Milford Sound

James Cook was the British explorer and cartographer who became the first to circumnavigate and chart New Zealand’s complete coastline – “making only some minor errors” – according to Wikipedia. This is such a vivid understatement that I am forced to set down my coffee and wonder if James Cook has somehow woken from the dead and written his own Wikipedia biography, the way that he would have liked it to sound.

Sound. Oh, that’s got to be a painful word for him. Because one of his “minor errors” while mapping the coastline was the fact that he never discovered Milford Sound, arguably one of the world’s most renowned panaromas. Like many other sailors who passed by in their day, Cook couldn’t fathom that such a narrow entry point could lead to such magnificent interior bays. The steep mountainsides and unpredictable wind conditions of the area were no more inviting, so he stayed away.

Thus, the glory was left to a lesser-known being, a fur sealer by the name of John Grono who “discovered” the “sound” in the early 1800’s and named it Milford Haven after his homeland in Wales. “Discovered” because the Maori had known about the area for over 1,000 years, using it as a collection ground for their prized pounamu, or greenstone. And “sound” because Milford Sound is actually a fiord, but its original incorrect classification has stuck.

A sound is a large sea or ocean inlet that is usually created by a river-formed valley flooded by the sea whereas a fiord is a long, narrow winding inlet from the sea between the steep slopes of a mountainous coast, which has been created by glaciers. Milford was formed by glaciers, which makes it a fiord. (Or fjord, whichever you prefer). In fact, according to Maori legend it was actually the great Tu-te-raki-whanoa, a godly figure, who carved out the imposing rock walls with his adze while chanting in prayer.

To be fair, not detecting the presence of Milford Sound was not really a catastrophic oversight on Captain Cook’s part because mapping the coastline in that day did not allow for the meticulous exploration of every nook and cranny. Yet having now, myself, laid eyes on such insurmountable beauty, it’s easy to imagine how he could still be rolling over in his grave at the missed opportunity. I thought about him a lot on our cruise for some reason. Did FOMO exist in the 18th century?

Regardless, it exists now and we are determined not to miss Milford Sound. We wake up early and break camp inside of Fiordland National Park.  It is not raining, but snow stares down at us from the surrounding peaks and the air feels eerie. We are in what is considered to be one of the wettest places in the world – with an average annual rainfall of 6,813 mm on 182 days a year – so it should be raining, but we’ve managed to find a rare moment of respite.

It did rain all last night and my hiking boots, which had been left outside to facilitate any imminent bathroom breaks (even more frequent when it rains), were filled to the brim with water. My classic camping dilemma could only be solved by wearing my only other pair of shoes – sandals – and because it was far too cold for just sandals – with socks. Yep. We were going to give our very serious diabetes workshop to the boat crew of the Cruise Milford company and I would now be wearing socks with my sandals. Dear Milford, please use your immense beauty to distract everyone from my horrendous lack of style.

And so it went, at least in my case, that if you say a prayer to Milford Sound, she will answer it. Nobody even looked twice at my socks.

From where we were camped at the DOC Kiosk Creek campsite, we had about an hour drive to Milford Sound. If you’re not camping, most people will choose to start their morning drive from Te Anau, approximately two hours south, or even Queenstown, which is four hours away. In fact, we learned that this latter option is the bread and butter of tourism for the region. Buses full of tourists will put in a ten-hour day to take the cruise in Milford Sound with a roundtrip from Queenstown.

Many projects have been proposed to make the sound more accessible, but the environmental impact has been deemed too great. So far New Zealand has proven itself to be wise in this respect because the absolute splendor of Milford Sound unquestionably lies in its wildness: its ability to transport you to a world of windy caverns, raucous waterfalls, and playful sea animals without a hint of modern civilization beyond the helm of the boat. These water-borne mountains must choose to show themselves to you through the mist, at their own whim. To try to bend them to modern man’s railways or interstates would be to destroy the very power of their existence.

Thus, if you want to see Milford Sound, a certain amount of effort is required. The journey is long, no matter what city you start from. There will be thousands of sandflies for you to swat at and it will probably be raining more often than not. But it will be worth it because Milford Sound is nature at its finest.

A few weeks earlier, we had reached out to Milford Sound cruise operators to offer our diabetes workshop to their crew members. One of the objectives of our travels is to educate the general public and particularly tourism industry professionals on the importance of being diabetic-friendly. Since Milford Sound is a remote area (the nearest hospital is 2.5 hours away), emergency preparedness is essential. We received an enthusiastic response from the Cruise Milford crew and we were only further impressed when we arrived to give them our workshop.

Cruise Milford is the smallest cruise operator running in the sound, but this is to their advantage. Everything they do, they do with heart. The crew already knew the basics of diabetes care, but they were happy to receive a refresher course and engage in the technicalities of identifying hypoglycemia and how to respond. We also made them aware of the little things that can go a long way, like having a sugar alternative such as stevia with their coffee and tea service and adding some nuts to their cookie selection so that diabetics have a healthier option.

After our workshop, it was time for the crew to show us their pride and joy. With only approximately thirty passengers on board, we weaved our way through the majestic mountainsides and blue waters of Milford Sound. It started to rain just as we left port, but the boat is fully equipped with a covered outdoor viewing area as well as a large heated interior with big windows to keep passengers comfortable.

The rain does not take away from the experience. Instead, it cloaks the fiords in a kind of magical fairy mist and gives birth to numerous temporary freshwater waterfalls that catapult down the steep mountain slopes with spectacular determination. Some of these will never reach the water below before the wind takes them, but those that do contribute to the fact that there is actually a thick layer of freshwater that sits on top of the saltwater before mixing out at sea. Our captain even stuck the nose of our boat under a waterfall a few times, just to be sure we got its full effect.

We were able to see a group of adolescent fur seals lounging on the rocks and while we did not see any that day, sightings of bottlenose dolphins and whales are also possible. We cruised out far enough to see the Tasman Sea, where the next nearest landfall looking westward would actually be Argentina. It was difficult to imagine that distance, but we decided to wave to Damián’s parents anyway.

Our captain provided us with a wealth of information and commentary via the loudspeaker during our hour and 45 minute cruise and even made a point to come around and individually greet and speak to many of the passengers on board. The sincerity and intimacy of this cruise company came as a relief to us. We had worriedly observed the other approx. 200+ passenger cruise ships and frenzy of tourists upon arrival at the port, thinking that we had fallen into another tourist trap. So we were happy to be on what felt more like an afternoon boat ride with a few friends and plenty of room to move about.

Fortunately, the various cruise companies have organized their departure schedules so that not too many boats are on the water at the same time, a decision that helps to preserve the natural elements of the experience. We took the 10:45AM cruise with Cruise Milford which was late enough so that the sun (had there been any) would have risen above the mountaintops to provide a better view and a bit more warmth. Cruises later than 11AM risk becoming victims of overcrowding with the tourists who come by bus from Queenstown that day, so aiming for an early morning departure seems to be the best bet.

After our tour finished, it immediately began to downpour. We had to make haste to leave the Fiordland National Park because visibility was extremely poor. The Milford Sound Highway can become quite hazardous in adverse weather conditions and the heavy traffic it receives due to tourism so it is a good idea to stay alert and make smart choices while driving. If you have good weather, it is well worth it to take your time both on the way there and back. Your eyes will be treated to imperious mountains, thunderous waterfalls, and rich rainforest tracks that will remain immortalized in your memory. We were lucky to have a few brief moments of sunshine and the landscapes we saw will forever fill us with awe.

If you’re more a creature of land than water, there are plenty of beautiful hikes to do in Fiordland National Park, Te Anau, and Manapouri. The most famous hike is the Milford Track, which is a multi-day hike considered to be the best of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It is so popular that the overnight huts must be booked from six months to a year in advance of your journey. We weren’t that organized so instead we went for a short day hike around Te Anau that also provided plenty of beautiful views.

It is true that Milford Sound is indescribable on a sunny day, but these days are mostly wishful thinking. Yet seeing it in the rain is no less impressive and it’s certainly a more accurate representation of the climate. So don’t let the weather stop you. Embrace the awesome privilege of just being able to see the fiords at all. I’m sure Captain Cook would tell you the same.

-Ashley

INFORMATION FOR DIABETICS

Milford Sound is located inside the Fiordland National Park, a remote wilderness area. The nearest hospital is approximately 2.5 hours away and while tour operators that work in the sound are trained in emergency preparedness, resources and response time will  be more limited. Ensure that you carry an adequate food supply with you in case of a sugar low as well as your glucagon injection.

If you are planning to carry out a multi-day hike, inform the members of your hiking group that you are a diabetic. It is important to be well-trained in backcountry camping protocols and to have an emergency plan in place to address any complications from diabetes. Carry an extra supply of insulin and make sure you store it appropriately to protect it from the elements. Be aware that it can get very cold in the mountains at night and these fluctuations in temperature may affect your insulin. Prolonged strenuous activity, such as hiking, will also have an effect on your blood sugar levels and you should monitor them carefully.

WHERE TO STAY

There are private campgrounds, hotels, and budget backpacker stays in Te Anau, but we recommend staying at one of the many Department of Conservation campsites between Te Anau and Milford Sound. For approximately $8-$13 per person, you are sleeping with views of Fiordland National Park. We stayed at Kiosk Creek, about an hour south of Milford Sound. There is an outhouse on site, but no potable water source or rubbish disposal so make sure you pack out what you take in. Its closer location made it possible for us to get a head start on our day in the sound.

MILFORD SOUND CRUISE OPERATORS

We thoroughly enjoyed our 1 hour and 45 minute cruise with Cruise Milford for $90/per person. They are not the cheapest cruise available, but the price is more than reasonable considering the smaller boat size and number of passengers. They do a great job of making you feel welcome. Other companies offer longer cruises or lunch included, and even an overnight stay on the water so there is plenty to choose from. It all depends on your price sensitivity and what you are looking for.

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