The question was: should I get up? Or should I remain where I was, luxuriating in my exquisitely comfortable, king-size bed?
I was sure it was still raining. And I could hear a roar, as if the wind was howling through the beech trees surrounding our cabin.
The previous evening the rain had come to Milford Sound in a way it does only there: apparently a metre of it had fallen in 36 hours. The evening dash from Milford Sound Lodge’s restaurant to our Mountain View Cabin, in torrential rain blown sideways by gusts of wind, seemed a hazardous undertaking at the time. Trees swayed wildly and the wet stuff stung our faces.
I lay in the darkness, predawn light creeping beneath the curtains, wife and children fast asleep, listening. The roaring noise nagged at me. If I stayed where I was, I would miss the entire point of overnighting at Milford Sound: to experience it after the tourists had all gone, when I would have it all to myself.
But if last night was anything to go by, getting dressed to go outside in that seemed crazy. Besides, it was a waste of a few extra hours nestled in pillows so comfy I wanted to steal them back to Auckland.
I got up, dressed, donned a rain jacket, collected my camera gear, and the umbrella thoughtfully provided in my room by the lodge, and stepped outside – into a day of clear, pinky-blue sky. Not a cloud in sight, not even a raindrop or whisper of wind.
So what was the roaring I heard from my bed? Stepping on to the pathway that ran past the chalets, I quickly discovered the source. The mountains around the lodge were weeping waterfalls, not trickles but gushing white rivers of water that tumbled down the rock faces. I counted nine of them from outside my door, and more as I walked towards the river, which itself was roaring with the satisfied ferocity of something recently very well fed.
It may have been hours since the rain had stopped, but the energy it continued to breathe into the Fiordland environment was astonishing.
Perhaps the sandflies will have been washed away, I optimistically thought as I got into the car for the three-minute drive to Milford Sound car park.
I had been the last person at the Sound the evening before, and I was the first person there in the morning. Before the torrents of rain had arrived and driven me back to my family tucked up in the warmth of the lodge, I had spent the previous evening photographing the Sound at its most evocative, the way I had always wanted to see it: lowering clouds swirling around Mitre Peak, shafts of sunshine trying to break through, sheets of rain sweeping across the water, a landscape taken to the very extremes of dramatic by the weather.
This was my third visit to Milford Sound, and each time I had been rewarded with clear blue skies which, as a photographer, I did not want. On those occasions we had, like so many other visitors, stayed at Te Anau, dragging the family out of bed before dawn to embark on one of the world’s great drives along the Milford Road, stopping too often for photos. Once at the Sound we would take a cruise then drive back to Te Anau.
Staying the night at Milford Sound gave me time to fully appreciate the extraordinary place it is, without the hordes of tourists,
or the hum of arriving and departing coaches and the drone of scenic flights overhead. I thought, sympathetically, of the tourist-laden coachloads rushing to the Sound from
Queenstown to spend a few measly hours here before the return leg of a ten-hour round trip.
In the evening I wandered leisurely about, exploring different positions for my tripod, not a soul around, in silence save the calls of birds. I watched the Real Journeys cruise ship head off into the Sound for the night as I futilely flapped away sandflies while fiddling with exposures, mesmerised by the morphing landscape amidst the clouds.
In the bright, clear morning I arrived at the car park and found a spot to set up and wait for the sun to strike the tip of Mitre Peak. A ribbon of mist was draped in a valley alongside the iconic mountain, and Lady Bowen Falls gushed, fuller than I’d ever seen it. Waterfalls had sprung up nearby and down the Sound as far as I could see.
The sun struck Mitre Peak shortly after 8am and worked its way down the mountain against a sky turning blue from pink. I could hear the sound of cars and buses arriving in the car park. Like the rain, the trickle quickly became a torrent of tourists heading for the early morning cruises, a signal for me to fetch my family and catch our cruise.
It was our third cruise on the Sound and by far the best. The boat was small enough to get in under the waterfalls — the crew put out glasses to catch the water, which were then passed around the passengers to drink: sweet, pure, delicious, the colour of champagne.
The extremely informative and interesting commentary provided a fascinating soundtrack.
Our guide kept telling us how lucky we were to have arrived after such heavy rain, to see the Sound on a glorious morning like this; dozens of waterfalls still cascading. As dolphins obligingly cavorted about our boat, it made me realise why people flock here from all over the world, in their thousands, for few hours. He didn’t need to tell me. I know just how fortunate we New Zealanders are.
Reported by Mark Meredith for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue
For accomodation options and tips on what to see and do in Fiordland/Southland see