Cruising in Milford Sound, New Zealand
Milford Sound is the most popular and most accessible of all fjords in southwest New Zealand. If Rudyard Kipling were to be believed, it is also the "eighth wonder of the world."
Regardless of where it ranks in the planet's most beautiful sights, Milford Sound is one of New Zealand's top tourist destinations, receiving an average of half a million visitors during the peak months of January and February. In 2008, it was named the top Travellers' Choice Destinations as concluded by an international survey. Even without accolades to pique the interest of visitors, Milford Sound is an attraction and a natural treasure in its own right: It is a key ecosystem of Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety.
The geological forces that created New Zealand are very visible here in Milford Sound. Sheer rock walls, like the fjord's highest – almost 1,700 metre Mitre Peak – rise out of still waters, while 1,000-metre waterfalls drop straight from vertical cliffs carved by glacial ice. Like most of New Zealand's south, an average annual rainfall of up to 7 metres drench Milford Sound, ensuring that Lady Bowen and Stirling Falls are continually fed and rainforests precariously clinging on the slopes remain verdant year-round.
The volatile weather system of the fjord also adds a layer of misty drama to the already rugged landscape. Strong winds sometimes meet cliff faces head on, and blow trickles of temporary waterfalls upwards, creating an unusual play of water and wind that only those who brave cruising the fjord in inclement weather can witness.
The fjord – it is a glacial, rather than river, valley that was inundated by Tasman Sea after the ice retreated. The fjord’s length – about 15 kilometres inland from Tasman Sea – can be travelled comfortably in a few hours. Albeit shorter by almost 30 kilometres compared to New Zealand’s longest fjord, Dusky Sound, Milford Sound is never short on photogenic landscapes that leave even the most experienced traveller wide-eyed, and tranquillity characteristic of New Zealand's wilderness.
Because its thickly forested slopes are vigorously fed by rain, Milford Sound's seawater is topped with tannin-rich freshwater the colour of strong tea. This phenomenon creates an impressive underwater forest of seven-million-strong black coral trees that usually grow in depths of 30-40 metres out in the open sea, but grow only at a depth of 10 metres here in the fjord. Simple binoculars reveal the daily lives of resident Fiordland penguins, seals, dolphins and occasionally, visiting whales, to the observant visitor.