TE ANAU, NEW ZEALAND — You can’t visit New Zealand without going to the famous Milford Sound. Captain Cook missed it on both of his circumnavigations of the country, and when the first European literally blew into it in 1912, word quickly spread.
Most people take in the spectacular scenery on cruises. We would have liked to walk the 53.5km Milford Track, but only 40 independent hikers are allowed per day, and when we checked in late September, all of the places had been taken for the season. So we went kayaking instead.
We set out at 6:30 a.m. from Te Anau for the two-hour drive and arrived early enough to watch several other trips leaving from two kayaking outfitters. Then our guide Courtney, an Alaska native, collected our group of seven. “This is the first sunny day we’ve had in six weeks,” she said. “I am so stoked!”
It was only a few degrees above freezing, so she distributed long johns and fleeces to put under our spray jackets and life preservers. She and the crew loaded our tandem kayaks onto a water taxi, which dropped us off two-thirds of the way down the sound — which actually is a fiord, she said, since the steep-sided valley was created by glaciers, not rivers.
Small planes were flying overhead, about one every five minutes from the little Milford air strip. We’re sure the view was fabulous, but we liked our close-up views better. Paddling along the rock wall, we spotted a young male fur seal, yawning and flapping his fins nonchalantly.
He was driven out of the seal colony by an older bull, Courtney told us, and would spend a few years bulking up before returning to challenge him. We spotted two more fur seals later, one on his back doing what appeared to be a synchronized-swimming routine with his split fins.
We got almost too close to Stirling Falls, which plummets 495 feet down the sheer rock face, three times farther than Niagara Falls. Courtney wanted us all to kayak ourselves right under the waterfall, which turned out to be a whirling maelstrom not only of water, but wind. We all did it, and Beth made it even more exciting for us by using the wrong side of the rudder and making our escape twice as long.
Stirling isn’t even the largest falls; that’s Lady Elizabeth Bowen Falls at 531 feet, which we observed at a distance. It’s close to the cruise-ship docks and also is the source of Milford’s power and water.
On the opposite side of the sound, our group hit the jackpot: dolphins! We spotted them first, the tops of several sets of fins traveling along the rock wall, likely feeding. We watched as they swam toward us, alongside our kayaks, and breached the water a few times before returning to their meal.
Milford Sound is the farthest south bottlenose dolphins are found, Courtney said, and they’re bigger than Hawaiian dolphins because they need more body fat in colder waters. Once again, we were lucky: It was the first time she’d seen dolphins in weeks, though they don’t mind rain and cold, as humans do.
By then it was warm enough that Courtney was paddling with bare arms, soaking up the sun. She lives in Milford, and she told us it’s overdue for a 9+ earthquake, after which a 165-foot wave will barrel down the sound. Officials are planning an evacuation route, she said, but it was hard for us to see where that would go.
We lingered for a while next to a bird sanctuary — 46 percent of New Zealand’s birds are extinct, thanks to predators — and Sandfly Point, where the Milford Track ends. The government once wanted to put in a road there, Courtney said, and used Australian convicts to start building it. When two escaped, their punishment was heinous: They were tied naked to a post on the point so the sand flies could have a go at them.
And she pointed out the many bare areas on the rock walls of the sound, caused by tree avalanches. On one upended tree, we saw the layer of soil in which they grow: about as thick as a sheet of rubber.
After the trip ended, we ate sandwiches near the water with Laura and Justin, who also had been on our Shotover River raft, and their friend Joseph. Then we drove around the corner to the info center/cafe for cappuccino and hot chocolate.
A short lakeshore path led to a beach with a full-on view of the sound and a quartet of sleeping ducks, two with white heads, two with black and all with unusual wing patches of white and a rich brown. Down the road on the Mirror Lakes nature trail, we found out they were paradise shelducks.
And as we read about scaup, New Zealand’s only diving duck, we saw one just in front of us. It was definitely diving, not just sticking its bum in the air. We had fun trying to trace its trail of bubbles to figure out where it would surface, though we were always wrong.
We saw a trio of one of New Zealand’s best known birds while waiting for our turn to drive through the Homer Tunnel. Three kea, an alpine parrot, were sitting on and around a milepost, and one hopped down and briskly walked toward our parked car.
We weren’t wild about that, since kea are famously mischievous and have been known to pry off bits of hikers’ parked cars. Luckily, it walked under the car in front of us — not to nip at its brake cable, we hoped.
Back in Te Anau, we fixed salmon, spinach and fettuccine in our little apartment at the Anchorage, had a few glasses of wine and called it a day well-spent. Next up: the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.