Saturday, March 8, 2014

New Zealand Day 24: Milford Sound

As part of my now-routine breakfast this morning, I kicked our jar of peanut butter:

This is the second jar of this size we’ve gone through, with the third pretty far along, too!  As you can see on the label, it’s made from Australian peanuts that are roasted and crushed in Nelson.  We didn't have a chance to visit while we were there, though.

We woke early this morning in order to be packed up and drive just one kilometer down the road.  Here we met Ray of Fiordland Tours, who would be our bus driver and tour guide for a trip out to Milford Sound.  The Sound (technically a fiord, actually, as it is glacial valley backfilled by the sea, rather than a river valley) is one of the big things to do on the South Island, but it is rather difficult to get to.  There is an approach by sea (not discovered by Europeans until 1822), a several days’ backpack along the Milford Track (impractical for us), helicopter (cost: arm, leg, and firstborn child), or a drive from Te Anau along the 120-km Milford Road.

The Milford Road was a Depression-era work project.  In order to make the maximum use of labor (i.e., employ a lot of people), the work was largely done by hand: men wielding picks and shovels for mile upon mile.  Later, as it wound its way up and between mountain valleys, teams hand-drilled holes in the rock to be blasted open with explosives.  Work was interrupted by WWII, and the road wasn’t officially completed until the early 1950s.

Hilary and I used the first 85 or so kilometers of the road to reach The Divide trailhead for our hike to Key Summit yesterday.  We found it to be one of the more pleasant pieces of NZ roadway we’ve experienced: mostly flat, smooth, with fairly gentle curves that allowed an average speed very close to the posted speed limit.  We had heard from several sources, however, that the drive to Milford is not particularly nice to do with a campervan. (One indication: the road is 120 km, and generally takes about two hours to drive.  We managed the first 85 km in about an hour yesterday, meaning the next 35 km would take the next hour.)  It turns out that just past The Divide the road gets steep, twisty, and narrow: conditions that usually make for slow going and discomfort for those poor unfortunates in the back seat of the van.

We considered renting a comfortable car for the day – one large enough for all five of us that would allow for easy gawking.  The only car rental company in Te Anau, however, did not have anything available for today.

So, we opted to join one of the many bus services that do the trip.  Most have package deals with the several boat services that make cruises down the length of the sound.  The bus would mean no one would have to drive, we would all have comfortable seats, and there would be plenty of viewing possible.  Most of the companies make a bunch of stops along the way, since the Milford Road is nearly as great an attraction as the Sound.  Wanting to avoid big crowds, we chose one of the smallest buses (16 seats) that connected with a cruise on the second-smallest boat (75 seats, half filled).

We hit the road around 8:30.  Our driver, Ray, who is the owner of Fiordland Tours, was a sheep farmer for most of his life, holidaying in Te Anau since childhood, before switching to tour bussing a few years back.  Quite amiable, he had a lot of fine information and good cheer through the whole day.  He also clearly has a good rapport with the other service providers along the route.  (Alas, we didn’t get a picture of him specifically.)

We made a number of stops along the Milford Road.  Our first stop was at Te Anau Downs.  Our driver ducked into the café here to pick up a batch of homemade date scones (“scuns,” as he pronounced them) for later.

Eglinton Flats.  I had stopped here yesterday on the way to The Divide, because it was just stunning.  This time we even managed to get a group shot:

Mirror Lakes.  These are old oxbows from the Eglinton River.  Again, more awesome scenery.

DoC has a sense of humor:

Lake Gunn.  Although our bus is relatively small compared to most operating this route, I’m sure our arrival wasn’t particularly welcome by the two or three vehicles that had been camping here the night before.  On our way in and out from this stop we saw a number of fantastically large, old beech trees.

We passed The Divide trailhead, where Hilary and I had been barely twelve hours before.

The road then became steeper and twistier.  We headed down into the next valley, and hopped out for a short walk.  It started with a swing bridge – always a favorite for B.

Ten minutes further brought us to a tumbling cascade of water: the outlet of Lake Marian, rushing its way down to join the Hollyford River.  It is possible to continue on this track all the way up to the lake, but it is not easy.

Rather than push on directly to Milford Sound, we diverted down the Hollyford valley to Gunn’s Camp.  This ramshackle collection of buildings was originally a work camp for the builds of the Milford Road.  It is set nearly at the dead end of a gravel road – the beginnings of what would have been a much longer road to connect this region to the West Coast, making our circuitous route Haast-Wanaka-Queenstown-Te Anau a lot shorter.  For the record - the owners and residents of Gunn's Camp aren't too interested in seeing it completed.

At Gunn’s Camp we stopped for morning tea and got to dig into the excellent scones we picked up earlier.  We also learned a bit about the local variety of jade that can be found in these parts – Bowenite – which is a touch softer and more translucent than the more common Nephrite jade.  Pretty stuff.

Also at Gunn’s Camp are several very large, very old Kahikatea trees, a sort of conifer.  Brynna and Bunny provide a convenient sense of scale for this 1,000-year old speciment.

We backtracked to the Milford Road and moved onward.  The road winds its way into narrow valleys hemmed in by impossibly steep mountains dotted with cascades from the snowy peaks above.

We had a brief stop at the Homer tunnel, named for the surveyor who laid out the route for the Milford Road.  In his original estimate a century ago, he thought the tunnel would be about 35 m long and only cost a few thousand (British) pounds.  It ended up being nearly a mile long, slopes down 100 m on its length, and took four years to complete!  It’s only large enough for one lane of traffic, with stop lights on either end on a six-minute cycle.  Long enough for a few pictures.

Our next stop, now in the different valley, was a deep river-carved cleft carved called the Chasm.  From the bridges you only get an inkling of the depth and convolutions created by the water.  We had been told by Frenzy guy that a much better vantage could be had from some rocks just beyond the barrier.  But, with lots of people around, I didn’t want to be that guy who flouts the warnings and barriers.  So, we haven’t got very satisfying pictures from here.

Next stop: Milford.  It is technically a village, but as far as I can tell has about five buildings besides the boat terminal and airstrip.  We hustled aboard our boat and staked out a spot on the top deck.

We cruised down the length of the sound, out to the Tasman Sea, and back to Milford in a clockwise fashion.  We passed under the mile-high cliff face of Mitre Peak, just beyond which we spotted some seals sunning themselves:

And further out to Greenstone Point, which was a place the Maori used to come in order to harvest jade (greenstone).

Only a thousand miles or so to Australia!

Then we turned around and headed back up the length of the sound.  Even from our close vantage, it is easy to see how the sound was missed by Europeans for so long.

On the way back we cruised right up to Stirling Falls

Closer, closer...

The captain brought us right up to the cascade, soaking everyone in the bow.  Not a problem for the GoPro.

Closer in to Milford, we saw more seals

And had more fine views of Mitre Peak

And Bowen Falls, which supplies the small town with its fresh water and electricity

Some final shots of the crew enjoying the cruise

When we returned to port, Brynna was allowed up into the wheelhouse to sit in the captain’s chair:

Then back onto the bus for our trip back.  There were fewer stops because we had hit up most of the highlights on the way over.  We had a quick stop on the bridge leading out of town to view the glacier-topped Tutoko Peak, the highest in these parts:

We were stopped again at the tunnel entrance, which provided a good moment to get some shots of the impressively steep cirque headwall

Before the tunnel was completed, the mail carrier for the road builders on the Milford side of the tunnel went up and over the pass, then down this headwall on a series of steel cables called the Homer Route.  It was dizzying even to contemplate.

Not far past the Te Anau side of the tunnel we stopped at a mountain stream for some deliciously clean glacier water:

The drive back was mostly quiet and uninterrupted.  B actually had a nap (best thing for her, really she was pretty tired by that point).  We pulled back into Te Anau around 6 and had dinner at a wood-fired pizza place in town (Naturally Te Anau.  The pizza was merely OK and the service slow.  [Hilary addition: I actually thought the pizza was pretty darn good, but I had the veggie special with more veggies and feta!] Oh well, it got the job done.)  We gassed up and hit the road, aiming to get most of the way back to Wanaka tonight in order to be positioned for a hike tomorrow.  We drove well after dark, which we have only rarely done, and pulled off at a freedom camping spot at Lowburn Harbor between Queenstown and Wanaka.  B fell asleep en route, and collapse happened shortly thereafter for the rest of us.

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