The end of the road at Milford Sound

Rain. The source of life-giving water and the party-pooper of picnics. We arrived in Queenstown to a light drizzle. The weather improved slightly, or at least enough for us to enjoy our weekend stay before continuing on to Milford Sound. Unbeknownst to us, our next stop had experienced a lot more rain — significantly more. Biblical.

The heavy rainfall weakened the snow cover on the peaks around the road to Milford, resulting in dangerous avalanches. The locals are experienced with the temper tantrums of the snowy mountains and know when to close the road to keep tourists like us safe. Our concern was whether the road would be cleared by the time we were scheduled to take a boat ride on the sound.

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This trip was doubly significant for us. It was the last trip with just the two us, though technically it was also the first trip for the three of us, as my wife had just wrapped up the first trimester with our newly conceived son.

The day before our Sound cruise we arrived in Te Anau. The friendly reception staff at the hotel assured us that, while these things happen, with the weather conditions improving the road would almost certainly be open first thing in the morning. My wife took the news with great relief and cheered up. I remained sceptical, simply because I always am — about everything.

We had already seen amazing places on the trip so far. However, missing out on Milford Sound would certainly sour the experience, given that all the other locations were supplementary. Milford Sound was after all the reason we booked the trip in the first place. Located in Fyordland, it has been on my ‘todo’ list for a very long time. This is because I like cold, icy places. I suppose they match my cold exterior.

We awoke to the news that the road was not yet open. Now, it was expected to be open mid-morning. The road closure itself is very near Milford, so we set out to sightsee along the way. We had no mobile Internet access so it was anyone’s guess if and when the road would open.

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The question seemed unequivocally answered when we had to abruptly stop on the windy road, quickly realising that we were now stuck at the end of a long queue which meandered all the way to the closure checkpoint. With the sun shining, we followed the poor example of other motorists and stepped out on the road to take in the amazing scenery. It wasn’t a bad place to get ‘stuck in traffic’.

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Still without Internet access and no updates, the next half an hour felt at least like three. But then we saw everyone running to their cars as the queue slowly started moving. The road was open!

Milford was not far now. Having got to know the passengers in the cars at our end of the queue, the drive felt like a convoy of like minded souls heading to their promised land. On the way, we got a very close-up view of the previous day’s avalanches. That is plural — avalanches.

The final milestone was to pass through the single-lane tunnel. The tunnel is fairly long and with the internal lighting out of action, the drive through was surreal. It was made more amazing when we emerged into completely different weather. We drove into the tunnel shading our eyes from the blinding midday sun and emerged into a soggy, drizzly bay with all the nearby peaks softly cuddled by low lying and seemingly stranded clouds. Despite significant wind, the clouds laden with plenty of moisture, simply could not rise above the mountain peaks. So instead they continued to release their heavenly ballast into the Sound. This meteorological feature is why it rains 200 days each year in and around the Sound.

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My wife was keen to stop along the way from the tunnel to the harbour in Milford. However, with a two-day backlog of visitors, I could only imaging that the limited car park was going to fill up in a blink. Insisting that we drive on, sure enough as we drove into Milford, we managed to snatch up one of the last free parking spaces. We stepped out of the car with great relief of having finally made it, only to be greeted by savage and ferocious insects. After a Benny Hill like scramble around the car to find the insect repellant, we found ourselves back in the car, not so much licking our wounds but madly scratching them.

After nigh on bathing ourselves in insect repellent, we proceeded to the dock for our afternoon boat ride along the length of the Sound. We had booked the last cruise of the day, which was not only fortuitous given the avalanche induced delay, but we also found ourselves among a dozen or so other guests on a ship that normally carries a few hundred.

The rain had continued. In most other places, this would be a significant ‘downer’. As it turns out, we were visiting a place where a rainy day is the best weather one can hope for. The cliffs hugging the waters of the Sound were absolutely covered in waterfalls — the kind that only run when there is significant rainfall. With the overcast sky, the heavy sprinkling of bright white waterfalls on either side of the Sound stood out vividly and made it look alive. The irregular paths the water took on its relentless, gravity-imposed downward march made the waterfalls look like arteries.

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Despite the small audience, the ship’s captain wasn’t going to miss out showing off his steering ability. He took the front of the ship right under one of the waterfalls, almost touching the cliff face. The uninitiated may fear the bottom of the ship getting damaged, however there was nothing to fear. The reason is that Milford Sound is not a sound at all.

A sound is created when the rising ocean backfills a river-carved valley. Such valleys tend to have a V-shape since the running river can always pool in the middle at the lowest point. Thanks to the captain’s water show, we were admiring particularly vertical cliffs. As geologists would point out, this indicates a U-shaped valley, known as a fiord. Fiords are carved out by glaciers and have a wider shape because the ice cannot pool and through shear weight pushes rocks and dirt out of the way leaving a wide valley with mostly vertical cliffs at the edges.

It is because of basic geology that the ship’s captain could approach the cliff wall without fear of drowning us all. That and his sonar device that maps the ocean floor in real-time.

After the cruise, with our primary mission finally accomplished, we headed back to the car, to start the long journey back, not just to Te Anau, but home. We had made it to the end of the road, not just the road to Milford, but also the road of travelling as a couple. Soon we would be setting out on new adventures as a trio.

However, we did ponder why we were not leaving Milford Fiord. The answer — the English explorers who named it, had at the time not yet learnt of the Norwegian fiords and their proper geological definition, leaving Milford Sound forever more with an unsound name.

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