There is one good way to see Milford Sound, well two, ok three and yes, we did them all! Months before arriving in New Zealand Paul booked two splurge items, a shark dive in Bluff (more on that later) and a plane, boat, helicopter tour of Milford Sound. Both activities required a fair amount of persuasion on his part as danger at premium is not my idea of a good time. I’m pretty sure he knowingly and conveniently omitted information about a deadly helicopter crash on nearby Fox Glacier a few weeks prior; details I learn from my seatmate on the plane ride over. As for the cost, to this day I still don’t know exactly how much this experience set us back. Paul’s calculation of the conversion rate from US to New Zealand dollars seems to improve with each swipe of the Visa. But we’re on vacation and it’s already paid for, so I’m not going to worry about it.
Our day starts with a 9am call from the front desk. First stop the Queenstown airport. From Queenstown, Milford Sound is a winding three and a half hour drive, but just over a 20 minute flight (30 minutes if you take the scenic route). Kerri picks us up in the lobby and we arrive at the hanger a short time later. Air Milford is a family owned business. Both father and son fly. After greeting his mother (Kerri) with a quick hug Captain Arthur joins us for a safety briefing. Looks like it’s going to be full flight so someone is going to have to sit copilot. Paul’s hand shoots up. Guess that means I’ll be riding solo.
We board the 14 passenger Cessna, Paul in the front and me in the first row right behind the pilot. This is good, one engine, one pilot and Paul as the backup. And it looks like our “copilot” is more interested in suctioning his GoPro to the window at just the right angle than figuring out what a copilot actually does. As Captain Arthur preforms one last check of the plane’s exterior I notice a gold placard just below the control column: Thy Mercy, O Lord, Is In The Heavens, And Thy Faithfulness, Reacheth Unto The Clouds, Psalm 36v5. I say a little prayer. Small planes always make me a bit nervous.
Once I get past the small plane thing and the fact Captain Arthur likes to fly uncomfortably close to the ice capped mountains in order to give us “a proper view” I relax a bit. His voice is very soothing. It also helps that the skies are relatively calm and that we haven’t experienced any turbulence.
The progression from the lush Queenstown hillside to snow-capped peaks is a brilliant contrast. Mountains grow nearer, terrain steeper, and the forest fades into a barren land of jagged rock pocketed with glassy pools of melted snow. As we crest the top I look down at the magnificent mountains powdered with frozen tops and try to take it all in. Endless pristine wilderness as far as the eye can see. A splendid sequence of unending three-sixty panorama.
We arrive at the auction house (aka the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal). At the end of the runway is a large contemporary building framed in metal with gigantic glass windows. We disembark and gravitate toward the natural flow of people heading toward the terminal. Capitan Arthur brings up the rear. The experience makes me feel a bit like a New Zealand sheep being herded in from pasture. The trickle of tourists pools at the entrance. Pilots and bus drivers herd the flock through the sliding glass doors in preparation for sale to the eager vendors inside. The terminal swells with people bunched like little flocks waiting wide eyed for instruction as representatives from the cruise ships push through making their selections.
Card in hand we follow the other red sheep down a ramp leading onto our ship, The Pride of Milford. Blue sheep make their way on too, but are lead to the main deck. Here they are presented with black shiny bento boxes filled with neatly arranged pockets of sushi, veggies and orange wedges. We spend the first few minutes outside on the upper most deck, but I get cold shortly after takeoff and retreat inside away from the wind. Paul stays behind.
I find a makeshift seat just outside the bridge and strike up conversation with the captain. After a few formalities he launches into the fascinating history of the sound periodically stopping to say a few words to the other passengers on the intercom. He would like to broadcast more but resists the desire to do so. The passengers get a bit fussy when his commentary is not followed up with the Korean translation. He hits a button, sits back and smiles. A monotone voice in an unfamiliar tongue fills the silence directing our attention to the fjords.
Ah! The Fjords. A fun word indeed sure to get you strange looks as most have no idea what they are (present company included until this trip). A long narrow inlet carved into the mountains by massive glaciers travelling down to the sea.
My favorite part of the cruise is trying to spot fur seals on shore. They are remarkably hard to see as they blend in beautifully with the rocks. What’s not camouflaged is their terrible odor; like eggs cooking on an old car tire. Each time I get a whiff I hold my breath point my camera towards shore, hoping to root them out with the zoom lens. Our captain tells us these are young males that have been kicked out of the heard. The youngsters retreat to Milford Sound in order to grow strong and hopefully win a harem of females next breeding season. To me these fur seals look more like fuzzy rocks than gladiators preparing for combat. Physical exertion is limited to the occasional scratch behind the ear or a ninety degree turn to sun the other side.
Paul favors the waterfalls. Dwarfed by the enormous mountains most are actually three times the height of Niagara Falls. Just past The Lion (a 4,300-foot mountain in the shape of a crouching feline) our captain directs our attention to The Four Sisters; a series of falls that appear together following heavy rain. This magical water is said to hold powers of enteral youth. Following the Korean translation the deck fills with tourists dancing and snapping photos beneath the frigid water. We return to shore to meet Butch our last vendor of the day.
Riding in a helicopter is an unusual and somewhat frightening experience. I liken it to sitting on a washing machine, the kind that churns upright with an agitator in the center. As the final rinse commences the laundry room door closes with an unsuspecting click and the voracious gushing intensifies bouncing from one wall to another in a futile attempt to escape. Inside the belly of the machine the wet load purges itself of the remaining suds clinging to the side of the drum in a giant wad creating an interrupting “woom“ with each rotation. Faster and faster it goes into an uncontrollable whirl as wobbly legs give way under stable ground.
This is serious business. The safely belt pins my shoulders tight against the palpitating seat. Headset securely fastened I nod in agreement. I have no idea what Butch said, but I’m pretty sure yes it the correct answer. The whirling intensifies and I grip Paul’s hand as the helicopter begins to rock back and forth. This was a really bad idea. Next thing I know we’re airborne.
A short time later Butch opens the door and I peer out into this wild new terrain. Deafened by the howling noise of the helicopter turbines I follow the others out into the silence. A thin layer of ice covers the thick fluffy snow. I crunch through it with deep, heavy steps as wet slushy snow moistens my toes and tickles my ankles. As I look out into snowy horizon I am blinded by its brightness. When my eyes finally adjust I can only stand still and try to take it all in. It is almost too much. This is quite simply one of the most picturesque places in the world. Yep, worth every penny!