If there’s one thing you can’t miss while on holiday in Queenstown, it’s Milford Sound. Even a bungy jump – while a strongly suggested addition to your itinerary – should fall second to a journey to this much-reputed fiord in South West New Zealand. And – should you think I’m making all this up – take a look at the results from Trip Advisor’s 2008 Travelers’ Choice Destination Awards. Second place went to Queenstown, which is obviously exciting in and of itself. First place. though? Milford Sound, baby. But before visiting, even I had to ask: just what exactly is all the fuss about?
I decided I had to find out for myself. Among the locals of Queenstown, there is quite the debate over whether Milford Sound is better than Doubtful Sound, a sort of “sister fiord” to Milford, only much larger and closer to Queenstown. But is bigger always better? Despite my doubts about which to visit, in the end it was a pretty obvious answer. Could I really leave New Zealand next year without visiting Milford Sound and still hold my head up high? And so my flatmate Jordan and I departed Queenstown on a Real Journeys coach bus and began the five-hour trek through Te Anau and Milford Road and Homer Tunnel to a far corner of Fiordland National Park. That might be the first thing that helps to explain the allure of Milford, simply the absolute remoteness of its location. It is a mission to reach, situated far from any largely populated area – 295 kilometers from Queenstown and 279 from Invercargill. It’s one road in, one road out – a road often subject to avalanches, further heightening the challenge of reaching the sound. But reach it they do, with over 550,000 visitors a year paying homage to what even Rudyard Kipling called the eighth wonder of the world.
If the not-exactly-convenient location doesn’t seem to thwart the influx of visitors, you’d think at least the weather would. Milford Sound receives a mean annual rainfall of 6,813 mm on 182 days a year – so much rain, in fact, that it’s often considered the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand. When someone asks you if you had good weather on your trip to Milford, it’s a bit of a tricky answer. Although sun is often equated with good weather and rain might be classed as less-than-desired conditions to visit anywhere else, Milford Sound in the rain – not to be ironic or witty in any way – is when it shines, when it puts on its best performance. The copious amount of rainfall creates hundreds of temporary waterfalls in addition to all of the permanent ones already gracing the cliffs with their presence.
The mist generated from these falls, combined with the already heavy fog hanging over the walls of the fiord, makes for quite the surreal scene. Jordan and I discovered this not long after our cruise left the dock at Milford Village. While we had originally intended to join the masses on a day trip to the sound, the locals’ discount offered on overnight cruises made it a whopping four extra dollars to go from two-hour scenic cruise (picnic lunch provided, of course) to eighteen hours on the sound, inclusive of accommodation, dinner and breakfast, and our choice of water activity. Talk about value for money. It wasn’t a hard decision to make, trust me.
We left the dock at 4:30 in the afternoon and were welcomed on board the Milford Mariner with tea, coffee, and – much to the delight of our hunger – muffins! We spent close to an hour cruising the sound before anchoring for the night in Harrison Cove. So many aspects of the trip kept giving us reasons to be glad we came. When Jordan and I found our room for the night (I kept wanting to refer to it as our berth, so nautically-inspired was I), we collapsed on the beds in sheer giddy gratitude for the chance to spend one night on a proper mattress covered with clean, proper sheets and a proper duvet. (Alternatively, spend one night in our house and you’ll see where I’m coming from.) And then I couldn’t have been happier to find a piano conveniently positioned in the ship’s “saloon,” i.e. main dining and lounging area. As if my first overnight cruise on Milford Sound wasn’t already guaranteed to be perfect, it’s like someone went, “Here, Candace, you want perfect? You even get to play the piano.” I played a few of my songs and laughed when everyone in the saloon clapped and told me to keep going – what more could I have really asked for?
Well, kayaking it seems. I mentioned earlier a water activity being part of the night, and it was our choice between a kayak and a seat on a guided tender craft. When the time came to choose, though, Jordan and I found ourselves between a rock and a hard place. In the days preceding the trip, I had – per usual – told everyone I would be going kayaking, leaving out the fact that I’d only been once before on Beachcomber Island in Fiji (and I’ll leave you to assume how that ended up for me…) So when the time came to strap on a life vest and pick up a paddle, I wasn’t quite as keen as I was originally. Part of our dilemma arose out of the fact that it somehow didn’t register with us to pack activity-appropriate clothing. Thus, if we happened to tip (an outcome we both considered highly likely), we would be – for lack of a better term – screwed for the night. But then there was a little thing called our pride at stake. We stood on the lower level of the Mariner, where on one side people queued up for a kayak, and on the other side, a line formed for the tender craft ride – a line comprised mainly of those white-haired retirees I mentioned in my last post. There was no doubt about it, the tender craft would be safe, but is that really what we came for? Could we go back to Queenstown and tell our friends, “Man, was that guided boat ride a thrill or what?” In the end, we stripped down to our bare essentials (still including pants, of course), leaving behind a few bits and pieces so that in the event of an unexpected swim in the sound, we wouldn’t be left entirely high and dry (or should I say, not dry?) and got in those kayaks. Just like that day in the bungy pod, there was no way I could have realistically come all this way and not kayaked in Milford Sound.
And oh was it worth it. Within five minutes you know this is what the fuss is all about, the utter magic of the fiord. A light rain was falling, not too intense, hardly noticeable, just enough to mist around you as you glided through the stillest water you’ve ever seen. The walls of the fiord are insanely steep, the rock faces rising over 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) above you. Waterfalls abound, cascades of all sizes and lengths, running down the rock and through the deep green trees and foliage clinging to the near-vertical cliffs. You feel infinitesimal, absolutely engulfed by this overwhelming display of nature in its most majestic and untainted state. You could be in Lord of the Rings or on the set of some other fantasy film, surely anywhere but in the real world. I was silent, partly due to my intense concentration that I would not tip over, but also due to yet another moment of disbelief – “Am I really here?”
We followed along the edge of the cove, paddling up to where the cliffs met the water to view trees that had fallen into the sound as a result of tree avalanches. At a wider stretch of shoreline, we paused in order to wait for the chance to view the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Although I laughed at the contradictory language used in Real Journey’s brochure, which stated, “Rare penguins can often be seen,” this particular penguin is indeed rare, with only 2,000 breeding pairs left in the world – a fact that made my first penguin sighting that much sweeter. Despite the initial empty shoreline, it wasn’t long before three little penguins were seen making their way out of the trees, using their adorable “waddle-waddle-jump!” method to get from rock to rock before diving into the water. Our kayak guide (coincidentally also Skip, our bus driver as you may remember from my last post) advised a few more inquisitive members of our group to stay away from the shore – “We don’t want to intimidate them.” Fair enough, Skip, but dontcha think a group of twenty people wearing bright yellow life vests, sitting in bright yellow kayaks, holding bright yellow paddles, waiting eagerly to see them, has already posed a big enough threat of intimidation? Not to mention ruining the aesthetics of the scene…
With the success of a dry kayak ride and a rare penguin sighting behind us, the dinner bell beckoned us back on board the Mariner for a well-deserved, delicious three-course buffet dinner. French bread and dips, cream of mushroom soup, roast lamb, and the best dessert table this side of the equator –I was in love. As tempting as an hour-long slideshow and talk on Milford Sound sounded for the perfect post-dinner activity, Jordan and I opted to camp out in the saloon, working on writing projects and application essays while other passengers broke out poker sets, Yahtzee and Connect-4. It was low-key and internet-free, everything a night away from Queenstown should be.
The next morning, after feasting (okay, gorging…) ourselves on a breakfast buffet (including the cutest little jars of Marmite called Just-mite), we went outside to the deck as the boat set off for a longer cruise around the fiord. What I hadn’t realized before the trip is that Milford Sound is actually connected to the ocean, running fifteen kilometers inland from the Tasman Sea. Its entrance isn’t easy to spot, though, obscured by Dale Point, which meant that it was often overlooked by early whalers and sailors. Even James Cook, one of the first great explorers of New Zealand, passed right by it…several times. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a Welshman, Captain John Grono, sailed into Milford Sound thinking it was a large bay. While not a misunderstanding on the same level as Columbus taking Florida to be India, Grono soon discovered it was anything but a bay and named the fiord after his hometown of Milford Haven in Wales. (Real Journeys then returned the favor, calling their bar on board the Mariner “Grono’s Bar.”)
This connection between the fiord and the Tasman Sea has an interesting effect on the physical makeup of the sound’s water. Although the sea itself is – obviously – saltwater, the high amount of rainfall in the region causes a layer of fresh water to rest on the surface. Much of this layer originates from the rivers and waterfalls emptying into the sound, carrying with them water that has been “stained by tannin and other organic matter from the forest floor” (thank you, Real Journeys brochure – I can only get so technical in my own words.) What all this means is that this fresh water is much darker than usual, the shade of tea, even, and this discoloration does not allow the normal level of sunlight to reach the saltwater (10 meters in the fiord compared to 70 meters on the coast). Thus, marine life, including black coral, which is typically found at much deeper depths, can find a shallower home in Milford Sound.
So it’s no wonder so many people cast their votes for Milford Sound as the #1 can’t-miss. When we finally returned to the dock the next morning, I disembarked completely satisfied, feeling that if I left New Zealand tomorrow, at least I saw everything that I came to see.
But that statement’s never entirely true, now is it?