I live in one of the wettest inhabited places on the planet, Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. With average rainfall of 22 feet per year, it is a place drenched in magic. Green sea cliffs topped with crests of snow rise straight from the ocean, dolphins and penguins splash beneath, and each week, thousands of visitors make their way over a steep mountain pass to this place we call home.
The travelers are like gusts of wind, a slurry of faces and names swept away by camper vans and tour buses, bodies wrapped in the same GoreTex jackets and zip-off pants, the same brightly-colored synthetics. Everyone who visits hopes for a rare sunny day, for blue skies against which to photograph vistas that are too large to comprehend. When I take them out kayaking on these bright days, they beam and tell me how lucky they are to have such weather. I smile and agree, but inside, I feel differently. This is a place of dripping, echoing passages and mist-enshrouded forests, a place birthed from water and ice. It wasn’t made for sunshine.
Though the cliffs are covered in green, there is virtually no soil holding the plant life together, nothing to absorb the water that pours from the sky. The mountains shed rain like water off a duck. Thousands of waterfalls appear, more than you ever imagined possible. Trickles of rain turn to ribbons of mist, mist to cascades and cascades to spouts of whitewater that run violently into the sea. We stand in the rain and watch, awed.
But we too are only passing through. Milford Sound is in a national park and a world heritage site, thousands of acres of public land owned by no one. It is soggy, rugged and ridden with sandflies. Even the Maori didn’t set up permanent settlements here – they walked in on a 33-mile path, loaded their dugout canoes with seafood and greenstone, and carried them back out. No one can claim to be from here.
Does that somehow make it less real, that we cannot claim this place as our own, that we cannot build lasting communities here? Or does it make it more real, knowing that our time is fleeting, that even in the 21st century we are unable to harness such an untamed place? Maori legend says that after the demigod Tu te rakiphenoa created this fiord with his greenstone adze, the goddess of the underworld cast millions of sandflies upon it to ensure that no one would linger here too long and destroy the natural beauty. This is the reason there are no permanent residents of Milford Sound, the reason it is still pristine. It’s the reason I’ve come halfway across the world to live here.