Milford Sound: Waterfall Magic

Milford Sound is one of the most exquisite places I’ve ever seen…and it’s not as though I haven’t seen some ridiculously pretty parts of this planet. Take massive snow-capped mountains, cover them in rainforest, and drop that all on top of a fiord with crystal clear, stunningly turquoise water…and you’ve got the fundamentals down. Just for shits and giggles, throw hundreds of waterfalls all over the cliffs. It’s indescribably magnificent.

I didn’t realize my love could be so fickle. I was heartbroken to leave the Catlins, but upon arriving in Milford Sound found myself wondering, Catlin who? I spent the drive there pondering what combination of words could possibly convey what it’s like, and failed to come up with anything suitable. It’s awesome in the proper sense of that word–as in it strikes awe into your heart to gaze up at the snow-capped peaks and peer down at the rivers that carve their way across the valley below.

The waterfalls seemed to chuckle at my mental comparisons to Yosemite’s mighty falls. Here they cascade down the rock face in every direction you turn, never waiting for an orderly gathering point. When it rains, which is almost constantly, scores of them spring up only to disappear again a few hours later. It is an untamed, transient kind of beauty.

There is only one road in, and it frequently closes due to unsafe conditions. Signs on the side of the road warn of avalanche danger and the risk of falling rocks. You can only crane up to examine the snow high above, wondering if it will come thundering down upon you. It is a stark reminder that as much as we think we have conquered nature, we are ants compared to her strength. Milford Sound is a place that makes you feel small…in a good way.

Before I bombard you with pictures of the scenery, it seems I need to get my bird reference out of the way or it wouldn’t be a post about New Zealand! When we parked, we were almost immediately greeted by this guy, who unfortunately lost his right foot. He is a weka, which is a flightless New Zealand bird notorious for being feisty and curious. He was indeed fiesty, and didn’t seem to be slowed down much by his disability.IMG_3982The birds I didn’t manage to get a picture of are my new favorites! The kea is a very large, highly intelligent green parrot who likes to wreak havoc. I heard stories of them damaging cars, attacking livestock, and stealing hiking gear, but thought people were exaggerating until I saw them in action. They hang out in gangs at the spots where cars stop on the road in and out of Milford. There is a (terrifying) tunnel that only allows traffic one way, so cars get stopped to wait their turn. The kea ambush them when they are trapped, pulling off windshield wipers, antennas, or the rubber seals around windows. We watched them rip pieces off the car in front of us in line. There are also designated photo spots along the road where it is safe to stop, and there is sure to be a gang of kea at every single one of them. They’re hilarious. I swear they swagger and look like they’re cackling. If you’re bored, YouTube “kea bird destroys car”.

On to the scenery! Check out the perfectly clear color of the river…and the first of many waterfalls.

IMG_3994IMG_3996IMG_4000I’m aware that this is going to be the most pretentious thing I’ve said in a while, but the atmospheric lights and darks of the image below remind me of a Turner painting. IMG_4010IMG_4019IMG_4025IMG_4027IMG_4031IMG_4033Xander is a huge fan of plants. He delicately runs his fingers over them to feel the texture. He’s much gentler with plants than he is with animals or people! Once he has adequately assessed the texture, he takes a leaf between his fingers and watches in amazement as the whole branch moves. From there, things get a little less gentle!IMG_4039Because of the weather the days we were there, the water in my pictures shows up looking black and you can’t really make out the mountain tops. In person, the mountains tower above the clouds, and the water is a deep jade color. IMG_4235We booked a cruise with Southern Discoveries that went through the fiord all the way to the Tasman Sea and back. Let’s pause to be clear about two things. I’m not misspelling fjord. Around these parts, they spell it fiord. Also, although it is called Milford Sound, since it was created by a glacier it is technically a fiord. Okay, moving on!

After 8 faithful years, my hiking boots decided to literally fall apart the day we arrived in Milford. This was distressing for a number of reasons…for starters, those boots have been through some shit with me. This is the fourth continent we’ve tackled together! I tried to think of a way to repair them, but the entire sole fell off both shoes, and the glue we tried held for about 5 minutes. There are no stores in Milford Sound, so I couldn’t buy new shoes until we got back to civilization, which left me with a conundrum: what was I going to wear on my feet for the cruise and the rest of our time there? I had shower flip-flops, but those were hardly appropriate in the cold rain, on a slippery boat deck, or clambering over rocks. We decided we would need to ghetto rig my old boots. This sort of scenario is why you should never travel without duct tape. Thankfully, we had some with us. The other people on our cruise were definitely judging as Kris duct taped my boots together. It was a little ridiculous, but it got the job done.Xander, oblivious to my shoe drama, was suitably impressed by the sights. IMG_4247IMG_4253The bare spots on the cliff faces are where tree avalanches have happened. Less than a quarter of the trees that cover the base of the mountains have actually managed to dig their roots into gaps in the rocks. The remainder of the trees have simply intertwined themselves with the trees that managed to dig in, interlocking their roots. Sometimes high wind or heavy rainfall causes an entire section of forest to come loose, and it cascades down the cliff. As I write this, the road to Milford is closed because of a tree avalanche, but thankfully we’re already out of there. I think it would be pretty cool to see from a safe distance, though. IMG_4268IMG_4284A pod of dolphins swam along with us for a while, frolicking in front of the boat.IMG_4292IMG_4294IMG_4295IMG_4296We also saw some New Zealand fur seals, once nearly hunted to extinction for their pelts. IMG_4302IMG_4304IMG_4307The image below is of Stirling Falls, one of only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound. All of the others you see pictured and the dozens of others that were all around us only form when there has been rainfall.IMG_4310Since we were going to be out most of the day, we were hoping Xander would take his afternoon nap while we were on the boat. He did, but managed to fall asleep mere minutes before we needed to get off the boat to visit the Underwater Discovery Centre. I managed to carry him off without waking him…IMG_4316And then carry him down 60 stairs to the underwater viewing room…IMG_4319And then all around the underwater viewing room…IMG_4337Before he finally woke up. What a crazy world he lives in: He falls asleep on a boat and wakes up underwater!

When he was asleep, I wandered the viewing room thinking that it really wasn’t that interesting or impressive. But once he was awake, I got to see it through his eyes, and suddenly it was astonishing. Getting to catch a glimpse of the world through your child’s eyes is one of the most marvelous parts of being a parent. The mundane becomes extraordinary, and being in a submerged room 10 meters under a fiord in New Zealand is hardly mundane! IMG_4350I’m friends with (or related to) far too many marine biologists to try to get too sciency about this explanation lest I be laughed at, but Milford Sound has an amazing ecosystem. They get so much rain that the top 10 or so meters is fresh water and everything below that is salt water. The water that runs off the surrounding land to form the fresh water layer is so filled with tannins that it blocks the sunlight from reaching the saltwater layer below. As a result, organisms that would normally only be found in very deep, dark waters are close to the surface in Milford.

In particular, they have black coral there that thrives at 10 meters when everywhere else in the world it can’t be found shallower than 75 meters–way too deep to dive to. One of you marine biologists can explain to me why the “black coral” is actually white! IMG_4335.JPGIMG_4357Once we got back on the boat, we were treated to a rainbow breaking through the rain and another pod of dolphins. IMG_4372IMG_4387IMG_4392The waterfall behind us in the picture above, Lady Bowen Falls, is the other permanent waterfall. This is where the few buildings in Milford Sound get their water. It was delicious.

The most refreshing part of staying in Milford for a few days was being totally disconnected. There is absolutely no phone signal and no internet there, so we got to unplug from the world completely and take it all in. IMG_4400IMG_4401We made it past the mischievous kea with our motorhome intact and got safely back to Te Anau. Next, we were off to see the Remarkables and Queenstown, where I was hoping to purchase a new pair of boots!

To see the full list of our New Zealand Adventure posts so far, look here.

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9 thoughts on “Milford Sound: Waterfall Magic

  1. Fun fact: Black corals, despite appearance, actually have blackish/dark skeletons! It’s a good thing you have friends that are marine biologist 🙂


  2. Enjoyed your photos and story of your travels in NZ, especially your Catlins Love Story, as we love the Catlins in a similar way.


      1. Yes our family spend a lot of time in the Catlins. You can find real peace there and it is one of the last unspoilt regions in NZ. We own a lovely old holiday home there at Papatowai where we can escape from the city and the stresses it brings. We just love it all and the no people!!!


      2. That’s wonderful! I was tempted to lie and write about how horrible it is there for fear that the word will get out and it will be ruined by too many people! I think it’s remote enough that we don’t need to worry. It’s nice to know there are still places like that in the world.


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