Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Encountering Sunny Milford with Flying Kiwi

You may remember these pictures from my first trip to Milford Sound (technically a fiord) with my family back in December. We went right after Christmas in the middle of NZ’s summer, which is of course the high season for any tourism operation. Milford is on most any “must see” lists you will come across for NZ. It consists of stunning mountains that plunge dramatically into the water and countless streams flowing off those mountains and dropping into the waters below. The shape of the fiord was carved by a glacier and there is an interesting occurrence of freshwater sitting on top of the saltwater coming in from the Tasman Sea.

One thing in particular that Milford Sound is known for is its weather. The area ranks with the second highest amount of rainfall in the world (7 meters per year, according to my guidebook). Often times you will travel the road from Te Anau (the nearest actual town) in fine conditions but as soon as you pass through the Homer Tunnel (1200m of a dark 1:10 downhill gradient roughly cut through the mountain) you discover the foreboding weather on the other side. The road to Milford is dotted with those characteristic kiwi tourist points you seem required to visit along the way. There are the Mirror Lakes that reflect the mountainous backdrop, and The Chasm which displays the powerful abilities of water as it carves through and sculpts rock over time, and of course you can’t miss the scenic views of impressive mountains giving you a taste of what’s to come!

Beth and I prepare for the ride!

We camped in Hollyford Valley with Flying Kiwi, which is a lovely little sandfly-infested area between Te Anau and Milford Sound. We awoke in puddles that soaked all the way through our 2-inch mattresses, packed up our tents, and continued our journey toward Milford in the rain. I remembered the road (fairly narrow, windy, and completely downhill) into Milford and knew there was an optional cycle ride coming up. Having already driven the road with my family, I thought it would be much more fun to cycle it this time! Apparently the weather scared off most, so there were only three of us willing to brave the ride. We hopped off the bus just after the Homer Tunnel and I decided it would be fun to make use of my handy gorillapod (tripod that will grab onto most anything) and set my camera to take a video of the ride from my handlebars.

The ride was exhilarating. Sure, there was some sort of precipitation (sleet?), my hands were numb from the cold, wet, and wind, there were drops of water obstructing the view from behind my glasses and camera lens, and the narrow windy road was also wet, but all of these factors contributed towards a memorable ride! The passing cars gave me a nice wide berth, I didn’t bail out on any of the sharp turns, and I felt much more up-close-and-personal with the spectacular views than you ever do aboard a bus!  We cruised into The Chasm at least 10 minutes before the bus arrived, and I continued down to the docks at Milford Sound.

As I was riding, I could see the weather easing up. It seemed like there might even be some blue skies up ahead!

As soon as I stopped to take in the view at the edge of the sound, I became insanely jealous of all my fellow Flying Kiwis who were headed out on the water for their Milford cruise. I had already done the cruise with my family and, though the wet weather intensified and multiplied the presence of waterfalls, I knew it was rare to catch Milford Sound on a beautiful sunny day. Rain clouds had masked the mountains when I was there the first time, and I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the greatness of my surroundings. I remembered the cruise being miserably crowded with soaking-wet tourists elbowing to huddle inside the small sheltered area. It wasn’t exactly an experience I was keen on paying to repeat! And so I had decided I wasn’t going to join the group for their cruise.

Despite the gorgeous weather that put a smile on so many faces, my mood had turned sour. I was green with envy but, at the same time, classically stubborn. I had decided I wouldn’t pay to do the cruise again, and I did not want splurge when my mind was already made up. I was getting tight on money and was not about to give in easily. A friend on the tour told me I should come along and even offered to pay for my ticket. I said absolutely not! He insisted, asking “Well, what if an extra ticket just happened to appear? Would you go then?” I persisted with a strong “no.” There was no way I was going to let someone just buy my ticket for me. It seemed ridiculous.

My guide, Holly, had caught on to the fact that I really wanted to go. While I was in the midst of finding warm clothes to change into after my bike ride, and deciding what to do while everyone else was on the cruise, she walked up to me and said “You’re going. Go get a ticket from Brett and line up with the others. We’re boarding in a few minutes.”

I was immediately suspicious.

Holly simply explained that there was an extra ticket and I was going. I inquired about why there would just happen to be an extra ticket for me to use, and who I had to thank, but she maintained there was nobody to thank and I was just going.

I eventually conceded and joined the others, taking some time to readjust my thinking and fully comprehend the fact that I unknowingly managed to obtain an “extra ticket.” My suspicion waned (despite explaining my situation to a few inquisitive people who knew I had opted out) as I started to realize this cruise would be much different from my first experience. I relaxed and began to enjoy myself.

For reasons I explained earlier, up until that point Milford Sound had not been one of the highlights of my trip. In addition to the wet, crowded boat, the “picnic lunch” was not dairy-free (due to an accidental mistake in the booking process) and hunger can always add a bit more sting to any situation. 

This time, however, things were different. There was sunshine! We had packed our own lunches, there was complimentary coffee and tea, there were comfortable seats, and ample room for all the passengers. There were nooks and crannies of the boat to explore and the cabin opened up to the bow on the lower level, just a couple meters from the water. This spot gave the perspective that is so easily lost through traveling in a large vessel and I very much enjoyed experiencing Milford Sound from a different angle!

I explained to my friends how much more intense the waterfalls are in the rain, but remarked about how different the view was with clear skies! We traveled all the way out to the Tasman Sea where huge swells rocked the boat (and I tested my sea legs to see how long I could go without losing my balance). There were rainbows in the waterfalls and we saw some wildlife along the way. The colors were brilliant; deep blue water, vibrant green mountains, a few crisp white clouds, and bright blue skies. There was no doubt I was glad to be there experiencing an entirely different Milford Sound!

No matter which side of Milford you have the opportunity to see, it is worth the trip. The experience for me, however, was definitely influenced by which tour company I traveled with. Had I a little extra room to breathe, and a proper meal I could eat while everyone around me was dining, Milford would have been a bit more enjoyable for me the first time around! Regardless, I am happy I was given a second chance to experience the wonder of such a beautiful area of the world!


  1. Love the bike vid! Keep 'em comin'

  2. Great pictures, I've saved a few as desktops!

  3. @ Keith, thanks! First attempt at video editing ever...

    @ Topher, wow! That's a great compliment! Thank's for letting me know :)

  4. Wow, you ride FAST down hill! hehe
    And, yes, these pictures are more than desktop worthy, you should be famous sista!

  5. Hehe, yup! Super speedy despite the wet and windy roads ;) Thanks for the compliments, chica!

  6. love this blog Kirstin, I am going on the routeburn and flying kiwi in December this blog is making me want to be there now!


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