Milford Sound is the most northerly of the fiords indenting the south-western coastline of the South Island; it occupies the trunk portion of a formerly glaciated valley system cut deeply below the surrounding mountains. The mountains rise to heights of 6,000 ft above sea level, and the deepest point of the fiord, near Stirling Falls, is 1,280 ft below sea level. The Arthur and Cleddau Rivers occupy the Milford Valley and enter the head of the fiord; a delta built across the mouth of the Arthur Valley by the Cleddau River is slowly cutting off part of the Sound to form a freshwater lake. The Arthur Valley is occupied by Lake Ada, 3 miles long, which is dammed up partly by old glacial moraine and partly by landslides from the walls of Arthur Valley. From its head, the Sound follows an irregular course for 9 miles to the sea and is joined by Bowen, Sinbad, Harrison, and Stirling Rivers whose valleys were formerly occupied by tributary glaciers. Harrison Valley is still occupied at its head by a small glacier that terminates at an estimated height of 4,500 ft on the south-east slopes of Mt. Pembroke (6,710 ft). Stirling Falls (480 ft), and Bowen Falls (520 ft) spout from hanging valleys over near-vertical faces to the Sound. The inner reach of the Sound has very steep walls reaching heights of 5,560 ft at Mitre Peak and 4,150 ft at the Lion. Like many of the other fiords, Milford is deeper in the inner reaches than about the entrance, and about 1 mile seaward off Stirling Falls the deep basin rises abruptly to a sill at 360 fathoms. Beyond this the floor of the Sound forms a basin a little deeper than 360 ft, which extends out for 2 miles on to the shelf bordering the west coast; the western end of this basin is separated from the indented continental slope by a sill in 240 ft. The basin and sills were formed by glacial erosion which was a result of the confining by the steep fiord walls of the former valley glacier.
Milford Sound offers what is probably the most spectacular fiord scenery in the southern hemisphere, and the well-known and striking views of Mitre Peak from the head of the fiord form the subject of innumerable paintings, postcards, posters, and pictorial postage stamps. The area is well served with tourist amenities, and the luxurious Hotel Milford is situated at the head of the fiord. Visitors may travel to Milford either by car or bus on the Te Anau – Eglinton – Homer Tunnel road, or by plane from Queenstown, Te Anau, or further afield, or by walking the Milford Track from Te Anau. Tourist ships occasionally visit Milford but there has been no regular service by sea for many years. Apart from the amusements provided by the hotel, the attractions of Milford are confined to sightseeing, short walks about the head of the fiord, launch trips and sea fishing and, for the more energetic, tramping and mountaineering. But the sheer impressiveness of the scenery is sufficient to make a visit well worthwhile even if it is only to the head of the fiord.
The first settlers at Milford were Donald Sutherland, J. McKay, and J. Malcolm who, in 1877–80 built permanent huts both at the head of the fiord and at Anita Bay near the entrance. At first they were interested in deposits of asbestos and greenstone at Anita Bay, but in later years Sutherland married and settled down in the homestead at the head of the fiord.
by Bryce Leslie Wood, M.SC., New Zealand Geological Survey, Dunedin.