As a proud ex-pat Kiwi, I head home to New Zealand every chance I get to visit friends and family. The downside is I am usually visiting the same (lovely) places every time. But sometimes I want to branch out and see somewhere new, because there is no end of beauty in NZ. So when I visit friends in Lake Hawea, outside Queenstown, I finally take the chance to visit somewhere I have always wanted to visit – New Zealand’s wet and wonderful Milford Sound, in Fiordland.
Wet & wonderful Milford Sound
I come here expecting rain and I am not disappointed. Milford Sound has the highest annual rainfall at sea level anywhere in the world – more than 6 metres of rain each year. It rains 2 days out of 3, but usually not all day every day. Of course it is the rain that makes it so stunning, lush rainforest clinging to vertical cliff faces and waterfalls twice the height of Niagara. Perversely, my best chance of a blue sky day is in winter time, but then I am only going to see the five permanent waterfalls, and not the thousands of temporary ones which appear during every rainfall and disappear about a few hours later.
Remote Milford Sound
One of the reasons I have never been into the Sounds is because it is a remote and difficult area to access. There are 16 fiords on the bottom half of the western coast of the South Island of New Zealand. They are hidden behind the Southern Alps, have almost no road access, and open into the Tasman Sea, a notoriously rough piece of water.
But the sounds themselves are deep, calm and serene, up to 500 metres deep, surrounded by sheer cliffs (the highest is 1,600 m) soaring vertically above the sounds, and protected from the sea by many twists and turns.
The thrill of the road to Milford
The drive out to Milford Sound is as stunning and as much an adventure as the Sounds themselves. We pass down the side of Lake Wakatipu, and then stop at Kingston early on, to jump on board the Kingston Flyer. This restored steam engine takes me back to another era of travel for the half hour chug through the countryside to Fairlight, where the bus picks us up again. The high country farmland turns into ski fields, and as we go ever higher up through the Alps and over two high mountain passes, the view from the road alternates between soaring and scary. The penultimate point is passing through the very steep, one-way, 1.2km Homer Tunnel at the top of the pass. On the descent to Milford the view changes again to lush alpine rain forest. We get lots of photo stops as the driver stops whenever we request it, but the rain is so heavy it makes getting the photos quite difficult, (and staying dry impossible)!
The landscapes are dramatic – I recommend stopping at the Chasm, just after the tunnel on the Milford Sound side – the river levels here rises 3.9 metres on the day we stop by, and the small streams become raging glacial torrents. The same big rain dump has trapped about 120 hikers on the famous Milford Trail and other neighbouring trails – stuck between trekking huts, between rivers both in front of and behind them which have become too dangerous to cross, they all have to be helicoptered out.
Overnight on Milford Sound
Once in Milford we get onto our boat as soon as we can and head out into the Sound. The towering vertical walls, clad in rainforest, are so straight up & down that the boat can get really close, nosing in under waterfalls just a few feet from the cliffs, but still with a huge depth beneath the boat. It’s magical, with views emerging from and disappearing back into the rainclouds. As I am already wet from the rain, I have no hesitation to get even wetter standing too close to waterfalls, almost being knocked over by their sheer force. I stay outside, and wet, for a good couple of hours as we cruise up the Sound. The only downside of the wild weather is that it is deemed unsafe to let us out in the kayaks. I have been looking forward to getting out on the water for a paddle. Instead I take advantage of the hot shower and hair dryer in my comfy little cabin. Dry and warm again, I make friends with other passengers over a delicious dinner. I enjoy some good NZ pinot noir with my new-found friends, and the evening is topped off with an entertaining talk from the onboard nature guide. I feel pleasantly exhausted.
Morning on Milford Sound
I know something is good if I am up at sunrise (not normally a morning person), and this is a good one. I can see a rain-free and snow-capped Milford sound in all its cloudy glory (and yes, the winter snows also started last night!). We head out through the mouth of the Sound into the Tasman Sea, the dolphins find us and swim alongside, we pass some seals resting on the rocks, but no penguins today. We cruise back up the Sound, revisiting the scenes of the previous days waterfalls, many of which have now disappeared. Everything looks different and new again without the torrential rain, and I am sure that will be true again if I ever get to see it in sunlight.
The locals say that if you want a change of weather in Milford, just wait a few hours. I contemplate this as I sink into my hot tub back in Queenstown.