Milford Sound


If you believe the hype, Milford Sound is a must-see in all weathers. But David Whitley discovers the truth.

Weather, even though we’d sometimes like to pretend otherwise, can make a big difference. No-one wants to lie on the world’s most beautiful beach when gloves and a hat are more appropriate than swimming trunks and an ice cream. Similarly, skiing is a bit rubbish when there’s no snow and going for a scenic walk in the lashing rain is bloody horrible.

There is one place in New Zealand, however, where the weather supposedly doesn’t matter. If it’s chucking down with rain at Milford Sound, then the waterfalls look amazing. If it’s shrouded in mist, it has that moody, other-worldly atmosphere. If it’s snowing, the white stuff makes the mountains look spectacular. And if it’s sunny with clear blue skies, then your photographs will come out beautifully.

This line of thought is either unhinged optimism or cunning marketing. Because the truth is that Milford Sound doesn’t look all that impressive when it’s hurling down with rain and a thick mist reduces visibility to a few rough outlines of rocks and a million shades of grey.

And more importantly, it is like this rather often. You can expect rain for about seven days in ten, and clear skies are a novelty rather than a rule. So, of course, if people are going to go there in their legions (and there can be over 100 tour buses a day), it’s easier to employ a bit of psychology. It’s far better to make the punters think they should be enjoying the spectacle of seeing Milford Sound in the crappy weather than admit there’s a high chance of having a disappointing experience.

Well, here’s the truth – Milford Sound is overhyped and unless you get lucky with the weather, it can be something of a damp squib. Travelling for four hours from Queenstown, and then four hours back again for a two hour cruise in which you can only really make out a few waterfalls and a couple of hardy fur seals is arguably not worth it.

Of course, if the sun IS out (rare, by all accounts), then you’re probably in for a treat. But it’s a case of how the dice fall. And as such, I wouldn’t want to actively discourage anyone from going to Milford Sound.

But it highlights a good rule of thumb for travel in general – it’s often better to follow your head than follow the crowd. If you’ve only got a limited time around Queenstown, if you’ve already seen the Norwegian fiords, if you don’t think a ten hour round trip to potentially look at some mist is a productive use of your time, then perhaps do something else.

After all, there’s no shortage of sensational scenery around Queenstown – Skipper’s Canyon and the Shotover River, in particular, are fantastic. And while I admittedly got unlucky at Milford, there’s a decent chance that you will too.




By David Whitley




David Whitley dons his not-entirely-flattering wetsuit, and takes on the white water in New Zealand’s action capital.


It never pays to laugh too hard at another’s misfortune. As we sit in our sheltered cove, the stragglers come bouncing over the rapid. Entering a sideways spin, the raft begins shedding excess weight. The hapless passengers are flung out horizontally, almost as if it’s a synchronised swimming manoeuvre. It looks like the leaves of a flower peeling away to reveal a new bud. This is, of course, absolutely hilarious to us. Watching the two remaining survivors frantically trying to haul in the casualties is comedy gold. And it remains that way until the next rapid, which we try to surf.


This, in white water rafting terms, is paddling back into the churning, spitting cascade shortly after you’ve ridden over it. We plough into it as hard as possible, and the front of the raft starts taking on water. It’s slowly sinking, and although it should just be a case of just sitting on the raft as it drifts backwards, Jan the lumbering Dutchman has somehow managed to spreadeagle himself across the river. Three of us grab him by the lifejacket and lug him back aboard, but it’s too late – we’re now the ones being laughed at. Rafting down the Shotover River near Queenstown is something of an extreme dance. The slows of the slow-slow-quick-quick-slow are beautifully relaxing. The chance to take in the high canyon walls, remarkable rock layers and miner’s huts dating back to the 19th century gold rush is blissful.


But it’s also the calm before the storm. While the two hour journey starts off with gentle practice rapids, the intensity increases as you blunder downstream. The Mother section soon approaches. The origin of the name – is it because it gives birth to the rest of the river? What you call for as you’re going over? A polite abbreviation of a crude-but-accurate description? - is left unexplained. But given that two of the six Grade 3 and 4 rapids that we take on in quick succession are called "Toilet" and "Oh Shi"’, the latter two options are probably closest to the truth.


It’s a ride and a half battling through. There’s a vague pretence at steering through most of the hairy bits, but it’s really a case of hanging on and hoping for the best as the river attacks the raft like a rogue pitbull in a playground. We make it through unscathed, but the big beast is yet to come. The grand finale of the adventure is something unique to the Shotover. An old miner’s tunnel has flooded, and can be floated through. 


Doing so is like waiting for the phone to ring with bad news. It’s eerily quiet and peaceful, and the details of the rock tell a million stories. But at the other end, a waterfall awaits. And not a dainty one that specialises in keeping things neat and tidy whilst dutifully reflecting a rainbow either. It’s a brute, somewhere between Grade 4 and 5 depending on water levels. 


We lurch all over the place as we go down, bouncing off rocks and tipping precariously. Jan’s wife grazes her fingers on the rock, everyone else clatters into each other, and the paddles are wielded with all the authority of a Page 3 girl at a G8 summit. But we make it. And it’s a rush. We clang paddles in the air and drift back to base with huge grins on our faces. And six of us, if not Jan, can say we did it without falling in.





By David Whitley