The girl from Dundee is, fortunately for me, on the trip to Milford Sound, so I am able to follow her to the bus station and manage to get on her 7am departure to New Zealand’s most iconic natural beauty. I am lucky, to be honest, because with the rugby tomorrow and a bus booked to the north west the following day, I would otherwise have missed out on this most beautiful of places.
After a couple of hours’ kip we reach Te Anau, ‘the gateway to Milford Sound’. From here Dion, our driver (or ‘Big D’ as he likes to be called) tells us that “Now hey, look guys, this is where our journey really begins today. So look, now, hey guys, stay awake because this really is an awesome experience. I will be back on the mike in five minutes. Just give you guys a break from me for a minute or two. Awesome.” Big D must be about fifty.
Big D is absolutely correct though. It is awesome. Awesome is a crap word but it is one of the many right words to use in regard to the road into the Fjordland National Park. Well, you could also say majestic; epic; world class; awe inspiring.
The snowy mountain pass leading into Milford Sound is truly epic. Sheer mountain cliffs soar more than 1,500 metres from the floor of the pass to the heavens. There are few places where the mountains rise so acutely into the sky above. The snow comes down in a blizzard enveloping everything in a blanket of white. Gawping out of the coach window the mountains are so high that it is almost impossible to see the peaks.
And then we begin our descent down into the fjord, witnessing three avalanches as we follow the winding deserted road. This pass was closed during the winter months in previous decades because of the severe avalanche risk, but today it only tends to be closed a few days per winter when the risk is greatest.
Our cruise on Milford Sound lasts a couple of hours. We pass the world famous Mitre peak, covered in snow and mist and head out towards the open sea. There are literally hundreds of waterfalls, while colonies of seals and penguins put in regular appearances by the edge of this epic fjord. This location was used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the film that put New Zealand on the map for many who knew little of this nation's stunning natural beauty in the past. It simply is another world; the kind of place where no matter where you have been in the world during your life, you will still find your breath being taken away and no doubt muttering to yourself 'My God,'
As if all of this isn't incredible enough we find our boat being followed by five dolphins. The captain tells us it is highly unusual for the boat to be followed for a full 45 minutes back to shore, as the dolphins pull of all kinds of jumps and tricks behind and at the side of the boat.
The world is full of special places as it is full of hell holes where life is one constant struggle. My New Zealand odyssey has begun in a place called Kaikoura on the north east coast of the country’s south island. Logistically, this seemed like the perfect place to spend a few days ahead of the first matches in the rugby world cup, but it is also the place I most wanted to see here. I have no idea quite how beautiful the rest of New Zealand is but Kaikoura rates highly anywhere in the world.
Green pastures full of grazing cows and bleating lambs are surrounded by dozens of snow-capped mountains that tumble into the sea. This is one of the few locations on the planet where you can surf and then snowboard a little over an hour later. You can also watch whales, hike along coastal paths and observe sea lion and seal colonies. And best of all, perhaps, you can swim with dolphins.
I have just got back to the gorgeous Dusky Lodge backpackers having experienced one of the most amazing mornings of my life. I was going to enjoy a long stroll along the coast but Welsh Jenny and English Rebecca convinced me at breakfast to join them on a dolphin swimming trip. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time but, to be honest, I am such an appallingly bad swimmer that I have always bottled out of the prospect of swimming in open ocean.
Anyway, I just thought ‘what the hell’ and decided to go; I could always change my mind and not swim once I was out in the Pacific. The warm waters of the Pacific and the cold currents of the Antarctic meet here, just off the coast of Kaikoura. The result is mineral and sea life rich waters that attract whales, dolphins and many other sea creatures.
Once out in the open sea, the captain of our catamaran gets word from a fishing vessel of a large pod of dolphins to the south. It takes us 30 minutes to track them down, but once we near the pod we spot 200 dolphins. It is a truly wonderful sight with an unreal almost cartoon-like backdrop of snow-capped mountains and the incredible albatross swooping above our boat with its 3.5 metre wing span. But it gets better still. The captain cuts the engines and one by one we begin to dive into the ocean. As bad a swimmer as I am, the buoyancy of my wet suit makes it almost impossible for me to drown and despite some swell, I start to get some confidence. Another few minutes of choking on sea water, as I struggle to get used to my snorkel, and finally I get the hang of swimming in the open sea with my head below the waves.
And then the most incredible thing happens. First one, then three, then seven or eight dolphins begin to swim around me, the more inquisitive almost touching the glass of my mask with their cute noses. The guides encourage us to sing to the dolphins to attract their company. Don’t ask me why but I am taken by the idea of singing the 80’s band Bros’s ‘when will I be famous’. I just get the feeling that it is a song that will work well under water and appeal to dolphins (clearly mental issues). The dolphins keep coming and I have to surface as an over enthusiastic ‘Oh my God’ causes me to swallow a load of sea water that stings my throat and comes up through my nose.
I am not sure how long this experience even goes on for as I get lost in the moment.
As the catamaran speeds back to land, leapfrogging the waves, and we all strip out of our wetsuits, I sit with a cup of hot chocolate and cookies, warming up and taking in the remarkable sight of the 200-strong pod putting on a show for us all with their backflips and twizzles. We all know that these creatures are incredibly intelligent and friendly but it is only when you are privileged to do something like this that you truly realise just how wonderful they are.
Strangely, while a good half dozen of the others on the trip are sea sick and many more are shivering and struggling to keep warm, I feel fantastic. It was just 10 degrees in the water but I actually felt warm in the suit. Maybe I was so distracted with the idea of whether I could actually manage to swim in the open ocean that my mind freed me of any other potential stress.
Now back at the hostel I sit in an armchair on the open terrace, drink some coffee and reflect upon one of the most amazing experiences of my life. This is a very special place.