son, and eventually other workers’ families joined the Brotherstons until the camp rang with the voices of children. They made little gardens along the road to grow strawberries and vegetables, and created cricket and football pitches at Knob’s Flat.

When the road passed the Divide, basic huts and houses were built at the Hollyford junction, for families and married couples. This was not an idyllic place—the mountains blocked out the sunlight and barely a single plant survived in the rocky ground. Mary and the other wives and children would frequently hear the long and terrifying rumble of avalanches, and prayed that their ramshackle lodgings would not be hit. When blasting began on the Homer Tunnel, the constant roar of dynamite and exploding rock would assault their eardrums day and night, and the sound of the all-clear bell was always a welcome relief.

Dangerous & Challenging Work

Life for the road-camp men was even more risky. For starters, they were digging the tunnel downhill, which meant that the 8,000 gallons of icy-cold melted snow that seeped into the tunnel every hour, simply collected in a big cold lake in the exact area where they needed to work. This meant they had to install and run noisy pumps to get it out.

They also drilled the tunnel through by the shortest route, but this put it in a frequent avalanche zone. In 1934 five men, their tents and equipment were engulfed and swept down the slope. They survived, but their clothes were ripped from their bodies—not what you need on a snowy night!

Then, in 1936, as workers were excavating the tunnel, an avalanche roared down and engulfed their hut. One man was killed and several more injured. The following year two more men were killed by the wind blast as another high-speed avalanche crashed past them. In 1945 an avalanche destroyed a concrete “avalanche-proof” tunnel that led to the entrance! Needless to say it was not rebuilt…

After years living, working and raising families in these hazardous and harsh conditions, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Having hacked and dynamited their way through 1.2 kilometres of solid rock, the workers emerged into daylight in the Cleddau Valley. Just as you will when you, too, emerge from the dark tunnel.

A Pause in Work Before The Road Opens in 1954

Soon after, work ceased on the project for a while. The camps packed up and the families moved away, because the outbreak of the Second World War meant that everyone was needed elsewhere for the war effort.

The Milford Road lay quiet for nearly a decade, but the bulk of the work was done, and in 1951 when the project resumed it just needed the finishing touches and a road link from the tunnel down to Milford Sound. In 1954 the tunnel was officially opened, meaning that public traffic could finally rumble the 121 kilometres of unsealed road all the way from Te Anau to Milford.

The first section of road was sealed in the 1960s, but it remained closed during the winter, because of the weather conditions. In the 1970s fishermen and local tourism operators successfully lobbied to keep it open year-round, andthe Avalanche Programme soon followed, making the drive a safer experience at any time of year.

The stretch of road between the Divide and the Homer Tunnel, which is less than 20 minutes is true mountain territory,and alsoavalanche territory, so we’d like to tell you a little bit about the Avalanche Awareness Scheme, which helps manage the risk.