Off to Milford Sound for a paddle

Visitors paddle back to the Discovery Centre, with Harrisons Valley and the Pembroke Glacier  in...
Visitors paddle back to the Discovery Centre, with Harrisons Valley and the Pembroke Glacier in the background. Photos by Joe Dodgshun.
Guide Semisi Miller (left) gathers  kayakers for a briefing in front of the Discovery Centre.
Guide Semisi Miller (left) gathers kayakers for a briefing in front of the Discovery Centre.
A visitor gets close to  an 11-armed sea star.
A visitor gets close to an 11-armed sea star.
A hawks-eye view of Milford Sound, with its airstrip tucked away on the valley floor.
A hawks-eye view of Milford Sound, with its airstrip tucked away on the valley floor.

Visitors to Milford Sound, which Rudyard Kipling described as "the eighth wonder of the world", have yet another way to see the sights with the launch of Southern Discoveries' new kayaking venture. Joe Dodgshun describes his day to remember.

Whether Milford Sound will one day be accessed by a monorail, a tunnel bored through from Glenorchy or other means, remains to be seen.

What will remain constant is the reason people are drawn to make the journey - the land itself.

So says Glenorchy Air chief pilot Robert Rutherford as we soar over the final mountainous spine before Piopiotahi, the Maori name for Milford Sound, which sits in the World Heritage Area of the Fiordland National Park.

Despite the breathtaking scenery that has already passed below the eight people in the GA8 Airvan since the plane left Queenstown, nothing can prepare for that first view.

Gradually thrust from the earth at a rate of just 6mm of geological uplift each year, sheer cliff faces plummet hundreds of metres to the rainforest-clad valley floor below.

Beech trees clinging to cracks and ledges in the rock give the impression of a living creature clothed, while waterfalls of unknown origin launch into space.

Morning clouds still linger on the tops of the razor-tipped behemoths, which suddenly rear up as the plane banks steeply through the valleys towards our destination.

The blood rushing to your head is but one element of the sensory overload as Milford Sound comes into view - a massive body of water dwarfed by the surrounding landscape - and then we spot the minuscule airstrip, on which we are somehow supposed to land.

Even for the most timid flyer, the knowledge that Robert has spent the past 27 years flying here is comforting - he is one of the most experienced fixed-wing pilots around.

We are here to try Southern Discoveries' new kayaking trip, which leaves from the company's newly refurbished Discovery Centre, somewhere far below.

Standing at the dock, after he deftly put the plane down nearby, Robert says that save for tree avalanches - an alarming thought - Milford Sound itself has hardly changed in his time.

Apart from the development of the Milford harbour and village and a vast increase in the number of boats on the water, he says the place remains practically the same.

Of course, that is what a man accustomed to years of navigating the remote wonder might say, and our guide for the trip, Southern Discoveries marketing co-ordinator Anita Golden, alerts us to the sound's capricious side.

As the wettest inhabited part of New Zealand, Milford Sound gets on average more than 6m (6000mm) of rain a year.

Sunshine can give way to monsoon-type rain in minutes, causing waterfalls to pour from the mountains.

Luckily for us, our trip falls in the middle of what Anita terms a"drought", or four days without rain, and we are soon on board The Lady of the Sounds, tucking into a Kiwi barbecue brunch in the sun.

Even in choppy conditions the ride is smooth through the sound, which, as we are informed over the PA system, is not actually a sound formed by rivers but a fiord gouged out by glaciers.

As we follow the path of the ancient ice, the boat slows and draws close to the cliffs for an encounter with fur seals, allowing passengers to see the comical waddle of a Fiordland crested penguin.

The Lady of the Sounds pulls even closer to one waterfall gushing off a cliff, and the more inquisitive among our group quickly need a towel.

Before we know it, we have reached the sound's exit to the Tasman Sea, where Captain James Cook twice sailed past, oblivious to the existence of Milford Sound due to its narrow entry point.

After a short ride back up the sound we disembark at the Discovery Centre, which our lively Irish guide Oisin O'Connor informs us is not actually in Fiordland National Park, because it is a floating structure.

Hanging 10 metres below the water's surface sits the centre's underwater observatory, from which a series of baskets growing black coral, usually only found at much greater depths, attract an array of fish, sea stars and sometimes seals.

Tearing ourselves away from the 360deg expanse of windows, we ascend the spiral staircase to meet our kayaking guide - to learn about an activity we've almost forgotten in the excitement of the day.

Semisi Miller, a Dunedin lad originally employed as a scuba diver to clean the observation windows, soon has us kitted out in safety gear and sitting in our kayaks - strangely, still on the pontoon.

However, a press of a button lowers the platform into the water and even the most apprehensive of our group are soon paddling around with ease.

With the kayaks almost impossible to tip - even when a certain writer was almost washed on to a beach while taking a photo - having previous experience is not an issue for those embarking on the one-hour paddle.

Calling the group together, Semisi talks us through a guided trip around Harrisons Cove, which affords dramatic views up Harrisons Valley to the Pembroke Glacier.

After flying, cruising and admiring the sound from underwater, exploring it under your own power is rewarding and certainly, the grand scale of the towering mountains over the tiny kayaks is awe-inspiring.

As a Kiwi having spent many a summer at the beach, the short paddle left me keen to keep exploring, but others in the group found it challenging enough and floated back into the automated platform smiling about their adventure.

We return our kayaks and start our journey home with a short boat ride, then a bus ride to the airport before being bundled back into the plane.

The clouds have all but burned off as the Airvan banks out of Milford Sound, which reveals even more than it did on the way in. About half an hour later we are making the descent back to Queenstown Airport.

Somehow, we have made it all the way there and back again in seven and a-half hours.

While some may prefer the opportunity to take their time and see everything on their own terms, seeing such a remarkable amount in one day and being back in time for a beer in the Queenstown sun makes this a worthy proposition.

The writer travelled as a guest of Glenorchy Air and Southern Discoveries.

If you go
Southern Discoveries' kayaking combo, including cruise, Discovery Centre visit and one-hour kayak, starts from $169 per person, with the flight-inclusive package from Queenstown costing $585 per person.


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