Our trip to Milford Sound lived up to all the hype we heard about “spectacular scenery” and “one of the most unique places on Earth”. Milford Sound is one of the most scenic places we have every visited. We decided to give Les a break from driving and signed up for a tour bus for the two-hour drive. The bus came with an entertaining driver who kept up a more or less consistent monologue about the flora, fauna, geology, and history of the area. Les and Suzanne picked up interesting tidbits, while Patrick and Alex quickly fell back to sleep.
At one point our driver asked the passengers in the bus “Who thinks we are closer to the equator than the South Pole?” It was a trick question because about 15 seconds after completing the survey we drove across the 45th parallel and whoever was right the first time was now wrong. We learned about the rabbits that were introduced to New Zealand for hunting purposes – then the stoats that were introduced to eat the oversupply of rabbits, but the stoats found that the flightless forest birds were much easier to eat – so now many of the indigenous NZ birds are extinct and they still have too many rabbits and stoats. Small predators such as stoats, cats, and possums; and other alien species such as rabbits and rats are a huge issue today; and there is much controversy about poison laid out in the forests to control the numbers of these animals.
Along the way to Milford Sound (which is actually a fjord because it was created by glaciers) we stopped along the way to walk through the native birch forests on the “dry” side of the mountains. It is dry because it “only” receives 4 meters of rain/year. Later we
walked through the ancient fern forests on the wet side of the mountains where 7 meters of rain falls per year. We also stopped to check out splashing waterfalls and fill our water bottles with fresh spring water.
The weather was a sunny and warm, which made for nice photo opportunities. Our guide informed us that rain and wind makes for more dramatic and memorable sights at Milford – apparently the huge amounts of rain create hundreds of waterfalls off the sheer granite cliffs, and the swirling wind can whip the water in all directions, creating an impressive maelstrom. So, I guess we couldn’t really lose, even if it had been a crummy day, we would have had great scenes.
The boat ride through the sound included more education about the massive glacier that created the sound about 10,000 years ago. The trees that grow with a tenuous hold on the sheer cliffs, holding to each other as much as to the mountain – so that when one big tree falls it pulls whole sections of the plant life with it into the sea. Milford sound supports a very unique environment for sea life. Because of the large layer of fresh water that usually sets on top of the sea water (due to the huge amounts of rain), a great deal of the sun light is filtered out about 30 feet below the surface. Due to the filtered light and the cold water, many deep water animals that usually live about 150-300 feet below the surface, thrive only 20-50 feet deep at Milford Sound. Our tour included an opportunity to descend 30 feet down and view some of these animals such as black coral (actually colored white when it is alive) from the comfort of a submersed observation deck.
The highlight of our visit to Milford for Alex and me was when the skipper of our boat edged the bow right up and under a 300 foot waterfall. Alex and I held our ground on the bow as the skipper edged us to within 5 feet of the base of the cliff under the fall, and we had our “Milford Baptism” in fresh, cold, high-speed water.