Day 7: Milford Sound

by Mary Beth

It was our big day: a trip to Milford Sound, which is objectively one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand – a twisting fiord, with sheer mountainous cliffs rising out of the water, lush green trees clutching tenaciously to the cliff faces; mists and clouds coiling around the mountains; waterfalls cascading down in little rivulets; rainbows when the sun is courageous enough to peak through the constant rain clouds; dolphins, seals, albatross, and penguins.

We paid to have a tour company pick us up and drive us to Milford Sound, a two-hour drive on winding mountain roads. This was advertised as “Coach-cruise-coach” online, and I communicated this fact to Annie as we were waiting for it to pick us up. Needless to say she was very excited to see the coach, after her longstanding love of the Cinderella story.

“That’s not a coach!” she said when a 15-passenger van pulled up in front of our house. I asked her why, and she explained that there were two reasons: one, it looked like a van and did not look like a coach, and, two, it did not have curtains in the windows. Coaches were supposed to have curtains in the windows. In all other ways, however, she admitted that it was very coach-like.

She was right; the van did not look much like Cinderella’s coach, and it did not have window curtains. On the other hand, our driver was much more interesting and informative than the driver of Cinderella’s coach. We stopped at the best views, did some short walks to see the Mirror Lakes and Lake Gunn, got a Morning Tea, and even saw some kea walking around the road. Cora happened to be asleep whenever we spotted them, so she wasn’t able to see them and call them kiwis.

Mirror Lakes
Forest entirely composed of moss
Juice boxes + muddy puddles = happy children
A cheeky kea

Our guide told us about the geology of the area, about how the fiords were formed, and about the ecosystem – the way plants were able to grow tenaciously on rocks without any soil, relying on moss for moisture. He talked about the evil invasive animals killing off New Zealand plants and birds – possums, and cats, and magpies particularly. Magpies are another Australian import and they have not forgotten their roots. They are aggressive, feisty birds that pick fights with anyone and anything – including people, or large hawks. Apparently the hawks are so startled by this unexpected behavior (a New Zealand native animal would never behave that way!) that they are sometimes driven away by hoards of aggressive magpies, even though the hawks are bird-eating carnivores and much larger than the magpies. Our guide was attacked by a magpie once during a bike race, and had to give up the race because of the blood pouring down his face from his scalp laceration – the bird had slashed him through his helmet. Peter and I find these birds fascinating because they have a bizarre warbly call that sounds like an old-fashioned modem connecting to the internet. But we know to keep our distance. 

Whenever our tour guide started talking, Annie (who was buckled into a booster seat directly behind him) would ask very loudly, “What is he saying, Mommy? What is he talking about?”

“Shh!” I would say, trying to listen.

“What is he saying?” she would ask, more loudly.

“Shh, I can’t hear him!”

“But what is he talking about?” she would shout, frustrated by my lack of communication.

“Annie, I can’t hear him because you’re talking,” I said, trying not to sound irritated.

“WHAT IS HE SAYING, MOMMY?” she asked.

I sighed.

Eventually I gave in and acted as simultaneous translator, translating quietly from English to English.

The boat ride through the fiord was on a littler boat. The larger boats sat silent and empty in the harbor. They aren’t running right now; many have shut down and laid off their employees. After the terrible flooding a few months ago, they just weren’t able to cope with the second hit from COVID. There are no longer tours of the less-famous-but-equally-beautiful Doubtful Sound, or the glowworm caves nearby.

View from the dock

Our boat was not at full capacity, or even at half capacity. This was quite nice for us, because it allowed us to roam around without bumping into people. Three of the four of us roamed around. Annie stayed inside and played with dolls. The spectacular views were not interesting to her. We dragged her out to see the bottlenose dolphins that leapt out of the water just beside our boat, and the fat seal sitting on a rock, and the sparkling rainbow – but she was happier sitting inside. She would have been just as happy to stay home and play with her dolls.

Cora was a little more interested. She really liked the dolphins and the seal. The edges of the boat were quite high, too, so she wasn’t able to throw herself overboard. Cora and I spent a lot of time outside, looking through the mists at the green mountains. It was sunny and misty at the beginning, and outright drizzly at the end, but we stuck it out. It usually rains in Milford Sound. We went under a waterfall together (we ran inside at the last minute before we got totally soaked, though). Peter caught some of the water from the waterfall in a cup and we drank it.

The ride home in the coach was much quieter. Annie was tired, and I sat next to her again, talking to our guide. Peter sat behind me, next to Cora, who was not tired. She was ready to go and was not happy about being strapped down again. I don’t know exactly what transpired during the car trip because I was chatting. But by the end of the trip, the emergency snack supplies, a large bag of banana chips that tasted like they had been soaked in sugar, were gone. And Peter had a desperate look in his eye.

But while he was apparently feeding Cora banana chip after banana chip to keep her from revolting, I learned more about Milford Sound. Apparently Milford Sound is also known as Piopiotahi. A piopio is an extinct songbird. In Maori mythology, Piopio was friends with the demi-god Maui. When Maui met with the goddess of Death, she was sleeping. His goal was to win eternal life for all mankind – but to do this, he had to sneakily climb into her womb (I guess she was very large). But he brought along his best friend, the piopio, who brought along the piwakawaka. The piwakawaka is our favorite bird, otherwise known as the fantail – a cheerful, fat little bird that flutters around your head when you’re walking through the forest. Everyone was very quiet as Maui attempted to sneak into the goddess, except the piwakawaka, who chirped and laughed and woke her up. She then crushed Maui between her thighs, killing him. Piopio was very sad and came to Piopiotahi (“single piopio”) to mourn.

And that is why we don’t have eternal life.

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