Mourning mists of Māori gods in Milford Sound

Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown

As I gaze at the rain disturbing the smooth surface of Lake Wakatipu, I recall Tess’s farewell statement.

“There is a Māori legend for everything. Take note. It will deepen your experience.”

I am in Queenstown, South Island in New Zealand, surrounded by mountains. It has been raining for hours.

Lake Wakatipu in the rain

Perhaps the raindrops are the tears of Rangi, the sky father. Or maybe they are the rising mists of unrequited love of Papatuanuku, the earth mother. Rangi and Papatuanuku used to lie close together with their children locked between them. But the children rebelled, broke away from the darkness and the couple were torn apart. I wish Rangi and Papatuanuku would go for counselling. This rain has got to stop.

In spite of the weather I consider taking a cruise to a sheep farm across the lake.,  Anything to get away from the beer-sozzled, bungy-jumping backpackers that roam the streets of Queenstown, jump from the skies and spin figures of eight behind speed boats.

“So how is your offer different from Real Journeys?” I ask.

“ Ours is a working farm.”

By this I understand that Southern Cruises consider their tour is ‘more authentic,’ less touristy.

“They rang this morning to say new piglets have arrived.”

I am sold.

I sit alone on a huge cruise boat, enough for 100 or so people. Just me and the Turkish-born captain. I have become adept at finding out people’s migratory roots, or is it routes? We stop in a beautiful bay in clear waters to look for eels but they prove elusive.

A broccoli as a tree?
A native born cabbage tree

The captain points out trees that resemble huge broccoli and, of course, the native-born cabbage tree. I don’t ask why I am alone on board ship. It seems rude. And besides I rather enjoy this special treatment. Perhaps I will have a farmer all to myself, too.

But it is another tourist guide who meets me off the boat. The real farmers are far too busy.And no matter how much this substitute pokes around in the hay he can’t get the piglets to show their snouts. But he does seem to know about sheep shearing and sheep wool and sheep everything.

Merino sheep

Thankfully Rangi and Papatuanaka decide to layoff the waterworks and another rep, sensing my frustration with the finer points of Merino wool, takes me for a spin around the farm. If you can call it a farm. It is larger than Singapore.

We rumble across dirt roads in a 4 by 4, stopping so I can take photographs of the view over the lake.But I have to be quick. Papatuanuku’s rising mists are reappearing over the horizon.

View of the lake from the farm
Papatuanuku’s rising mists?

“Two Europeans tried to claim this land but one took a different route through the mountains and arrived in Wellington just before his rival,” says my guide.

Just imagine it.

“And until quite recently their only communication with the outside world was the steamship.”

The other tour operator owns the steamship. Perhaps that would have been more authentic after all.

A young Irish woman, as part of the deal, cooks me picklets or some such name. They are supposed to be traditional New Zealand fare but taste just like the Scotch pancakes that my Irish mother used to make.

“I’m off to Milford Sound tomorrow,” I say.

This is the fourth member of staff devoted entirely to my needs. It seems only right that I should strike up a conversation. She looks up at the looming clouds. “Milford Sound is wonderful in the rain. Magical.“

Nobody seems to use the Māori name for Milford Sound, Piopiotahi, meaning the place of the singing thrush. Legend has it that when Maui lost the treasure for immortality to the goddess of death a thrush flew into Milford Sound to sing and mourn the loss for mankind. I don’t see why people don’t use the Māori name. It’s far prettier.

Hotel in Te Anau

On the bus, next day, I find a fellow admirer of Te Papa’s giant squid but then have nothing else to say.I get deposited at a motel on the outskirts of Te Anau. It looked nice enough in the brochure. A modernist take on a Swiss chalet.But the bar and restaurant are closed and there is no sign of other visitors.

Subway in Te Anau

I take an evening stroll. Rows of English style bungalows with their ‘sections’, full of climbing roses. A man mows his lawn despite the drizzle.

Petrol station at Te Anau

Dark clouds hover over a deserted petrol station and Subway food outlet. I shiver. I have landed in Twin Peaks.

At breakfast I wake up the receptionist.

“There is no coffee.”

I should have let him sleep.

The tour bus to Milford Sound picks me and we set off on the road, making the obligatory photo and toilet stops. Fields of invasive lupins, swathes of yellow gorse, mountain reflections in what is no more than a pond. The rain is creating waterfalls by the minute.

Mirror lak
Waterfalls by the minute

We stop at the entrance to the tunnel that was cut through the rock by men before and after World War Two. On the other side we crane our necks to see the rungs that one brave man used, before the tunnel was built, to carry goods over to the next valley. As the driver draws up in the parking lot next to the rain forest he jokes,

“Visiting a rain forest in good weather would be like going to the beach in the rain.”

Rain forest moss
Rain forest ferns

We walk through towering eucalyptus trees coated in moss, bulbous ferns sprouting from their  roots.We creep over rope bridges, elbowing each other out of the way to peer down into the chasm below. I try to sort out whether the dampness that envelopes us is Rangi’s morning dew or Patuakanka’s rising mist.I am so preoccupied I nearly miss the bus.

Rangi’s morning dew or Patuakanka’s rising mist?
Rangi’s morning dew or Patuakanka’s rising mist?

“We nearly left you in the rain forest,’ jokes our genial driver. We arrive at the Sound and alight our cruise boat, very similar to yesterday’s boat.

Cruise boat at Milford Sound

But this time it’s full of people from every nationality, eating chicken legs with their fingers and potato salad with plastic spoons. “They could at least have provided knives, forks and napkins, “ says a fellow passenger in an unmistakable BBC accent.

Rangi and Patiuanaku hover around the mountain tops but they leave us alone for a while.

The gods hover around the mountain tops
The Gods’ tears

In any case their grief must be spent.Tears stream down every inch of the cliff face circling the Sound.

Waterfalls everywhere

Waterfalls spring up willy-nilly, change direction with the wind and douse us with spray. Mist is creating shadow puppets of trees clinging to the summit.

Shadow puppets of trees

‘This wasn’t here yesterday’, says the guide. ‘Nor this one.” The waterfalls are so high in the clouds that they must start in heaven – or whatever is the Māori equivalent.

We sail so near the cliff face that we can almost touch the delicate threads of onyx. Seals, that have survived the slaughter of early settlers, bask in the occasional sun. The boat gets too close, purposely, and we get soaked and squeal with delight.

Touching the onyx
Waterfalls reaching the heavens
Seals basking on the rocks

I forgive Rangi and Papatuanuku, They have put on a spectacular performance and there is no mistaking their grief. But they have drowned out Piopiotahi, the singing thrush, mourning the loss of immortality for mankind.

Milford Sound

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