Andrea: The next morning it was off to Te Anau--the jumping off point for Milford Sound. All Kiwis tell visitors that they have to go to Milford Sound, even if they've never been themselves! It's one of those places. We listened to the one station that came through on the drive, the Christian station. I guess prayer can move mountains...right out of the way of the radio reception!
We arrived in Te Anau and spent a good 30 minutes deciding the next plan of action with the helpful Canadian at the I-site. We booked a cruise of Milford Sound for that day. The original plan was to spend the night in Milford Sound, but the woman at the I-site told us that although the weather was OK today it could be bad tomorrow so we need to rent chains now in case we need them for the drive tomorrow. She also casually mentioned that it was a $700 fine if you're caught without them when it's snowing. Not only did we not want to rent the chains for $30, but we really didn't want to stand out in the snow or rain and figure out how to put them on GEM. So, we decided to make it a day trip and come back to camp just outside Te Anau.
The guide book says the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful in all of NZ and suggested making several stops for walks. We had every intention of doing a few short walks along the way. We really did. But I guess the road to Milford Sound is paved with good intentions because it was raining so hard that we only stopped for a few very short (10-15 minutes total) walks. We had been told that we were lucky to be visiting the Sound when it was raining because waterfalls spring up everywhere and gush out of the mountains. Well, in an area where the average annual rainfall is 7 meters per year (who measures rainfall in METERS?!?) you would have to be pretty unlucky to not see the waterfalls! For the first half of the famously beautiful road we didn't see much because of some very low and stubborn clouds. We started to wonder what all the fuss was about! Our first stop on the road was Mirror Lake--not to be confused with Mirror Tarn from a previous blog, completely different apparently. There were a few tour buses and other cars pulled over (the first we'd seen on this road) so we knew we were at the right spot. Two minutes walking on the boardwalk had us at Mirror Lake. Unfortunately, the rain scuppered the perfect mirror image, but there was a very clever sign written backwards so it could only be read properly in the lake. We could just make it out and chuckled at the genius working at the Department of Conservation (DOC) who came up with that idea. Back to the car and off to the next stop, but it was raining too hard so we didn't stop. We did stop, however, at the Chasm Walk, just 10km from Milford Sound. A spectacular five minute walk in a damp forest with rushing waterfalls and moss growing on everything led us to the main event--The Chasm. Here the Cleddau River plunges through strikingly eroded boulders in a narrow chasm, creating deep falls and a natural rock bridge. It was a fantastic sight. There was a sign with a quote there by Henry David Thoreau that summed it up best, "The best sculptors aren't with iron or wood, but nature with air, water and time." The next star of the trip was the rest of the road to Milford Sound. The road coming into Milford is an avalanche area so there is no stopping anywhere on the road. At first we wondered why it was an avalanche area until we turned a corner and saw magnificent snow-covered mountains with slides running down them and piles of giant boulders and snow sitting at the bottom. We were surrounded by white when we approached the Homer Tunnel--a very dark and wet tunnel carved through the mountain. When we emerged it was like looking at an amphitheater carved out of snow and ice. We were winding down into a giant bowl of snow! It was amazing and I think everyone driving it was disappointed that we couldn't stop to take photos.
We arrived to Milford and it was still raining do we made sandwiches for lunch in the back of the van and went to board the cruise. We sat waiting for the boat paralyzed by the beauty of the Sound. Although it is called Milford Sound, it's actually a fiord and not a sound. The English and Welsh explorers called them sounds, but the region is named Fiordland to rectify the error, instead of renaming each sound. The difference is this: sounds are drowned river valleys caused by the land sinking, while fiords are created by glacial action, producing U-shaped valleys with steep cliffs. Perhaps not obvious to the explorers 200-300 years ago. What was obvious to us is that the fiords were unlike anything we had ever seen. Wisps of low clouds brushed through the middle of lush green mountains. Snow dotted the tops of the mounds while thin waterfalls whooshed down from each mountain. The biggest waterfall was next to the marina and supplies the entire town (population approx. 170) with water. It could probably supply more people with water at the rate it was falling. We set off and immediately saw bottlenose dolphins playing in front of our boat. The 2 hour tour took us slowly down to the end of the sound and back again. We went to where the fiord meets the Tasman Sea and it started getting really rough. Then we turned around and got to see everything from the other side! We came upon Seal Rock where we saw...you guessed it, seals! There was a small seal colony lazing around on the rocks wondering why we were all snapping photos. More sensational scenery on the way back made us forget we were standing in the rain! The driver of the boat came in real close to Stirling Falls, a big waterfall, and we were all surprised by how close he got! We were happily snapping away when the spray starting coming fast and furiously and there was a mad dash to the door as everyone still standing on the deck got soaked. It was pretty amazing though. It was definitely a magical 2 hour cruise full of the kind of scenery you only see in pictures. Back at the harbor, I came out of the bathroom to find Vern studying the information on the walls with great interest. I came over to see what he had learned and he informed me that the first English settler in Milford was the hermit Donald Sutherland in 1878. We just saw him in a movie the other day and he looks great for his age!
We were buzzing on the way back to Te Anau and the clouds had lifted some so we could enjoy the views along the road the entire way back. The scenes we saw that day were the jaw-dropping scenes from guide books that you never really get to see in person. Well, now we have. We snapped some photos from the car of the lovely ride back and then headed to one of the pubs in town, The Moose, to watch some rugby. We watched the U.S. almost beat Ireland (cough cough almost being about 30 points) and then South Africa just barely beat Wales (by one point!). Watching that last game was the most stressed I think we've been in the last 6 months! We left having only had one drink in 4 hours and drove 25km out of town to our campsite. It was the closest DOC campsite to town so we were expecting it to be full when we pulled in at 11:00. It was a long and windy road in the woods and completely empty! We were a little freaked out by our second Wolf Creek campsite, but slept like babies next to a pretty lake in the beautiful and silent park.