Milford Sound: Packrafting, Waterfalls and Thunderstorms

Milford Sound: Packrafting, Waterfalls and Thunderstorms

Written by Mina Lee | Photographs by Mina Lee & Juuso Ringman

If there's one thing I've learned during my travels, it's that the popular places get packed after a certain time, and in order to have a chance to enjoy these places in their natural and most pristine state it is essential to arrive early.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

For our trip to Milford Sound we camped at the nearest campground, woke up before sunrise and arrived at our supposed launch site in the dark.

It had been difficult to find information online for the type of trip that we were about to embark on. I had previously looked up potential launch sites on Google Maps Satellite imagery, and my research led us to a concrete boat ramp next to a kayaking guiding company. As we pulled up in the dark, we noticed a sign that said something about watercraft requiring a permit for fresh water. We weren't sure if this meant that our packrafts required a permit, but we certainly did not want to do any harm to the environment so we decided to wait a few hours for the visitor center to open up and get confirmation.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

In the meantime, we took a short path to the Milford Sound Lookout from the parking lot and watched the clouds turn enchanting colors only Mother Nature can produce as the sun rose.

What became blatantly apparent on our walk back to the car was that, as soon as 8am rolled around, the planes, helicopters, boats, and all the tour companies at once started their engines and began their daily tours. The pristine and quiet air turned into a mashup of machines and business, the noise effectively drowning the music of the birds chirping in nearby trees, and I instantly felt like I had been teleported from the middle of the wilderness to the most famous tourist destination in New Zealand.

At the Milford Sound Information center, the lady at the counter told us that we needed a permit for our packrafts, which would only be retrievable at Department of Conservation locations. The nearest one to our location was in Te Anau: an hour and 45 minute drive away.

This naturally killed our plans of being out on the water for the earlier part of the day, so on the drive over to Te Anau, we decided to postpone our launch until the next day and spend the rest of the day sightseeing the surrounding area.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

Our first stop was the Chasm. A short trail up and over to a bridge overlooking some beautiful blue colored water rushing down rocky swirls of potholes surrounded by mossy beech trees.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

After a few more spots, we made our way to the DOC office in Te Anau where, to our utter surprise, they told us that our packrafts did not in fact require any permits and that we were free to launch our packrafts into Milford Sound.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

We made the most of our current situation by going into town and treating ourselves to some excellent bao's from a local food truck called Habit Foods, then spent another night at DOC Cascade Creek Campground.

The next morning we started again in the dark. We arrived at our launch site at blue hour and, after hurriedly blowing up my Kokopelli Rogue Lite, I made a beeline to the water thinking that I'd have a better chance of escaping the sandflies if I wasn't standing on shore. I was wrong.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

The sky was overcast, the air humid, and the wind silent. Perfect conditions for sandflies to circle us and suck our blood. They bugged us for the first half of the day, until winds picked up later in the afternoon. The only relief we were able to find was through paddling - by continuously moving they'd need to catch up to make a landing, and we were able to keep them at bay.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

On our way around the bend to Seal Rock, we were greeted by a group of seals on their morning swim. A few of them popped their heads up to look at us curiously, then swam on.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

Our morning started peacefully, but around 8-9am, the boats, helicopters and planes filled the atmosphere.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

The tour boats left massive clouds of fumes lingering above the water and every single boat from every single company running tours took the same exact route. They would go by Bowen Falls, stop at Seal Rock, loop around the fjord, stick the stern of the boat in Stirling Falls, and return back to base. We had to time our approach to each location carefully as a new boat came around every 5-10 minutes. It didn't leave much time to enjoy each location and, if I were to do it again, I'd spend less time messing around on the water and make it to the waterfalls before mid-day.

Packrafting Milford Sound New Zealand

We had read about the afternoon winds in Milford Sound but were completely unprepared for what hit us next.

When Juuso saw the dark clouds rolling up behind me, he paddled over and said to me "Mina, I need you to paddle for me, our number one priority is getting you back to shore right now." I have a tendency to zone-out when I hit empty. We hadn't taken enough snacks for the day and clearly underestimated the amount of calories needed for paddling Milford Sound. I was already beginning to fade.

There was a sense of urgency in his voice but in my state I didn't care for it, I just did what he asked and started paddling only to find myself zoned out again staring into the sky with my paddle over my lap.

Seemingly out of nowhere the wind picked up, the sky got darker, and the air got colder. I turned around to face a dark storm cloud traveling towards us at an alarming rate. A voice urged me to paddle and I started paddling until I felt the force of the wind at my back. My boat was turning sideways from left to right while waves about 10 ft tall rolled at us from behind.

Juuso shouted at me to not waste energy on paddling but to simply "guide" the boat while the wind pushed us towards the shore. This worked for some time, until the storm reached us and the winds and waves became too erratic and we had to resume paddling.

Earlier in the day we had passed a cove with a built-in pit-stop structure for the passing tour boats to drop passengers off for kayaking around the cove. We were now approaching that cove on our left and I quickly considered the idea of stopping to ask the boat operators for a ride back to shore. But as soon as the idea appeared in my mind, it vanished. It was almost as if the logic center of my brain didn't catch it to process and take action. Thankfully, moments later, Juuso appeared at my side and asked if I thought we should stop at the cove to ask for help or a ride back. In my zoned out but agreeable state, without responding directly, I started paddling towards the cove. 

Juuso managed to reach the structure before me and asked a gentleman in uniform if we could hitch a ride back to shore with one of their tour boats. The gentleman, seemingly aware of the dire situation we were in, invited us to dock. We paddled around the corner to a small boat lift used for kayaks, and at the push of a button we were lifted out of the water and onto the dock.

As Juuso got out of his packraft he started trembling uncontrollably. We realized he'd been paddling in the Kokopelli Nirvana Self-Bailing packraft, which meant the lower half of his body had just been exposed to the cold water for over 6 hours. What we think may have happened was that all the (colder) blood sitting in the lower half of his body mixed around when he stood up, putting the body into thermal shock.

Not to mention the fact that neither of us had enough caloric intake for the amount of physical exertion we'd just gone through, he simply didn't have enough fuel to rewarm his body.

After speaking with the gentleman who had helped us dock, he radioed the captain of the next approaching boat and got the OK to have us on board. When the boat arrived, he walked us on board with our rolled up packrafts and asked the crew to supply Juuso with some hot chocolate or coffee to help warm him up. (What a fucking sweetheart.)

After Juuso got his hot chocolate, a complete stranger who had seen Juuso trembling walked over and offered Juuso some of his dry clothes. (This is why we love New Zealand.) Juuso, being the stubborn, shy guy he is, kindly thanked the guy and refused. This guy and his family ended up following us back to the car checking on us from a distance to make sure Juuso was okay.

We'd made our way back to the car where dry clothes awaited. After we got Juuso out of his wet clothes we packed away the rafts and walked over to the welcome center for some much needed calories to replenish our bodies. We drove off happy, grateful, tired, warm, and in awe with the kindness and compassion of strangers. I guess sharing a wild place with a bunch of tour boats isn't such a bad thing all the time.

About Milford Sound

Milford Sound is one of the 15 fjords located on the South Island of New Zealand in Fiordland National Park. The park is part of Te Wahipounamu, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the only fjord in New Zealand that is accessible by road, which probably contributes to its acclamation of being New Zealand's most famous tourist destination, accounting for around 1 million visitors annually. With a mean rainfall of 252 inches per year, Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand. September through December are the wettest months, which creates the perfect opportunity to see numerous temporary waterfalls around the fjord.

In Maori legend, Milford was created by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, a godly figure who chanted a powerful prayer and hacked at the towering rock walls with his toki to carve it from the earth. The Maori name for Milford sound is Piopiotahi, which means "a single piopio." Piopio is a native bird who was confirmed extinct in 1905. Legend is that a hero name Maui died while trying to win immortality for his people, and upon his death, a piopio flew to Milford Sound to mourn his death.

Early European settlers named this place Milford Sound, wrongfully assuming it was formed by a river valley flooded by the sea, when Milford Sound was actually created by the erosion of ancient glaciers, making it a fjord. Some of the wildlife in Milford Sound includes dolphins, seals, penguins, ducks, and a variety of birds. There are also about seven million colonies of coral, and on the surrounding lands, over 700 plants found only in Fiordland.

References: Milford Sound. Wikipedia. 6 August 2018. | About Milford Sound. ICG. 2017. | 5 Facts About Milford Sound. Southern Discoveries. 8 November 2017.

GETTING TO MILFORD SOUND FROM QUEENSTOWN

[Launch Coordinates: -44.6697156, 167.9223561]

By Personal Transportation: You can hire your own vehicle at one of the many rental companies in and around the airport and drive to Milford Sound. I'd personally use a third-party website to search for the best prices available, or call the local companies and price shop to get the best deal. Most rental companies will pick you up from the airport and provide transportation to the office for free if it isn't within walking distance of the airport. Milford Sound is 288km from Queenstown and you can expect the drive to take 4-5 hours. The last place to fill up your tank with petrol is in Te Anau.

By Coach: There are many different operators that offer coaches to Milford Sound. Some of the companies offer a package deal to include a Milford Sound cruise. Some of those operators are: Southern Discoveries. Real Journeys. Cruise Milford. Mitre Peak.

By Bus: InterCity, NZ's largest bus network offers one-way or return bus tickets to Milford Sound from Queenstown and Te Anu in the mornings, and return trips in the afternoon.

WHERE TO STAY IN MILFORD SOUND

Campsites throughout the park are provided by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Some of the campsites are primitive with nothing but space to pitch a tent and some portable toilets, others have a shared kitchen area and potable water. There is only one public accommodation provider in Milford Sound, Milford Sound Lodge. They provide chalets, backpacker style rooms, and a camper-van park.