The mountains of Milford Sound rise up jagged and craggy from deep blue-green waters. White wispy low clouds envelope the mountains' bare mid-drifts. As the clouds clear, we spot countless waterfalls ripping down from snow-capped peaks, carving gorges in the steep slopes of granite.
The mountains surrounding our boat are forested in swaths. The naturalist aboard explains that the barren rock faces were formerly forested. He also defines the difference between a Sound and a Fiord for us. A Sound is an ocean inlet carved by a river. A fiord is an ocean inlet carved by a glacier and thus the remaining hillsides tend to be steeper. Milford Sound is really a fiord, we learned, but it was misnamed by a sailor who didn't know the difference and the name stuck.
The other special thing about Milford Sound is that you can drive to it. In 1954 the 1.2 km Homer Tunnel opened, enabling tourists to drive straight through the mountain range dividing the fiordlands from the interior of New Zealand. There is only one such tunnel in the fiordlands, making Milford Sound a one-of-a-kind destination. And the journey to it isn't so bad either.
The two-hour drive from Te Anau follows a valley flanked by snow-capped mountains and divided by a river the color of turquoise sea glass.
The valley bottoms host swathes of pink and purple lupin this time of year, as well as swarms of biting sand flies.
We camped two nights in the valley beyond Milford Sound and were plagued by incessant attacks from sand flies. I covered myself literally from head to toe, sporting a ridiculous assemblage of clothing that included a mosquito head net and my jeans tucked into hiking socks. And still I emerged with plenty of incredibly itchy bites. I'd like to say that I resisted the urge to scratch, but anyone who knows me wouldn't believe that lie. In truth, I was covered with red welts seeping with pus and insect venom.
Fact: sand flies inject an anticoagulant into people so they can suck as much blood as possible. Also, only females sand flies dine on humans; the male flies content themselves with vegetable-based protein.
Still, we loved Milford Sound and were very pleased to have ventured out there.