Queenstown and Milford Sound
Yesterday was the hardest cycling day of the trip. The profile showed a long climb in the middle of the day, but that didn't do it justice. The last 3 of the 20km climb were real killers at a 10-14% gradient. Once at the top, there was a plaque telling us we were now crossing the highest paved road in New Zealand! OK, we were still only at 1067 meters of elevation, but tell that to my burning lungs and thighs! I wish I could say the downhill on the other side was fun, but it was even steeper than the side we climbed, and steep enough that my hands got cramps from gripping the brakes most of the way down.
Queenstown has quite a reputation as the adventure sports capital of New Zealand and maybe the world. This is where bungy jumping was first invented and commercialized. You can go jet boating, white-water rafting or kayaking on the lakes and rivers. We saw para-gliders jumping off a mountain and floating above the town center. People were para-sailing in the harbor. Everywhere you look there's an ad for some adrenaline-raising activity.
But, rather than jumping off a perfectly good bridge, I had my heart set on seeing Milford Sound. It's in the middle of the Fiordlands National Park on the southwest corner of the South Island. This park is basically a mountain range coming straight out of the sea. There are almost no roads, so airplanes and boats are the best way to see it. While physically not that far from Queenstown, there is no direct road there. The shortest driving option takes 5 hours, one way. A cyclist with only one day in the area has little option other than flying there. :-)
So five of us booked what's called the fly-cruise-fly trip. A taxi picked us up at our hotel and took us to the airport where we boarded a 'cosy' 10-seat turbo-prop plane. We flew 35 minutes over some dramatic terrain to land at a small airstrip at Milford Sound. A shuttle bus was waiting to pick us up and take us to the harbor where we boarded a cruise ship that took us through the sound as far as the Tasman Sea and then back. The trip back to Queenstown was then reversed, but by flying a different route for more spectacular views.
Milford Sound is the wettest place in New Zealand with over 250 inches of rain per year. But, we were amazingly lucky as the skies were clear blue for the day. During the flights, we had wonderful views of snow and ice-capped peaks as far away as Mt. Cook, the bluest glacier-fed lakes sitting thousands of feet above sea-level with waterfalls cascading down shear rock cliffs at their edge and dozens of rivers and sounds winding through the mountains down below.
But for all of that, the cruise on Milford Sound was just as amazing. It's hard to get the scale of the place. Your eye has a hard time judging the height of a 1700 meter peak coming straight up from the ocean floor and there's another 300 meters of mountain below the water line. But when you see another cruise ship look as though it were a toy in the water next to one of these mountains, you can start to get some perspective. There were dozens of waterfalls, some more than 100 meters high. At one the ship captain drove the bow of the boat within a few meters of the cliff face. We were standing on the top deck feeling the spray from the waterfall and trying to decide between one last picture and protecting our cameras from the water. We also saw seals, sailboats, whispy long white clouds hugging the mountain edges and beautiful vistas. As we were there early in the day, the sun hadn't risen above the mountain tops when we arrived, but had by the time we left, so we had ever changing light conditions that made each view change every time you looked back at it.
While the helicopter ride to the glaciers is still my favorite travel day ever. This day ranks a close second!