They say it’s the most beautiful place on the planet.
Mysterious, mystical, and stunningly gorgeous without even trying to be, the misnamed Milford Sound (technically, it’s a fjord) is one of Earth’s natural wonders.
Rugged cliffs rise dramatically out of dark, cold waters, while a cast of marine life including dolphins, seals, and penguins call it home. Rain creates frequent waterfalls that wash sediment off the cliff sides down into the seawater, creating a thick layer of fresh water and organic matter that sits atop the salt water. Despite frequent tours and throngs of awestruck visitors, the presence of humanity is dwarfed by the majesty of the cliffs – including the starring lead, Mitre Peak, which juts 1,692 meters (5,550 feet) into the sky.
As a nature lover and shutterbug, I was dying to see this slice of paradise – and after learning that it is one of the wettest places in New Zealand, prayed for sunshine.
Unfortunately, the clear skies and bright sunshine that has permeated my trip every day so far were forecast to disappear just in time for my bus trip/cruise to Milford Sound from Queenstown.
“Oh, but even in the rain it’s magical,” everyone told me. “Otherwise you don’t get the waterfalls.”
“And you really can’t have a bad view in Milford Sound,” my Aussie roommate assured me.
Sure, that’s fine. I tried to be okay with a fog-shrouded Milford Sound, even though my photography-loving heart wanted that dazzling beam of sun dancing on the water.
The morning began at 7am, filled with pouring rain, wind, fog, and altogether “shit weather” (so lovingly described by my UK roommates who visited Milford Sound on the same day I did).
Our bus tour, consisting of a whopping 11 people (including 4 other Americans), descended winding mountain roads in a perpetual cloud, and even had to eat our picnic lunch in a sheltered camp lodge instead of on the cliff lookout originally planned. We were held up on a mountain pass by a roadblock, where a construction crew was trying to blast through a rockfall on the side of the road. Everywhere you turned, the world was tainted by gray.
We pulled into the dreary parking lot 5 minutes before departure, then trotted down, jacket-clad, to the waterfront, and boarded the boat – which was hardly at capacity.
I set up my camera, pulled my jacket closer to my neck, and heard the captain’s voice come over the PA system.
The silence of the deep, glassy water was broken by the boat’s engine. With a rumble, we pulled away from the dock and into the gray curtain.
And then the sun emerged.
It broke through the steely sky with a blinding euphoria, almost like a stage spotlight on the fjord.
Within minutes, dazzling rays pierced the thick blanket of iron, shriveling it up into patchy tails of condensation that hovered, mystically, over the green and blue peaks. We all gasped, and stared, and held our breath. It was almost Biblical.
We set sail, and I grinned from ear to ear.
For the next two hours, I was entranced. Lost in an untouched paradise, one of Earth’s prized trophies, a pocket of nature that seems to practically swell with magic and untold secrets. Milford Sound is proof that God shows off.
Rain forests cling precariously to the steep slopes, creating masses of green broken only by the bald spots of exposed rock. Gulls soared by, high above the water and miniaturized by the mountain backdrops. Seals emerged from the depths, warming themselves on large rocks and ignoring us ogling passers-by on the blessedly uncrowded boat.
And there were dozens of waterfalls. Roaring, trickling, and misting – water poured from seemingly out of nowhere, cascading down glistening rock. The captain pulled the boat right up to one of the largest permanent falls, where a wild spray of mist soaked us all; legend has it that this particular fall is one of the fountains of youth.
We returned to the bus thoroughly exhilarated, all beaming and babbling exclamations to Chris, our bus driver, who was just as surprised as we were by the sudden change in weather. I was even sunburned.
The drive back to Queenstown took four hours – and was filled with rain, clouds, and fog.
The rest of the story is best told through the photos. So enjoy – and don’t scroll through too fast. You might just miss the magic.