The finest way to appreciate the Milford Sounds is from the water, but infact the sounds are not sounds at all, but fiords. Captain Cook had mistakenly assumed the water inlets had been created by the sea, when they had been carved from the receding glaciers of the last ice-age.
A simple mistake to make, I’m sure. And besides, the local Maori have their own story of the creation of the fiords, and believed they were created by Tu Te Rakiwhanoa, who had carved the steep V-shaped valleys with his bare hands.
According to legend, he had started in the south, creating these magnificent inlets and heading north, honed his technique until upon reaching Piopiotahi, he created the perfect fiord. Then, upon surveying his great work, he decided that the fiords were too perfect, Tu Te Rakiwhanoa created ‘namu’ - sandflies, a decision that has spoiled countless picnics in Milford Sounds ever since.
Waving the sandflies from my face, we boarded an impressive vessel called the Milford Wanderer, a motor sailor, and embarked on a cruise through this most stunning of glacial landscapes.
The fiord was wide and its calm waters were surrounded by sheer cliffs rising from their surface like giants. Mitre Peak, which at 1700m dominates the harbour, stood tallest of all, its reflection in the surrounding waters accentuating its already great height. The noisy onboard motor cut out and the Milford Wanderer’s sail onfolded to catch the wind, as we sailed peacefully through the most majestic of scenery.
The scale is absolutely vast, and it is extraordinary to think this is only one of two fiords that are open to tourists, and there are fourteen such fiords scattered across 620 miles of coastline. Although Milford Sounds attracts thousands of visitors each year, this area is one of the most remote in New Zealand, and it was in the nearby Murchison Mountains that the reclusive takahe had remained undiscovered for almost a century.
A disembodied voice announced across the speakers that “these waters are home to a unique ecosystem including bottlenose dolphins and thirty plant species which can only be found in Fiordland”. Most extraordinary of all, were the massive waterfalls that cascaded down the cliffs of metamorphic rock. These same near-vertical cliffs were a precarious home to the dense forests who clung to one another, their roots intertwined, desperately trying to prevent their being swept away by the huge annual rainfall that is common to the west coast of the South Island.