(Because the fall is surrounded by even taller sheer cliffs it is hard to realize that at 150 meters this fall is taller than Niagra falls!
We planned to stay in the Queenstown area longer, mountain bike near Moke lake and/or in the Queenstown bike park but we popped open our weather app to to find that the cold and snowy weather was about to lift and the nearby area of Milford Sound was predicted to be sunny and beautiful for the next three days.
Milford Sound is (yet another) unique place New Zealand has to offer. Kiwis call it the eighth wonder of the world. Striking sheer mountains jump up out of the ocean in close quarters, making long narrow fjords that toy with light and water. Located on the most Southwestward point of New Zealand’s South Island, Milford Sound typically receives forty meters of rain per year. To put this in context, that is enough rain to cover a two story house. Being from Las Vegas, Nevada where we get 6-9 inches per year, it makes our head spin to think of this area getting 1,440 inches of rain every year. This is nuts. But we realize that in order to get that much rain, one must presume Milford Sound is socked in by clouds most of the time. Seeing such great weather in the forecast laid a special opportunity at our feet. We immediately booked a kayaking trip in two days time and got on the road.
Per the usual, the drive out to Milford Sound was stunning as well. We drive our two hours enjoying view after view of farmland, grassland, rolling hills and snow capped alpine mountains all around us.
We stopped for a sleep in beech forrest, next to Lake Te Anu. We met an Ozzy and a Canadian Gal on their vacation while we enjoy our nightly “wee nip” of wine and cheese on the lakeshore made of nothing but soft, round pebbles. The lake played tricks with light all evening and the next morning, too, giving us a spectacular show.
The next morning, we inch our way down the Milford Sound road. It is filled with beautiful attractions at which we pull over and elbow our way through crowds of tourists (hereinafter The Horde.) It’s beautiful, but crowded. The sound of mock camera shutters on iPhones click all around us. I get in line to take the same picture thousands of other people take per day. In the ten or twenty minutes we spend looking at one attraction, the bus group changes faces at least twice. Sometimes three and four different crowds filter through. We hear a bus honk, indicating “Hurry up folks, it’s time to go!”
We hike Key Summit, a steady line of people in front of us and a steady line of people in back. But, when we reach the top we find the view is more than worth it.
Then, we make an early jump to our campsite at Cascade Creek. With all the vans, busses, cars, bikes, backpackers and the like around, we had a sneaking feeling that if we didn’t get our spot early we would not get one. So, at 4 p.m. Sister Mary Francis creeps over the camp’s dirt road in search of the perfect spot.
We find one. It is on the very back edge of the camp area, as far from the entrance as possible. Approximately 25 feet away (the length of one swimming pool), two fellas pitch a tent, then get in their car and roll away, presumably for more exploring. We feel lucky to have that much space between us and the next camper, a giant squishy mud puddle is the only thing separating us. I figure the puddle will prevent further habitation. We relax with our feet in the cold creek, looking at yet another unbelievable view.
But the camp is already filling up. Despite the presence of our neighbor’s tent, a giant camper van pulls right in front of the tent — where the red car would park when they return. Then, another car pulls in on the drier part of the mud puddle reducing our space to maybe 15 feet. As the sun starts going down, a little car pulls into the raw grass (not already flattened by prior campers) on the other side of us, their front bumper literally nestled against Sister Mary Francis’s bumper at a 90 degree angle. As I look across the valley, the whole camp is filling in like this. Two more camper vans park on the road across from us, one set of wheels on previously untouched grass, one set of wheels in the road. Every one is trying to cook in their awkward and various angles. We estimate about 125 camper vehicles with at least 250 camping humans were shoved into this little spot with only about 8 - 10 toilets.
The red car still wasn’t back yet, and the sun was down. As we crawled into bed, camper vans were still prowling past us to try to find a place to tuck in. We were grateful we staked our claim early. The puddle was still fending away anyone from pulling in next to us at arms length, but finally, a large camper van just couldn’t find anywhere else to go. So, we heard a splash and the slow squishing sound of tires sinking in the mud, spinning, rocks flinging and then a camper settling in so close that I could open my van door, reach out and touch the side of the vehicle.
“Howdy, Neighbor.” I think.
I am waiting, because I am almost certain that the cars packed in over the top of where the red car intends to go will start a fight. In the US, if someone disregarded a tent and parked in a taken site, wouldn’t it cause a kerfluffle? But, when the red car returns, he just drives up and over more raw grass around the big camper van in his way and parks behind his tent.
We wake up before the sun rises to timely arrive at our appointment for Kayaking. The just above freezing morning is filled with fog and mystery - mystery as to why I am planning to participate in a water sport.
But, we are on the water dressed in fleece and beanie caps as the sun peeks up and over the towering Sounds. It turns into a blue bird day, with 80 degree sunshine and we start peeling off our warm gear. The Ocean Kayaks have steering pedals - which Andrew graciously handed over to me, keeping the “control freak” in control. We argue about, then settle into a paddling rhythm and miraculously, the double kayak did not create (much) marital discord this time. We get to spend four full hours paddling around on the Sound. We meet new friends, New Zealand fur seals, and see everything from the close-up, down low perspective.
After an amazing kayak trip, we transfer onto the Sound Cruise (with free “fush and chups!”).
With the big cruise motor, we are able to whip around and see the Sound from start to finish.
We visit the mouth of the Tasman Sea
The waterfall that drops from the fountain of youth. (Let the spray touch your cheeks and you will age backwards, they say. I am now 22 again, thank you.)
The waterfall with the "Green Fairies" that confused sea farers of old.
We enjoyed the tour, but before we know it, it is over. The cruise line delivers us back to basecamp where the souvenir shops wait to offer The Horde their new trinkets.
We hop in the car and head back down the road. We stop at the “Chasm,” expecting to be disappointed but enjoy an impressive pressure of river carving through a deep crevice in the rocks. The river sculpts strange formations as it picks up and swirls quartz stones here and there. Flowing Water: one of the natural world’s greatest artistic forces.
We are marveling about the Chasm when we arrive at the parking lot. We find The Horde grouped tightly around the back of Sister Mary Francis. What’s going on? A beautiful, personable and quite endangered Kea is hopping around, cleaning up the remnants of crackers crushed up on the pavement. Several of The Horde throw a cracker at his feet. A short distance away is a big sign that clearly says in English and pictograph DO NOT FEED THE KEAS. The sign explains that feeding them encourages interactions with humans that can become dangerous for the bird. They are hit by cars more frequently because human food attracts them toward the cars. I sigh and wait for everyone to disburse. Once The Horde moves on, the Kea moves on too and we get in the car to go.
The whole scene replays itself again when we stop at another lake down the road. One of New Zealand’s wonderful Inquisitive Robins hops over to greet Andrew. He scratches up the leaves and dirt on the surface to let the Robin find a worm. I bend down to take a picture, and almost instantly a The Horde swarms around me. Several pieces of ham are thrown over my shoulder at Inquisitive Robin - who luckily doesn’t really like ham. He leaves it be. But, I can’t even stand up and get out of the way because the tourists have surrounded me so tightly (to try to get pictures of the tiny Robin) that I just have to wait. This moment, where I felt lucky that the Robin approached turned into an experience where people were not respecting anyone’s natural boundaries (mine or the Robin’s) and actively doing something that will harm the bird despite being told not to do so (throwing food) just so they can create an unnatural interaction that would not have otherwise occurred.
Eventually, in my frustration, I stand up and probably stuck my head in at least three iPhone photos. I push my way out of the crowd and Andrew escapes, too. We leave Inquisitive Robin to his photo shoot and drive away.
We walk away from Milford Sound feeling lucky to have seen its stunning beauty but heavy with the unsettling feeling that something is not right about the process humanity has set up for tourism.