Cruising on a (what day is it?) Afternoon
02.12.2009 - 03.12.2009
It is 300 KM from Queenstown to Milford Sound and we had been told it takes anywhere from 3 to 6 hours to make the drive???. We set out early just incase it was the latter and made the first 200k to Ta Annu in a little over two hours. And expected to be in Milford in another hour or so. This is were the drive got interesting and we started to slow down.
Wide open plains with snow capped mountains in the background narrowed to winding rivers through the glacier sculpted valleys as we worked our way closer to the sound. We had read that this road can be congested with a “conga line” of campervans and tour busses but it was really not all that busy. Every corner had me stepping on the brakes and swerving off the road as I reached for my camera.
We slowly made our way up this stunning highway and when we thought it could not get any better we started climbing steeply to the Homer Tunnel. Piercing a glacier carved amphitheatre so saturated with waterfalls it almost takes on the appearance of a water wall, the Homer Tunnel is a dark earthen passageway over rough road dripping with water. Before entering the Tunnel we spotted the magic bus and the red headed Mathew out taking pictures. We new the boys would be heading to Queenstown and possibly out to Milford Sound so we were not surprised to meet them here again after seeing them in Waneka.
Before moving on we were entertained by the Kea. Described as the naughty teenager of the parrot world this is an alpine parrot, possibly the worlds only alpine parrot if memory serves, and has a curios personality. From what we saw they would fly in and land on your car. If the window was down they would stick their head in and if nothing looked interesting would peck at the rubber lining on your door. We saw one almost take off with some guys keys (why he offered them up to the bird is still beyond me) and had been told that they like to steal hats and can unwrap candy!
The Curios Kea
The Curios Kea and the equally curios Meghan
The Homer Tunnel is 1207 Meters and it felt like a long time before we returned to the light and the spectacular Cleddau Valley were we would finally descend to the sea and the Milford sound.
Back on the road we dropped steeply into the valley. I could not believe with the type of high alpine scenery that was right outside our window that it was possible that we were descending to sea level. We came around countless switchbacks past more and more waterfalls washing down the impossibly steep mountainside as we made our way to the sound. Milford Sound is a hub for tourists and 4 operators run cruises in the sound. We were warned about how busy it would be and advised to take either the first or last boat of the day before/after the busses had arrived/departed. We did just that and were lucky enough to share a boat built for 90 people with no more than 30.
Meghan, Our Boat, And Miter Peak
Milford Sound is home to Miter peak, a 1692 meter spire rising straight out of the ocean. This is said to be the Maroon Bells of NZ, the most photographed peak. It is just the start of the vertical cliff walls rising over 4,000 feet directly out of the sound. The vegetation and trees cling to these cliffs making a vertical forest that when overburdened with growth and moisture can be subject to tree avalanches!
The effect of the ice ages is also plainly evident here were three distinct levels are know as giant steps (queue the Coltrane) showing the tremendous forces of nature. The waterfalls here are also very impressive and had we come when the sun was not shining and the mountains were covered in rain clouds we would have been treated to many many more waterfalls. This is another feature that Milford sound is famous for. The area gets over 7 meters of rain annually and typically the steep walls of the sound are just alive with water as it makes it way into the sound.
For being one of NZ biggest tourist attractions and a magnet for the big tour busses we felt like we were able to enjoy this area of NZ at our own pace, on our own terms, and without the pressure of all the big tour operators. At one point in our trip we thought we would avoid this area and we both came away from the experience so glad that we did not. A special Thanks goes out to My Aunt Gene advised us to spend as much time as possiblie in New Zealand and not to miss Milford Sound. We moved out that night and camped in one of the many DOC campsites along the way with our friends the sandflies.
A day hike on the Routeburn track was on the menu for the next day. This is considered on of NZ’s great walks and to do any camping along this route requires negotiating a maze of DOC permits and regulations as well as obtaining the necessary reservations for the often overbooked huts along the way. However, a day hike is free and requires no more than arriving the trailhead with the will to walk. We set out climbing throughout temperate rainforest. For me it had been weird to see the rain forest vegetation in and around the high Alpine scenery we are used to seeing in Colorado’s arid climate. Especially after coming from the cook islands were we experienced tropical rain forest vegetation. None the less we made our way through the damp Beachwood forest were we felt as if we were walking through a recently used sponge. Glimpses of the high peaks would flirt with us through the trees before we hit tree line and could see our objective high ahead of us. We would be heading to key summit but not before dropping back down into the forest to check out one of the DOC’s huts. After all of our experiences with 10th mountain divisions hut system in CO we were not all that impressed but this was one of hundred of huts in NZ so we did not hold any bias. From here we walked up above tree line for views of three river valleys and a 360 degree view of snow covered peaks.