TE ANAU, New Zealand — Milford Sound, a magnificent fiord on the southwest end of New Zealand's South Island, draws tourists from all over the world to see its scenic grandeur. But the area is also noted for its heavy rainfall. With about 300 inches a year, the chances of it raining when you visit are good.
It may sound unusual to suggest that when you visit Milford Sound you hope it does rain, at least some of the time. But the heavier it rains the better, because then you will see the fiord's beauty at its best. You will see the most spectacular waterfalls, thousands of them, which only pour when it rains.
We didn't know about that "wet advantage" when we awakened in our motel in Te Anau, the gateway town to New Zealand's Fiordland. It was raining so hard that we might well have decided not to make the three-hour drive to the sound at all, but our optimistic souls hoped that it still had time to change.
Despite the odds, you always hope to be lucky enough to see it looking like the picture post cards, and we've yet to see a post card advertising anywhere in the rain.
Added to our knowledge of the area's heavy yearly rainfall, we had also heard that it was not unusual for 24 inches to fall in 24 hours. When we arrived at Milford Sound it seemed that we must be experiencing a few of those hours.
The 16-kilometer fiord was carved during successive ice ages. It was named after Milford Haven in Wales, the birthplace of a sealer, John Grono, who discovered it about 1823.
Close to the inland end of the fiord is spectacular, well-photographed Mitre Peak that rises straight out of the sea to 1,694 meters (about a mile). Along the length of the fiord, towering cliffs rise thousands of feet above the water.
Land-locked lakes in hanging valleys high in these mountains give rise to two magnificent waterfalls that are always flowing: Bowen and Stirling falls.
The mountains are hard rock that does not allow water to penetrate. Therefore, when it rains, thousands of waterfalls cascade down the slopes to plunge into the fiord. Yet with the exception of the two mentioned, they aren't there when it isn't raining.
The harder it rains, the more numerous and impressive are the waterfalls. Heights range up to half a mile; binoculars are certainly an asset.
The cruise launch was nearly full when we arrived, full of dripping wet people, soggy raincoats, streaming umbrellas, plastic coats and hats, squishing shoes and disgruntled faces. I could feel the disappointment. That is, until our delightful captain started his commentary.
The captain obviously has a longtime love affair with Milford Sound, and when it pours he becomes especially articulate. We were off to experience two hours of "his fiord," and with his knowledge and lively sense of humor, I'm sure he convinced every one of us to be thankful that it was raining. The atmosphere soon changed to laughter and anticipation.
We were encouraged to "get outside and get wet--you won't see anything worthwhile from inside." When we were already so wet that it didn't matter, it was amusing how everyone, at first, crowded inside.
Many soaking people stood in the pouring rain, faces up, staring in rapture at the incredible spectacle of the many curtains of water chasing each other to reach the dark waters of the fiord. And I had never stood with my camera turned almost straight up into the rain, trying to take photographs of such incredible walls of water that were pouring down the mountainsides.
Some falls descend unhindered for hundreds of feet directly into the fiord, some shatter on ledges into millions of beads of lacy spray, while others disappear briefly behind tropical vegetation to emerge lower down, often joined by other falls.
The ominous skies made the lighting dim but dramatic, creating sinister reflections in the fiord's calm blackness. We were surprised and delighted when our photographs successfully captured memories of the atmosphere and the amazing waterfalls.
The cruise launch's smooth ride was suddenly disturbed as we came close to the open sea and began to turn. It was rough out there. Unfortunately, most of us had just helped ourselves to the delicious lunch served while the ship was farthest from shore.
We spent the next 10 minutes performing the hilarious task of trying to balance our loaded plates and eat while the motion of the ship was doing its best to distribute everything and everybody onto the floor. A great way to make friends.
On the return trip we had closer views of the perpetual waterfalls, Stirling and Bowen. On the post cards, with blue sky and sunshine, they look inspiring, but that is nothing compared to how they appear during a rainstorm.
The sound of their thunder drowned the ship's noises, with the deluge of water leaping and smashing onto ledges, exploding into millions more droplets, crashing into the fiord, or rising to form a mist that blotted out the surrounding mountainside.