Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Milford Sound (Days 19-20)

How can I describe to you a place virtually untouched by time?

Milford Sound is so remote, so inaccessible, that they literally had to create a 1.2km tunnel through a solid rock mountain in order to be able to drive there.  As we drove through it and looked through the dim lighting at the exposed rock-face of the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, and then finally came out into sunlight on the other side, I had this incredible sense of having crossed through some unspoken barrier, some thin-veil of parallel universe.  "We're somewhere we're not supposed to be..." I marvelled to J. 

Entrance to Homer Tunnel
 Or you can hike there - it would take about 4 days for an experienced hiker, and there are huts you can stay in along the way.

There is no cell phone service along the 2-ish hour drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, nor are there gas stations or any other kind of ammenities whatsoever.  For about half the year, the road is susceptible to avalanches.  The road is narrow and windy, and has a 65% higher accident rate than the rest of the country

That doesn't stop people, though.  The completely indescribable Milford Sound is actually a fjord.  (The National Park that encompases it was named Fiordland National Park to compensate for the error, but they managed to spell that wrong, too.)

This is a place where enormously tall mountains carved by glaciers grow straight out of the sea.  Where the sides of them are covered with impossible vegetation - lichens, shrubs, even trees - that cling to nothing but tiny cracks in the rock with no soil.  Occasionally, too much rain causes tree avalanches, and the entire face of the greenery comes sliding down into the water, and the barren rock has to start again.

This is a place where you can experience the startling delight of seeing the second-rarest penguin in the world, the Fordland-crested penguin, swim by your boat for a few minutes before disappearing.

Fjordland-crested Penguin

The Chasm - rushing glacial waterfall that has pounded and
swirled pebbles into the boulders to create these smooth holes

This is a place where on your drive up, you can experience one of the largest areas of untouched land in the world, where still clear lakes perfectly mirror mountains in their reflections; where glacial waterfalls have carved out smooth holes in large boulders over ages of pebbles being ground and swirled around in them.

Mirror Lakes.  Note the clever sign.

This is a place where you can hike for almost two hours, ever slowly upwards, through ever-changing vegetation until you reach The Key Summit, an incredible place where you are literally walking on top of a mountain and the plant life is small red and gold shrubs, rainbow-colour pastel arrays of lichens covering all the rocks, short hearty deep green trees, and 180 degree views of mountain ranges around you.

Milford Sound is one of the places time forgot - or rather, thanks to the incredible care the people of New Zealand take of their natural resources, it's a place that has been allowed to remain virtually untouched.  There is literally nothing in Milford Sound besides a marina for the nature cruises and a small cafe for those waiting to get on the boats.

Because it's really only by boat that you can experience this incredible, magical place.  The way the entire landscape was carved out by the sheer power of ice alone is something that can only be experienced in its full magnitude by actually being there.  Our boat took us around for two and a half hours, all the way out to the Tasman Sea and back, with a nature guide explaining all the minute details of how this landscape was formed and what we could find on it.  I couldn't get over the sight of the towering majesty all around us in our boat that was tiny by comparison.

The end of the tour brought us to the Discovery Centre, a floating building that has stairs where you descend into a reverse-aquarium.  The walls underneath are 180 degrees of clear view into the ocean around you, and the humans are the ones who are trapped.  The sea life is free to come and go, and you never know what is going to swim by the windows.  It is one of the few places in the world you can see black coral.

 Milford Sound's unique environment gets rain more than 2 out of 3 days in the year, making it one of the rainiest places in the world.  When it does, the entire sides of all the mountains turn into hundreds and hundreds of gushing waterfalls.  All this freshwater picks up plant matter from the vegetation on the mountains, so by the time it gets to the sea, it creates a thick later of dark freshwater on top of the sea water, which blocks out the sunlight.  This makes the underwater environment in Milford Sound a)very dark and b)very cold, which mimics the conditions only present in much deeper parts of the ocean.  This tricks ocean life that usually only lives much deeper (50 - 1500 metres under the sea) to live very close to the surface, and this include black coral (which is actually white coral living on a black waste-skeleton).

One of our guides in the Discovery Centre, who is actually from Kent, England but has been living in Milford Sound for over a year, told us about a secret spot that you can access a bright blue, crystal clear, glacially-fed pool.  It is in the same place as The Chasm, where we saw the rushing waterfall that caused smoothed-out holes in the stones.  He described to us how to get this off-the-beaten-track secret location, and we decided to try it on our way out of Milford Sound.

We didn't quite understand his directions, but soon found a foot path that branched off, and J followed her intuition straight to this spectacularly blue and clear pool, hidden in the deep woods.  Our excitement was palpable, and if it only weren't so frigid we would have definitely jumped in.  Instead, we just walked around precariously on all the rocks and boulders at the edge of its little shore, and even discovered a thick swing-rope that allowed you access to go around the corner of a tricky spot that otherwise could have very well sent you falling into the pool unexpectedly.

We both drank from this glacially-fed pool, cupping our hands and drinking the pure water straight from the source.

Milford Sound.  Purity in every way imaginable.  There is literally nowhere else in the world quite like it. 


  1. I am just LOVING that you and J did this, loving it! Ana, you are an inspiration. Thank you for sharing these words and images which I'm finding indescribably beautiful- in real life it must be absolutely transcendent.