Milford Sound, New Zealand (8th Mar 2008)
Queenstown to Milford Sound via Te Anau
Driver: KaraDistance Travelled: 299.9 Km / 186.4 Miles
Accumulative Distance: 1295.8 Km / 805.3 Miles
By 8.00 AM we were up and about and ready once again to hit the road but not before spending a few more minutes enjoying the views of the lake through our condensation covered windows.Arriving back into Queenstown we felt like we ought to stop and have another look around to check we have seen this entire tiny town.We parked up and headed for the backside of the town to have a walk around the small park and around the edge of the lake which had a big old steam boat moored no doubt running expensive trips around the lake.In the park area the locals were running a small craft market with stalls selling Maori art, jewellery and homemade jams etc.All of which cost a small fortune to the mere backpacker (us) for example it pot of jam cost $12.00 which is nearly £5.00 crazy.As we headed back to the van we watched some little ducklings on the edge of the lake and took a final look across the lake to the sun drenched mountains in the distance.Although we really like to Queenstown area we have no reason to stick around because it is a very small place and unless you are going to bungee jump our skydive there really isn't much to do and we have plenty of other places to see in the next couple of weeks we said our goodbyes jumped in the van and set off down state highway six.
Most of the road from Queenstown to Te Anau was surrounded by pastures full to the brim with New Zealand's biggest export product, sheep, thousands upon thousands of them for as far as the eye could see.It was funny watching them run around in huge packs crashing into each other, fences and some coming close to falling down the hillsides.The drive to Te Anau, our halfway point, was pretty uneventful and although scenery was nice it wasn't a patch on what we had seen the day before.One thing that we did pull over and stop for was the Kingston Flyer.The Kingston Flyer was a beautiful old steam train that did trips into the surrounding countryside and we were lucky enough to be driving by 10 minutes before it was due to leave a quaint country station.We stopped and waited until it pulled away; steam bellowed out of the chimney and a super loud whistle nearly deafened us, it was great to see the old engine heading off into the countryside, it was like something from a secret seven novel. Mark managed to take a really good video of the Flyer leaving the station, another that we might one day put online!
The rest of the drive to Te Anau was more fields, more sheep and still no radio, but before long we made it and we refilled the van, bought some stuff for dinner and had a quick walk around.By now it had become apparent how small New Zealand's population really is and how places on the map that in England would be like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham i.e. big places are not quite the same over here in New Zealand; the equivalent are towns with maybe 2000+ people, not we had been expecting. Since Ta Anau is so small, after about 5 minutes we had walked round it and seen everything twice, so as we now had some stuff for dinner we set off north bound to Milford Sound.After only around 10 kilometres of driving we stopped at the side of the road alongside Lake TE Anau which had the start of the Fjordland National Park in the background and had dinner which consisted of a real cosmopolitan mixture of crisps butties and slices of red pepper with a tomato dip.
No sooner had we rejoined the road after dinner and the heavens opened above us making the next 100 kilometres of driving even worse as we already had to content with strong winds and narrow roads.We drove along the weather was pretty bad it didn't take away any of the magic from the views from our windows as we wound our way northland began to climb up the hillside and into the clouds (sort of).As we had been driving along we saw various points along the road we you could pull over and get a view back from where we had come but obviously at a much greater height.We decided to stop at a place of to where it looked like the clouds were only just above our heads and as we pulled into the car park we wondered what was going on...A young guy, maybe 30 was down on the ground playing with a child's toy digger and making some real funny noises and until we got out of town we just four he was weird.When we walked in his direction he whispered to us, "Hey mate, look it's a Kea" but because his voice had such a strong European accent Mark thought he said "where is IKEA" so he ignored him and until Kara cleared things up and pointed at the big fat Kea hiding under his van Mark was just left befuddled.Anyway...
Of an hour later the end was nearly inside we had reached a Homer tunnel; the tunnel is a very dark, crudely finished, one way road that has been boared straight through the mountain side; the inside of the tunnel looked like it might collapse at any point but surely it must be safe?Before we even got to drive through where we had to wait about 10 minutes because as mentioned it only had one lane which went in 15 minutes turns. The waiting area outside of the tunnel was quite scenic itself and had some very tall, vertical cliff faces that were covered in small waterfalls and splashes of greenery.Were also able to spot loads more of the Kea flying around and coming right up to the van for away because they know someone will feed them even though he strongly discouraged as they become a pest and caused damage to cars.When the lights finally changed to green we nearly missed our chance to go as Kara was outside on the rocks and was taking photographs.Through the other side of the tunnel the views were stunning as we were at the top of the hillside and the roads spiral down to the next 15, it is to the township of Milford were some very sharp corners coupled with sheer drops of the sides design of course to test Kara's driving ability.
The entire drive from Te Anau was speckled with little camp sites on the roadside will be seen to have been replaced with do not count or else signs this side of the Homer tunnel, and after 10 minutes of arguing, Mark decided that Kara was right and we should, for the first time, actually pay to sleep somewhere and stay at the Milford Lodge which was just around the corner from where we would need to be in the morning. The Milford Lodge was a good little set up and considering the proximity to Milford Sound and the lack of completion, it was quite cheap. It was also nice to b able to use a proper kitchen for once, to have a shower and to relax on a sofa, rather than doing it all in the van. After we ate dinner we sat in the common room and watched as the torrential rain poured down; we had a beer, watched a DVD and stayed in the common room until it closed, just so we had a bit of time away from our darling van. The rain didn't hold up at all and was going mad all night and we thought that we might not be able to go on our sailing trip if it didn't stop soon.
We woke up at what we thought was early only to find that all the over campervans around us had already left for their day of adventure, so we quickly got ready too and headed out to get some breakfast. The only reason that anyone comes to Milford sound is to see the fjords and do a cruise around them, and although at this point in the morning we didn't have tickets yet, the staff at the lodge had assured us that we would be able to get them and sure enough the young girl working the reception was able to ring through and book us onto the 10.15 encounter tour! Since we still had a bit of time to kill before our cruise we thought it would be best to get the van packed and ready for another long day of driving that we would have to do after the cruise was over, so in between the rain spells that's what we did.
We arrived at the boat terminal about 15 minutes early like we had been advised and after checking in we went to stand by pier 4, where the Lady Bowen was being prepared for our Encounter Cruise.We opted to pay $5.00 extra for the aforementioned encounter cruise which promised to get up close and personal with the Sound, the wildlife and the waterfalls.When it was time for us to get on the boat, and even though we were feeling our best (or looking it) we were made to pose next to the boat for a photograph which we could buy for $25.00 on the way back, something we obviously weren't going to splash out on.Since the water in the fjord is so still and calm we hardly even noticed as the boat reversed and got going on our 2 ¼ hour cruise.As soon as the boat turned around and had been sailing for 5 minutes it was clear to see what all the fuss is about, 1000+ metre tall cliff faces, hundreds of small waterfalls, several huge powerful waterfalls and snow-capped mountains all covered with trees and greenery.Our first photos don't really do much justice to the sound and it's not hard to see why many people call this the eighth wonder of the world, you really do need to see it to be believe it.Gliding over the calm waters, between sheer, weather scuffed cliffs and catching sight of the massive Mitre Peak (1692M) in the distance is quite captivating experience.The further we sailed from our the captain commented on various features such as a small waterfalls that only exist after heavy rainfall (like the previous nights), the bare, exposed patches of rock that had been created due to tree avalanches, which occur when a train and the surrounding rock fall clearing everything in their path until they fall into the water.
As we mentioned before we were sailing on one of encounter boats and our first good encounter came when the captain pulled over next to a huge rock covered with sea lions.It was quite interesting to hear him talk about the sea lions, he told us that they come to live here for the easy food they could catch in the deep (300+M) water and that to be able to dive to such depths they would lay out on the rocks all day so that they lowered their heart rate right down to conserve energy then at night they would dive, having to collapse their lungs and use the remaining oxygen in their blood.We thought that the seemed like a lot of hard work but apparently it is much easier than what they would have to do in their natural environment.
Our next encounter happen when we stopped at a very tall but not so powerful waterfall that as we moved closer to, produce the huge rainbow which spanned the width of the water and it was pretty amazing to see, especially as it came out of nowhere.Shortly after seeing this we moved into the narrowest section of the fjord where the walls rose vertically from the water to over 1000 metres on either side.As soon as we pulled into the passage way the captain asked everybody to get out on the back of the ship to feel how powerful the wind had now become, it was quite intense; this section of the Fiord is appropriately named Hurricane Alley and Mark nearly lost his hat.
After a round an hour sailing the boat was approaching the open sea and you could really feel it as the boat began to jump from side to side and this signalled the halfway point of our ride.Now it was time for us to turn around and come back down the other side; as soon as we got back into the still waters Mark spotted a few more sea lions up on another small rock.Things where much of the same on the of return leg, one cool thing that the captain pointed out was the shape of one of the mountain sides that was shaped like a lion crouching down and an elephants head which even had a small waterfall on the end of it's "trunk".
The grand finale, which was a reason we paid the extra, was when the boat pulled up towards the bottom of Sterling falls one of the two of permanent waterfalls on the fjord, which is also one of the highest and most powerful with a drop of 155M.As we edged closer, the captain announced that all those who didn't want to get wet should head inside now as were heading straight underneath it, at which point Mark pulled on his coat and headed straight to the front of the boat. As promised the went straight into the middle of the waterfall and soaked anyone stupid enough to be outside and after about 10 seconds Mark came back in, soaked from head to toe. For the last 20 minutes on our way back to the marina the sun came out and gave us a chance to get a few decent photos.
Upon our arrival back to the marina it was clear to see this is one of New Zealand's biggest attractions, as hoards of Japanese and Korean had descended with their ridiculously large cameras in one hand and a tacky bit of merchandise in the other, so we put our heads down and barged through the crowds making our way back to the van so we could get out of there.
As we passed the Milford lodge we contemplated stopping to make dinner but it was almost one already and since we had at least another 300 kilometres to drive before bed tonight we just carried on.