Paddling adventures in Milford Sound

Exploring Milford Sound under your own paddle power is something you'll talk about the rest of your life.

I am the first person to stand up paddle Milford Sound.

I questioned the wisdom of my decision to travel to the wettest place in New Zealand during one of the rainiest summers in recent New Zealand memory but really wanted to stand up paddle Milford Sound, not realizing I would be the first to do so.

Unsurprisingly, it’s overcast and drizzly when I arrive in late February in Deep Water Basin, the launching point for human powered trips on the sound.

Fortunately, I’ve been in New Zealand long enough to have adopted the sunny Kiwi attitude toward outdoor adventure: dress accordingly and have fun rain or shine.

I booked a trip with Rosco's Milford Kayaks. Company owner and founder Rosco Gaudin, the Mayor of Milford, was the first man to start offering commercial guided sea kayak tours in Milford Sound in 1991. His half- and full-day trips welcome paddlers of all skill levels.

Rosco’s guides are the only ones who actually live in Milford Township and this 24/7 connection to Milford becomes evident as they share their passion for this UNESCO World Heritage Area during the hours they paddle with their clients.

Milford Sound is New Zealand’s top tourist destination. It takes a long time to get there, five hours by car or tour bus from Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand’s South Island.

The vast majority of tourists who flock here explore the sound on one of the commercial tourist ferries but if you want a more intimate experience with this place Rudyard Kipling called the Eighth Wonder of the World, a sea kayak trip is a great way to not only experience the sound close up but get a bit of exercise after all those road miles.

Others check out Milford Sound by plane or helicopter but for me, the best way to really get a sense of the grandeur of the area is from sea level.

As the locals will tell you, rain’s actually a kind of bonus here as it adds to the drama as the sheer mountain walls erupt with rainbow-spawning cascades plunging from hanging valleys thousands of feet above the glassy sound.

When it’s dry and sunny, the waterfalls go into hiding. I admit I’m a sucker for waterfalls. I’ve seen the world’s highest, Angel Falls in Venezuela’s Canaima National Park, and though distinctly different, Milford Sound is a visual delight whether you’re a waterfall freak like me or not.

According to Rosco’s guides, most folks come to Milford Sound for the scenery; the wildlife is a bonus. Depending on the time of year - and luck - visitors to Milford Sound can see whales, dolphins, seals and the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin. While we see dolphins and seals I have to agree with the guides that the jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery steals the show.

Guide Andy “Whitey” White and I paddle up to the base of Stirling Falls where the force of the water plummeting 480 feet down the sheer cliff face creates turbulence in the water that Whitey warns me and the paddlers in the other two tandem kayaks to brace.

The thundering sound of the falls means you have to shout if you want to be heard, and the powerful winds it generates literally takes your breath away. It’s definitely a highlight of the adventure.

The next afternoon I invite Whitey and fellow guide Chris Long to stand up paddle a river and they suggest the Hollyford. Shallow cobble bar rapids and a couple technical pinball machine stretches of river meant some of the descent was made on knees but it was still fun especially as a mist shrouded the river making it feel like we were paddling into and through a black and white photograph.

The next day, word among Rosco’s guides is that penguins had been spotted. February is the time the yearlings return to molt; the bulk of the penguins are more in residence in November. On Sunday, Feb. 20, I head out on penguin patrol, alone atop an inflatable stand up paddle board.

I pulled the board ashore at Sinbad Gully and hiked up the creek a ways as this was the place voted most likely to see the flightless seabirds but they eluded me. That day’s sea kayakers and cruise passengers looked on with great interest as I paddled along the coast of the sound.

On my way back into the harbor, I also caught the attention of a curious seal that popped up on my left side, looked me in the eye, then dove under my board and surfaced on my right.

I hope to return in winter. Rosco says winter is the best-kept secret about Milford Sound. The sun shines more often and it rains less meaning no dreaded sandflies, and the glassy calm surface of the sound perfectly reflects the mountains of the fiords making it a photographer’s paradise.

For a complete rundown on all the things to see and do in Milford, visit Destination Fiordland

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