During one Autumn in New Zealand, we stayed in the town of Te Anau because we wanted to be located close to Milford Sound. As we spent a few weeks there, I created this short guide to visiting Te Anau and Milford Sound.
The first time I visited Milford Sound in 2014, was on a day tour from Queenstown but with a long bus trip of 3 hours each way, it was a long day. And I didn’t feel like I’d spent enough time in the area, nor really seen much of Te Anau. I wanted to see the majestic Milford Sound again but based from Te Anau this time, so I could experience everything that this little town has to offer.
Don’t miss Milford Sound, but especially don’t miss seeing the lake town of Te Anau too and embracing its peaceful nature and stunning landscapes.
GUIDE TO VISITING TE ANAU AND MILFORD SOUND
TE ANAU TOWN
Nestled on the edge of a lake, Te Anau is a quaint little town in the Fiordland region of the South Island and is the gateway for Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park.
Te Anau is also popular with hikers to use as a base when planning to hike the Kepler, Milford or Routeburn tracks.
Aside from the ‘Great Walks’ and Milford Sound, there are many other activities to indulge in, in Te Anau and the Fiordland region.
You can go Trout Fishing or Guided Fly-fishing on the Waiau River. And there’s the Te Anau glow-worm caves, 4WD Expeditions, Horse Treks and Quad biking, Scenic Seaplane flights and boat cruises. You can even do a Beach to Bay Jet-Boat tour for just $49.
Te Anau township is peaceful, picturesque and quaint and huddles the huge Lake Te Anau, which you can walk around, enjoy the view of Mt Luxmore and the Murchison mountains from, or just use the stunning sunsets on the lake as a backdrop for your photography.
And trust me you don’t want to miss sunset on this lake, it is stunning.
HELPX – HELP EXCHANGE IN TE ANAU
My partner and I went to Te Anau for a HelpX placement (Help Exchange) and stayed with the owners of Aden Motel, Irene, Dave and Bella the dog.
Irene and Dave are amazing hosts, incredibly friendly, kind and generous and made us feel so welcome in what was their home and business.
We arrived at the same time as another HelpX traveller from Spain and there were already two other HelpXers from the UK staying there long-term. We all worked 4 hours a day in exchange for a free room and free food.
My partners job was to do the gardening and myself plus the other HelpXers, worked with the staff to clean and service the motel units and work in the laundry area. Work started at 9am every morning and finished around 1pm, then the rest of the day and evening was free for us all to do whatever we wanted.
A few of the afternoons we spent just walking around the lake, checking out the township and sometimes we went to this cute cafe called The Olive Tree, for coffee.
Lake Te Anau is very picturesque so definitely stick around long enough to catch a sunset there, there is a jetty on the lake that acts as the perfect backdrop for amazing sunset photos. It’s probably one of the best photo’s I’ve ever taken in New Zealand.
Also the hosts would often take us out for a scenic drive around the area, or just take us with them when they were going somewhere.
So we didn’t spend any of our budget on accommodation, groceries or transport. Life was pretty sweet.
THINGS TO DO IN TE ANAU
TE ANAU BIRD SANCTUARY
One afternoon we visited Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, its located on the shore of Lake Te Anau and you can walk to it too, it’s just a few minutes walk from the main lakefront area.
Entry is free however, it’s encouraged to give a gold coin donation as this helps with the running costs of the sanctuary.
You can watch the DOC Rangers do daily feedings of the popular sanctuary birds and maybe get a glimpse of the rare, blue Takahē bird.
The DOC Rangers will also tell the amazing survival story that exists around these threatened, prehistoric-looking, flightless birds.
There are also many free-flying birds and up-close viewings of the Kākā, New Zealand’s playful forest parrot’s, Tūī’, Morepork, Fantail’s and Paradise Shelducks. Most birds here have been injured, and are rehabilitated then released back into the wild, wherever possible.
Another day my partner went along with our HelpX host and spent an afternoon fishing on Lake Manapouri. It offers great views of the Kepler Mountains, the Hunter Mountains and has excellent fishing and boating opportunities.
For hikers, Monument Track and Frasers Beach Track can be accessed from Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound can be accessed from Manapouri township.
There is also a half-day Te Anau-Manapouri cycle tour which is probably one of the most scenic bike trails in New Zealand.
On another one of our sunny afternoons off, we hiked a section of the Kepler Track, from a point called Rainbow Reach. This track starts at Rainbow Reach and ends at the Kepler Track car-park and is 2.5 hrs each way and 9.5 km distance (return via same track).
As it’s only a day hike, it’s completely free, no track fees!
There’s a swing-bridge to get to Rainbow Reach, that crosses the Waiau River and my partner correctly identified it as the same river used in scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies – as the ‘River Anduin’. It can be see in the opening aerial shot in The Fellowship of the Ring showing the forested banks of the Anduin River.
RAINBOW REACH ON THE KEPLER TRACK
The Kepler Track then follows the terraces of the Waiau River, through some beautiful, red beech forest. There are great views of the forest and river along this track and it’s a brilliant way of sampling the Kepler Track for free, before doing a multi-day hike.
The track starts from the Kepler Track car-park which is at the southern end of Lake Te Anau, 5 km from the township of Te Anau.
From the DOC Visitor Centre on Lakefront Drive, follow the Manapouri-Te Anau Highway for about 2 km, turn right onto Golf Course Road, then the car-park is sign-posted on the right.
To walk there, follow the track from the Visitor Centre to Kepler Track Car-Park, which is an easy 50 min walking track along the lakes edge.
MILFORD SOUND AND FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK
Our HelpX hosts Irene and Dave gave us a couple of whole days off from doing HelpX work and on one of them, they booked us on a guided tour of Milford Sound.
It was an awesome experience and included the bus tour through Fiordland National Park plus a guided boat tour once we arrived in Milford Sound.
What was most amazing is that it was all completely free!
As our hosts run a local business in Te Anau, they are able to create some great deals with some of the tour companies. So in return for some HelpX’ers hard work, (and at their discretion), they arrange free tours to Milford Sound as a sign of their gratitude.
This is just one of the many perks that come from staying with a HelpX host.
ALIEN COVENANT MOVIE FILMING LOCATION
On that same concept of getting perks from doing HelpX placements, our biggest perk was a unique opportunity, I’d never imagined.
Whilst we were in Te Anau, what we didn’t realise, was that Ridley Scott was filming scenes for his new Alien Covenant movie, right there in Milford Sound!
A few of the crew members on location were staying in accommodation around Te Anau, one of which was Aden Motel.
So the host put in a good word for us with the Location Manager and got us a 2-day casual job as Clean-Up Crew at Milford Sound foreshore.
Our job was basically to comb the foreshore and surrounding area, for debris in the foliage or on the shore, leftover from filming.
This was to comply with DOC (Dept of Conservation) regulations and we had to do this meticulously as DOC inspectors were coming the very next day, to assess and inspect the area used for filming.
After all Milford Sound is a World Heritage site and Rudyard Kipling once called it the Eight Wonder of the World. So some of that is thanks to us – you’re welcome.
It wasn’t a glamorous job but it was pretty exciting to work on a film set location of such a famous movie franchise and meet a couple of crew members.
Even better, on my (in total) third trip to Milford Sound, finally I was blessed with a beautiful weather day!
The landscape of Milford Sound is stunning in any weather but it is notorious for its rain and ‘misty mountains’ conditions. Although the waterfalls look amazing after plenty of Fiordland rainfall, many visitors dream of a sunny day to capture gorgeous, sun-baked shots of Mitre Peak or Stirling Falls.
I’m so happy to have been part of this film location experience and grateful that I spent two days with this as my view.
Don’t bypass the town of Te Anau itself, it’s small but it’s beautiful and has plenty to offer and I loved getting the feel of a quintessential Kiwi lake town. If you have a few days in Te Anau, even in the busy peak season, you can still find a moment of serene peace here.
TE ANAU TOWN LOCAL COMPANIES
Scenic Seaplane Flights – Wings & Water
Te Anau Glowworm Caves – Real Journeys
Jet Boat Fishing – Fiordland Outdoors
The Olive Tree Cafe – Te Anau town centre