Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Day on the Water: Milford Sound and Te Anau Glowworm Caves

For three people that just survived a devastating magnitude 6.3 earthquake, my parents and I certainly seem to be trying to tempt fate: today we went through the 1.2km Homer Tunnel twice (passing under the Southern Alps) travelling to and from Milford Sound, and then spent 45 minutes underground on the western shore of Lake Te Anau, exploring the renowned glowworm caves. That's a lot of underground activity in a area that is essentially a geological earthquake time bomb just waiting to go off. Thankfully, we are all safe and sound and back in our beds at the Cosy Kiwi B&B. My parents just told me a rather pointed "goodnight", but too bad for them, as I want to take the time to write about the glowworm caves, and I need my bedside light on to do so.

Milford Sound was overcast today, but thankfully today wasn't one of their 200 days of rain that they get each year (and when it rains, it rains; the average rainfall is around seven metres a year). Happily, when we stopped at Mirror Lakes on the way up Highway 94, the water was clear and still, and I was able to get a nice picture of the backward-lettered sign propped against the far bank (is reflection reads "Mirror Lakes"). When I came through on the Stray bus it was raining, so my pictures didn't capture the mirror-like qualities of the lakes at all.

I won't blather on endlessly about Milford Sound, as I already did that in this post from November, but suffice it to say my parents had a great time on the 2 1/2 hour nature cruise. This was slightly different from the earlier Milford Sound scenic cruise I did with Stray, which was focused at catering to the big crowds on tourist buses; this nature cruise was on a smaller boat, the MV Sinbad, and featured English-only commentary from a knowledgable guide named Dave. As my dad said, he had "just the right amount of information without overwhelming you", and he felt that even as a native costal British Columbian he had been impressed with the beauty of Milford Sound. (We're so spoiled, we really are.)

We booked ourselves on the 10:40am cruise, so when we left Milford Sound at 1:10pm the hordes were flocking to board the boats for the peak time (and therefore more expensive) midday cruises; it felt nice to leave them behind and head back for the open road. Well, slightly open; it's pretty windy, and my dad takes great delight in whizzing around the corners as fast as he can. We stopped at The Chasm to watch the Cleddau river thunder away below the footbridge, and in the parking lot my mom was delighted to see a kea parrot in the wild; I was a little concerned the thing was going to start pecking at our car, as they haven been known to strip car windshield wipers just for fun.

Safely through the Homer Tunnel once more, we stopped to explore the old makeshift workshop and camp site where workers and sometimes their families lived while the tunnel was under construction. A cold wind was blowing in the valley today, and with the overhanging clouds and knowledge that this area receives no direct sunlight from May to September, I could envision life in this majestic but foreboding valley to be very inhospitable indeed. How fortunate we are to be able to hop back into our rental car and drive back down the road to the much more hospitable township of Te Anau!

For dinner tonight we went to The Moose Bar and Restaurant (this one's for you, Bruce. 'Today is Pig Day!'), which of course brought a smile to my dad's face. It brought more of a grimace to mine, however, between my parents' inability to make decisions over where to eat, which very quickly shorts out my patience, and the fact that my sandwich was swimming in mayonnaise and something trying to pass for avocado sauce and failing miserably (yuck). At least my apple cider was tasty, and my parents seemed to enjoy their fish and chips ('fush and chups').

Our evening adventure today found us once again patronizing the Real Journeys adventure company, exploring the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Once only present in Maori legends (the lake takes its name from Te Ana-au, which is Maori for "cave filled with swirling water"), the caves were rediscovered in 1948 by a local tour operator, Lawson Burrows, after three years of searching.

At 250m long, the Glowworm Caves are just part of a huge 6.7km labyrinth known as the Aurora caves system, cutting though limestone up to 35 million years old. Unlike other caves that I have explored, the water runs out of these caves, not into them: that is to say, the farther one penetrates into the cave, the higher up one goes in the mountain, not lower into the ground! This is due to the nature of the caves' creation:  the caves themselves are about 200 000 years old, and shaped by periods of glacial advances and retreats. The origin of the cave's stream, called Tunnel Burn, is Lake Orbell, high up in the Murchison Mountains. At the end of each ice age, the retreating ice in the valley would create a new lake level, and the Tunnel Burn would carve a new exit into the lake. The continual dropping of the lake level after a glacier's retreat has resulted in a vast network of caves, with multiple entrances (old exits) along the mountainside. While the upper passages of the cave are dry and no longer have water passing through them, the Glowworm Caves are very young by geological standards - only 12 000 years old - and are still being formed. As such, stalactites and stalagmites are just beginning to form in the Glowworm Caves, but are common in the older and drier passages of the Aurora Caves.

Our journey began with a 25-minute boat ride across Lake Te Anau, culminating at a wharf where we were split into five groups of eleven or so, and assigned to a guide to introduce us to the landscape and take us through the caves. After my adventure spelunking in Waitomo, this was ridiculously easy; there was dim yet appropriately theatrical lighting throughout the first part of the cave, and a well-constructed and maintained system of boardwalks and ladders to assure that all we had to do was duck and stoop to avoid hitting our heads in low tunnels and outcroppings. Indeed, for a cave, things were incredibly spacious; the first part of the cave is called the Cathedral, and has ceilings up to 20m high!

At the end of the Cathedral, past a thundering waterfall and up a set of stairs, we were greeted with a large pool; after being instructed to remain silent (glowworms apparently don't like noise), we clambered aboard a small punting boat, and were carried gently away down a narrow corridor into the Glowworm Grotto, a magical place where hundreds (if not thousands) of glow worms dotted the ceiling and walls, sending out their bioluminescent rays to attract hapless insects searching for a way out of the cave, and filling the grotto with an eerie (but magical) blue-green light. Here, deep under the mountain, and drifting silently on a pool of smooth black water surrounded by tiny pinpricks of light, it is hard to believe the beautiful glow is caused by the larval stage of what will after nine months become the humble fungus gnat.

Leaving the boat, we were once again escorted out of the caves, and seated in the Cavern Hut, a complimentary cup of tea in our hands, we were treated to an informative presentation on the life cycle and feeding habits of the titiwae (glowworm; the Maori name refers to the lights reflected on the water). Rather than have me blather on, you can read all about glowworms here (I especially like the part about how they spend nine months as a larvae, and then as adults have no mouths, and so only live for three days!).

Once again picked up by our tour boat, we were safely ferried back across the lake, and are now in our beds here at the Cosy Kiwi, where it is after midnight and my mother has once again (somewhat warningly this time) asked me to put the lights out, so I had better be a good little threatened titiwae and extinguish the bluish-tinged light emanating from my screen. :-) Goodnight!


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