Just before the Milford Road begins its descent through the Cleddau Valley into Milford Sound, it passes through the Homer Tunnel, a 1.2km-long tunnel through solid rock. Before the tunnel opened in 1954 after 19 years of construction, there was no road access to Milford Sound.
Although the Homer Tunnel is wide enough for a bus and a small vehicle to pass each other, traffic lights operate during the busy summer months to keep it safe. The tunnel is a fairly steep 1:10 gradient running east to west.
The tunnel passes through the Darran mountain range, below the Homer Saddle, and into the Cleddau Valley, 945 metres above sea level. Both the tunnel and saddle are named after William Henry Homer, who discovered the saddle along with George Barber in 1889 while on a surveying expedition. At the time, Homer is said to have suggested that a tunnel under the mountains would be the best way to bring a road to Milford Sound. However, it took many decades before his idea became reality.
Building the Homer Tunnel
In 1935, during the Great Depression, the government sent a team of relief workers to start work on the tunnel. At first a team of just five men worked with pickaxes to carve away at the rock. Over the years the numbers grew, with the workers living in a large camp on Knobs Flat. The men worked in very tough conditions, often in extremely cold and windy weather, but they persevered.
Although the workers broke through to the other side just five years later, it took much longer to widen the tunnel so it was safe for cars. The project was delayed by World War II, and then again in 1945 by a large avalanche.
The Homer Tunnel finally opened in 1954, meaning more and more visitors could access this natural wonder. Passing through the tunnel and seeing the steep, winding road leading down through the Cleddau Valley is nothing short of breathtaking.
If you are driving yourself to Milford Sound, pay attention to all the road signs and traffic lights leading up to the tunnel. There are no lights inside the tunnel, so when it’s time to drive through, make sure you take your sunglasses off and turn your headlights on.