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To Milford Sound and Back

Jonathan van Bilsen



April 5, 2009

To Milford Sound and Back

One of my fondest memories of places I have visited is New Zealand and Milford Sound. Perhaps it is the experience I encountered or merely the sheer beauty of the place, but it is one that will remain dear to my heart for many years to come.

If you have never travelled to New Zealand, it is one of those destinations, which goes unnoticed by many travellers. Once you have been there, however, you cannot stop talking about its splendour.

Divided into two islands, the South, with its snow-capped peaks, is the more majestic. Most tourists fly into Queenstown and if you are fortunate, as I was, to travel by a propeller plane from the North Island, you weave between mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, each turn offering a breathtaking view.

The village of Queenstown is similar in appearance to Banff. It is nestled on the shore of crystal clear Lake Wakatipu and is New Zealand’s premier resort town. I arrived and stood in awe, as I stared at the mountains around me and the lake in front and watched as hang gliders soared from the peaks above.

I had planned on an excursion to Milford Sound, my main reason for being in Queenstown and had booked a seat on a daily charter to leave early the next day. I awoke to the chirping of birds as the spring sun shone through my window. After a quick breakfast, I made my way to the tourist office only to be confronted by terrible news.

The weather in Milford Sound was too foggy to land so the flight was about to be cancelled. I was devastated, but decided to wait one more day. I had enough time in my itinerary that I was able to spend a day seeing the sights of Queenstown. 

I stepped inside the tourist office and looked at the possibilities. I decided to book a helicopter trek to the top of Mount Cook, as well as a paragliding adventure for the afternoon. I knew that my dilemma would have an unseen benefit and as the chopper set down on the pristine, untouched snow of a glacier high on the slopes of Mount Cook, I was grateful for the fog in Milford Sound. I spent an hour or so making angels in the snow, photographing the world from high above and tossing snowballs into the wind.

When I returned I enjoyed a hardy lunch and set out for my parasailing adventure. Unfortunately, the weather had picked up and the parasailing had been cancelled. I wandered the streets and looked in the shops admittedly enjoying the down time cast upon me.

The next morning I awoke, but there was  no sun shining through the window. I jumped up and made my way to the tourist shop only to find the weather had grown worse. Having travelled to many locales I have learned to become resourceful. I knew that a forty seat propeller plane had certain restrictions when flying through severe weather; however, I also knew that a small, two seater would be able to make the journey; after all, it was only 30 minutes.

I checked around and finally found a pilot willing to make the trek. The cost was a few dollars more, but money was secondary when it came to seeing one of the planet’s most amazing sights.

We set off and I immediately regretted my decision. The plane, somewhat old, had one seat for the pilot and two for the passengers. I could barely fit my self and my gear into the seat and we were no sooner airborne when I began to feel the turbulence. 

I recently tried to count the number of flights I have been on in my life and the number is upward of 500, but I can honestly say I have never experienced such turbulence as I did that day above the South  Island. The plane shook continuously and as it fell into a pocket of air, my head hit the ceiling. It happened so often that I developed an excruciating headache. 

We banked, dipped, rose, and dropped and when I looked at my watch and realized we had only been airborne for ten minutes I felt nauseous. I am not sure how I endured the flight, but the second we touched down, I jumped from the plane and ran to the hanger.

A few minutes later, I boarded the boat, which took me out to Milford Sound and my nerves calmed quickly, as I gazed on some of nature’s wonderful creations. Steep cliffs in odd formations framed the Sound. Seals basked lazily on the rocks and birds soared overhead. 

Several hours and hundreds of photographs later I returned to shore, suddenly wondering how I was going to return to Queenstown. The fog had cleared and I felt optimistic, however, that soon changed when I learned Queenstown’s weather had deteriorated.

I overheard several people talking about a bus and was delighted to learn one was leaving for Queenstown in an hour. I purchased a ticket and was ready to go. The five hour bus journey gave me an opportunity to relax and recall the events of the past two days. 

I would return to Milford Sound in an instant and would recommend the journey to anyone. Whether you do the four day hike or the one day excursion, never fly in if there is the slightest hint of weather problems, for I still feel the bumps on my head.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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