Tim Roxborogh monkeys around with the kea in Milford Sound
I kept expecting monkeys to spring from nowhere and try to jump inside my room. There were the signs warning not to leave your doors open unless you wanted some cheeky kea - the world's only alpine parrot - to have a good, honest rummage. And yet with that outrageous Fiordland setting of rivers, waterfalls, mossy forests and towering green mountains, Milford Sound Lodge's kea warning had me thinking of jungle lodges in the tropics.
A childhood in Malaysia means I understand the hilarity and pandemonium of a monkey inside; it's ingrained to be careful with doors and windows when staying anywhere surrounded by wildlife. But this was different. I wanted to see kea, in part because I've seen a million monkeys in my life, but more so because even if kea are common enough in Milford Sound, they're still so preciously rare that there are as few as 3000 to 7000 remaining in total. Some conservationists estimate the numbers even lower at 1000 to 5000 - and all in the South Island.
Either way, this inquisitive, chubby, striking native bird - with its olive-green back and brilliant shock of orange feathers underneath - is highly endangered. Outside Auckland Zoo, I'd never laid eyes on them. Most New Zealanders haven't.
Reasons to slow down in Milford Sound
That all changed with a holiday booked deep in Fiordland, at Milford Sound Lodge. I'm not sure I even knew there was accommodation in Milford Sound, having heard for years of tourists either staying two hours away in gorgeous Te Anau (which I can also highly recommend) or doing the faintly absurd 12-hour return day trip from Queenstown.
Now no offence to tour operators who have made a living for years from those Queenstown to Milford Sound bus journeys (and who are now struggling in the era of Covid), but shouldn't somewhere as world-beating as Milford Sound be a place to linger?
It's easy to lose track of how many global destinations are enthusiastically billed as being "the eighth wonder of the world". Granted, all of them are stupendous in their own ways (the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, the Empire State Building, the Terracotta Army, the Panama Canal). That said, when esteemed literary giant Rudyard Kipling is said to have claimed Milford Sound as the world's eighth wonder, I'm not about to argue. I'm also not about to leave in a hurry.
Mr Jungle Book himself, Kipling travelled the length of New Zealand in the early 1890s. Other than the wonderfully subtle, blended-to-the-landscape Milford Sound Lodge - as well as the existence of modern boats for scenic cruises - it's a special feeling knowing this eighth wonder that so captured him remains blessedly untouched.
It's not hyperbole to say there is something heavenly about this corner of New Zealand where the mountains abruptly arise from the seafloor. Indeed, the much-photographed Mitre Peak (1683m) is the single highest mountain in the world to ascend directly from the ocean; match that with countless waterfalls, with snow, with forest, with dolphins, with seals, with penguins, with kea…
So why rush in and rush back out?
But where do you find a kea?
Which brings us back to the kea. Had I merely just done the two-hour boat cruise - albeit perhaps the single most stunning boat cruise of my 39 years - I would've missed out on a dusk chat with the two kea who decided to sit on the picnic table right outside my bedroom door.
With Milford Sound Lodge offering everything from budget to mid-range to luxury, I was lucky enough to have a chalet that opened right out to mountain and riverside views. Opening - and then swiftly closing behind me - my door, I took a seat at the outside table and gave myself a metaphoric pinch that I was somewhere this remarkable.
Within minutes, the first fluttery green friend arrived, joined shortly after by a mate. There they were: two keas, right next to me. This rarest of birds - so scarce that a quick bit of googling tells me there are more people living in towns like Morrinsville, Gore and Thames than there are kea alive - and here I was with two at the same time.
Getting greedy, this wasn't to be my only kea encounter. On your way both in and out of Milford Sound you stop at the one-way, 1.2km-long Homer Tunnel. A staggering feat of geological engineering that took almost 20 years to complete, the tunnel finally opened in 1953. In the process, access to Milford Sound became much easier, and evidently, somewhere along the line, the local kea population realised this was a good spot either for food or for their famous trick of trying to steal rubber from windscreen wipers.
Whatever the motivation, I was grateful for their company as we awaited our green light through the tunnel. As I said goodbye to the kea, it was also goodbye to a part of Aotearoa that's arguably without peer when it comes to natural beauty. Kipling just might've been right.
Milford Sound Lodge; milfordlodge.com
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