Kayaking New Zealand’s Milford Sound

Originally Published in the PacSafe Blog

It sits on the far corner of New Zealand’s south island, where the frigid Tasman sea juts prominently into a jagged coastline for almost 9 miles.  The peaks around Milford Sound rise thousands of feet above sea level, creating an illusion of an intimate, compact area.  In reality this place is immense, and a return trip from the head of the sound to the sea will take multiple days.

There are many ways to take in the sights of the sound, whether by boat, plane, or hiking the world-famous Milford Track in the surrounding mountains.  We opted for an experiential approach, getting up close and personal on a sea kayak.

A lodge does exist at the head of the sound, but it fills up quickly and is fairly expensive.  Instead we stayed 2 hours away in Te Anau, a small town that serves as a base camp for exploring the surrounding wild areas.  Stephanie, our guide for the day, picked us up bright and early at 5:30AM so we could still have a whole day in the sound.

The trip to the coast from Te Anau is part of the whole adventure.  The terrain changes rapidly as you head toward the coast, but not without literally passing through a mountain.  The Homer Tunnel, built in 1954, makes road access into Milford Sound possible.  It showcases the rugged Kiwis’ “Get ‘er Done” mentality of solving problems “as she goes”.  After reaching the light at the end of the ¾ mile long tunnel, the valley opens up to stunning glacier-carved peaks and valleys toward the sound.

When we reached the headwaters of the sound we wasted no time getting into the water.  It was a calm, cool autumn morning, and luckily it wasn’t raining down one any of the 266 annual inches of rain.  In fact, it’s not only one of the wettest places in New Zealand, but the entire world.  But rain brings life, and plenty exists in Milford Sound.  Plants and animals thrive abundantly here, creating a vibrant rainforest ecosystem.

It is a hard thing to explain in mere words what was felt while on the water.  The only way I can explain it is a low-frequency vibration that sits just outside the lowest audible pitch.  It was likely the effect of the towering peaks jutting into the ocean, creating a deep chasm up to 2,000 feet below.  Cliffs and waterfalls surround you at every turn, reverberating whatever vibrations originate from far out at sea.

Seeing the sound from sea level is not for everyone.  Some would prefer the deck of a boat or the cabin of an airplane, but those who do are missing a pace that is unmatched from the surface of the water.  It’s a connection that is missed by using a mechanical transport.  If your goal of travel is to connect with new places on a very personal level, then you would most likely enjoy both the challenge and reward of paddling around New Zealand’s Milford Sound.