08/25/2010 11:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taking a Big Shower on the Milford Sound, New Zealand


The Milford Sound on the western edge of the South Island of New Zealand, where mountains plunge to still water, offers some of the most magnificent scenery on earth.

But about half the time it rains. Pelting, sleety rain. And sometimes it pours. And sometimes, as in the couple of days and an overnight that I was spending solo on this fjord that's called a Sound, the heavens above this heaven-on-earth scene let loose with all the tears of the Maori ancients.

Because of the weather I didn't helicopter to the Sound from the city of Queensland, set in the aptly named Remarkable mountains. Helicopters around here are basic means of transport. Instead I was driving about four-five hours to the dock where the boat was ready for sightseeing despite the weather.

It was November, New Zealand spring, and yellow gorse and rainbow-hued lupines were waving along the valleys in the gusty breezes. And the streams were gushing gray-green and the wet, white lambs gamboled in the rain. Water colors.

The driver left me to the boat where I'd be overnighting, and the sky remained dismal and socked in, but the fine-print said that the cruise goes out rain or shine. And anyone who's traveled knows you can travel half-way around the world and climb a peak known for its view and see nothing, depending on the hour.

(I once took a mail boat up and down the Norwegian coast. On the way back, the view was totally gone. Fogged in. Luck of the draw.)

Anyway, people about to board the boat on Milford Sound in the late afternoon of that cool, soggy November spring were grumbling, including a bunch of Germans whom I had met earlier, on the northernmost tip of New Zealand's north island. We had then been scrambling up 300-foot sand dunes with a quicksand river at their base, sliding down on pink plastic discs not much bigger than Frisbees. And coming up just short of the quicksand.

Let's just say that I experience things when I travel that I wouldn't do at home.

The German group now at the cruise dock wanted their money back; they wouldn't consider cruising in the rain. They shouted, fists in the air. The receptionist was being called things I assume translate as "motherfucker" in German, if you judged by her face, near tears.

I figured she must go through this every time it rains. And the Germans refused to board the ship. I meanwhile was practicing the Zen thing. "Too bad. No blue skies. But it will be cool. And no sunburn."

The boat pulled into the still water and I settled into my outside cabin. The greens came out stronger in the gray, and the waterfalls plunged in massive roaring plumes as we sailed along the misty fjord.

We anchored by a cove where a few stalwarts swam and kayaked by a cave where three tiny fairy penguins stood under a rock ledge, peering at the swimmers, probably wondering why crazy folks would leave the comfort of the dry boat to splash in the rain.

And it rained, and rained even harder, and lightning charged and the thunder clapped like celestial Maori drums as the boat rocked through the night. And then, the next morning the rain stopped. And I opened the door to my cabin and looked at the scene. I couldn't see the peaks, wrapped in mist, but there were hundreds of cascading streams down the mountainsides.

And then I went into the bathroom to take, ironically, a shower.

And it was in those moments that the captain decided to steer the boat under a huge waterfall. And just as I was coming out of the shower, entering the little cabin with its open door, I received a second shower, courtesy of the waterfall.

I thought of Coleridge: "Water, water everywhere ...." Everything was soaked, including my computer. But the captain said that he had never seen the falls so glorious.

Not the beauty I expected, but beautiful for sure. Those Germans missed quite a show. And I remember it still, because of the rain: wet and wild and wonderful.