Although it was just in February, it somehow feels like a very, very long time ago that I first visited Milford Sound. Milford was the first stop on my South Island road trip — the journey on which I’d befriend a girl with a funny Yorkshire accent and a doomed love of monkeys; the unmapped trip that would lead me to a little hamlet called Arrowtown; the ten-day drive that would finish with jobs that would end up funding spontaneous travel to Australia and Southeast Asia. I had no idea, the morning I insisted on waking up at 4:00 a.m. to ply Milford’s choppy waters in a heavy blanket of mist and a rented kayak, that I’d eventually contemplate leaving New Zealand before my year was up. And I couldn’t predict that I’d still end up back in Central Otago one day, working at a hostel, giving myself permission to spend a few months reading in the sunshine and playing frisbee golf while all my friends are building lives and furthering their careers back home.
In the seven months since I first saw Milford Sound, it’s safe to say, my life has seen more unexpected changes than it did in nearly seven years in New York. That half year between February and today feels formative, endless, impossible to sum up in its scope and impact on my life.
So when I found out that my second famil would be a day cruise of New Zealand’s most famous fjord, I couldn’t help but get a little retrospective. Would the day be a spectacular redemption of my disappointing first visit to Milford? Or would it be a doubled-down reminder of that fear that maybe I’ve already done it all here; a subtle check in the “why haven’t I moved on yet?” column?
Either way, it would be free and, better yet, it wouldn’t require me to be dangled over the edge of a cliff like bait. I was sold.
Our bus left Queenstown at 6:45 in the morning and arrived at Milford Sound around noon. Even when your role is to do nothing but sit and be patient, this is still a long and tedious journey. Yet it’s a trip a huge number of Queenstown visitors elect to take each day because the pay-off — the possibility of a shiny, warm, smooth-sailing day on the waters of Milford Sound — is the stuff Lonely Planet covers are made of. The water shifts perceptibly from glacial-blue to jade-green to ocean-indigo as you follow the fjord out to the Abel Tasman Sea. Dolphins ride the waves your boat creates and gamely pop up out of the water for photo-ops along the starboard bough. Seal pups waddle around on boulders just out of reach, and impromptu waterfalls spurting like wrenched fire hydrants spray your face with errant mists. And all you have to do is sit back and watch the show from the deck of a small passenger craft, taking snapshots and chatting with tourists from Japan and Australia about the weather.
We were lucky enough to get one of those brilliant days, the kind of afternoon where the sky opens up and makes you squint through your four-for-five-dollars Vietnamese “Ray Bans;” where the delicate scaly snow on the mountaintops belies the fact that you’ll end up pink-faced tomorrow morning. The kind of day where the dolphins are in a playful mood, the waterfalls are gushing, and even the trails of foam in your boat’s wake look written in graceful, intentional cursive. It was easy, it was relaxing, it was peaceful. In short, it was everything you could hope for in a trip to Milford Sound.
But was it a transcendent experience? Not exactly. My expectations for landscapes as viewed from the water, you see, have been raised a bit. I think that Asia — its quotidian assaults on my sensibilities and comfort zones and personal space — has made me crave an active role in my surroundings; has simply diluted the joy I may have once found in sitting back and snapping photos among throngs of other tourists.
In February, I’d had visions of feeling Lilliputian paddling past Milford’s falls, of feeling overpowered by the vastness and calm of it all, of lining my own kayak’s nose up alongside that of a dolphin and knowing that we were taking it all in from the same level. Instead, I’d ended that rainy day shivering, aching, and without so much as a glimpse of the actual fjord. The second time around, I’d seen it all in style while sipping coffee and maybe even getting a tan. But the whole thing felt somehow impersonal, artificial, a bit too glossy — like I was sailing through some life-sized diorama. On a day when nothing goes wrong, no surprises throw themselves in your path, no aberrations from the brochure-perfect scenario cause you to laugh or think or problem-solve, it’s easy to feel removed. I can’t say I felt a personal connection with Milford Sound, if only because this time, it had the nerve to present itself to me in the most flattering light.
Now, I realize this is not a position to complain about being in. I don’t expect anyone to read this, to imagine me taking a free cruise through one of the most picturesque natural sites in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and to think to themselves, “Yep, Jess’s got it pretty rough.”
Instead, in a strange way, I see this more as an admission of how incredibly lucky I know I am. To be gifted with a flawless day at Milford Sound, a day on the water free of charge, a personal audience with dolphins and seals, and to be left knowing it could be better — that’s a pretty remarkable thing.
It’s indicative, I think, of how much has changed since I left home, of how time on the road has reconstructed my expectations, made me more demanding of my experiences and more eager to seek them out in unexpected places. It’s further evidence of how greatly things can change in a few short months — even when you end up right back in the same place you started.