Sunday, November 21, 2010

Milford Sound

Milford Sound was our destination today… what can I say about Milford Sound (other than it is technically a fjord, not a sound) and the surrounding Fjordland National Park scenery, except rather pathetically that it is like Goldstream x 1000… Goldstream as it would be if the Rocky Mountains were plunked down right in the middle of the park, towering majestically above the lush temperate rainforest. We even lucked out with the weather; while driving up State Highway 94 from Queenstown to Milford it rained and we saw the mountains shrouded in misty clouds, but when we got into Milford Sound itself it was gloriously sunny, and we stood in awe of the beauty of the mountains around us.

And yet - and this I do NOT understand - people on the bus wanted to watch a movie! Yes, I understand that today was likely the longest we have travelled in one sitting (we left Queenstown at 8am and didn't get to Milford until 2:15pm), but we were also going through some of the most incredible scenery in New Zealand, and some people still felt the need to be entertained by watching Little Miss Sunshine on the bus' television. I deliberately put on my iPod to block out the sound of the TV and turned my gaze out the window, marvelling in the natural beauty surrounding us.

We stopped at two scenic reserves along the way: Mirror Lakes, famous for their reflections of the mountains, but unfortunately not very reflective when we saw them due to raindrops and a slight wind. Amusingly, there was a mirror image sign suspended above the water whose sign would read "Mirror Lakes" were the lakes actually as smooth as glass… oh well. We also stopped at The Chasm, where the Cleddau River changes from flowing over hard to soft rock, and has created dramatic waterfalls, sculpted rocks, and rounded basins. It was here that I was reminded most strongly of Goldstream, and not just because of the endless parade of Asian tour buses and their passengers motoring through the area.

Mirror Lakes

Too bad it was raining!

Bridge over the Cleddau River

The Chasm

Hi Jen! Tell me this doesn't look eerily like

The man-made standout on the drive up to Milford was the Homer Tunnel: a 1.5 km single-lane tunnel cut through the solid rock of Main Divide (Southern Alps) at the Homer Saddle to connect Milford Sound to the rest of New Zealand… before its completion, all visitors to Milford Sound came on foot over the mountains, or up the coast by steamer. Looking at the majestic and seemingly impenetrable wall of rock the tunnel disappears into, I find it amazing they were able to complete it at all. Started as a Depression relief project in 1935, the tunnel wasn't completed until 1953, and opened in 1954 (although to be fair, work stopped during WWII). Three men died during its construction (and it's amazing there weren't more deaths, due to the risk of avalanche in the area), and the tunnel as it is used today is 3.81m tall, and operates on a system of traffic lights to alternate the direction of traffic every 15 minutes. Our driver Tia put the Mission: Impossible theme song over the PA as we drove through to motivate herself; apparently, last time she came through here she got stuck inside the tunnel with a milk tanker in one of the passing bays!

The highway leading to the Homer Tunnel

The Homer Tunnel Camp was once situated in this valley.

Entrance to the Homer Tunnel. You can see the remnants of
earlier pieces of the tunnel destroyed by avalanches.

Through the Homer Tunnel, and on to Milford Sound!
(This was quite the set of switch-backs.)

After traversing down a very impressive set of steep switch-backs (we could smell our brakes, mmmm), we were at last in Milford Sound… and even though I am from BC, and spoiled to the beauty of mountain and ocean scenery, I can still say I was enthralled with the natural beauty. I found it hard to believe I was actually there, in such a famous destination, and enjoying it with such incredible weather as well.

The sound was called Piopiotahi by the Māori, which is means "a single piopio", a now-extinct thrush-like bird. There is a legend is the goddess Hinenui-te-Po put something of a curse on Milford sound: she filled the area with sandflies so that no human would linger too long in such a beautiful place. The little buggers are definitely annoying; they are even immortalized on the walls inside the Milford Sound terminal, with lifelike models magnified several hundred times their actual size mounted on the wall (charming). While I was not bitten as badly as others (mainly due to my wearing long sleeves and hiking boots, not shorts and sandals), they are proving to be a royal pain in the ass as I sit here in my bunk and type this, which is why this entry is rather terse.

Glorious sandflies... and evidence of a national marketing
campaign that conveniently forgets the thousands upon
thousands of acres of disturbed farmland in this country.

Our Milford Sound cruise was conducted by a company called Real Journeys (as opposed to fake ones?), and our ship was the Milford Sovereign, which took us on a two-hour cruise out of the Sound to the edge of the Tasman Sea and then back in again. I was surprised, as the Sound was much shorter and smaller than I had initially imagined it to be, but I suppose that is because all the immensely impressive photos of Milford Sound are actually just the same few mountains photographed from different angles, and when presented together make the Sound look bigger than it is.

I stayed out on the top, open-air deck for the entire cruise, and along the way we were treated to an amusing commentary (in English and German!) about the Sounds, its geography, history, and flora/fauna. I won't go into endless description of the Sound, as you can read all about it here and here, but I will say that waterfall enthusiasts (Aimee?), this is a must-visit place for you. There are two permanent waterfalls in the Sounds, but after heavy rainfall there are hundreds of temporary ones, as water flows down over the towering cliffs into the sea. We actually came right up to the cliff face of two waterfalls (Fairy Falls and Bowen Falls), showering people in the very front of the boat with icy pure glacial water, and allowing those of us a bit farther back to take spectacular photographs! At the last waterfall, Stirling Falls, rainbows formed in the mist from the spray as we backed away.

Our first glimpse of Milford Sound

Fairy Falls

Such a beautiful day, if a touch windy.

Stirling Falls

I look slightly possessed. Just look at the waterfall instead...

We also saw New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks, and I got my first glimpse of Fjordland Crested Penguins, with their signature yellow crest. I hope to see a few more tomorrow, when I head over to Stewart Island. Animals were even to be found in the mountains, sculpted and moulded by the glaciers of the last ice age; our guide suggested Mt. Kimberley looks like a seated lion, and The Elephant looks like… the head and trunk of an elephant. We couldn't have asked for better weather, and I have several dozen beautiful photographs to remember the afternoon by, including the top of Mitre Peak, which at 1 682 metres is one of the highest mountains in the word to rise directly from the ocean floor. (It's called "mitre" because the peak resembles a Bishop's mitre).

Fur seals sunning on the rocks

Mitre Peak

After retracing our steps back up the valley and through Homer's Tunnel, we are now staying at Gunn's Camp, a cabin-and-caravan camping site with a quirky sense of humour readily apparent in signs, with names like "This Way or That Way Bridge" and a Guinness beer bottle with a nipple attached, entitled "Irish Baby's Bottle." For dinner I cooked with Jenn (Scotland), Bart (The Netherlands), Katarina (Germany), and Regine (Switzerland); we bought groceries in Te Anu, and for $3.50 each enjoyed spaghetti with veggies in the sauce, and lettuce, cheese, and balsamic vinegar for a second course. After dinner Jenn, Bart, Katarina and I went for a hike on "Hell's Bells" trail to the aptly-named "Big Tree", a giant hollow tree slanted on an angle that we climbed up into and gleefully took photos of one another in, hanging our appendages out various holes in the sides of the trunk (essentially, acting like we were twelve years old).

Ah, yes, maturity...

Inside the "Big Tree", looking down. Hi Katarina!

The world as seen from inside the Big Tree

Maybe it belonged to Frank McCourt?

When she took this, Jen told me I looked like
a mummy. I was trying to capture what it
 feels like to be swarmed by sandflies...

Now it is 11:06pm, and we have to be up and out of here by 6:30am(!!!!) so those of us catching the ferry from Invercargill to Stewart Island get there in time for the 10am ferry. Ugh! As such, I am now off to bed; I'm in my sleeping bag in this little cabin, and I'm hoping the three or four sandflies I have squished against my computer screen whilst typing this are the only ones in the cabin, so I won't get eaten alive in my sleep, however brief it may be. Night!


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