On a 'sound' cruise

fantastic fiord

On a 'sound' cruise
During the four-hour-plus coach journey that began in Queenstown (South Island’s tourist town that hosts adventure activities of variety), not once did I think about how the destination, Milford Sound, could have taken its name.

The drive along state highways (SH6 leading to SH94) was smooth enough to bring on light sleep now and then. The picture windows of the coach unspooled reels showing talls trees on either side of the road for a distance. Puffy clouds featured too, and from them came some moody drizzles. A scenic lullaby.

And when the coach stopped briefly, it was for its tourists to view sights like Mirror Lakes, small roadside mountain lakes (tarns) that, on a sunny day, bear the most clear, undisturbed reflections of their surrounding peaks. On this day in April though, one such lake surface presented the picture of a heavy cloud family in slow-motion.

A little more than a kilometre of this drive was through the Homer Tunnel, the mountain tunnel (through which Highway 94 passes) that made Milford Sound accessible by road from the year 1953. Although the piercing of granite giants to dig out the tunnel began in the 1930s, the world war interrupted its completion.

So, enchanted amid the vastness of such natural wonders, the origin of the destination’s name never crossed the mind.

If one had to guess, Milford Sound could well be a place appealing more to auditory senses. But Milford Sound, belonging to the Fiordland National Park in south-west of South Island, is an inlet of the Tasman Sea. (Sound is narrow strip of water that forms an inlet.) This New Zealand icon is categorised as a fiord because of the dramatic cliffs that abound. A European settler named it Milford Sound as it reminded him of a place, Milford Haven in Wales.

It’s on this stretch of water, about 16 km from the head of the fiord till it opens to the sea, that the sail boat painted in blue and white, Milford Mariner, would sail to intimate its passengers with the landscape of Milford Sound.

As I walked the short distance from the coach to the boat, I registered the constantly blowing winds. Sun had pulled off a no-show that day. The captain and his team of seamen, and then a voice of onboard commentary, welcomed the passengers, after which the noisy engines kickstarted the cruise.


Native legends

Inside the boat, one of the wall hangings offered an artistic Maori alternative to the geographical wonder that was unfolding outside. Milford Sound, it said, was discovered by the first settlers of the land, the Maoris, thousands of years ago. They hiked through valleys to reach the fiord to collect pounama (greenstone or jade), a stone considered precious by them. They also imagined this fiordland as a sculpture made by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, a revered figure, using the axe-like tool adze, dating to the Stone Age.

The Maori word for Milford Sound, ‘Piopiotahi’, refers to the now-extinct brown native bird (also called New Zealand trush) piopio.

On the deck, necks stretched skywards while tracing the towering cliffs and rock faces on either side of the boat that rose up to 1,200 metres above the dark green waters. The Mitre Peak, the photogenic beauty resembling bishop’s headdress, ‘mitre’ (hence the name), posed on the shore of Milford Sound as its highest point at 1,690 metres.

Some rock faces were painted green by a canopy of dense rainforests with trees and bushes bearing shallow roots. Sometimes, the commentary interjected, they are uprooted by heavy rainfall and slip together into the waters, causing ‘tree avalanches’.

Abundant waterfalls showed off their cliff dives in varying fashions. Some fell along the length of the cliff to reach the sound; some travelled a few feet and disappeared mid-air, some were tiered and serpentine, some came down in a straight line.

Since Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world, receiving up to seven metres of rainfall a year, it births many temporary waterfalls. But come rain or not, the Stirling Waterfalls and Lady Bowen Falls are always fed with water. The boat sailed close to a couple of waterfalls, challenging the daring punters to go on the deck to get a splash from the cascades. Closer now to the expanse of the sea, the choppier waters rocked the sail boat for some time.


What’s that there?

This shakiness soon gave way to a mysterious distraction. A few dispersed, motionless black coils on a boulder closer to a cliff surface came into the boat’s view. On sailing towards it, everyone on the boat, now clutching the railings, saw a colony of fur seals lounging on the rock surface. But one enthusiastic seal, who couldn’t get enough of the waters, continued to frolic in it. Later, when he tried to claim a spot for himself on the rock, a territorial battle broke out between him and a neighbour, who was not too happy about the intrusion. Eventually, the poor guy fell back into the water!

Watching this raw dramatic episode was like watching an action-thriller on the big screen — in 3D, with superb sounds effects thanks to high-pitched seal cries, and 100% natural. To have expected Sir David Attenborough’s commentary would have been too much.

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