In making plans to spend some time touring New Zealand, all of the recommendations and brief quips I got from fellow travelers included Milford Sound as a must-do. Regrettably this trip did not give me enough time to do the famous Milford Track (hailed as “the Greatest Walk in the World”), but doing a day trip to the fjord has inspired me to come back someday with that specific goal in mind.
Milford’s location is seriously isolated with just one highway in, and requires a full day commitment to do even just a short tour of the area (for which there are plenty of options and operators… it is a major and bustling tourist destination despite how remote it is). We opted for a tour out of Te Anau to save ourselves a few extra hours each way on the bus via Queenstown, and I think that was the better choice as we were en route from 7:30am to 5:00pm and that was enough for me. We rode with Real Journeys and did their Nature Cruise on the Milford Mariner. The bus ride was no big deal, rolling in a comfortable stadium-seating bus (with skylights) and plenty of pit stops along the way to do short walking tracks–including one at The Chasm (very cool). We got to go through the Homer Tunnel both directions (“This tunnel was started in 1934, and not completed until 1954. It took twenty years, through a World War, depression and natural avalanche and snow elements… it started with 8 men with pickaxes…”) and had lots of photo ops with mountains, running water, “cheeky” keas, mossy trees, alpine flowers, etc. During the course of the bus ride we topped out at 3000m attitude (starting at and returning to, sea level).
The cruise itself left from the Tourist Center at Milford Sound, and lasted about two and a half hours–out to the Tasman Sea and back. When casting off the skipper blew the horn and churned the engines… but we didn’t leave the dock because we still had a line attached. Once we cast off the line and were free, he just mumbled over the PA “Well, it must be Monday.” The boat took us past several waterfalls and right up underneath some of them–something we were able to do even in our large vessel as the cliff faces in the fjord continue to drop down off the visible rock faces to immediate depths of 100m or more at the waters’ edge. Conditions were drizzly and breezy at the end of the fjord, but in five layers of Patagonia (cami, t, hoody, vest, R2 fleece) I was ready to brave the elements and enjoy being on the deck of the boat. It was awesome. As our onboard Naturalist pointed out, perspective is really difficult to gauge while in the fjord because of how dramatic the features of the landscape are. We were cruising between peaks that were in excess of 1500m, and waterfalls that were over 160m. Given that the fjord then continues to plunge over 700m more below the water, it is some seriously impressive landscape. En route we also got to see some lazy New Zealand fur seals and (finally!) some Fjordland crested penguins.
I was really happy onboard the boat, because it was one of the few places that I have been on this trip that I felt that everyone who was onboard really wanted to be there. They were invested in that time–that moment–capturing photographs, experiencing new sights and sharing those things with their fellow passengers. The skipper and Naturalist weren’t at all patronizing, and I just really was able to enjoy the experience in my own way and take all the photos and video I wanted to remember it.
I mentioned in my last post that this part of the trip has been the part that has resonated with me the most. I expected traveling New Zealand to be wild, unpredictable, highly varied and exciting. It certainly offers those things in spades to all levels of travelers if you seek them out, but there has been something about traveling here so far that has almost overwhelmed and disappointed the intrepid traveler in me. The sheer volume of accommodations, restaurants, tour companies, adventure activities, national sites, monuments, walking tracks, visitor centers and other tourist-related stops really kind of dimmed my vision of New Zealand as being a place to be wild, untamed, and remote. Even the “back country” walks that are popular here are all outfitted with flush toilets and sleeping huts that you have to reserve… not at all what I expected… and I’m not even a trekking purist (since I’m not technically a trekker at all… yet). It hasn’t been until I made it to the South/Fjordland region that I’ve felt that the stark, natural beauty and energy of this place has been able to overcome all of that (though it still exists here). Everywhere else has felt over-commercialized and alien. Fjordland feels more like home.
Maybe there’s something to be said about a city on a lake surrounded by temperate rainforest, mountains, access to the ocean and a predominant pattern of rainfall (Fjordland receives on average 7m of rain per year, anything less is considered a drought year). In the US my heart is in Seattle. In New Zealand, it’s in Queenstown and the Southern Fjordlands. Surprising? Not really.
Long Live the Dream,