25.01.2011 - 26.01.2011 15 °C
Mt. Cook from the road between Lake Tekapo and Queenstown.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!)
These photos don't really do the scale of the place justice - it really is massive. These cliffs are over a kilometre high!
Seals on a rock and in the water.
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!
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.
After all the rain that had fallen that day, the waterfalls on the drive back were even more powerful.