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Leaping off the back of the Fiordland Navigator, into the glacial waters of Milford Sound was one of the most carefree moments of my life. When my head broke the surface, cheers erupted from the boat’s crew and my fellow passengers as I was one of a few people who dared do it. As someone who likes to cosy up in my cabin with a good book, I was completely out of my comfort zone.
Climbing out of the water was rejuvenating, the cold air settled on my skin resulting in that kind of freshness that can only come from a cold swim. It was like I’d just washed the whole year off in one swift dip.
They say that in Fiordland the water can make you feel 10 years younger — by that logic I should feel 15.
Water is actually one of the most enchanting things about Milford Sound.
The top 10m of the Sound is freshwater fed by rivers and waterfalls and 7m-9m of rainfall each year.
As water runs down the mountain cliffs it collects tannins from plants and soil giving that freshwater layer a dark tinge.
Incredibly, sea life — like a rare black coral — that would normally hang out in much deeper, darker conditions can be found closer to the surface in the Sound, making it one of the best places in the world to dive.
Hydroelectricity is made by Lady Bowen falls, the largest waterfall in the Sound at 162m high.
A portion of Bowen River diverts into a small, hydro-electric scheme, and powers the Milford settlement.
The landscape was created by glacial movements flowing out to sea, carving a U shape in solid rock as they forged their way through.
If Milford Sound was more accurately named it would be Milford Fiord as fiords are carved out by glaciers, and sounds, by rivers.
Milford Sound was one of three spots that was not documented on Captain Cook’s original map of New Zealand.
At the northern entrance of Milford the ridgeline of Dale Point obscures the beauty within the fiord.
From the Tasman, Milford Sound looked like a bay and Cook never ventured inside.
It was a lucrative sealing industry that brought the discovery of Milford Sound in 1823 by Welsh sealer John Grono.
Before you even get on the water, there’s so much to explore.
I drove to Milford which is a great option if you want to stop and take in scenery along the Te Anau-Milford highway.
There are several stops along the road designated for sightseeing as well as short walks ranging from 10min-45min and long ones upwards of three hours return.
I opt for several small stops along the journey, taking in lush forest and lake views at Lake Mistletoe and a jumping trout at Mirror lakes.
I stop a couple more times, hoping to see our alpine parrot, the kea, notorious for their mischief and known to frequent this highway.
Work on the tunnel began in 1935 — originally by five men using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, but the rock was so hard they eventually resorted to dynamite.
Remarkably, 100kg of dynamite made possible 10cm of progress. With growing numbers of men working from both sides and meeting in the middle, the work took about 19 years to complete, delayed first by World War 2, then by an avalanche.
After 1.2km, the tunnel releases me on to the road immediately descending into Cleddau Valley and into Milford.
Just 25 people board the Fiordland Navigator, which carries up to 75 people, a poignant sign of the times.
As the boat sets off in reasonably calm conditions, it’s completely stable underfoot.
But it doesn’t take long for that to change as we pass through the narrowest part of the Sound.
Standing outside, I’m pelted by rain and wind being funnelled through the 600m gap in the rocks.
Brody announces over the microphone we’re in one of the wettest places on Earth — and I believe it.
The wind is actually so strong, it’s blowing small waterfalls upwards, which is just one of many of Milford’s marvels.
Out the other side, back in calmer waters, we approach Stirling falls — the Sound’s second-largest waterfall.
The skipper noses in right underneath and delighted passengers flock to the front of the boat to take photos and feel the water on their skin.
Instinctively I opt for kayaking, having done it as a child, but the minute I step into it, I wonder if this is a mistake.
It takes some time to find my balance and remember how paddles work, but I’m soon revelling in the stillness of the cove and the splendour of the scenery.
It’s after kayaking that I’m invigorated by a swim and ravenous for the three-course dinner to come.
After dessert Brody closes the evening with a presentation on all things Milford.
Breakfast is early because just before 8am we’re being knocked about in the swell of the Tasman sea.
Leaving Harrison Cove a pod of bottlenose dolphins comes up next to the boat to surf the bow wave. As the skipper steers the boat out towards sea, I’m reminded of just how formidable the open ocean can be.
Even in small swells of about 1m-2m our 600-tonne vessel was being tossed back and forth as lightly as a shuttlecock on a badminton court.
Much to our entertainment, a fight breaks out between two seals but their aggression dissipates with the arrival of one, much larger seal.
I asked Brody the day before whether he ever gets sick of taking people through the Sound and he says, ‘‘Never’’.
"Every day’s different."
Departing the boat I realise everything they say about Milford is true — that it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, that it’s incredible in any weather and you simply MUST go.
Driving away, I’m heartened to see buses full of people heading out for the time of their lives.
Onboard, Marky, the Lake Guide, explains to our group of 20, that in their busiest season they took about 100,000 people through the caves.
He reinforces the idea that it’s the best time for us to explore our own backyard.
Reaching the western shores of Lake Te Anau, we’re greeted by our cave guide Will, whose enthusiasm for the caves is as abundant as the laughs he gives us. We’re led through the 250m stretch of cave, which is part of the much larger Aurora cave network. At just 12,000 years old it’s young, in cave terms.
After boarding a small boat, expertly manoeuvred by Will, quiet and darkness descend into a grotto where countless glowworms come into view.
These creatures have a life cycle of about 11 months — nine of which are spent as a glowworm.
Some glow brighter than others, reminding me of constellations.
The brightest ones are the oldest and will soon pupate before becoming a fly for five days, laying eggs before dying.
Will moves the boat back and forth so we can take in every possible angle of this natural phenomenon.
As he heads back to the cave entrance — still in pitch black — the sound of rushing water grows stronger, like we’re heading for the edge of a waterfall which is equally thrilling and unsettling.
It reminds me of the tunnel scene in the 1971 version of Willy Wonka.
But sure enough, a light illuminates in the unloading area and we step off and begin the short walk out of the cave.
Warmed by tea, coffee or hot chocolate, we board the Luminosa, joined by the rest of the guides who are shutting up shop for the day.
It’s a quiet journey home which inevitably turns my mind back to the real world.
I marvel at the good nature and patience of the tourism workers I’ve met along the way.
It has been a tumultuous two years for these folk yet they maintain their enthusiasm and wonder for Fiordland.
I urge you to take the time to applaud the people who make these experiences possible.
— The writer was hosted by Real Journeys New Zealand.