Milford Sound

Kiwi Experience runs day trips to Milford Sound from Queenstown: five hours on the bus each way, in the middle of which you get a two hour cruise up and down the fjord. One of my friends and I decided this itinerary was a little abrupt given how beautiful Milford Sound was reputed to be. We elected to stay the night somewhere in the area rather that heading straight back to Queenstown.

Organising this meant going outside the normal Kiwi Experience planning, but one of Kiwi’s selling points is that you can jump on and off the bus along the way. Owing to a lack of accommodation in Milford itself (the result, I assume, of being in a national park), we sought to stay in Te Anau. Te Anau is about two hours away from Milford, which is hardly ideal but still a lot closer than Queenstown. We would travel with our companions from Queenstown, do the cruise around Milford and get off the Kiwi bus at Te Anau in the evening, and get back on the following day at the same time. After a night in Te Anau, we would enlist the services of Rosco’s Milford Kayaks to get a more close-up view of things. Fortunately, Rosco’s runs its own bus service to and from Te Anau, but I was worried throughout most of the trip that we would miss our Kiwi connection on the way back. We left most of our luggage in Queenstown, me with premonitions of having to chase the Kiwi bus frantically down the road, in which case a suitcase could be a fatal burden.

So that was the plan.

The initial trip to Milford was easy enough, planned as it was by people who know what they’re doing. The driver (a different one) obviously knew the route like the back of his hand, and we flew down twisty hill-side roads at speeds that you’re just not supposed to do. After passing through Te Anau for a breakfast stop (they make a nice chocolate croissant in the “Pop Inn Cafe”) we began to make stops to admire the scenery. These get progressively more awe inspiring as you get closer to the fjord, and you begin to realise that the Milford well deserves its reputation.

The cruise begins with a buffet lunch, which is very nice (particularly for low-budget travellers such as ourselves). I felt torn between eating as much as I could and going outside to look at the scenery that was, after all, the reason we’d come here. The latter instinct won out once I was sufficiently stuffed with spring rolls and samosas. The low cloud cover and light rain creates a mystical effect inside the fjord, which rises on both sides to seemingly impossible heights, well above the lower cloud levels. Dozens of waterfalls of varying sizes cascade down cliff faces that look almost imaginary. Every time you look up and try to locate the top of a hillside covered in vertical rainforest emerging straight out of the water, you see another, even more massive shape behind and looming over it in the clouds. The entrance to the fjord gives you a taste of this, but the view from the decks of the cruise ship was simply unreal, and unfortunately photos don’t do it justice. Most of the group ended up quite wet, from the rain and spray from some of the enormous waterfalls as we went for a close-up look.

The ship eventually emerged into the Tasman sea, where the calm of the fjord disappears. On the way back, we were dropped off for a few minutes at the Milford Deep Underwater Observatory, where you can see sea creatures only eight metres down that are normally only seen below 40 metres. This is made possible by the blanket of dark freshwater on the surface of the fjord that blocks much of the sunlight from entering the salty water beneath.

Our accommodation in Milford was the Lakefront Backpackers Hostel, which was possibly the best of all the hostels I’ve stayed at, and made me regret not being able to stay longer in Te Anau. Our dorm “room” had a kitchen, bathroom, dining table, arm chairs and a balcony large enough to host a barbecue. We met up with an Israeli guy from who we learnt a little of the news of the outside world – specifically that Israel was now in a pitched battle with Hamas. We also engaged in a short discussion of theology.

My friend from the Kiwi bus and I were to wake up at 5:15 the next morning, in time to be picked up by Rosco’s minions. We woke up alright, but my friend, who’d been feeling a little sick the previous day, decided that she couldn’t do it, so it was just me. Rosco’s bus came right on time and took me and three Texans down to the waterfront at Milford, where we geared up in all manner of colourful clothing, and were instructed in the art of kayaking. This time I announced that my primary goal was to not capsize.

As in Mercury Bay, I once again was in the back steering. The going was fairly relaxed, though my left leg kept complaining about being in an awkward position. Unlike in Mercury Bay, the only stops we made were on the water, where we “rafted up” by collectively holding all the kayaks together as a raft. To be honest, the Milford Sound experience had actually been a lot more compelling on the cruise ship the previous day, perhaps because that had been my first exposure to it. The scale of the place, I think, is much more impressive when you’re moving through it at an appreciable speed. Nevertheless, looking up at the hillsides from the kayak is still unreal. Imagine a perfectly ordinary piece of rainforest, and then imagine that someone has tipped it up at 80 degrees. Once again this effect is very difficult to capture in photos. Every now and then we spotted a seal, but unfortunately it was the wrong time of the year for penguins.

The timing worked out fine in the end. I arrived back in Te Anau with 90 minutes to kill, but in my paranoia I spent much of this within sight of where the bus makes its scheduled stop, eating another chocolatey Fiordland delicacy.