Fiordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the south-west corner of South Island, New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.” – Douglas Adams
“Who here is with Awesome?” the driver shouted, searching for eye contact from those of us gathered at the bus stop.
I raised my hand and moved towards him, while the elderly man behind me waved his hand as well.
“I’m awesome!” he quipped.
We were heading out to go on a nature cruise in Milford Sound, tucked in the depths of Fiordland National Park with awesomeNZ. As we set out, our driver, Andy, chatted with us about the various indigenous species of birds which populate the park: from the flightless takahē and kiwi birds to tui and wood pigeons. Many species are under threat, due to the introduction of predators such as stoats and possums.
“Possums were actually brought over from Australia,” Andy mentioned, “and we don’t want ’em! So if any of you are from Australia, when you go home make sure to take some of your pesky possums with ya!”
Our first stop was in the Eglington Valley, with its tawny fields stretching to distant mountains crowned with helms of cloud. Andy turned off the bus engine, and it was easy to imagine — in the silence that followed — the pounding of hooves and rattling of spears as the Riders of Rohan thundered past.
We drove on to the Mirror Lakes, and Andy cautioned us to be careful when disembarking. The shoulder was narrow, and traffic could be bad on the road. “Wouldn’t want you to be squished like a possum, now…”
Luck was with us, and the winds were still. The surface of the lake was tranquil, and the reflection of the Earl Mountains across the valley was clearly visible.
Of course, the mischievous kea made several appearances on our way to the fiord, both at Monkey Creek and at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel.
After I refilled my canteen at Monkey Creek — lovingly named after a lunch-stealing dog belonging to one of the workers who forged the Milford Road — I took a few minutes to enjoy the antics of the kea. One of them was a bit territorial, and chased off an encroaching tourist. It’s hobbling gait and squawking were comical, but the woman still ran away squealing. I swear, the bird swaggered as it walked away…
The weather as we approached was anything but stable. An overcast sky with the occasional sun break gave way to a thick, enveloping mist accompanied by a freezing drizzle. Dropping down to the end of the Milford Road, the curtain of mist pulled back, as if revealing the glacier-carved peaks for our inspection. I was still crossing my fingers for some blue sky…
Our vessel would be the Spirit of Milford, and we found it easily enough at its mooring. Upon boarding, we were immediately welcomed with a buffet lunch. As usual, I had already eaten mine before thinking of taking a picture. It was good, though!
After lunch, I found a spot on the upper deck to watch the scenery roll past. Sinbad Gulley — a massive gulley in between rows of peaks to the west — is one of the first things the cruise passed, and it seems to be perpetually filled with a river of mist.
Beyond it, Mitre Peak rises from the seafloor some 1692 meters below; it’s resemblance to a bishop’s hat giving it its name. Across the fiord, Stirling Falls and The Lion grew increasingly larger. Despite the towering mountains we sailed along, I couldn’t help but stare across the fiord at the sheer face of The Lion. What would it be like to base-jump off that… I wondered, then immediately felt a wave of vertigo. Nope!
Looking back, I felt my mood soar. Behind us stood the Cascade Range, and over the line of peaks peeked a brilliant patch of blue. My blue skies had shown up at last!
Our nature guide, Jeremy, urged us to look towards the bow of the boat as we approached a sheer wall of rock. We drew closer, closer, closer… as it loomed overhead. Fairy and Pixie Falls flung themselves from the clifftop high above, the cascades of water all but dissipating during the course of their tumble to the sea. Looking up — with two hands gripping the rail behind me — I found myself staring in awe.
We made it to the fiord’s entrance, gazing out at the Tasman Sea as rolling swells rocked the boat. Those of us on the upper deck steadied ourselves as the captain turned the boat around, heading back into the sheltered waters of the Sound.
Milford Sound was formed by as many as five separate glacial incursions, the evidence of which can be seen most clearly at a landmark known as The Palisades. Huge ledges have been carved out of the mountains, resulting in the largest natural-occurring terraces I’ve ever seen.
We made our way further along the shore, skirting Seal Rock on our way. Another pod of seals flapped and flopped atop the rock, and we paused for a few moments to watch them before carrying on. Some of us made our way to the lower platform on the bow, eager for the next sight: Stirling Falls.
Along with the Lady Bowen Falls near the back of the fiord Stirling Falls is one of two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound. Fed by glaciers on the mountainsides high above, it plunges 146 meters from a hanging valley into the Sound — giving us the opportunity for a classic Milford experience…
We drew near, the captain cautioning those of us on the decks that we were about to get a thorough soaking.
“Be sure to cover those sensitive electronics, and come in and grab a rain jacket if you like… this experience is what we like to call the glacial facial!”
He steered the nose of the boat until it was mere meters from the base of the falls, and the blast of spray was like getting misted by a fire hose. My clothes were soaked through in seconds, and I had to turn my head to breathe without getting a mouthful of water. After what seemed like minutes, we drew back, and I turned to grin at the woman behind me.
“I was hiding behind you,” she said, laughing. “Thanks for being a shield!”
The rest of the cruise went by all too quickly, even with our pit stop at the Discovery Center, where some disembarked to go beneath the surface of the Sound and see some of the native sea life. I kept my spot on the rail, and gazed back out into the fiord for as long as I could…
Onshore, we met back up with Andy and drove back, winding along the alpine road, then through the dense confines of the beech forest that makes up much of Fiordland. The closely-packed trees support each other with intertwined roots — so much so that when one falls down, it will often drag hundreds of others with it in a literal tree avalanche.
Leaving the park, vast tracts of pasture greeted us. It intermingled with large expanses of regenerating bush — native plants such as the mānuka choking out the grass and transforming the pastoral landscape into something wild. Used as a substitute for tea by ‘Ol’ Captain James Cook’ (as Andy referred to him), the mānuka tree is also used by bee-farmers to produce honey.
I found myself thinking of the regenerating bush, of the difficulties involved in taming this landscape. In many ways, New Zealand — Southland in particular — is still something of a frontier. I think that’s part of the appeal of this place.
Here on the fringes of Fiordland National Park, Nature moves to reclaim Her own. Humans may have gotten around the mountain heights with Homer Tunnel, or solved the remoteness of the fiord with a hydroelectric dam, but going on a nature cruise in Milford Sound will convince you that Nature is still very much in control.
Want to go on the same trip? Head over to awesomeNZ’s page to book your own!
Have you ever explored a place just for the nature there? Where was it, and what made it so interesting? Share your answers in the comments below!
*DISCLAIMER* I was a guest of awesomeNZ for this cruise, but the views and opinions of the service provided are my own. I loved the idea of exploring Milford from a Nature-based perspective, which is part of why I approached them to see about working together. I hope you enjoyed reading about the cruise as much as I enjoyed experiencing it!