At Milford Sound foreshore. Photo by Ayan Adak

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‘The first aspect we should note about Milford Sound,’ shouted our cruise guide over the noise of the humming engine of the boat, ‘is that it is not a Sound. In fact the dozen-plus sounds you may hear of here are not sounds, not a single one!’

I stopped clicking photos of the endless beauty around me and listened more attentively to our guide, telling myself that this was getting interesting.

‘All are misnomers, these are not sounds but fiords,’ he continued, ‘And then, perhaps to redeem themselves, they called this National Park – the country’s largest – Fiordland National Park.’

Fiordland National Park

Panorama view with Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, New Zealand
Panorama view with Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, New Zealand. Photo by Sasithorn Phuapankasemsuk

Our guide looked satisfactorily at the confused looks of us travellers from around the world and then, reading our minds, explained, ‘So what’s the difference, right? A ‘Sound’ is a V-shaped valley, carved by river waters – it is more pointy, artistic and somewhat precisely eroded, while a ‘Fiord’ is a U-shaped valley, carved by glaciers, gouged out bluntly, thereby forming a very flat valley floor.

Both formations though are eventually flooded by rising sea waters. Now, with this context, if you look backward towards the wharf from where we started, you can see the rising hills and valleys. Here, at God’s grand theatre, you can a series of flat valleys – almost like steps – justifying perhaps that you are here, at the best vantage point of Fiordland National Park, Aotearoa!’

(As I was to learn, popular places in New Zealand have both an English and a Maori name, Aotearoa being the Maori moniker for New Zealand, translating to the land of the long, white cloud).

This was the rather encyclopaedic and climactic introduction to our scenic cruise on Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s most visited locations. It is definitely more accessible (and hence, more touristy, sigh!) than its distant cousins, Dusky Sound and Doubtful Sound – which are not Sounds, as we were just enlightened.

Milford Sound

Located in the southwestern end of South Island, Milford Sound runs about 15 km long, as an inlet from the Tasman Sea. These fiords look up to the corrugated spines of the Southern Alps, filled with glaciers and snow. Imagine then, the scenario about 15,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age – these lands filled with perennial ice and snow were the setting of intense glacial activity that led to the formation of these sounds.

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When the Ice Age ended, the sea levels rose and flooded a lot of these scoured valleys, forming the present-day Fiordland.

‘If you look back,’ Sam continued, ‘you can see a series of steps – four of them, plus there’s two under the water. Scientists will tell you then that glaciers scoured this land not once or twice, but at least six times over multiple Ice Ages, each time forming a step.’

I looked back and was mesmerised. I had not realised our scenic tour would be this scientific.

Mitre Peak

Mitre Peak. Photo by Ayan Adak
Mitre Peak. Photo by Ayan Adak

We were then asked to turn around to wonder at the imposing Mitre Peak – perhaps the most iconic formation here at Milford Sound, named because it resembled a bishop’s mitre headwear. After what started as a gloomy wet morning, the afternoon sun was sparkling on the rain-washed freshness of the peak, its glacial scars now more noticeable after our mini geography session.

We were actually lucky to see the sun – facing the full brunt of the winds from the Tasman Sea, it rains over 250 days a year here at Milford Sound. But thanks to the morning rain, the vertiginous cliffs, some rising over 1200m, were awash with ephemeral waterfalls, all glistening like quicksilver in the afternoon sun.

I looked around again, and couldn’t help sighing at the wonderland – steep cliffs, rich in emeraldine vegetation were awakened with a flurry of cascades, while denizen seals lolled on the rocks and sunned themselves.

Fairy Light Rainbows

Fairy Light rainbows at the Fiord. Photo by Ayan Adak
Fairy Light rainbows at the Fiord. Photo by Ayan Adak

As if this was not enough, the spray of the waterfalls led to formation of rainbows at every other corner. ‘Fairy Lights – that’s what early Europeans called these spectral rainbows’ came another of Sam’s facts-of-the-day as our cruise boat, slowly chugged along the dark waters reflecting blue skies above.

Fairy Lights indeed – if this was not the ethereal playground of the fairies, what would be? No wonder then, that Rudyard Kipling was entranced here and called it a national treasure, the 8th wonder of the World.

Wildlife in Fiordland National Park

Colony of seals. Photo by Ayan Adak
Colony of seals. Photo by Ayan Adak

As our boat chugged further ahead, we were lucky to see not just more seals and some dolphins, but also a couple of rare crested Fiordland penguins, hopping from boulder to boulder, diving into the black waters of the fiord. The dark waters also had an explanation as our guide explained – the heavy rainfall washes tannins from the nearby forests that creates this dark colouration of the lighter freshwater that sits atop the heavier saltwater like a thick layer.

Meanwhile, sea life flourishes in abundance in the brighter saltwater far below (And can be observed from the underwater Milford Sound Observatory, a pitstop in most cruises on the fiord).

The calm journey of the cruise was a bit jarred when our boat neared the end of the fiord and we could feel the force of the currents of the Tasman Sea. The narrow opening of Milford Sound made it difficult for early European explorers to spot the fiord in the first place.

History has it that even James Cook, the most celebrated of explorers in this part of the world, missed the opening of Milford Sound twice and reckoned these cliffs were a continuous wall on the sea.

Stirling Falls

Stirling Falls. Photo by Ayan Adak
Stirling Falls. Photo by Ayan Adak

Our cruise turned back and we continued to gawp at the humbling beauty all around while Sam pointed out one waterfall after another, with evocative names such as the Bridal Veil Falls, Fairy Falls, Bowen Falls, Palisade Falls and many more. The best and the biggest was reserved, though for the very end – this was the mighty Stirling Falls, with a plunging drop of 155m. Caped in ponchos, we were brought face to face within osculating distance of the falls, that showered over us, while we shrieked in fiordland’s frenzy.

Cruise over, we disembarked, heady with both Fiordland’s stunning captivation and our guide’s healthy doses of erudition. Little did I know then that the best part was yet to come. Towards lates afternoon, the Milford Sound foreshore was emptied of its touristy brouhaha as most visitors and coach tours travelled back to Queenstown or Te Anau, the nearest village, about 2 hours away (the journey from either location is an adventure on its own). We were lucky though to find accommodation at the Milford Lodge, one of the few places to stay right on Milford Sound.

Towards dusk, I found the pleasure – or rather the privilege – of finding the foreshore area all empty – gone were the drones of the scenic flights and the rumbles of the cruise ships, the constant chatter of the tourists, and the splash of kayaks on the waters.

The place was perhaps exactly as it would have been hundreds of years back, when Maoris would explore these lands in search of the valued jade or Pounamu, the only sounds being the occasional warbles of the native birds or the distant echoes of plunging cascades yearning for more rains from the Tasman.

Bird Life in Milford Sound

Kea. Photo by Ayan Adak
Kea. Photo by Ayan Adak

I walked around the sandy shore and was fascinated with not just the scenic beauty but also the abundance of the bird life – within half an hour I had spotted a New Zealand pigeon (or Kereru), shining in iridescent blue in the dying embers of the sun; I found a Paradise shelduck (or Pūtangitangi) herding its flock of fledglings to get back home; I saw sooty oystercatchers, perhaps justifying their names on the shores, and an ochred yellowhammer scouting around for its evening meal.

I was awed by the plumage of these feathered ones (as much as their Maori names) when I saw a little flightless bird scurrying around in the undergrowth. My heart skipped a beat and I thought I had struck avifaunal gold in the form of a kiwi here in the wilderness – alas, the bird turned out to be a weka, similar in size and colour, but more of a rail, also known as the Maori hen.

It reminded me of similar flightless birds endemic to these far flung islands of the Pacific – the Lord Howe island woodhen, the New Caledonian Cagu, and Aotearoa’s weka, all united in their common endangerment from introduced feral land mammals. Kiwi or not, I was happy nonetheless, that here was a pristine wonderland offering refuge to these birds at least from us all-destructive humans.

Home to the a Variety of Parrot

Sadly though, Fiordland was the last bastion of the world’s heaviest parrot – and also the only flightless one – the Kakapo. No longer found even in this Eden, the Kakapo is conserved in remote islands under human supervision far from the carnage of foxes and rats and stoats.

The Kea, intelligent, aerial and reputed to eat anything including rubber tyres and knick-knacks, is yet another parrot, that was once hunted by indignant farmers but are protected in current times. Interestingly, the Maori name for Milford Sound is also reminiscent of extinction. The Maori name, Piopiotahi (aren’t Maori names so sonorous!) is named after a now-extinct thrush-like bird, the piopio that once used to live in Fiordland.

The Myth of the Piopio

As per the myths, the legendary hero Maui (remember Disney’s Moana) brought the piopio thrush with him from the fabled homeland of the Maoris in Polynesia. But when Maui was killed by the goddess of death, the bird flew south in mourning right here, to give its name to these magical lands.

The piopio is extinct like its many siblings, with NZ’s Conservation Department fighting extensively for the ones that are still extant. Hopefully, places like these national parks will act as sacral sanctuaries in this fight between the denizens and the introduced animals.

The sun had already set and the sound – sorry fiord – was already drowning in darkness. Enriched with the most amazing experience in my travels in New Zealand, I decided to head back to the cosiness of the Lodge, looking forward to waking up early the next day to get some more me-time with Milford before setting off to our next stop in the land of the long white cloud.

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Author Bio: Ayan is a consultant by profession, and has been to nearly 30 countries. He loves travel, poetry, painting and photography and has published about a dozen books on these areas of his interest.

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