On average, it rains 182 days a year in Milford Sound, New Zealand, making it among the wettest inhabited locations in the world. The area remained largely unexplored until the end of the 19th century; early explorers feared venturing too deep into the land cavity by way of the Tasman Sea, uncertain if heavy wind gusts would prevent exit. Today, however, Milford Sound’s reputation as the the most striking geographic location in New Zealand has also made it one of the country’s most trafficked among visitors. On any given day during the summer months (December through February in the Southern Hemisphere), thousands of tourists undertake the the nine-hour roundtrip from Queenstown along State Highway 94, the sole road leading in and out of the fjord.
Geography Lesson: Sound, or Fjord?
The name for Milford Sound dates back to 1812, when captain John Grono discovered the inlet and named it “Milford Haven”, after his hometown in Wales. It was later, incorrectly, given the title “Milford Sound” by Welsh naval officer John Lort Stokes, who mistook the area as a sound, which is, by definition, a sea or ocean inlet that is larger than a bay and wider than a fjord. A fjord, by contrast, is a narrow waterway between mountains formed by glacial melting, as is the case at Milford. Though the traditional spelling of “fjord” begins with the sequence fj-, of Scandinavian origin, New Zealand is currently the only place in the world to officially use the variant English spelling, “fiord”.
Nobel Prize winner Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, once dubbed Milford Sound “the eighth wonder of the world”. On a rare sunny day, boat cruises through the fjord offer clear views of an impressive natural landscape, the geographic sum of several millennia in the making: 10 miles of long, snaking water, hugged by jagged walls of rock that shoot several thousand feet in the air. Locals, however, often argue that the spirit of Milford is best captured under rainfall, when dense fog sets a somber, meditative tone against the backdrop of moss-covered mountains, and hundreds of hidden waterfalls come suddenly alive.