Story and photos by Thomas Kamrath
The sun had set. It was a moonless night, but the intensity of the stars lit up the sky. It looked like a thousand candles squeezed onto a dark chocolate cake. There was no Big Dipper but the Southern Cross filled in admirably. I was in New Zealand’s Fiordland national park, the southern brother of Norway’s fjords, anchored for the night on Milford Sound.
The park is located in the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Bordered on the west by the Tasman Sea and on the south by the Pacific Ocean, the park encompasses mountains, lakes, and fjords. It is also known for one of the most famous hiking treks in the Southern Hemisphere – Milford Track.
Milford Sound is the most popular destination in Fiordland National Park. It is a two days drive from Christchurch (South Island’s largest city). I stopped in Queenstown (New Zealand’s unofficial adventure capital) the stepping off point for the park.
From Queenstown I had a choice of driving myself, taking a tour bus, or flying by plane or helicopter. Accommodations are limited in both Milford Sound and at the half-way-point town of Te Anau. Because of this, many travelers tour the fjords in one day and then return to Queenstown.
Since I had rented a car in Christchurch, I decided to continue with the same mode of transportation. After Te Anau, the road turned curvy. The vegetation was thick and encroached both sides of the road. This limited pull off points to view the sights.
I was a little wary about stopping too much anyway, having been warned about the mischievous Kea bird. The Kea is part of the parrot family, and is said to be one of the smartest birds known.
It has developed a bad reputation (but deserved) of being able to rip the rubber off a cars windshield wipers. And losing ones windshield wipers in rainy Fiordland is like losing the A/C on a July afternoon in Florida.
The Kea also likes to hang around tourist hot spots waiting for hand-outs and passing the time by tearing open unattended backpacks. Fortunately (actually, unfortunately) I never saw a Kea the entire trip.
I was glad it was my third day driving on the left side of the road. By then, I had overcome using my windshield wiper switch for my left turn blinker. I was actually starting to enjoy attacking the switchbacks from the “wrong” side of the road.
As I closed in on Milford Sound I came to Homer tunnel. It looked like an abandoned mine shaft jutting out the side of the mountain. I watched full sized buses seemingly defy physics as they slithered under the crumbling concrete overhang. There are virtually no lights in the tunnel, and a major pupil transition was inevitable. It took me about a third of the tunnel to adjust to the blackout.
Arriving at Milford Sound, the first thing I saw was Mitre Peak towering 5,500 feet (1676m) above the sound. It is the world’s highest peak rising directly out of the water.
To really experience the fjord, a boat ride on Milford Sound is essential and an overnight stay is even better. I chose the Milford Wanderer for my two day excursion. Nothing fancy-shared cabins with bunk beds and shared bathroom facilities. Other tour boats are available with private rooms, such as the Wanderer’s sister ship, the Milford Mariner.
The Wanderer carried 61 passengers and was the perfect size for this type of cruise. The passengers ranged from tour groups, to couples, to solo travelers.
My lower bunk mate, Dan, was from Colorado. He had just come off “the ice” (Antarctica) where he had spent four months working as an electrician. He was currently in the middle of a six week solo motorcycle trip.
Two women from Germany, Ena and Bionca, had been traveling alone until they met each other at a youth hostel in Queenstown. Ena came to New Zealand to study English and was on a three month break. Bionca was a physical therapist on an eight week combination vacation/leave of absence.
Catching the scenic views and watching the acrobatics of numerous bottlenose dolphins kept me entertained throughout the day. We motored out to the edge of Milford Sound where it mixes with the Tasman Sea.
We anchored there for a bit as the boat crew offered up a bevy of activities we could pursue. They had kayaking and small motor boat rides and a few brave souls even took to diving off the upper deck into the 58 degree water. I opted for the small motor boat ride and was glad I did as we watched a blue shark slither through the water a little too close to the unaware kayakers.
The next morning I was up early sipping hot coffee on a chilly deck. A few fog clouds were attempting to hang around by hugging the granite cliffs, but they were doomed to disintegrate as the sun peaked over the sheer walls.
It was rare to be blessed with a second day of sunshine considering the park’s 216 inches of annual rainfall. If it does rain, though, don’t be discouraged. The waterfalls multiply exponentially as the rain increases and the aquatic show is said to be spectacular.
The Wanderer dropped us back on shore at 9:00a.m. I took one last look at Mitre Peak as it kept watch over Milford Sound.
I wished I had more time to spend enjoying the scenic vistas, but I vowed to return someday.
About the author:
This week Traveling Tales welcomes freelance travel writer Thomas Kamrath who makes his home in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
About the photos:
1: A view of the entrance to the Homer Tunnel
2: The fjordlike shoreline of Milford Sound
3: Impressive is the word for Mitre Peak