Today I am both saturated and sated by the watery delights of Milford Sound. I started the day with a headache and a desire to stay in bed as the rain pounded down outside, having been up very late doing an emergency job application last night. However, I realised this may be the only time I’m ever here, so I hauled myself up and just managed to catch my cruise boat. I had paid a bit extra for the ‘Nature Cruise’ but, from what I could tell, above and beyond the standard cruise this constituted a musty old table at the back of the boat containing a few yellowing nature books and artefacts – it reminded me of a neglected school show and tell table. That said, we did see a pod of dolphins and some NZ fur seals – I would like to think that they only made the effort for the higher-paying nature-lovers.
If I could sum up Milford Sound in one word it would be this: WET! It rains most days here, and in fact I discovered that the forested slopes are classified as temperate rainforest, but today was wet even by the Sound’s standards apparently. On the downside, we weren’t able to see the tops of the peaks, but on the plus side the waterfalls were on fine form, gushing out all over the place and sending rafts of spray across the valley. Rudyard Kipling described the area as ‘The Land of A Thousand Veils’, which is perfect, damn him. At one point the boat took us close in to the base of one of these falls and filled up a tray of glasses with the purest water we were probably ever likely to drink. It looked rather brown, due to the tannins it picks up from the foliage on its way down, but it tasted incredible – fresh and ice-cold. We also had the chance to stand almost at the base of the Sound’s most famous waterfall – Sterling Falls. It is the equivalent of fifty stories high, and the power of the water, especially on a rainy day like today, was immense. In a second I couldn’t see through my glasses and was completely drenched.
Other interesting facts I learnt today about the Sound and its inhabitants:
- Milford Sound is a misnomer, as it’s actually a fjord, not a sound. Fjords are formed through ice flow, whereas sounds are formed from river valleys.
- Only two of the waterfalls are permanent; the remaining hundreds are only present in steady rainfall, so we were lucky, although I had to keep reminding myself of this as I huddled against the thrashing rain and wind on the viewing deck.
- The Sound’s deepest point has been recorded as 417m. I used to run the 400m at school, therefore have painful memories of quite how far this is and can’t quite get my head around it.
- I also learnt a couple of new facts about the NZ fur seals – they can hold their breath for 11 minutes underwater and they eat their own weight in fish, squid and octopus every night – no wonder they look so lazy and engorged in the day-time.
We finished the cruise by stopping at the Underwater Observatory, where you can descend below the surface of the water and observe the life below. The marine life here is very unusual, due to a phenomenon called ‘deep water emergence’, whereby a thick layer of tannined fresh rainwater on the water’s surface prevents light from penetrating the saltwater below, and fools marine life into thinking it’s deeper than it really is. So it’s a rare chance to see some of the weird and wonderful life that prefers to live in the shadows such as tube-anenomes, sea cucumbers, sponges, various starfish and kina (urchins), and the beautiful, rare black coral (which, weirdly, is pure white – the name comes from the colour of its skeleton apparently).
These dark-hogging critters have some quite unusual habits, including the wrasse fish, which start out their life female and become male once they reach a certain size. Also, the sea cucumber’s defence mechanism is to expel its innards out of its rear end if threatened – not sure what this achieves, except to gross out the attacker enough to send it away. Luckily it can grow new ones pretty quickly. Another innards-related weirdness is performed by the eleven-armed starfish, which feeds on mussels. Once they break the shell open they release their stomach into it to allow the digestive juices to do their thing. Once finished, they then ingest their stomach again. Surely there has to be an easier way?
Anyway, as you can tell I’ve learnt a lot today and am glad I made the effort to explore the Sound (or Fjord). However, I think I am indeed reaching saturation point though – both literally from the rain, and also mentally from having seen so many wonderful sights in such a short time. I’m not sure my tired brain has done the Sound justice, but it certainly is a fascinating, beautiful place, and when we entered it from the Tasman Sea on the way back in on the cruise, I felt for a brief moment the wonder and awe that the first discoverers must have felt when they happened upon this secret world of obsidian water and brooding, sheer peaks.
Anyway, one more burst of energy for kayaking tomorrow, then I intend to draw to a halt in Queenstown and restrict my sightseeing to a culinary tour, seeking out the various sublime foodstuffs that can be found here, notably the Fergburger and the Patagonia cafe’s hot chocolate and ice-cream, which fellow travellers keep raving about with a faraway look in their eyes. I am drooling almost as much as the clouds outside as I write this, mmmm…
View of some of the peaks from the lodge, before the rain came…
View on entering the Sound from the Tasman Sea – pretty awesome…
The mighty Sterling Falls.
A rather bad photo of the ethereal, feathery (and contrarily named) black coral. Looks like a plant, but is actually a whole community of tiny anenomes.