Saturday 21st November
Fiordland National Park
We were startled to find that it was already 9am when we awoke today. Must have been something to do with yesterday's trek!
It was slightly unnerving to suddenly be aware of lying with our feet higher than our heads and quite a challenge to sit up, get out of bed and stand up on a sloping floor... We had parked on quite a slope.
This produced the novel experience of our washing up water having a deep end and a shallow end. It also mean that during the course of breakfast, theme glass of orange juice that started the meal just next to the tip of your knife, slowly and imperceptibly ended up just near the tines of your fork!
Drift Bay Reserve is another excellent freedom camping spot next to Lake Waikatipu, 5km north of Kingston. We just feel sorry for the residents of Drift Bay Road, 25 km north of Kingston. We can't be the only sat-nav-directed motor home drivers to try to park on their front lawns in the dark....
Lots of driving today, but very scenic so actually very enjoyable. The route was essentially a huge U-shaped loop from Queenstown, down south of the Humboldt, Livingstone and Eyre mountains and then into Fiordland on the South-west coast. First stop from Kingston was Te Anau in Fiordland. This is mountain expedition central and the visitor centre is full of information about the geology, history and wildlife in the area. It is also full of maps and guides and advice on ways to explore this remarkable and inaccessible area.
We arrived in Te Anau 2.5 hours before our planned cruise on Milford Sound - a 2.5 hour drive away.
It was a brief visit.
We filled up with diesel, collected maps and guides, bought an excellent take-out coffee from 'Coffee-Cats' van outside the information centre and vroomed off on our way.
The road to Milford Sound is famous for its spectacular scenery. Our guides and tourism radio waxed lyrical about the whole area and it did not disappoint! It felt like a mixture of Glen Coe and the Cirque de Gavarnie in the French Pyrenees. Sheer rock faces rising up out of the glaciated valley holding the beautiful deep Lake Te Anau.
At first the skies were blue giving some classic New Zealand picture postcard views. As we drove north, more clouds appeared and sank lower over the snow covered mountain peaks, and the temperature dropped from 13 to 8 degrees. The mountains started to appear more moody and atmospheric and the expected rain started to fall, a light mist at first and then more heavily. By the time we arrived at the Homer Tunnel the rain was beating down. As we waited for the traffic lights at the entrance to its single carriageway, we looked up at Gertrude's Saddle (one of the treks that Mike and Bob did earlier this year) - it looked unspeakably bleak and inhospitable with murky black snow-streaked rock faces.
The 1200 metre long tunnel with its 1:10 downhill gradient was an experience. Hewn out of the rock by hand, it was started in 1935 and finished in 1953 after problems with flooding. They solved the problem by drilling a pilot hole through to the other end to drain the water. (Apparently in April each year there is a race through the tunnel where all competitors are naked, except for their running shoes...)
After the tunnel the road wound steeply down hill in a series of switchbacks to continue through forest to Milford Sound. We made the journey with time to spare, but no thanks to the driver at the front of our convoy who seemed to just drive slower and slower and was oblivious to the widely advertised rule that slow vehicles should always pullover to allow others to pass as soon as two vehicles are waiting behind you. We were quite a little caterpillar of grumpy drivers by the time we arrived at our destination.
The scenery more than made up for this however. Despite the heavy rain driving in sheets across the car park, the Sound looked incredible and we dressed in all our thermal/waterproof clothing and set out for the passenger terminal.
Mike recommended Mitre Peak cruises and he was spot on. A much smaller boat than the other big ferries and much more personal. There were probably only 25 of us on board. Lots of viewing areas, help yourself tea and coffee and a personalised commentary. Being a smaller boat we were able to get right up close to things that the larger boats just sailed past.
Although the rain obscured some of the mountains tops and distant views, it did produce the most spectacular waterfalls! The winds meant that the clouds swept over the mountains and sea, and shafts of sunlight would break through from time to time, creating stunning effects. We sailed out along the southern wall of the fiord under the eponymous 1693 metre Mitre Peak mountain, so called due to its vague resemblance to a Bishop's head gear. It's earlier Maori name was 'Rahotu' meaning 'upstanding masculinity', so you can imagine why the Victorians were keen to change its name to something more demure!
Whilst I am on the subject of names, the first European to sail into the Sound was John Grono, in 1823, and he named it after his home port in South Wales.
At this point the water became pretty choppy as we approached the open sea. Most people went indoors but we stayed on deck and were delighted to see several Fiordland Crested penguins out fishing; bobbing up and then diving again, close to the boat. We also saw a large black unidentified sea mammal.
On our way back in we stopped at 'Penguin Bay' where we saw another penguin standing on a rock only a few feet away. A little further on we passed 'Seal Rock' where 20-30 fur seals were lying asleep or playing.
On the final return leg we sailed right up to and under a waterfall that poured out and over a ledge above. The captain manoeuvred the boat right up to the waterfall until its waters cascaded over the prow, spraying us all with icy cold water.
It was a really magical trip and a great way to spend an afternoon.
Afterwards we dried off and thawed out in the van before driving back to Te Anau.
Although generally still overcast and raining the wind sent the cloud formations scurrying through and frequent sunny intervals lit up the snow covered mountains, rivers, lakes and forested hillsides in bright blues, greens and golds.
Back in town, we re-connected with the Internet. The weather forecast was not promising. Heavy rain with likely hail, snow and high winds were hitting the west coast and Fiordland for the next few days. There was a red weather warning in place. We were planning to spend another couple of days here to do more of the 'great walks' but after checking the weather maps in more detail we spent the evening making alternative plans.
We managed to FaceTime with Mike, Chris and Elmgrove and reassure them that luckily we were unaffected by the terrible helicopter accident on Fox Glacier yesterday.
Back at the Fiordland Great Views Holiday Park, we did a spot of housekeeping and settled in for another rainy night cosily tucked up in our van.