By Michael Lanza
A vast sea of liquid glass spread out before us as we aimed our kayaks out into Milford Sound, a 4,000-foot-deep fjord in Fiordland National Park, on the southwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island. A thick fur of rainforest clung to cliffs plunging straight into the sea. The sharp, rock-crowned arrowhead of Mitre Peak rose to 5,545 feet (1,690m) out of the ocean, slashing at the sky.
Milford Sound is the best-known tourist attraction in all of New Zealand—even bigger there than the Grand Canyon is in the United States—and Fiordland National Park is world famous for the Milford Track and Routeburn Track, two stunningly beautiful and enormously popular, multi-day hut treks coveted by hikers from all over the world.
Fiordland sprawls over an area of more than 4,800 square miles, the largest of New Zealand’s 14 national parks, and bigger than every U.S. national park except six in Alaska. One of the wildest corners of the planet, Fiordland is part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. Milford Sound attracts cruise ships and tourists arriving by car via the long drive down the remote and spectacular Milford Sound Road, which slices through the cliff-flanked valleys and over passes in the rugged Southern Alps.
But for a uniquely quiet, intimate, water-level perspective on Milford Sound and Fiordland, slip a sea kayak into the water and paddle out into the sound’s enormous void. In early morning, tendrils of fog wrap white inner tubes around the waists of the peaks, and you could shave in the water’s flawless reflection. You may spot bottlenose dolphins and Fiordland crested penguins. In a kayak, you feel a physical connection to the waterfalls, like Lady Bowen Falls, plunging more than 500 feet over a sheer cliff into the salt water that’s separated from your bottom by a couple centimeters of plastic.
Milford Sound is a big enough place to get far away from the cruise ships. On the final day of nearly two weeks that included trekking the Kepler Track and Dusky Track in Fiordland, a friend and I bid farewell to New Zealand with four hours of glorious paddling around Milford Sound.
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR anyone from novices to skilled kayakers, including children old enough to follow instructions and sit calmly in a small boat for a few hours or more (although there are opportunities to land on beaches, stretch your legs, and have lunch). Milford Sound is often calm and flat, which makes the paddling very beginner-friendly. Avoid doing it in severe weather—guides would not likely take guests out at times of high winds and surf, anyway. But keep in mind that Fiordland sees far more misty or rainy, overcast days than sunny days such as we enjoyed, and that kind of weather not only shows you the true face of Fiordland, it actually casts a uniquely mystical beauty over this raw landscape. Don’t cancel plans to paddle or hike in Fiordland just because the forecast looks wet—you might miss out on a charming experience. Besides, you won’t see much of Fiordland if you’re always waiting for sunshine.
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Guide Rosco’s Milford Kayaks, roscosmilfordkayaks.com
Contact Fiordland National Park, doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/fiordland/places/fiordland-national-park. Destination Fiordland, fiordland.org.nz