Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Majestic Milford Sound: fresh above but salty below!

Few sights are as stunning on this planet as fjords, those oceanic tongues that seem to have carved their way inland through steep mountains who rise high above sea level. In reality fjords are flooded canyons that were originally carved by advancing glaciers millions of years ago, but the geological reality of it isn't usually the first thing that pops into your mind when you're standing at sea level gazing up those cliffs in search of the sky.

When people hear the word fjord, the first place that usually pops into their mind is Norway. That used to be the case for me too. But now when I hear fjord, I'm transported back to New Zealand and its many natural wonders... starting with the fjords in Fiordland National Park (a World Heritage Site) along the south-west coast of the South Island. Images of Piopiotahi (a.k.a. Milford Sound) pop into my mind: mountains reaching towards the clouds with their feet dangling in sparkling waters, a penguin hopping along a rock, fur seals basking on the rocks and playing in the water, waterfalls that seem to be falling from the sky, and a completely alien world under the water's surface.

Milford Sound, home of the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve, is one of New Zealand's top tourist destinations, in spite of the distance to just about anywhere else, and the difficulty involved in getting there (although there are more isolated places in Fjordland).  From the nearest town (Te Anau) it's a couple of hours along a narrow two-lane road with some windy climbs (and descents) through some very impressive mountains.

I was lucky enough to be able to make two trips into the Sound when in the region last January, which allowed me to view it under two very different skies,

admiring Mitre Peak, one of the tallest mountains to rise directly out of the sea
Jan 9, 2011. 4 PM. Breeze rustling the rushes, pushing the water up onto a pebbly beach. It's a beautiful place to just sit and take in the majestic beauty of Milford Sound. Even better, slipping my shoes off and stepping lightly into the water, hesitant of that first initial cold contact, only to discover that it's delightfully warm! And the spongy plants just beneath the surface are such a delight to walk on! Standing on a soft green cushion, waves rippling around my feet, wind in my hair... life is good.

It's amazing what a difference a bit of sun makes!

These isolated regions are perfect for a wide variety of animals: protected from the rough Tasman Sea waiting outside the sound, isolated from most predators, lush vegetation and freshwater in abundance, rich ocean waters with plenty of food... Of the many critters I met in Piopiotahi, I'm only going mention two here. Both spend part of their life on land, and part in the sea. Both are members of the "charismatic megafauna" which means the moment you see their photos you'll have the same reaction I did when I saw them: "ohhh!!! CUTE!!!" (I know a Uni professor who would kill me for using the C-word there, lol!) ;o)

Ready to meet them?