Kipling is rumored to have named Milford Sound the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. He also — verifiably — said that New Zealanders are great tellers of tales. Perhaps the former is merely an example of the latter…
But as much as that particular claim to fame is debatable, the splendor of Milford Sound is not. And today, courtesy of JUCY, I was lucky enough to see it for myself by going for a cruise in Milford Sound!
We set out from Te Anau early, skirting the eastern shore of the lake until its two southernmost fiords disappeared from view. Within minutes, the New Zealand countryside seemed to swallow us. Rolling green hills speckled with thick copses of scrub-like trees alternated with vast ocher fields, both of which stretched on to encircling mountains shrouded in mist. A thick blanket of clouds hung in the sky, blocking out any trace of blue.
As we drove, our guide talked about the history of the area, the national park and its trail system, as well as the settlers and explorers before it all came to be. A native of the area, he worked in the national park itself during the early 80s, helping craft some of the smaller treks. “You see those triangles on the trees?” he asked as we drove past. “Those are to show where the predator traps are. Cats, rats, stoats, ferrets… they all hunt and wipe out the native birds. We used to work to the sound of wood pigeons in the trees. In the past couple of weeks coming out here, I’ve only heard one.”
The Milford Road took us past the Eglinton River, winding its convoluted way through a twisting series of sandbars and channels. Partway along the river, we came to our first stop. “Walk along the boardwalk just over there,” our driver told us, pointing the way. “I’ll pick you up at the other end.” Intrigued, we stepped out,, and found ourselves looking out over the Eglinton Valley. A small lake — more of a pond, actually — lay before us, giving way to thick reeds. When the wind stills, the surface is so calm you can see the reflection of the mountains, hence the name: Mirror Lakes. That day, a small breeze spoiled the effect, but it still made for a pleasant stop.
Further in, we crested The Divide, the pass over which the Milford Road drops. As we passed over, we could see snow-capped peaks looming out of the mist. Just as leaving Te Anau seemed to plunge us into another world, so too did crossing The Divide transport us to an epic land of peaks, and glaciers, and time nearly frozen.
The water in the river became a brilliant glacial blue, charming those of us who were lucky enough to be sitting on the right side of the bus. We would stop on the return journey for a drink from the spring, just below the point where it emerges filtered and frigid from its journey underground. Few drinks of water have ever been more refreshing!
Then, a short time later, we arrived.
Even from the dock, the view was stunning. The fiord stretched away from us towards sheer peaks plunging directly into the water as clouds swirled about their flanks. The sun hid its face, but patches of blue sky peeked through the partially dissipated cover of clouds.
Soon we were underway, and I jumped at the chance to avail myself of the on-board Pita Pit. That’s right… Pita Pit. On the boat. I love this century! I was so eager to devour my lunch that the following will have to do in place of a picture.
After sending the pita into the pit of my stomach, I climbed up to the top deck and moved to the rail. Milford Sound rolled past like a vision, and the plunging walls of the fiord stretched up to the sky. The scale of it is massive. I’d seen pictures aplenty before going, but nothing could’ve prepared me for just how big everything was.
We moved through the fiord at a leisurely pace, the massive cliffs to our left sliding past. Birds of various types made their perches on the cliffside as they rested from wheeling overhead. A few New Zealand fur seals sunned themselves lazily on a rock, flapping their flippers to swat away the omnipresent sandflies. A pod of dolphins even made an appearance, though we’ll hold off on talking about them for a few paragraphs…
At last, we emerged from the fiord to where it greets the Tasman Sea, the narrow gorge opening up into the gaping emptiness of a pelagic horizon. Named for the Dutch explorer who ‘discovered’ New Zealand in 1642, the Tasman Sea separates New Zealand from its neighbor, Australia.
We skirted the opposite side of the fiord on the return trip, the slight shift of perspective made it seem like we were exploring an entirely different area. I eagerly found a spot on the left rail, waiting for what I knew was coming… Stirling Falls.
Remember that photo of the waterfall earlier in this post? Think about the scale of that picture when you look at the next two shots. That boat with its nose in the spray is a large one. Now look how small that boat is compared to the waterfall. Lastly, look at how small the waterfall is compared to the peaks. THAT is just how epic the scenery in Milford Sound is.
Then, muttered to the point we almost missed it: “No good free-loaders.”
Lucky enough to be down below when the dolphins were spotted, I was able to get a prime position to watch them surf along with us. They’re beautiful animals, and move through the water with the grace of dancers. Foolish as the notion was, I couldn’t shake the desire to pitch myself overboard and try swimming with them. Someday…
After the dolphins, I spent the last few minutes with my camera stowed, soaking in the majesty around me. The time had passed all too quickly, and I found myself wishing I could stay. A good sign of thoroughly enjoying a place is missing it before you even leave!
Further along the road, we passed through the harrowing darkness of the Homer Tunnel — a 1.2 km long shaft carved through the rock of the mountain in the first half of the 20th century. We stopped at the far mouth of it, disembarking the bus to soak in more amazing views. “Don’t cross the road, the oncoming cars don’t want you for a hood ornament,” our driver warned us, though some pointedly ignored the advice.
Our last stop was at the glacial spring we’d passed on the way in, where we filled our water bottles up with pure water fresh from the glacier. In the parking area, two keas clambered over parked cars, pecking stubbornly at any and every exposed bit of rubber. Endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand, the kea is the only species of alpine parrot in the world. Our driver had lots to say about the strange bird, waxing on about their cheeky nature, and how “they move about on the ground with a funny wee step… you’ll see!” Seconds after seeing one, I immediately understood his fondness for the birds. They’re hilarious to watch, and seem just about as mischievous as an animal can.
We left the keas to their shenanigans and piled once more into the bus. The atmosphere was quiet, lethargic, weary… People napped in their seats, or stared silently out the windows at the majestic scenery rolling away. It was a quiet atmosphere, but it was a content one. Each and every one of us were thinking about what we’d just seen, and I’m sure many were already thinking about how soon we could go back.
If you’d like to go on the same adventure, follow THIS LINK (non-affiliate) to book your own tour!
Have you ever been on a cruise in Milford Sound? If so, what did you think? If not, would you like to now? Let me know in the comments below!
*DISCLAIMER* I was a guest of JUCY for this cruise, but the views and opinions of the service provided are my own. JUCY has a solid reputation and I’ve heard great things about them, which is why I approached them to see about working together. I hope you enjoyed reading!