I’ve never flown so close to hard rock before. The fuselage is buffeted in the wind and I understand why even my handbag hit the scales before we were bundled on board – every kilo counts. Our miniature plane, just 10 seats in all, means every passenger scores a first-class view.
By road the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a winding, four-hour drive, but the 35-minute flight promises uninterrupted panoramas of Lake Wakatipu, remote cliffs and the world-famous fjord.
It’s early November and Milford’s brushing off one of her wettest months, when low cloud often blankets the mountains, smothering any chance of take-off. Despite today’s sodden forecast we luck upon the first flyable weather in more than a week.
Paddocks roll into hills and mountains into alps. The snow dusting the Fiordland thickens to marzipan icing along ridges cut long ago when glaciers carved a new face for the land. Tolkien’s Misty Mountains materialise and the rising sun stains distant summits pink and turns a lake pooled between two mountains into a glimmering jewel.
For a few moments our scenic flight poses as a thrill ride, the rocks below lurking closer, until the stone divides revealing emerald water. Lining up with granite we slip through the narrowest point of the fjords, past veins of rust streaking the cliffs. After the flight, the advantage of our shortcut – view aside – is clear: only a dozen early risers share our ferry and most ships remain tethered to the port.
Waterfalls from recent rain snake the walls of Milford Sound and, while some disperse into mist, kayakers gather near those swollen enough to survive the distance. At 1692 metres, Mitre Peak dwarfs them, but it’s not until a toy-sized plane soars over us that the scale of the gorge sinks in.
Podgy fur seals, replete from a night gorging seafood, sunbake on a boulder. In the icy spray I envy their oily pelt. A seal arches its back, splays its whiskers with a yawn and lollops into the water. He’s able to bottle more than 10 minutes of air, and although we’re too pressed for time to wait for his return, we don’t leave disappointed – Milford has tucked away a few more tricks between her vast, mossy walls. Three penguins bob beside the boat before a pod of bottlenose dolphins elicits our coos of affection.
Tourists swell on the pier as we squeeze back into the Britten-Norman Islander. I crane to catch a final glimpse of the fjord and my forehead remains pressed to the glass for the entire flight to Queenstown. We share the sky with no one and devour a view of the Fiordland worth every lurch and wobble.
Air New Zealand flies direct to Queenstown from Sydney and Melbourne.
Milford Sound Scenic Flights offers the Milford Fly-Cruise-Fly experience between October and April, departing from Queenstown from US$316.
Hotel St Moritz in Queenstown has rooms overlooking the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. The hotel feels like a cosy alpine lodge and its restaurant serves food that leaves regular hotel fare in the dust.
Find out more about what to do in Queenstown on the city’s official tourism website.