Beautiful. Stunning. Jaw-dropping. All the superlatives apply to Milford Sound in New Zealand. Of the twelve sounds that Maori legend Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved from the rock of the southwestern coastline, he’d deemed this one the most perfect. Fog hugs the mountaintops, fur seals snooze on the rocks, waterfalls cascade down the steep cliffs. I visited on a sunny day, and was astonished by the clarity of light, the sharp beauty of everything I saw.
Milford is remote enough that you can only sleep out there on the extreme ends of the income scale–in the one hotel at the pier, or in a tent in the hills, as part of a multi-day trek. Most people take day trips out there, and it can be exhausting. I heeded the warnings to not go from Queenstown and back again in the same day, because it was too much time on a bus and not enough time enjoying the sights. Instead, I used Te Anau, the town about halfway between Queenstown and Milford, as my starting and ending point for the day. This was the right decision. I was so much more enthralled by the scenery than I would have been if I’d spent an extra four hours on a bus.
This area of New Zealand is known as Fiordland, and most of that is part of Fiordlands National Park, a mountainous area with no industry other than tourism and a few dairy farms on the outskirts. When I visited, there was talk of bringing the west coast highway down through the mountains to connect to Milford. A lot of people are against it, since that would cut through some of the more remote parts of the wilderness and significantly alter the landscape and its accessibility. For now, there’s just the one road, coming in from Te Anau. It’s closed when it’s too wet or snowy. The park department triggers avalanches during winter, like planned fires in forests, so that they know when they’re going to happen and people won’t be caught in them.
The drive out to the sound is gorgeous as well. The bus driver gave us a few facts and figures as we wended our way through fields of invasive lupins, and I tried to pay attention to what he was saying as I stared out the windows. We made a few stops, at the Mirror Lakes and at a large field with a view of the mountains we were driving into. We drove through Homer Tunnel, the only part of the road built by blasting through solid rock. Once we were on the other side, I felt just how far from everything we were. The open spaces of the meadows were gone, and in their place jagged rocks stretched in the rare blue sky.
I boarded a Southern Discoveries boat with about 50 other people, and we set off into the wide ellipse of the sound. Or rather, the fiord. All the English names for the ragged inlets in the area are geographically incorrect; sounds are formed when a river valley is flooded, whereas fiords (or fjords, both spellings are correct) are formed by glaciers cutting out the rock of the surrounding mountains and melting to fill up the resultant valley. Both the bus driver and the guide on the boat relayed this information, so I guess it’s an important distinction, but I have to say that when you’re on a boat in the middle of Milford, it doesn’t matter if it’s a sound or a fiord, it’s just lovely.
It had rained pretty heavily the days before my visit, so the waterfalls that ring the fiord were full. We slowed down near most of them so we could get a good look, but for a couple, the captain piloted the boat right up under the falls so the prow–and anyone on it–got soaked in the spray. Further proof that anywhere you go in New Zealand, you should bring a raincoat.
Fur seals sunned themselves on rocks in a couple places, and at one point I even saw a baby snuggled up next to its mother. The boat went out almost to the mouth of the fiord, and we squinted out to the Tasman Sea and pretended to be able to see Australia. Then we circled round on the other side, looking at the treevalanches and mossy cliffs.
We passed Lady Bowen Falls on the way back into harbor, and with one last glance back at Mitre Peak, which had only just emerged from the fog, the boat trip was over.
Milford was certainly full of tourists, but we were all so spread out that it didn’t feel crowded. Even the occasional helicopter tour overhead couldn’t do much to detract from the beauty and peace of the day. I’ve heard that Doubtful Sound is just as stunning and less crowded, which makes sense since it’s more remote and difficult to reach, so I’ll simply add that to the list of places I’ve missed on this trip and want to see on the next go-round. In the meantime, Milford is firmly on the list of highlights of this trip.