The Sight of the Sound

It rained during the night.  Hard slashes pounded the window, hammering through my attempts at sleep.  Please let it stop before morning. 

            Last week, we’d tramped 19 kilometers on the Hump Ridge Track.  Our high-end gortex was no match for nine hours of relentless precipitation.   I didn’t want to get drenched again. We’d had three days of blue skies on the Routeburn Track, but I pleaded for one more sunny day.  We were booked for an overnight cruise on Milford Sound: a real indulgence.

When I was in New Zealand two years before, I hadn’t made it this far south.  “You have to go to Milford Sound,” everyone said.  No I don’t, I thought.  I didn’t want to drive for days, jump out of the car at every tourist trap, snap photographs and drive on.  I’m usually skeptical about places that receive so much hype.  

            But now I was back, with my daughter and her college roommate.  I wanted to hike the Great Walks in the southern mountains, before I got too old.  And yes, okay, we’ll go to Milford Sound.

            By morning, the rain had stopped, sun crept up the valley.   We hiked out and waited at the remote trailhead for our bus.  The route down the mountain was spectacular.  We sat up front for the best view.    It was cloudy towards the coast.

            “Big storm coming in,” our driver said.  “They’ll close the road if it rains heavily.”

            I decided not to dwell on this possibility.   I was longing for a hot shower.   They’d promised us towels, shampoo and soap on the boat. 

            Soon we were at sea-level, back in ‘civilization’:  parking lots full of camper vans, Chinese tourists and a bustling ferry terminal.  We went to check in for our cruise.

“There’s a big storm coming in,” the young woman said.  “The road will likely be closed tomorrow morning.”

            “What happens then?”

            “Possibly you could stay on the boat,” she shrugged.           

Above her head, a monitor displayed images of the three-course meal they serve on board: prime rib, salmon, mounds of fresh vegetables, glistening desserts.   We’d been living on trail mix and freeze-dried curry for days.

            But we had connections to make.  We couldn’t get trapped here.  Instead, we opted for a three-hour ‘nature cruise’ and then the last bus out.  We settled for a soggy sandwich from the café.  Our pants were splattered with mud.  The girls fretted about the state of their hair.  I didn’t dare sniff my armpits.  

            But soon, none of that mattered.  We pulled away from the dock and entered a magical world.  Low clouds moved in, obscuring the mountain peaks, but we glided through the calm waters and gazed at the cliffs towering above us.  Huge waterfalls tumbled in layers through the swirling mist, leaping through lush mosses and vines which clung improbably to the rock face.  The mountains unfolded in ridges stretching out to the sea.  In a quiet cove, a colony of seals slumbered on low rocks.  As we turned around at the mouth of the fjord, the skies cleared to reveal a whole new level of majesty: breath-taking glacier-topped peaks above the waterfalls.  I thought: this has to be the most beautiful place on the planet.  

I took photographs of the girls smiling into the wind; they no longer protested about the state of their hair or having to snack on yet more trail mix.  

That night, the storm moved in and the Milford Sound road remained closed for two days.  But we lay in clean sheets in a Te Anau motel, dreaming of waterfalls tumbling into the sea.

This story was written and the accompanying photograph taken by Barbara Ridley, who wins a $50 spot prize in Omega Rental Car's 2015 Summer Holiday Writing Competition.  Congratulations Barbara and thanks for a beautifully written story!

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