A Travellerspoint blog

Fiordland and Milford Sound

rain 15 °C

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Mt. Cook from the road between Lake Tekapo and Queenstown.

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Lake Wakatipu, on which Queenstown is situated.

It was an early start on the morning of the 26th. From Queenstown, where I'd arrived the previous evening, I had a day trip booked to Milford Sound. After a brief stop in Te Anau we began the 119km Milford Road - one of the most scenic in NZ. It started to rain in Te Anau and didn't stop until I got back there that evening. However, the guide assured us that this trip would be just as great in bad weather as in fine. The reason being, rainfall feeds the countless waterfalls tumbling down the sides of mountains on the way to, and in, the fiords, creating a spectacle not nearly as impressive on fair weather days.

Once into Fiordland National Park we made many stops along the way, to do little side trips and walks to see interesting features. One of these being the Mirror Pools which (apparently, when it's not raining) reflect the surrounding mountains perfectly. Needless to say, I didn't get to see this but the walk through the forest was pretty.

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Another stop was by a stream with water so pure it's supposed to make anyone who drinks it live until they're 102... (well we'll just have to wait and see - it tasted great though; crisp and clean.) There are usually plenty of kea (the only true alpine parrot in the world, only found in NZ) hanging around this area, however we didn't see any.

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As we got closer to Milford Sound, the scenery became even more spectacular. Although masked in thick, rainy clouds, mountains loomed overhead and, yes, the waterfalls really were raging. Cliffs loomed overhead, rising vertically from the road. Streaks of white water cascading down the dark black walls of rock gave the place a raw, wild feel. And every bend in the twisting, turning road revealed a new sight, more impressive than the last.

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The Milford Road, between Te Anau and the famous fiord, is one of the most dangerous. There are many one way bridges and extremely tight corners (often with sheer drops of several hundred metres falling away from the road). The risks of avalanches are serious, even in the summer, as many of the surrounding mountains have snow on them year round. In addition, the road is often closed due to flooding. FIordland gets between 7 and 9 metres (!) of rain every year with an average of 250 rainy days per year - so I guess I should've been expecting it!

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Fiordland's valleys are mostly filled with temperate rainforest of jungle thickness. A boardwalk takes you through some of this on a short walk to 'The Chasm'. This feature was formed by a river eroding soft rock faster than surrounding harder rock, creating a cavity into which water roars. You can hear and feel the force of this before you see it. After periods of exceptionally heavy rain, the spray can reach the top of the bridge!

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Near Milford the road goes through the Homer Tunnel (over a kilometre long, one lane with traffic lights alternating direction every 15 mins) which is very dark, with rugged walls and dripping water.

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The tunnel descends 100m as the two valleys it links are at different heights. On the other side: more vertical, black cliff faces and walls of water.

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Eventually, you get to Milford Sound. My first sight of it was shrouded in mist and sheets of rain - very ominous. I boarded the boat and we slipped out into the mist.

Waterfalls here were even more impressive. Mountains and cliffs rise vertically out of the fiord, at sea level, to over 1000m and, from them, pour countless waterfalls - some merely white ribbons against the black backdrop, others cascading torrents which shake the air and send spray rolling across the fiord.

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The much-photographed Mitre Peak, looking very unlike the way it does on the postcards. Still, it was very impressive, rising 1692m (over a mile) almost vertically from sea level.

We were very lucky in one respect on our cruise. The captain pointed out to us some very special visitors, a pod of dusky dolphins. These animals hadn't been seen in Milford Sound for almost a month and the captain said that he had not seen so many of them together for at least four years. There were, literally, many hundreds of them, some of which were leaping (backwards!) all the way out of the water, then landing with a splash. (My videos are the best way of seeing just how many there were... keep checking my YouTube area!)

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These photos don't really do the scale of the place justice - it really is massive. These cliffs are over a kilometre high!

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Seals on a rock and in the water.

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When the boat got to the entrance of the fiord, we went out briefly into the open, choppy Tasman Sea to get a view of the mouth of the inlet. The boat you can just about see in the entrance (above photo) is a fairly large ferry!

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Seals, again.

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The captain steered our boat right up to the bottom of this waterfall and I, out of fear for my camera, quickly retreated indoors. Those who did not got thoroughly soaked by the spray. Good call.

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After all the rain that had fallen that day, the waterfalls on the drive back were even more powerful.
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Posted by AlTiffany2 00:47 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

A rather blissful Birthday

sunny 28 °C

The day after the night of the crayfish feast, I caught the train down to Christchurch. Tranz Coastal's route along the west coast and through the Canterbury Plains is rather scenic and I made full use of the outside viewing carriage. (Outside, in that it had a roof to keep off the, fairly frequent and heavy, rain - but no sides.)

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Upon arrival at Christchurch station, I had to walk 5kms into the city centre (with my very heavy bags - about 30kgs total) only to discover that the hostel I'd planned to stay at was fully booked. I then phoned 20 (no exaggeration) others - practically every one in the city - and they were all booked up too. Or destroyed by the earthquake. Great. (*I should point out that this was the first, largest earthquake - not the dreadful one that's just occurred recently. Good job I was there last month and not this one.*)
The 7.point-something quake had seriously damaged many buildings in the city, including lots of hostels. So, the surviving places were inundated with backpackers who'd all had the common sense (unlike myself) to book well in advance. Anyway, I finally found somewhere, 2km out of town, with a bed for me. The owner was even kind enough to pick me up and drop me back by the bus stop the next day.

Christchurch is the most 'English' of NZ's cities. One can punt on the River Avon and much of the architecture looks English. There are many familiar sounding street names: Hereford St, Gloucester St, Oxford Terrace etc. My hostel was, by chance, on Worcester Street! (Although they pronounced it 'Warchester'...) Given that I had only a month in NZ, I decided to spend as little time in ChCh as possible, figuring that, if I wanted to be in England, I wouldn't have bothered flying to the other side of the globe.

So, the next day (the 24th, my Birthday) I got a bus to Lake Tekapo, in the MacKenzie region. I set up my tent in the grounds of the YHA, by the lake. The views from the tent door were incredible.

On the lake shore lies the Church of the Good Shepherd and a statue of a sheepdog - a tribute to the first shepherds who roamed this area, and their trusty dogs.

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What a place to spend a Birthday!

Mt. John, rising from the western shores of Lake Tekapo has a path leading up to an observatory at the top. (**To Marilyn+John, Nick+Sue and Rosalie+Frank, this is where I was when I replied to your Birthday text.**)

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Rather a nice spot for a cafe.

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A pretty enviable place to live.

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Loads of wild hares.

By the time I'd got back down to the lake, the sun was very low in the sky and it painted the mountains many colours.

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The vista, with shimmering reflections in the lake, was sublime.

I cooked and ate with a German guy, Chris, I'd met that day and then sat outside and watched the stars. Lake Tekapo has the clearest skies in the whole of NZ, hence the observatory, (no light pollution anywhere around - it's pretty remote) and is one of the best places in the world to see the southern sky. I decided to sleep with my head outside the tent and drifted off under the countless millions of stars above.

An incredible way to end an incredible Birthday.
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Posted by AlTiffany2 18:15 Archived in New Zealand Comments (2)

Kaikoura and the whales

rain 17 °C

It had been my intention, upon arrival in Kaikoura, to book a place on the Whale Watch boat for the next day. However, a guy at the desk said "You can go on one in 10 minutes if you like." So I did.

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The sea was extremely rough, like nothing I'd ever experienced before. The fairly large, very fast catamaran was constantly being thrown up into the air (literally, out of the water) by the 3 metre swell. I don't really get seasick, but the smell of other people throwing up all around nearly did it for me (but, fortunately, not quite). I'm probably painting a rather negative picture of the trip. It was, however, one of the best things I've done so far. Thankfully the sea calmed down once we got out to where the whales were.

I remember clearly my first glimpse of a whale. It looked like a large, dark log floating in the sea - until a jet of spray shot up into the air above it. Then, another whale came bobbing along beside it. The guide said that these male sperm whales are usually solitary creatures and so to see two together was pretty rare. Then, almost simultaneously, they both took one last, large gulp of air and dived down into the deep, flicking their tails up into the air as they went down.

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The reason why Kaikoura is such a good place to see whales is the deep oceanic trench just off the coast. About a kilometre from the shore, the continental shelf slopes steeply down to a depth of over 1000 metres. Warm and cool water mix here causing an upwards current rich in plankton and fish. This is why so many whales are found so near to the land - it's a great place to find food.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whale and feed mainly on giant squid. Small sharks are popular meals too. These whales are also among the most dangerous for humans. Apart from their ability to easily swallow a person whole, their sonar is also exceptionally powerful and loud; 180 decibels (louder than a jet aeroplane taking off). Once, a fisherman who got knocked into the sea was killed after being hit by this sonic wave - the extreme frequency ruptured all of his internal organs.

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In total we had seven good sightings, one time being the same whale we saw earlier - identifiable by a large white mark of scar tissue on its side. The whales can dive down 1000m, to near the sea bed, and they hold their breath for up to 45 minutes so, once the one you're watching has dived, it makes sense to go looking for another.

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The Whale Watch boat was very modern and high-tech. They use sonars to detect the whales' sonar and calls, then position the boat near to where they think the whale is - but not too near, although the animals don't seem to mind boats and people watching them. Apparently, when a whale goes quiet it is about to surface. Then, you scan the sea looking for a spout.

Kaikoura used to be a whaling station, before it became a place dedicated to the protection of the whales. However, sperm whales seemed to know who their enemies were and fought back, ganging up on the whalers' boats and trying to smash them. Good for the whales, I'd say! We need some more smashings up of those Japanese 'research' whale killers' boats in the Antarctic. And the Norwegians', and the Icelandic's. (The three countries named above are the only ones who officially condone the hunting of whales.)

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As well as whales, we saw seal and more albatross than I could count. (Videos should be on my YouTube area... if it hasn't worked, I'll try and sort it.) On the previous cruise they had seen orca, but they'd gone by the time we got there. Still, seven whales was over twice their average and the albatross were a bonus, so very successful. It was a special day.

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The last whale we saw decided to play games with us. The video is called 'Kaikoura 4'. Again, if it doesn't work, apologies - this technology is rather temperamental.

As I wrote in a previous entry, the weather was not great for me in Kaikoura - loads of rain and very low cloud obscured the (supposedly?!) spectacular coastal mountains. Fortunately though, the rain held off for the entire time I was on the Whale Watch cruise.

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The Kaikoura peninsula has a lovely walk which I did, accompanied by a Belgian girl from my hostel. It only rained for 15 minutes, which was also pretty fortunate.

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Along the way we saw many fur seals, only found in NZ. The seals have a favourite spot on the northern end of the peninsula and they haul themselves up onto land and sprawl out on their beds of seaweed.

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The track then climbs up to the top of the cliffs and offers some spectacular views down to the sea below.

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We hardly saw another soul the whole afternoon. Desolate, some people might call the landscape. I'd say, instead: untouched, wild, unspoilt, magnificent.
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All that could be seen or heard was the seabirds, wheeling and crying overhead, and the sea. The quiet peacefulness of the place was addictive. I think if I lived anywhere near, I'd come up and spend a lot of time here.

In the evening we returned to the hostel to find two crayfish lying on the kitchen counter next to a sign saying "Eat me". 'Kaikoura' means, in Maori, 'Eat Crayfish' and I was keen to try some - supposedly the best in the world. However, for $55 in a restaurant, they were a little out of my budget range. So, you can imagine my pleasant surprise upon learning that someone from the hostel had gone out fishing that day and caught too many so was offering free crayfish to anyone who wanted it. Not that I'm a crayfish connoisseur or anything, but they were so sweet, juicy and flavoursome that I'd be inclined to believe that Kaikoura crayfish are, indeed, the best in the world.
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Posted by AlTiffany2 16:51 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Windy Welly and some familiar faces

Apologies everyone, I am aware that this entry is seriously overdue (by about a month!!) I am frantically trying to get back up to date with it all, but internet access has been a bit of an issue for me! Anyway, here we go...

sunny 23 °C

After a long bus ride I arrived in Wellington, New Zealand's capital. By chance, my Godfather John and Marilyn happened to be there on holiday too and (how's this for a coincidence) we just happened to be staying on the same road, about two minutes walk apart! We met and went out for a drink on Cuba St, where most of the bars and cafes are. I hadn't seen anyone I knew for over a month so it was great to be with them and have a catch up.

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Next day we spent the morning at Te Papa, NZ's national museum. This really is a fantastic museum. There are exhibits on everything from the geology and tectonic forces shaping the country, Maori culture and history, artwork, native wildlife to the signing of the Waitangi Treaty and NZ's colonial relationship with Britain. You may remember the Colossal Squid found near Antarctica a couple of years ago - it was in the news at home, I recall. Well, they even had that there too.

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In the afternoon we explored the botanical gardens high up above the city, accessible by a funicular/cable car with great views over Wellington and the harbour.

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On the walk back down to the city there is a large greenhouse with many weird and wonderful plants, as well as some rather pretty ones.

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Outside, an elegant fountain and wonderfully scented rose gardens finish off the display.

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NZ's Parliament building, appropriately names 'The Beehive'.

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Modern art?

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The following day I had to get up really early and walk to the ferry terminal to catch 'The Interislander' ferry to Picton, on the South Island. The Cook Strait is one of the roughest stretches of sea in the world. That day was no exception.

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Also described as one of the most beautiful ferry journeys in the world, the route takes you through the Marlborough Sounds, finally arriving at Picton - a small town tucked away at the end of Queen Charlotte Sound.

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From here I caught the 'Tranz Coastal' train down the east coast to Kaikoura, famous for it's marine mammals - in particular, Sperm Whales.

Posted by AlTiffany2 18:36 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

Taupo and the Tongariro National Park

sunny 30 °C

Whilst in the Taupo 'i-Site' (NZ has a fantastic network of information centres which can help in almost every way) I saw a leaflet for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, reportedly the best one day hike - or 'tramp', as they call it - in New Zealand. Of course, I decided to do it on the spot! The trek is one way so I used a shuttle service which took me from Taupo (at 6.20am!) into the National Park, to the beginning of the trail and picked my up from the finish.

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At many points along the track there were boards warning about the dangers of being on active volcanoes.

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It was pretty hard going and there was no shade for most of the walk, but the views were magnificent. (On the photo above, in the very distance, you can just about see Mt. Taranaki - near New Plymouth in the far west - on the horizon. Have a look on a map at the distances to get an idea of the scale of the view!)

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Once again I'm having difficulty uploading videos...
I've added just one more to YouTube called: Taupo and the Tongariro National Park - Soda Springs and Mt. Ngauruhoe
(My YouTube account can be reached at:
http://www.youtube.com/user/TheAlexTiffany
Find the 'Videos' section - it should be there.
If it's not there when you look, try again in a couple of hours - it may still be formatting.)

Climbing up the slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe (the almost perfect conical volcano - one of NZ's most active and explosive - otherwise known as Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings) the path crossed lava flows, old and new, and there was evidence of volcanic activity everywhere. This is actually a parasitic vent of Mt. Tongariro and and only 7500 years old.

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At the highest point of the trek, near the summit of Mt. Tongariro, was Red Crater (so called because of the minerals colouring the rock). A very prominent dike - of the geological variety - formed as magma forced its way up through the ground from the chamber underneath the main volcano.

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The way down from the ridge was extremely steep and the slope comprised mainly of dust, ash and small volcanic fragments meaning the descent required sliding, almost like skiing, down the mountainside.

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At one point on the trail you pass Emerald Lakes - icy cold and located at the bottom of Central Crater. Again, the colour of the water is caused by the abundance of minerals in the area.

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Red Crater and Ngauruhoe.

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The bottom of some of the craters looked like the surface of another planet. That's the track on the right hand side.

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Lake Taupo (not the nearest lake but the light blue in the far distance) - NZ's largest lake.

Towards the end of the walk the path re-aquainted itself with vegetation and life. Then, suddenly, I found myself in a rainforest with lush plants, trees and beautiful birdcall - a total contrast with the dry, barren, lunar landscape surrounding me earlier. No photos unfortunately as I had to rush (and, at times, run) through the last few kms to catch the shuttle bus which returned me to Taupo. I think I'd spent too long admiring the view earlier.

Posted by AlTiffany2 02:06 Archived in New Zealand Comments (2)

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