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Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

25 April 2010
Coordinates 44°38.340′ S, 167° 53.670′ E 

View of Milford Sound from the summit of Mitre Peak. Photo D Hegg

Milford Sound is the northernmost fjord in Fiordland – and arguably one of the most beautiful ones, due to the steepness and the massive height of the surrounding mountains. It is also the only fjord connected to the New Zealand roading network, which makes it the easiest one to access, the most often visited, and unfortunately the most crowded of all. 

From a tramper’s and a climber’s perspective, Milford Sound gives access to some splendid peaks (Mitre Peak, Mt Pembroke), some good tramping valleys (Tutoko Valley, Harrison River, Gulliver River) and one of the most renowned tracks in New Zealand (the Milford Track). 

Maori legends about Milford Sound

Milford Sound was known to the Maori, who named it Piopiotahi – the single piopio, a now extinct bird. The name derives from a legend about the last endeavour of Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga, the great Polynesian demi-god. Maui set off from Hawaiki accompanied by a piopio, in an attempt to gain immortality for mankind. To achieve his goal, he had to enter the womb of Hinenui-te-Po (the goddess of death), travel through her body and emerge from her mouth. After Maui’s failure and death, the piopio who had witnessed the tragedy, fled south to Milford Sound to mourn for the death of its mate [1,2].  

According to another Maori Legend, Piopiotahi was carved out by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, an atua (godly figure) who was given the task of shaping the Fiordland coast. Chanting a powerful karakia (prayer), he hacked at the towering rock walls with his toki (adze) called Te Hamo. As he worked his way up the coast from south to north his hand improved steadily, and Milford Sound, his final work, was also his masterpiece [3]. The goddess Hinenui-te-Po is held responsible for releasing sandflies into Milford Sound, to prevent human kind from lingering too long in such a beautiful place [3].


Since Milford Sound is surrounded by near vertical mountain ranges on all sides, it comes to no surprise that it was first reached by sea. A sealer from Newport (Wales, UK), Captain John Grono, was the first European to enter the fjord around 1812 on his ship the Bligh. He named the fjord Milford Haven, after a township and a harbour a few km south of his hometown. On 7 March 1851 Captain John Lort Stokes sailed his wooden paddle-steamer HMS Acheron into Milford Sound while on an official survey of the Fiordland coastline. It is quite a coincidence that Stokes was himself from Haverfordwest, only 5km away from Milford Haven – he was only too glad to have a fjord named after his hometown. The fjord was thus renamed Milford Sound, and many of the local features were named after localities near Milford Haven, Wales [4]

Map of Milford Haven, Wales, UK. Adapted from Google Maps Satellite Images.

Among the places named by Stokes are St Anne Point and Dale Point at the mouth of the fjord, Williams(t)on Point near the mouth of the Harrison River, Mt Pembroke, Mt Benton, the Llawrenny Peaks and the Cleddau River [4]. It seems that Williams(t)on Point and the Llawrenny Peaks have been subsequently mis-spelled. 

In 1878, Donald Sutherland built a hut in Milford Sound, where he was to settle. But it wasn’t until 1888 that an overland route to the fjord was found, with McKinnon and Mitchell crossing the McKinnon Pass from the head of Lake Te Anau [4]. Their route is today the popular Milford Track. An overland route from the Hollyford had to wait even longer, with Grave and Talbot discovering Grave-Talbot Pass and completing its first crossing in early January 1910 [5]. At the time, there was no road past Te Anau Downs station on the shore of Lake Te Anau. The construction of the Milford Road up the Eglinton Valley began in 1929, and J.H. Christie surveyed the location for a road tunnel connecting Milford Sound to the Hollyford during the summer 1933-1934. The Homer Tunnel (the last missing link in the Milford Road) was opened to the public in 1954 [4].


[1] Reed, A.W. (1996) The Reed Dictionary of Māori Place Names, 3rd Edition. Published by Reed Books. 144 pages

[2] p145 in Reed, A.W. (2004) Reed Book of Maori mythology. Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd. 528 pages

[3] p4-6 in Reed, A.W. (2006) Reed Book of Maori exploration. Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd. 292 pages

[4] Hall-Jones, J. (2000) Milford Sound – an illustrated history of the sound, the track and the road. Published by Craig Printing Ltd, Invercargill, NZ. 148 pages 

[5] Crozier, A. (2001) Beyond the Southern Lakes – the explorations of W.G. Grave. Published by Reed Books, Auckland, NZ. 200 pages. 


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