HE last 20 minutes of our drive into Milford are a bit tense. We’re running late for our cruise and the road that corkscrews down the mountain in a series of hairpin bends to the little village and its boat harbour is not of the kind for making up time. We have allocated 21/ hours for the 120km journey from our hotel in Te Anau to Milford Sound in the South Island of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. It’s adequate time, according to our guidebooks, but we haven’t factored in the seductive charm of the scenery along an alpine road where every bend insists we stop to take a photograph. The road snakes through forests and alongside lakes. It crisscrosses river gorges and mountains, even passing 1.2km through the base of one peak in the narrow, steep and slightly terrifying Homer tunnel, an engineering triumph when it was completed in 1953. My husband and I are booked on a Real Journeys nature cruise that’s due to leave Milford at 12.30pm and take us on a 21/ hour afternoon circuit of the sound. It’s as we emerge from the tunnel that we realise we’re cutting things a bit fine. But somehow we make it in time to board the pretty blue and white two-masted vessel Milford Wanderer. It’s late summer and there’s hardly a cloud in the intense blue midday sky. The water of the sound, which stretches like a vast lake, sparkles in the sunlight and we can’t believe our luck: apparently it rains more often than not in Milford Sound, the wettest place in the wettest corner of NZ. It seems our fleeces and raincoats won’t be needed. The Milford Wanderer, like its sister vessel the Milford Mariner, is designed to look like a traditional trading scow. But having been purpose-built as tourist cruise boats, they are comfortably fitted with cafe-style tables and chairs next to big picture windows that give passengers spectacular views without the perils of the often-wild weather. But today there’s no way we’re going to stay indoors. Most of our fellow cruisers feel the same: it’s standingroom only and some passengers clamber across the railings to take up positions in the bow. But there are spectacular views in all directions and the boat’s big enough to give everyone a vantage point. Milford Sound was described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world. We can see why. As the Milford Wanderer pulls away from the harbour and out into the sound, mountain walls tower above us, their sheer rock faces rising starkly from the water. Amazingly, some of the mountains are densely forested, the trees clinging precariously to the steep slopes. The immense scale of the natural architecture is overwhelming. There are other tour boats in the distance but, dwarfed by the mountains, they look like toys in a boating pond. The tallest of these mountains is Mitre Peak, so named because its summit looks like a bishop’s mitre. At 1682m, it’s one of the world’s highest mountains to rise straight out of the sea. When it rains, our tour guides tell us, the mountainsides become giant curtains of water cascading into the icy depths below. Today, after an unusually dry summer, we’ve traded temporary waterfalls for perfect weather. But the permanent waterfalls that remain are still impressive. The Wanderer pulls in close enough to give us the full, drenching sensory experience. We pass the first, Bowen Falls, soon after leaving the harbour. Called Rere Te Awa (waterfall of the girl of the stream) by the Maori, the falls drop a spectacular 160m from a hanging valley. Two young guides are on board to provide a potted account of the area’s natural and human history but, outside, above the wind and engine noise, we pick up only snatches of what they are saying. But the scenery speaks eloquently for itself and the guides are happy to answer any questions we put to them. They disabuse us of the notion we’re in a sound. Because Milford and the other Fiordland waterways in NZ’s rugged southwest were carved out of the mountains by glaciers and flooded by the sea when the ice retreated, they are really fjords, not sounds, which are flooded river valleys. Apparently, the views we are enjoying are the result of 500 million years of violent geological activity. It’s fitting Milford Sound remains one of the planet’s great wildernesses and a World Heritage-listed area. Milford is the only part of Fiordland accessible by road and sometimes even it is cut off by bad weather. The wind has picked up and we reach for our fleeces. Clouds are clinging to the mountain peaks. We can get four seasons in a day here,’’ says one of the guides. It’s no wonder. Milford Sound is a large inlet, stretching about 15km from the waterway’s head at the boat harbour to the Tasman Sea, where we are heading. On our right, we pass two landmark mountains known as the lion and the elephant because they are said to resemble these two animals. They face each other above a hanging valley along the edge of which runs the elephant’s outstretched trunk. The consensus among our fellow cruisers is that any resemblance to African wildlife is vague to nonexistent, but no one minds. Stirling Falls tumbles from the hanging valley across the elephant’s trunk into the waters below. And behind is the grand Mt Pembroke, at 2014m one of the highest peaks in Milford Sound. Caught up in the scenery, we’ve forgotten to have lunch. For those who’ve pre-ordered, a choice of ‘‘ gourmet meals is provided. But we opt for a basic picnic lunch; with a sandwich, cheese and crackers, danish pastry and apple, it’s all we need. And there’s as much tea and coffee as we can drink. As we are eating, our boat chugs past Copper Point, named for the copper in the rock. Just as our guide is explaining that we’ve reached a natural wind funnel where gusts can top 180km/h, a chilly blast whips my tea clean out of its cup. Hats, and even someone’s glasses, are blown overboard. Past the point, the wind drops a little. We see Dale Point on our right, which marks the northern entrance to Milford Sound, where it’s only 400m wide. We are told the narrow entrance to the large waterway was not noticed by whalers and other European seafarers until well into NZ’s colonial history. Maori, though, have been visiting Milford Sound for centuries, using well-worn Blue-ribbon views: Sculpted according to Maori myth by a demigod using a magical adze, New Zealand’s Milford Sound combines the dramatic with the brooding trails to travel through wilderness considered impenetrable by Europeans. According to Maori mythology, the whole jagged Fiordland coastline was shaped by a demigod called Tu-te-raki-whanoa who carved the inlets out of a towering wall of rock using a magic adze. Piopiotahi, or Milford Sound, was his finest creation. We’ve now entered the wide mouth of Milford Sound and our boat is about to do a loop out into the Tasman Sea before a leisurely return to the dock. But first we pull across to Anita Bay on our left, where we can see large orange boulders strewn on the beach. The boulders are huge lumps of bowenite, a form of greenstone found only at the entrance to Milford Sound; it’s the main reason the Maori made regular hazardous expeditions here. In its natural form the rock is orange because it’s oxidised, but when cut and polished it becomes a beautiful blue-green stone that was used to make tools, ornaments and jewellery. Maori artists continue to keep the greenstone carving tradition alive. Their name for bowenite is , or tear water, a reference to its translucent watery appearance. A Maori legend has it that the stone is petrified tear drops. Ahead stretches an endless expanse of ocean, but as we wheel around to head back into the sound, we notice a lighthouse on a point, built more than a century ago to try to protect shipping from the wild coastline. Milford Sound continues to surprise on our return journey. As the afternoon wears on, its mood becomes sombre. Dark clouds pass across the sun and the mountains take on a brooding presence. It’s a small taste of what winter must be like here. Then the sun’s out again and we’re delighted to see several large, fat, glistening seals basking on a broad, flat rock just above the water line. They’re New Zealand fur tangiwai seals, almost hunted to extinction last century. But now they’re protected and their numbers are growing. They thrive on the abundant fish in the sound and these ones certainly seem to be living the high life. There’s time to linger once more by the waterfalls. On our left we pass Harrison Cove, a pretty, sheltered spot where cruise boats anchor for the night. It must be magical to wake up in Milford Sound; as we disembark, we promise ourselves we’ll return.