#GreatNature: That Time I Rode Shotgun With Santa Claus

This blog post was written by Amelia Tidona, National Geographic Social Media & Promotion Intern. We’re sharing National Geographic staff and friends’ stories about nature to celebrate the Great Nature Project. To share your own nature photos of plants and animals with National Geographic, visit greatnatureproject.org. 

“I’m roadtripping to the Milford Sound tomorrow at 6am–feel free to join,” said a smiling, long grey-haired man named Greg, who, with his round beer belly and soft twinkling eyes, strongly resembled Santa Claus. This was not how my friend Abby and I had originally planned to visit New Zealand’s renowned fjord, the Milford Sound, located on the South Island in Fiordland National Park. I don’t know if it was a secret ingredient used in the hostel food that night or the fact that we were at the end of our semester abroad and pretty low on cash, but for whatever reason we abandoned all pragmatism and gladly accepted the invitation. Flying by the seat of my pants like this was highly unusual for me. I generally enjoy a little control when it comes to travel and nature.  Little did I know, I was about to be reminded that as much as I like to think I am in control, Mother Nature will always have the upper hand.

Abby, Greg, and I awoke at the crack of dawn the next morning to a red sky and began  the 5 hour drive to the Milford Sound. Paying minimal attention to Greg’s comment, “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor’s take warning,” Abby and I were feeling pretty smug. The sky looked beautiful, the temperature was warm. We were going to see the Milford Sound in pristine weather and I was all too happy to be dressed in flip-flops and a light jacket!

En route to the Milford Sound in New Zealand. Photograph by Amelia Tidona.
En route to the Milford Sound in New Zealand. Photograph by Amelia Tidona.

The first couple hours went smoothly as the three of us exchanged stories, listened to Bon Iver’s recently released cd, and gawked at the beautiful day and remarkable landscapes around us. But as we got closer to Fiordland National Park, the weather began to take a steep turn.  The clear blue sky was replaced with dark menacing clouds, and a combination of hail and snow began pelting our car with a vengeance.  My envisioned picturesque experience of the Milford Sound was slipping away from me.  At this point, disappointment was settling in.  This was my only chance to visit the Milford Sound and with such poor visibility, I knew it was going to be difficult to see anything. Greg, on the other hand, was all smiles. He stopped the car to take some pictures of this unexpected winter wonderland and beckoned Abby and me to do the same.  In my flip-flops and light apparel, I was not feeling overly enthused about this activity, but Greg insisted.  So, I stepped outside the car and was immediately greeted by a friendly parrot-like bird.


He and his bird friends were jumping onto people’s cars, bouncing around in the snow, and having a great time amidst the inclement weather.  To my surprise, Greg was acting exactly the same! Both parrot and man were blissful to be outside, dancing together, amidst the cold and hailing precipitation!  Abby and I couldn’t help but laugh as we stood watching in our flip-flops.

Where we stopped to photograph "the winter wonderland."  Photograph by Amelia Tidona.
Where we stopped to photograph “the winter wonderland.” Photograph by Amelia Tidona.

After a few more minutes, we got back into the car and drove the rest of the way to the Milford Sound. Though mildly cheered up by our new parrot friend and spirited snow-dancing session, I was still feeling disappointed about the visibility as we boarded the boat to go out on the water.  The clouds were thick and the rain showed no signs of stopping. Feeling chilled and damp, I had no desire to venture out onto the deck. Greg, however, had other plans.  Completely unperturbed, he rooted himself to the deck amidst the pouring down rain and motioned, once again, for Abby and me to do the same and join him in the elements.

I gave in and stepped onto the deck in the torrential rain. I stopped trying to control what I wanted nature to be and to do that day and the Bon Iver words we had been listening to in the car began to seep in: and at once I knew, I was not magnificent.  By accepting this and stepping outside, I finally opened myself up to experiencing the world as it was on that day and in that moment, instead of trying to mold it and shape it into something that would be convenient for me.  To be honest, nature is pretty spectacular when you just leave it to be what it is.  I saw the Milford Sound on a day that was simultaneously warm, cold, sunny, rainy, snowy, and “hail-swept,” with Santa Claus and a good friend.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Enjoying the elements at the Milford Sound.  Photograph by Amelia Tidona.
Enjoying the elements at the Milford Sound. Photograph by Amelia Tidona.

By Amelia Tidona, National Geographic Education

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