Milford Sound

Piopiotahi (Milford Sound)

That Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ is a well-known fact. But here’s something you probably didn’t know. The incredibly beautiful Milford Sound is not a sound at all! It is in fact a fjord (or fiord as the Kiwis prefer it). Milford Sound was formed during the ice age by melting glacial ice carving the dramatic, craggy landscape over millions of years. By definition, this process of glaciation makes Milford Sound a fiord. A sound, on the other hand, is formed when sea water floods a river valley. 

But, as the Bard famously said, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" and Milford Sound is breathtaking no matter what you choose to call it. Distant snow-capped peaks, lush green cliffs, dark waters several hundred metres in depth, and gushing waterfalls that create wondrous two tier rainbows. Incidentally, Milford Sound has served as the backdrop for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and its famous Stirling Falls were made even more famous by Wolverine, Hugh Jackman, leaping off it in X-Men Origins.

Māori tribes discovered the ancient wonder a thousand years before Europeans, when they began frequenting the waters to fish and scour for precious pounamu, a greenstone revered by Māori tribes. They believe Milford Sound was carved by the powerful toki (an axe-like tool) of the atua (godly figure) Tu-te-raki-whanoa, empowered by a powerful prayer. 

As per another legend, Māori hero, Māui came from his homeland in Hawaiki to challenge the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-pō, to a duel and win eternal life for humankind. He brought with him a companion in the form of a piopio, a now extinct native bird. Tragically, Māui failed in his quest and was crushed between the thighs of the goddess. His heartbroken friend flew into Milford Sound in mourning, giving it the Māori name, Piopiotahi, meaning a single piopio. 

Milford Sound’s intriguing aura extends beyond the mythical world, and the unique composition of its waters makes it well worthy of the eighth wonder title. The fiord is one of the wettest places on the planet. Frequent rainfall washes down tannins from the surrounding cliffs into the waters, giving it the dark, opaque appearance. Below this layer of tannins is a layer of fresh rainwater, and below this freshwater lie the saline waters of the Tasman Sea. This unique composition has helped the growth of rare black coral (that are, ironically, not black at all), just 10 metres below the surface, otherwise only found deep in the ocean. 

To truly experience the spirit of Milford Sound, in all its geological and mystical glory, take a cruise. An extraordinary experience, a cruise through the fiord will reveal to you herds of sunning fur seal, pods of leaping dolphins, flocks of cheeky kea and rookeries of Fiordland crested penguin or ‘tawaki’. On a sunny day, the mirror-like waters reflect every detail of the sky and the mountains around. When it rains, the fiord is filled with magnificent waterfalls everywhere you look. 

If you choose to take an overnight cruise, you will have the chance to witness Milford Sound in all its moods. Relax on the deck as the anchor is lowered and watch the sun disappear behind the mountains, drenching the fiord in a divine alpenglow, and wake up at first light to watch the mist eerily shroud the water’s surface.