It’s eighteen years since we last visited Milford Sound, a visit tinged with sadness when we thought we would be unable to stay in New Zealand. It was before the tourist boom hit the country and only a couple of boats offered trips out into the Sound. Now half a dozen of them line the dock and the car park is marked with spaces for upwards of thirty coaches. The date of them filling again is unknown and, as it was last time we were here, it’s relatively quiet in the small town.
The sun glows onto the top of Mitre Peak – a mile high and so named because of its resemblance to a bishop’s hat – as we stroll leisurely along the waterfront. It’s leisurely for our legs anyway, our arms getting plenty of exercise as they windmill madly, swatting at sandflies that gather around us and follow our movement along the shore.
We don masks to board the boat and, as before, the crew aren’t wearing any and passengers gradually discard them. The morning is cold, the moving air as the boat leaves the dock colder, and I’m glad I have my puffer jacket. The waves of yesterday have disappeared and the water is flat, the only movement our boat, a wide wake fanning behind it. We are dwarfed by high peaks that play hide and seek with low cloud. Strands of it linger hesitantly in valleys, like discarded skeins of sheep’s wool, doomed to disappear in the heat of the day. The sun climbs, casting streaks across the fiord, its rays highlighting stripes of rock exposed by treeslides. The bare rock apes wood, patterns of whorls and lines through it.
In the storm last year 600mm of rain fell in one day. This year it is dry, although not quite as bad as when we were last here, one of the driest periods in its history, seven weeks without rain. Still, ten dry days mean the layer of rainwater that normally sits on top of the saltwater is missing, as are many of the waterfalls, only two flowing. One day we might see the splendour of the walls of the fiord weeping.
The boat swings off course and accelerates – a pod of dolphins has been spotted. The water dances in the distance, then dorsal fins break the silky surface and suddenly we are in their midst. They surf alongside us, riding in and out of the water, making barely a ripple on its surface. Underwater it seems as though they are hardly moving, smooth bodies gliding effortlessly. A calf struggles to keep up and Mum slows to allow it alongside, nuzzling it with her rounded beak.
A moment ago we had all been tilting our heads back and gazing at high peaks, words like wow and amazing murmured, awed expressions on faces. Now we are all looking down, huge smiles, laughing and pointing, shoulders nudging shoulders, people moving out of the way so others can get a good view. One of the walk guides is next to me, schoolboy-excited, leaning so far over the rail I hover my hand over the hood of his jacket, ready to grab if he overbalances.
On our return we cruise close to a small rockfall topped by a huge boulder, in turn topped by a sunbathing seal. Someone comments how much they look like slugs, but slugs don’t have the whiskered smile of a seal and they certainly can’t twist and roll like seals do when their weight is buoyed by water. A few lie on the surface, flippers extended, doleful eyes looking at us as we are looking at them.
Too soon we are back to land; too soon we are back in the coach and heading up the road, through the Homer tunnel, leaving the wilderness and back to civilisation. As we pass the dock on Lake Te Anau where we climbed onto a boat nearly a week ago a single ping rings around the bus. More follow, cellphones coming alive, and people pull them out of pockets and turn their gaze from the scenery to the screens. Mine vibrates in my pocket, where I have it stashed for easy access to its camera. I haven’t missed it and I wish it had stayed quiet. I don’t take it out until we are in the hotel in Queenstown.
A few days after writing this Stuff (a New Zealand news site) published an article about Milford Sound, how (pre-lockdown) the area was becoming over-touristed with more than five thousand visitors on peak days. Everyone wants to see it, people drawn by the pristine location but finding that, amongst hundreds of others, they can’t enjoy it. Cruise ships also steam into the Sound, detracting even more from the peace and solitude most people look for when they come here. There is no easy answer. Most coaches come from Queenstown, a four-hour trip, making the middle of the day horrendously busy. One suggestion is to encourage tourists to stay overnight, which few currently do. We did so in 2003 staying in Te Anau, two hours away, and driving in early to avoid the crowds (which were nowhere near as bad as they are now). It’s an excellent article and I highly recommend reading it https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/news/124754518/taming-the-crowds-rethinking-the-tourism-future-of-milford-soundpiopiotahi (On the picture of the harbour the smaller boat right of centre dwarfed by its larger neighbour is the one we were on.)