November 2018: Milford Sound, NZ - Wilderness Exclusives

This blog is a little overdue, but some memories are clear as can be, long after. This is exactly the case with my trip to New Zealand’s west coast in November 2018. New Zealand is an unbelievable place, there’s a few cool people and out of this world scenery.

I say there’s only a “few” cool people because, at least on the South Island, sheep outnumber people by a factor of 30. So, the locals are great! There’s just not very many of them.

I’ll focus this blog on a specific part of the trip, which is a venture to the edge of Milford Sound from Queenstown.

The trip starts with a night in Queenstown, the tourism hub of the South Island. Having been to most of the tourist “traps” in the States, it seemed relatively mild in comparison. Lake Wakatipu is a nice backdrop for this quaint and bustling city of…not quite 16,000. My guess would be that it’s 1:1 local to tourist ratio (tourism is almost 6% of New Zealand’s GDP.)

We boarded the bus and headed toward Milford Sound. They call it “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Well, I’ve heard a lot of things called that. But after hearing about this place, I was willing to give it a fair shot.

Enthralled by numerous tourism announcements, many of which were references to movies that were filmed in the vicinity from the bus driver, who kept reassuring us that the mild downpour we were driving through was not a downpour at all, and was actually “liquid sunshine”, we stopped a few times to take in the scenery on the way. These types of clouds and (dare I say) “Storms” were seen throughout the trip, and I love the way they sort of form a crown on the mountaintops.

We stopped to check Cascade Falls, near the entrance to Fiordland National Park, which is worth checking out, as it makes most National Parks in the United States look like Disneyland on a Saturday Afternoon in July. On this leg of the journey, we crossed the 45th south parallel. We saw over 400,000 waterfalls just from the windows of our bus. Our driver explained to us that many of these waterfalls stop flowing literally minutes after the rain stops, which I found fascinating! Not sure if I fully believe him, but he sounded like he knew what he was talking about. I’m guessing that Cascade Falls keeps right on going.

Once at the Sound and aboard our boat, the Milford Explorer, we hit the water, and immediately got in a dingy to Sand Fly Point for a short hike, or as the Kiwis call it, a “walk”. I was in the mood to chill. Ths is not the Kiwi way.

They call it Sand Fly Point because it is teeming with…Sand Flies. For those of you who don’t know, Sand Flies are like Mosquitos multiplied by about 25. The bite itches and is visible on one’s skin for a couple of weeks. Each individual one. It’s like halfway between a mosquito bite and a copperhead bite. I didn’t ask but I assume they have copperheads, as well. Call it a hunch.

This trail was built, in part, by convicts from a local prison, and they caught a few of them trying to run off during construction. These individuals were subsequently tied (naked) to a tree, and the sand flies had their way with them. I, to date, have not spent any time in a Kiwi prison but I think I’d take the four walls and a bed over the Sand Fly thing. We were careful to heed the guides’ instructions and continually re-apply industrial grade insect repellent. 

An interesting note …the captain of our ship insisted that we wash off our boots *before we entered the wilderness*! Not before we got on the ship, after tromping around in the mud, *before we ventured into the rain forest*. The idea here is to keep any contaminants, including foreign species, seeds, et al from entering their prized native wilderness. They are very serious about this here, in fact when flying into New Zealand there is Customs, just like any other country, and in addition there is an environmental customs where they double check things like hiking boots and tents for anything up to and including foreign mud, which may contain seeds of invasive species. Most of New Zealand’s native ecosystems is comprised of plants and birds, so they are very protective of what comes and goes. I digress: the ride from our cruise ship to the trailhead was an unforgettable experience.


The walk through the rainforest was…out of this world. We would be joining some friends for a more involved walk on the Copland Track upon our return to Wanaka, and this sneak preview had me aghast with anticipation for what that would be like.

The rainforest is dense. Even with a good amount of ambient light technically available, the canopy soaks up the majority of it. This photo, taken near Sand Fly Point, was taken with an ISO (Sensitivity) rating of 1250 which is a lot higher than I like to go for daytime imagery, because higher ISO images run the risk of “noise” which can make the image grainy, and a shutter speed of 1/20 second which is slower than I like to go (generally 1/60 or faster) for a handheld shot, because of the risk of camera shake. But those two conditions had to be met because there simply was not enough light! Due to the superior image rendering of my Sony Alpha camera and my surgeon-like hand steadiness, I was able to grab a couple of images anyway.

Back on the ship, we ate dinner, had a few drinks and moored for the night. The sister ship, The Milford Wanderer, prepared for sleep with the near vertical walls of the Sound providing a tranquil backdrop.

Norwegian Cruise lines, according to our I’m sure unbiased Captain, got busted a few years back for stealing the view from this Fjord and trying to sell it as being in Norway. I’m sure Norway is sick. That’s just what I was told. Shame on you, Norway. You all.

I grabbed this shot of life on the Milford Explorer!

The next morning, we arose for breakfast and a tour of the sound. Straight away we cross off one of my few bucket-list: live, wild penguins! Fucking PENGUINS! Certainly nowhere near Colorado (and ‘Rado is pretty badass) I wish I had brought, well, honestly I don’t own a longer lens than my 24-105mm. These penguins go by a number of different names…Milford Crown Penguin, and several derivations. They are the rarest penguin in the world, indigenous to this Sound only, and were the inspiration for the movie “Happy Feet”. Anyway, they are less than one meter tall, making them fairly difficult to photograph from a ship. The Captain came as close as humanly possible to wrecking the ship on the shore for a better photo opportunity, which I do appreciate, but they were still some distance away, say, a couple of hundred meters.

Then the Captain cranked the wheel and we mobbed it to the end of the Fjord, which terminates on New Zealand’s legendary West Coast in the Tasman Sea. Yeah, they can call this the “Eighth Wonder of the World” if they like! With these sheer rock walls dominating the sky, land and sea all at once, penguins hopping and swimming about and the remote location? They can pretty much call it whatever the hell they want. I’ve never seen anything like it.

On the return trip we were treated to some spectacular views, from a number of angles, of Mitre Peak, named after the headwear of Christion Bishops. If you were thinking about a Mitre Saw, which cuts at such acute angles; I believe the saw is named after this headwear, as well!

A truly unforgettable experience, now that I’ve seen the Eighth Wonder of the World…what’s next? New Zealand is chock full of adventure and stunning landscapes, and some cool locals, too. In my next blog I’ll chronicle one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” and an overnight backpacking trip that’s out of this world.

Feel free to comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts and about your own experiences! Especially feel free to shop for prints and cruise through my galleries. Until next time, Kia Ora and thanks for reading!

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