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Milford Sound – Boat Cruising Around the Fjord

by Nikos Taskos

Towering formations rising sharply from the water, waterfalls diving from rocky edges and crisp ocean air to fill your lungs. That marvel of nature, Milford Sound, rightfully described as the Eighth Wonder of the World, is a true taste of New Zealand.

Home to the iconic Mitre Peak and some of the most intriguing plants and animals in the globe, Milford Sound can be enjoyed under any circumstances and weather conditions – snow, rain, fog or an azure sky. And that’s exactly why this pristine little corner in the South Island is worth visiting.

No day in Milford Sound is ever the same;

everyone gets to experience the fiord in his own unique way

The ancient history of Milford Sound

Milford Sound history goes back to the ice ages as glacier and tectonic activity carved it out millions of years ago. In Māori tradition, Milford Sound was the most spectacular work of Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, an atua (demi-god) responsible for shaping the Fiordland region. Chanting a powerful karakia (prayer) he carved cyclopean land masses out of shapeless rock using his toki (adze), named Te Hamo.

Māori named it Piopiotahi, after the extinct native Piopio bird and established routes linking to seasonal camps used for harvesting food and mining takiwai, a rare, translucent type of greenstone. In 1812, however, Captain John Grono renamed it to its current name, after Milford Haven, in Wales.

Boat cruise around Milford Sound fjord in New Zealand
Boat cruise around Milford Sound fjord in New Zealand

Milford Sound is a 15km long inlet at the northernmost end of the gorgeous Fiordland National Park. Located at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, the fjord opens out directly onto the Tasman Sea.

Framed by razor-edge cliffs, once a spiritual place for the indigenous people and later a popular outpost for fishermen and whalers, Milford Sound is now a protected area and the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What makes Milford Sound unique?

Millions of people fall in love with Milford Sound’s mystical landscape and I definitely count myself as one. Its pristine environment and remote beauty make it one of the finest natural landscapes New Zealand offers. I was impressed by the countless waterfalls curtaining the fjord’s towering cliffs, cascading downwards from as high as 1000 metres.

Seriously, I couldn’t stop eyeing the numerous rainbows as they kept bouncing from within the waterfalls’ mists. The steep masses of land extend underwater at great depths reaching 1,680 feet (512 metres) near the fjord’s head.

One of the many temporary waterfalls in Milford Sound
One of the many temporary waterfalls in Milford Sound

What’s more, the iconic Mitre Peak, often brushed with snow on the summit, rises sharply above the water to enhance this dramatic landscape. Those titanic land formations rising vertically from dark waters and the massive waterfalls throwing water down the sides of sheer cliffs comprise a really breathtaking scenery.

No matter how crowded Milford Sound is all human activity within the fjord seems dwarfed into insignificance.

The striking Milford Sound waterfalls

What makes this corner of Fiordland National Park memorable are its waterfalls. Seasonal rains and melting ice give birth to many temporary waterfalls, creating an unearthly sight. Dozens of waterfalls dropping down from steep cliffs make a visit to Milford Sound in the rain enchanting.

Temporary waterfall in Milford Sound
Temporary waterfall in Milford Sound

There are only 2 permanent waterfalls in the fjord; Lady Bowen and Stirling falls – you will get the chance to view (and experience) their full power by getting in one of the boat cruises available in the area.

The imposing Lady Bowen Falls

The most impressive waterfall in Milford Sound is named after Lady Diamantina Bowen, wife of Sir George Bowen – the fifth governor of New Zealand. Māori referred to it as Hine-Te-Awa which means the “river maid” or “the girl of the river”. Originating from a hanging valley west of Darran Mountain Range, the waterfall drops from 162 metres, making it the tallest in the sound – a title only challenged by Stirling Falls.

Lady Bowen Falls - The tallest waterfall in Milford Sound
Lady Bowen Falls – The tallest waterfall in Milford Sound

Not only breathtakingly beautiful but also powerful, it’s the sole source of electricity and water to the Milford Sound settlement nearby. The thundering sound of the falls can be easily heard from the wharf; however, the best way to truly enjoy this magnificent sight is to take a boat trip. If possible, stand on the deck as you are cruising by to feel its cold and refreshing glacier spray.

Hine-Te-Awa is a 162-meter permanent waterfall in the fjord
Hine-Te-Awa is a 162-meter permanent waterfall in the fjord

Facing the mighty Mitre Peak and having the powerful Lady Bowen Falls behind, lies the most unusual sight; the grave of William Ward Rathbun, a Canadian worker who took part in the construction of Milford Track, in 1894.

The breathtaking Stirling Falls

With a staggering 151 metres in height, Stirling Falls is the second-highest permanent waterfall in Milford Sound. Leaping off from a U-shaped hanging valley carved out between the Lion and Elephant mountains the waterfall is fed by antediluvian glaciers located in the mountains hundred miles away.

Stirling Falls at Milford Sound between Lion and Elephant mountains
Stirling Falls at Milford Sound between Lion and Elephant mountains

The falls were discovered – and eventually named, by Captain Stirling when he brought HMS Cleo right into the fjord in the 1870s. In Māori, they are called Waimanu which means “cloud on the water”. Being three times the height of Niagara Falls they are often shrouded in clouds and mist and feel both ethereal and otherworldly.

Waimanu falls' base covered in a veil of mystery
Waimanu falls’ base covered in a veil of mystery

Stirling Falls, viewed from a distance, will most likely get overshadowed by the 1.300 metres mountain range in the background; you need to take a closer look to truly “appreciate” them. Luckily, most of the boats get really close to the waterfall, sailing right underneath it. I can still recall the sound of the falls, like a storm raging only a few metres next to me, as the boat closed in.

The captain announced that he would steer the front deck of the boat beneath the falls. Feeling adventurous enough, I decided to go for it; how many times you get the chance to stand right below a towering waterfall, anyway? The sound became completely deafening as the glacial water hammered me from above.

Experiencing the true power of this giant, 151 metres worth of water falling on top of me, was exhilarating. Looking up in awe, the water was seemingly dropping from the clouds while its base was covered in a veil of mystery. Even if I got completely drenched, it was an experience I couldn’t afford to pass.

The 151-metre Stirling Falls at all their glory
The 151-metre Stirling Falls at all their glory

A Māori legend says that Stirling Falls makes you ten years younger! Well, I certainly felt like a 10-year-old as I was getting soaked under the frigid water.

The twisting Palisade Falls

During the Milford Sound cruise and amongst other temporary falls, I got a glimpse of Palisade Falls, a waterfall that’s quite distinctive due to its twisting S shape. This particular one, however, does not appear unless the rainfall the previous days is pretty high.

The temporary Palisade Falls in Milford Sound
The temporary Palisade Falls in Milford Sound

The pyramid-shaped Mitre Peak

No mention to Milford sound is complete without referring to the majestic Mitre Peak – named Rahotu in Māori. Rising above the sea level at a jaw-dropping height of 1.692 metres, Mitre Peak is a well deserved focal point of thousands of photographs.

Appearing to have been sculpted by a divine hand its could-piercing summits are often mistaken for one peak. A better look will reveal five separated peaks clustered around a single arrow-headed summit. Few attempt to conquer its razor-sharp peak but almost everyone tries to capture the perfect shot – the magnificent Mitre Peak along with its imposing reflection on the fiord.

Mitre Peak as seen from Milford Sound wharf
Mitre Peak as seen from Milford Sound wharf

Hint: Mitre Peak is a record-holder; it is the highest mountain in the globe rising straight out of the sea.

The spectacular wildlife of Milford Sound

Make sure you don’t get too distracted by the impressive geology, otherwise you will risk missing the many opportunities to observe the local wildlife. Bottlenose dolphins and the rare Fiordland’s crested penguin can be spotted occasionally in the fjord, jumping merrily next to your boat.

Look for a jutting rock outcrop; it’s really popular among the Southern Fur Seal population. Most of the times, they are lazily basking on the rock, soaking in the amazing views without being alarmed by the boats stopping by next to them for photographs.

The famed Seal Rock in Milford Sound
The famed Seal Rock in Milford Sound

The Milford Sound boat cruise

You can experience Milford sound in a number of ways – scenic flights, tramping the Milford Track, kayaking or booking a boat cruise. The boat cruise lasts about 2 hours and takes you around Milford Sound, past Mitre Peak and through the waterfalls, right out to where the fiord meets the Tasman Sea.

Boat cruise at Milford Sound with the New Zealand flag
Milford Sound is one of the best natural environments New Zealand has to offer

I combined the boat cruise as part of a Milford Sound day trip from Queenstown. It was a long way to the fjord but the casual photography stops and the amazing scenery made up for it. There is a great number of tour operators offering cruises around the fjord so spend some time to do a little research before deciding.

Cruising Milford Sound under fog - mysterious and unearthly
Cruising Milford Sound under fog – mysterious and unearthly

Upon arriving at the docks I felt excitement setting in; the eighth wonder of the world was finally within sight. During the whole duration of the cruise the boat was surrounded by imposing limestone cliffs while enormous waterfalls kept coming into focus; each one of them unique and ever-changing. Occasionally, as the boat was sailing next to a waterfall, I felt its refreshing glacial spray. Withstanding the bone-chilling wind I remained at the deck as much as I could to witness the pristine beauty of the fjord.

Pristine beauty in gigantic proportions in Milford Sound, Fiordland
Pristine beauty in gigantic proportions

The great Tasman Sea

After sailing through a steeper section of the fjord the boat finally reached Dale Point – the mouth of the fiord. The Tasman Sea, Te Tai-o-Rehua as the Māori call it, is described as a lost world of undersea volcanoes and icy depths. Many yet unclassified life forms have adapted to the harsh conditions beneath its surface, over the aeons.

Unfortunately, that was the furthest we could navigate; the boat made a U-turn and started heading back to the port. The entrance to the fiord is so well-hidden that Captain James Cook missed it in the late 1700s. It was only in 1823 that Milford Sound was discovered, when the sealer John Grono, managed to traverse the narrow waterways.

The great Tasman Sea - a local fishing boat entering the fjord
The great Tasman Sea – a local fishing boat entering the fjord

Is Milford Sound worth a visit?

Milford Sound is one of the most photographed places in New Zealand, and it’s not hard to see why.

It incorporates all the reasons that might inspire a traveller to make that long journey to Aotearoa. I recommend visiting Milford Sound either by bus as part of a guided day trip from Queenstown or by using your own vehicle. You will be amazed by how picturesque and interesting the route is; glacier valleys, crystal clear lakes, snow-peaked mountains and lush vegetation will have your reaching for your camera every five minutes.

Besides, cruising around the fjord is a marvellous experience. You will get the opportunity to set eyes on that marvel of nature carved out over the span of years; forested cliffs rising dizzyingly from the sea and gigantic waterfalls dropping down from the sky.

Towering green cliffs in Milford Sound
Towering cliffs in Milford Sound – A sight to behold

There are certain places in the world that somehow make you feel insignificant; Milford Sound is definitely amongst them

What is the best time to visit Milford Sound?

Catching an early morning cruise would be the best choice – there will be significantly fewer people in the fiord and the light will be ideal for photography. This option, however, requires you to spend the previous night either on Milford Sound Lodge or on one of the many accommodation options in Te Anau.

Milford Sound gets around 7 metres of rainfall per year, making it one of the wettest inhabited places in the world. Therefore, it would be a great idea if you pack your raincoat when planning a visit to the fjord.

Feeling disappointed before even starting? Well, don’t. It’s during heavy bouts of rain that Milford Sound is even more gorgeous; when numerous temporary waterfalls are exploding down the cliffs and rainbows keep appearing everywhere around you.

Expect the peak seasons to be during summer (December, January and February) so autumn and spring are likely to be quieter. Winter (June, July and August) is a bit risky since there is also snow to contend with, forcing the Milford road to close due to avalanches. Our guide told us that tree avalanches are also not uncommon; whole forests were forced into the dark waters of the fiord over the years.

Mitre Peak under a veil of fog
Mitre Peak under a veil of fog

During my visit in October, the fiord was clearly not crowded with only 2-3 more ships cruising around. Don’t forget that even during springtime it could be quite chilly so make sure to take your thermals with you.

But, truth be told, Milford Sound is a stunning destination all year round – there is really not a bad time to explore its many charms.

Is Milford Sound a fjord or a sound?

Last but not least, the million dollar question – is Milford Sound a fjord or a sound? Weirdly enough, Milford Sound is actually a fiord, named wrongly by the early settlers.

So how can you say the difference? A sound is formed when a river valley gets flooded by the sea forming a large extended ocean inlet. However, Milford Sound was produced by retreating glaciers; they firstly carved through the rocks and eventually receded allowing the sea to flood the valley. Thus, Milford Sound is clearly a fjord, not a sound – an inlet of the Tasman Sea formed by glaciers during the ice ages.

Snowy peaks in Milford Sound
Snowy peaks in Milford Sound

Know before you go

What is the price of a Milford Sound boat cruise?

There are several operators in the area, each one offering a number of boat cruise options. The cruise itself can cost from 50 NZD to 100 NZD; still, you need to determine how you’ll reach Milford Sound (coach, flight or rental car).

What’s the duration of a typical Milford Sound cruise?

Most operators provide a 2-hour experience, counting from the time you board until you are back at the wharf after the boat cruise.

Which Milford Sound cruise company should I pick?

There are several reliable operators you can choose from, with Altitude Tours (Milford Sound BBQ Experience) and Cruise Milford being two of the top ones. I have picked Go Orange, and more specifically their Coach – Cruise – Coach option and greatly enjoyed the overall experience.

Can I arrange a Milford Sound overnight cruise?

Spending a night in the heart of the eighth wonder of the world with spectacular fiord and sea views sounds intriguing. Doing so will allow you to experience the fiord at its most peaceful, without the crowds. Unfortunately, due to time restrictions, I was not able to book a night cruise but I would certainly did so if I had enough time.

What’s the best month of the year to visit Milford Sound?

Milford Sound is best viewed wet and peaceful. The good news is that rainfall in the fiord is quite common, about 182 days per year. Therefore, I would recommend visiting Milford Sound in October, the second-wettest month of the year with daytime temperatures sitting around 16°C. During that time the fiord is also a lot less crowded.

Is Milford Sound worth it in the rain?

Yes, definitely. During heavy rain, the fjord is full of numerous temporary waterfalls, dropping down from steep cliffs, while rainbows are all over around you. Pretty cool, huh?

Quick Facts

Date Visited: October 2018
Type: Boat cruise
Recommended Time: 2 hours
Official Website: Destination Fiordland

Fjord Length: 15 km
Highest Waterfall: 162 m
Max Depth: 512 m

Pristine and unique beauty in cyclopean proportions; an unparalleled marvel of nature formed aeons ago.

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