The islands of New Zealand are lands full of surprises, contrasts and sensory overload! These differences are found in the varied landscapes, from glacier-covered alpine peaks to subtropical rain forests to sparkling, 21st-century cities contrasted with the vibrant and ancient Maori tribal culture. Even the weather ranges from fierce snowstorms to balmy sunny weather. It was the weather that had us pinned down on a beach that morning in Milford Sound.
The entire sound was engulfed in Te ika nui, which in Maori means angry, inclement weather. It was wet from above, wet from below and even wet from the middle! The ocean was whipped up in a confused froth of salty wave foam and jerked our kayak paddles at will. A multitude of small waterfalls plunged down from a roof of clouds above and were atomized into spray by the updraft of strong winds before the water even hit the ground. It felt like a scene from Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Our small group of paddlers was standing in awe on the pebble beach geared up for the worst, wearing dry suits and thermal clothing. We were ready for adventure. However, the wrath of a southern storm inundating the South Island shores quenched our thirst for further wilderness exploits. Today was simply not a safe day for sea kayaking in Milford Sound.
Located in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island, Milford Sound, or Piopiotahi in Māori, is the most stunning fjord in Fjordland National Park. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” This nature park is a mythical-looking land of pyramid peaks and sheer rock walls, waterfalls and drifting mists.
It is also the wettest place in New Zealand and one of the wettest places on Earth. The annual rainfall is more than 20 feet, it rains 182 days per year and the area has even been known to receive nearly 10 inches of rain during a single day! This amount of rain creates lots of temporary waterfalls and some major permanent ones. One of those is Stirling Falls, which drops from a staggering 495 feet—about three times the height of Niagara Falls.
The next day, the weather was completely changed. With sunny skies and calm waters, it did not take us long to launch again and head for Stirling Falls. Once there, we ventured right under the powerful cascades. It was exhilarating to feel the glacial water hammering down on top of our kayaking helmets. In fact, Maori legend says that being sprayed by this water makes people younger.
Paddling home rejuvenated and with grins on our faces, we admired the wild nature all around us. Milford Sound was formed when the sea entered a deeply excavated glacial trough after the ice had melted away. The thickness of the ice that excavated the basin can be seen in the height of the sheer vertical cliffs that rise from below sea level, truncating the U-shaped profiles of older glacial valleys.
As we plied the steep-walled fjords, we admired the endangered crested Fjordland penguins diving and the playful bottlenose dolphins breaking the water in front of our bows. Close to Seal Point, at the mouth of the fjord, we found many wild seals basking in the sun on the rocks. And to finish it all off, we saw the spouts of two unknown whales in the distance, back-dropped by a large, vibrant rainbow.
At this point, the next storm was on its way, and we headed home with determined paddling. Kayaking back, we had great views of Mitre Peak, the most iconic photo subject of the Fjordlands, rising almost 5,900 feet right out of the water. Its name comes from its twin peaks, which resemble a bishop’s mitre or headdress.
There’s barely a corner of Fjordland National Park that isn’t overflowing with wildlife, and the endemic birdlife in particular is exciting to watch. For the discerning naturalist, New Zealand is truly a land of exotic birds. There are no native land mammals here, so the birds evolved to fill the niche that mammals typically fill in other lands.
In Eglington Valley on the drive home, we stopped frequently to check out amazing avian fauna. We were lucky to see the endangered and the ancient Blue Duck, as well as the eye-catching Paradise Shelduck. We also observed several kea birds, a protected species of parrot numbering a few thousand individuals, most of which live in this area. These large, green parrots are one of the most intelligent birds in the world, and they’re not afraid of humans.
Due to this exotic species plenitude and habitat diversity, it has been exciting for Natural Habitat to create the New Zealand Nature Explorer itinerary for our clients to enjoy. This unique nature adventure focuses on the South Island, with its rugged coastline that encompasses a land of topographic and climatic extremes inhabited by exotic species.
So, come join us and pack a raincoat, suntan lotion, binoculars and a curiosity to see it all. As we learned from our adventure and as the old saying goes, “After the rain always comes the sun.”
The Maoris of New Zealand had this 19th-century poetry weather charm intended to stop the rain from falling:
Rain, o rain, cease falling, fair sky
Clear away from above, clear away from below,
Let the offspring of te ika nui be distressed
Bring about blue unclouded sky!