Don't go chasing waterfalls: Muggy Milford Sound Adventures

"For thousands of feet upwards the eye looks upon straight cut rocky frontages, not worn smooth by time, or by wind or water, but as sharply defined and as fresh looking in all respects as if riven asunder but yesterday by the stupendous wedges of Titanic Masons.“ - James Hingston, 1883

Since I've been living in New Zealand, Milford Sound has been one of those places that everyone tells me I have to see. Quite a few people have told me it's their favorite place in New Zealand. For nearly a year, I've been trying to get to this magical place hidden in the south west of New Zealand's South Island Fjord land.

Milford Sound is pretty 'out of the way' even by New Zealand standards. It's about a 4-hour drive from Queenstown, and there's really only one accommodation in Milford Sound, so attempting a day trip can require quite a bit of driving. Instead of catching the tour bus from Queenstown, we opted to spend the night in Te Anau so we'd only have a 2-hour drive to Milford Sound.

Hmmm, what can I say about Te Anau? It's a pretty small town, not much in the way of yummy food, but there is a really beautiful lake and staying there does beat having to drive 8 hours to and from Queenstown in a day. And that's all I have to say about Te Anau.

Now before I get into our Milford Sound adventure, let me take a moment to slightly burst your bubble. When you google Milford Sound, this is what you see...

And when you visit the Milford Sound website, you can watch this truly stunning footage.

Well I've got good news and bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news is that Milford Sound looks like that (glassy water with the perfect reflection, blue skies, sun shining) for about 2 weeks out of the year. Milford Sound gets a mean annual rainfall of about 22 feet on 182 days a year making it the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest places in the world!!

The good news is, when it rains it creates thousands of waterfalls cascading down cliff faces, making for a pretty spectacular experience.

Now why don't tourism sites advertise this a bit more instead of burying this crucial information at the bottom of an 'About' page?

So now that I've done my duty as a blogger and managed your expectations, let's get into my Milford Sound adventure!

We awoke in Te Anau before the sun rose and hit the road for an afternoon of kayaking in Milford Sound with Real Journeys. Half asleep, the car was pretty quiet, some of us dozing on and off throughout the stunning alpine drive. I HATE when I fall asleep when riding through New Zealand. I actually feel like I'm being rude... to New Zealand. There is so much natural beauty to see and I hate to miss out. But on this particular morning, I couldn't help myself.

Soon the landscape drastically changed to rain forest and then to large steep cliffs and boulders that were so high, the tops of them were buried in the clouds. We drove through a pitch black tunnel that went through the earth and emerged to find the beginnings of what appeared to be the start of Milford Sound. Despite the foggy and rainy weather, it was absolutely incredible. We were just surrounded by steep rock, as far up as we could see on all sides. I pressed my face against the car window trying to look up, and then we pulled over to really take it all in. 

We arrived at Milford Sound Lodge just in time to grab breakfast while we waited for our guides to arrive for the 2-hour kayaking excursion. Soon we loaded into the Real Journeys van and headed to a shack on the waterfront where we suited up in our kayaking gear — swim suits, long johns, hats, bright orange jackets, life vests, kayak skirts, the works.

Ashley and I modeling our awesome kayaking getup. Gotta love Jeff in the background swatting sand flies. They were everywhere.

Just as we headed over to the kayaks, it started to pour. Our Real Journeys tour guide (who was just the nicest, most enthusiastic guy) was PUMPED about the weather. It's rare that you show up for a tour in the rain to be told 'you're in for a real treat!' More rain equals more waterfalls!!

Then we were off! Into the mystic! It was cold. It was wet. But it was pretty spectacular. The towering mountains surrounding us made me feel so small in our two-person kayak.

Once it started raining, it didn't quit for hours.

"We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin' rain... and big ol' fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath." - Forest Gump

Never have I kayaked in these conditions. It was quite an experience! Along the way, we learned lots of cool things about Milford Sound from our tour guide.

  • For instance, did you know that Milford Sound is not even a sound? It's actually a Fjord. A fjord is a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, formed by submergence of a glaciated valley.
  • Also there are two permanent waterfalls at Milford Sound. Lady Bowen falls is the largest at 162m (531ft) and provides electricity for the Milford Sound settlement by feeding a small hydroelectric scheme, and is also the water source for the settlement.
  • There's also lots of cool wildlife in the area including dolphins, fur seals, penguins, kakapos and keas. Although there were no dolphin sightings, we did have a friendly fur seal come to check out our kayaks.

See him swimming under the water?

One of things I enjoy about kayaking with Joe is that I don't really have to paddle. I dip my paddle in and move it around a bit, but when I get tired, I rest and the kayak keeps moving along.

Please ignore the fact that this hat makes me look like a gnome.

One of the dangerous things about kayaking with Joe is that he has complete control. He took advantage of that control by paddling us directly under a waterfall. Did I mention that it was cold and wet?

After paddling for two hours in the rain, we decided to enjoy Milford Sound from a dryer place — the Real Journeys day cruise. We dried off, boarded the ship and scarfed down bagged lunches they'd provided for us. But best of all, there was hot chocolate!

Nothing tastes better than a hot chocolate after kayaking through New Zealand's Fjordland, ya know?

On the cruise, we relaxed and enjoyed thousands of waterfalls from indoors. In just two-hours it seemed as though they'd multiplied. There were tall skinny waterfalls, short and chunky waterfalls and some that reached such heights that they never touched the bottom of the fjord, drifting away in the wind and back up into themselves.

We also saw more sea lions and a few penguins!

When you're sitting in the middle of Milford Sound, you really have no concept of scale. Your mind has nothing to compare the cliffs and waterfalls to. At one point our guide pointed up to a cliff and explained that it was actually twice as tall as the Empire State Building. That's about 886m or 2,906ft or a little over half a mile!!

Finally after two hours of kayaking in the rain and a boat tour, the 5a.m. wake-up finally caught up with us...

OK, well maybe not Joe. Guess who's driving home!!

So after a full day of chasing water falls, we decided to stick to the lakes and the rivers we were used. (Sorry I had to). What an incredible day! As we headed home, we were treated to one more exciting wildlife encounter. We saw two keas in the road while we waited to enter the tunnel. Keas are a large species of parrot found in the alpine forests of the South Island of New Zealand. They're known for their intelligence and curiosity, and they sure know how to work a crowd. Being a huge bird nerd, I was totally psyched and had to hop out to get a photo. It was definitely one of the highlights of my day.

No matter the weather, Milford Sound is an absolute New Zealand must-do. Be prepared, as chances are it will be raining, but be excited because it's unlike anything you've ever seen.

Now onto the last leg of our New Zealand South Island journey. Next stop Dunedin.