The Best Place to be in Milford Sound isn’t on a Boat

I was expecting to be bowled over by Milford Sound, but I wasn’t. The two-hour cruise should have been the highlight of the visit (and my working holiday in New Zealand), but it was a little anti-climatic. My favourite moments turned out to be the ones that were unplanned.

There wasn’t an issue with the cruise

It went without a hitch, though the way the guide reeled off the names and descriptions of Milford Sound’s features was obviously rehearsed. Mist obscured the peaks as we left the jetty, but that just created an atmosphere of mystery. There were few surprises as the boat rounded the bends – a few seals here, a small waterfall there, but that’s about it. From the vessel’s deck, the fiord didn’t make me feel tiny, and I could look at the cliffs in the distance and the sea between them for only so long.

Milford Sound

Up to that point, New Zealand had spoilt me with:

Even the 2.5-hour drive from Te Anau that morning passed through some spectacular scenery; think vast valleys, mountain passes and lush rainforests. My expectations had been set high, and Milford Sound fell a tad short. Perhaps my timing wasn’t right since all the snow had gone and there wasn’t any rain to add a million waterfalls.

That said, things got better towards the end of the cruise. The boat reversed into Stirling Falls, giving people photo opportunities and a face full of spray. The underwater observatory is also worth a visit because the black coral there rarely grows in such shallow water. If you’re up for it, you can also go scuba diving or kayaking in the fiord to see it up close.

Milford Sound
Black Coral in Milford Sound

Thankfully, I didn’t have to dash back to a bus after the cruise

Instead, I went for a walk along the water’s edge. I found an artificial spit and made my way towards the bench at the end. That was where I spent the next hour-and-a-half. Occasionally, one or two visitors would join me on the spit for a moment, but I was alone most of the time.

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By that time, most of the mist had parted. The skies became clearer as the temperature rose. I watched and waited for the cloud that surrounded Mitre Peak to disappear. It was a slow process, but I didn’t need to be anywhere else in a hurry. An abundance of patience never goes amiss in New Zealand.

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From the spit, I watched the cruise boats depart the pier, sail past me and disappear into the distance. As they got further away and shrank into dots, those peaks and cliffs that failed to awe me earlier suddenly looked a lot bigger. It realised where the souvenir postcards had misled me. Perhaps Milford Sound’s landscape is best appreciated from afar and not from a boat.

I also watched as the tour groups poured into the pier. By then, the buses from Queenstown had arrived and added more tourists to the mix. The thought of a 10-hour return trip to spend just two hours on the water didn’t appeal to me. The itinerary seemed to be made for the desperate, time-starved visitor who can’t spend even one night Te Anau, even though it’s en route to Milford Sound.

There was never a quiet moment in the entire time that I spent there

People were constantly boarding and alighting the boats and streaming in from the car parks. It was odd to sit there and observe the masses that I had been a part of from the outside. If you need the peace and solitude, spend a night in Doubtful Sound instead. Either way, you won’t be able to escape the sand flies, though there weren’t many on the spit. They seemed to go where the densest crowds were.

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Eventually, I could see the top of Mitre Peak, though clouds still clung to the slopes near the apex. I could have waited a little longer for those to go too, and perhaps even for sunset, but I chose to return to Te Anau. The racer in me did not want to be stuck behind large Queenstown-bound tour buses on the mountain pass.

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Despite the disappointment of the morning cruise, my little discovery meant I left Milford Sound with a smile like everyone else.

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Milford Sound, New Zealand