A tear rolled down my cheek. Normally my emotions are hermetically sealed. But today, it took a piece of Kiwi landscape millions of years in the making to puncture the seal.
We’re not just visiting Milford Sound; we’re weaving through its green arteries in a tiny plane, coming into land at the country’s most scenic airport. It’s all part of the most magical four hours I’ve been lucky enough to spend on Earth.
Before you assume this kind of journey is the realm of the rich, these are extraordinary times. And extraordinary deals are being offered. A little scenic airline in Queenstown is so keen to get Kiwis flying, it’s slashed prices almost in half.
And the 50 or so fellow Kiwis lining up to check-in on a chilly Queenstown morning is proof the deals are popular.
* Crazy travel deals: Hot air ballooning in Queenstown is one of the world’s most scenic flights
* ‘World’s best’ scenic flight for just $99
* The Kiwi attractions in Lonely Planet’s Wonders of the World
Milford Sound is a bit of a modern enigma to many Kiwis. We all know it’s there and that it possesses unworldly beauty. So, we chuck it on our bucket list where it sits for years.
Others may have visited in the past decade to find the natural wonder overwhelmed by people.
Pre-Covid-19, cruise ships rumbled away, there were queues of cars, bus tours, and ferries. I visited late last year, and the sheer volume of tourists juxtaposed against some of our greatest scenery was jarring. And a little sad.
But now, mass international tourism has paused and nature is firmly centre stage again.
And I’m about to experience it all in the most spectacular way; with a flight and boat cruise all in the space of a few hours.
Our pilot, Karl, has spent the morning de-icing the plane and checking the weather. Milford is one of the wettest places on the planet, and these planes are “cloud dodgers” – in other words – he has to see where he’s going, or the flights don’t happen. Insider tip: make sure to have a backup day, because the flights can be cancelled up to 50 per cent of the time depending on the season.
We race down Queenstown Airport’s short runway and launch into the sky near Lake Hayes. We pass a hot air balloon, with those in the wicker basket scrambling for a photo as we come shooting past.
We turn above Coronet Peak, then head into the glaciated heart of the Southern Alps. It’s hard to appreciate the sheer scale of the mountains in this part of the world, without flying among hundreds of peaks.
We soon reach the Mount Aspiring National Park, a vast wilderness of frozen wonder. Our pilot tilts the plane, so everyone gets a view of Mt Aspiring, the highest mountain in the country outside Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. We pass the remote valley where the latest Mission Impossible was filmed, a place Tom Cruise infamously flew his own helicopter in a daring scene for a high-speed chase.
We do a series of tight turns around Mt Tūtoko, the highest peak in Fiordland, before the Tasman Sea comes into view under a layer of cloud. The mountains here end abruptly on the Alpine Fault and plunge into the ocean, creating some of the country’s most breathtaking landscapes. Our small plane darts under the cloud layer to reach the water, and at the mouth of Milford Sound, our pilot goes quiet as he begins navigating us into the ice-carved fiord.
We hug the right side of the mountains, passing tree-covered rock faces that rise hundreds of metres out of the water. We spot dolphins below.
The plane is positioned next to a hillside as we line up for our short approach into Milford Airport, near the end of the fiord. It’s hard to know where to look: we have a thundering Lady Bowen Falls on the right, mighty peaks on the left, and a dramatic little airstrip surrounded by mountains in front of us. I feel my emotions bubble up at the beauty, and a tear rolls down my cheek.
We touch down with a gentle thud, and are then whisked to the ferry terminal. The last time I was here the bus bays were overflowing with people. Today, they sit empty.
We’re about five minutes into our boat trip before Milford’s resident pod of bottlenose dolphins start riding our wake, rolling on their side so they can stare up at us.
Clearly excited by our presence, and not merely happy looking at us, the dolphins start to jump so close they are almost within reaching distance. This is all happening as the sun shines over a 1000-metre mountain, giving the dolphins a halo-like glow.
Milford’s insanely gorgeous scenery is thanks to a glacier that dates back to the last Ice Age, carving the dramatic landscape as it expanded. Mitre Peak, the tallest in the fiord, is beyond magnificent. The steep mountain reaches out of the water, 1.6 kilometres up into the sky, with clouds lingering around its peak – giving an almost heavenly appearance.
Adding to the biblical vibe are waterfalls that seemingly drop from nowhere. After a big rainstorm, there can be hundreds gushing down into the sea.
We motor out to the Tasman, where we spot seals, and more dolphins. We park the boat under a waterfall, and all become wonderfully at one with nature as we get sprayed with a bit of ice-cold mountain dew.
The two-hour tour of the fiord passes by in a flash before we’re back at the airport boarding our Cessna Grand Caravan for our 40-minute journey back to Queenstown.
We take another route, this time exploring different mountain ranges and the little lakeside village of Glenorchy, before following Lake Wakatipu back towards Queenstown Airport.
We slow down our approach as an Air New Zealand jet glides in over our left wing. Even it looks small against the towering mountains – we must look like a speck of dust.
We race into a small runway and come to halt – my mind desperately trying to find spare storage for the past four hours. It is, without doubt, some of the best sightseeing I’ve done, and I want it permanently on call in my brain.
We will likely never get a chance to experience these national treasures without the crowds again. Combined with significant discounts, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss it.
Milford Sound Scenic Flights is offering a “fly-cruise fly” trip to Milford Sound for $389 per adult (normally $575) and $299 per child (normally $350). This includes return scenic flights, a two-hour ferry trip and tea, coffee and water on the cruise. See: milfordflights.co.nz
Important: The flights are weather dependent, and often get cancelled. Always leave a backup day or two, to avoid disappointment.
Getting there: Air NZ flies from Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch to Queenstown with connections across the domestic network. See: airnz.co.nz
Jetstar flies from Auckland and Wellington to Queenstown. See: jetstar.co.nz
The writer’s trip was supported by Destination Queenstown. This story was originally published in July 2020 and has since been updated.