• Cruising Milford Sound. (Getty Images/Michael Baynes)Source: Getty Images/Michael Baynes
Rudyard Kipling called it the eighth wonder of the world, but truth be told, this ancient beauty has long been living a lie.
Jim Mitchell

14 Dec 2018 - 3:06 PM  UPDATED 15 Feb 2019 - 12:38 PM

In a blatant act of environmental fiord (er… fraud), the spectacular Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) on the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island is not actually a sound, but a fiord.

One of the stops on the itinerary for SBS’s slow TV journey of New Zealand North to South, its naming is the fault of European explorers who didn’t understand the landscape.

It’s a measure of how differently they viewed the geography of Milford Sound, now part of the Fiordland National Park, compared to the indigenous Māori. For them, the Sound – spanning approximately 16 kilometres from the head of the fiord to the open sea and as deep as 400 metres – was a source of sustenance and a sacred place.

Sound vs fiord

Milford Sound was originally named Milford Haven by sealer and former Navy man, John Grono in 1823 after the long narrow inlet on the southwest coast of Wales where he was born.

Grono, who was the first European explorer to visit Milford Sound, was fooled by its narrow entrance, which hid the natural wonder beyond from other explorers. Even Captain James Cook missed the entrance twice.

Fellow Welshman, explorer and hydrographer John Lort Stokes, renamed the natural wonder Milford Sound when he docked there in 1851 as Captain of the HMS Acheron.

But the explorers got it wrong.

A sound is an inlet of seawater diverting from the ocean, and can be formed when seawater floods a river valley. It can also occur when seawater separates land from a larger land mass to create an island.

But Milford Sound is actually a fiord created by heavy glaciers forming in valleys that erode the valley base way below sea level. Once the glaciers have melted, ocean water fills the valleys.

Evidence of the effect of ancient glaciers in shaping Milford Sound can be seen in the formation and immense height of the surrounding cliffs jutting out from the water and the U-shaped glacial valleys of the area.

Māori life at Milford Sound

While European activity in Milford Sound included commercial endeavours such as sealing, whaling, gold prospecting, early tourism, logging and mining, for the Māori, the landscape held a much deeper purpose.

Those living on the South Island discovered Milford Sound over 1,000 years ago, a sacred place where the fiord was the centre for fishing and hunting, and steeped in mythology.

But few Māori lived there permanently, visiting Milford Sound using pathways that crossed what we now know as the Milford Track and MacKinnon Pass.

A major attraction to the area was the precious pounamu or tangiwai greenstone, traded throughout New Zealand with other tribes. The stones, also known as jade or nephrite, have a provenance that goes back hundreds of millions of years, formed when rock minerals were recrystallised due to heat and pressure caused by tectonic shifts.

According to Māori legend, Milford Sound and the surrounding Fiordland coast was formed by the god (atua) Tu-te-raki-whanoa, who wished to create waterways and safe harbours, providing a richness of fish and birds. He chanted a powerful karakia (prayer) and carved the massive rock walls with his toki (adze, an axe-like tool). The sheer cliffs of Milford Sound were considered his most spectacular work.

In fact, his geological artistry was considered so beautiful that the goddess of death Hine-nui-te-pō released sandflies to chase lingering visitors away.

The Te Reo Māori name for Milford Sound, Piopiotahi (which means “a single piopio”, a thrush-like bird that is now extinct) comes from the legend of the mythical hero Māui.  

He was crushed to death between the thighs of Hine-nui-te-pō, attempting to overcome the goddess of death to make his people immortal. A piopio, said to have accompanied him on his quest, flew to the fiord in mourning, giving it its name.

Milford Sound is part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site recognised in 1990 by UNESCO for its “exceptional and outstanding natural characteristics,” and landscapes that are “world class for the sheer excellence of their scenic beauty.”

The masquerading “sound” may have been living a lie for almost 200 years, but what a beautiful lie it is.

North to South airs on Sunday, 27 January at 7:30pm on SBS as part of SBS’s Slow Summer.

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