Day 151: Fjord or Sound?

Fri. 11th January 2013

Gringo TourToday is a long day with an early pickup at 7:05am and return at 8pm so this may be a long post requiring tea/wine and a comfy seat if the end is to be reached. A minibus size taxi arrives at the appointed hour to ferry us to the Real Journeys office in town for us to collect our tickets and lunch vouchers and for us to transfer onto the coach which will take us to Milford Sound.

There are four coaches filling up with people which makes us nervous that it will be like herding sheep. There were two reasons we had opted for taking an organised tour, firstly it would have taken two days if we had done it ourselves in the campervan and secondly a coach is recommended to allow you to watch the scenery rather than the road in front of you as you drive. Advice from various friends was that we must see Milford Sound so here we are (and good advice that was so thanks to them). The scenery up to Milford Sound is absolutely breathtaking and my words cannot do the views justice (English never was my strong subject) so I hope the pictures can convey some of this.

Sitting back and enjoying the sceneryAs mentioned in a previous post we had wanted to go yesterday but it turns out this would not have worked as that trip only got 15 minutes down the road before turning back due to the roads being flooded and trip cancelled. Indeed as we set off this morning the road was still closed with an update due at 8:30am, so we had our fingers crossed.

Early morning sunshine giving good viewsA quick calculation as we got on the coach decided that the right hand side behind the driver would afford the best views and we were soon rewarded with magnificent views of over Lake Wakatipu which is the South Island’s second largest lake. The views are aided by the fact that we are on a purpose built coach specifically designed for sightseeing. The windows are all the way to the roof which is also made of glass. The seats are even at a slight angle so that the aisle passenger has a better view.

High water level means wet feetThe driver is kitted out with a hands free microphone so he talked the whole way to our first stop two hours down the road at Te Anau. He provided such facts as the town of Garston we passed through is the most inland place in New Zealand 128km from the coast and as we pass the first NZ deer farm he tells us the history of deer farming in NZ with amusing anecdotes to pad out the facts!

Some reflections workedThe water levels of Lake Te Anau are very high and over many of the jetties but we are comforted by the knowledge the road to Milford Sound has been opened. After a quick stretch of the legs and cup of coffee we are on our way again. John, our driver, has done this route many times and knows the best places to stop and seems to have some discretion over this, which is good and we are not always herded with the other coach loads.

Not the ideal conditionsHaving said that we do stop at the Mirror Lakes which was popular and we followed procession like along the wooden walkway stopping at viewing platforms to view the lakes. There are supposed to be perfect reflections in the still water but after all the rain the water is not obliging.

Impressive Eglinton ValleyThis is closely followed by a stop in Eglinton Valley to admire the scenery and get the cameras snapping before the road winds its way through the Hollyford Valley and climbs up to the Homer Tunnel. En route we learn that glacial valleys tend to have flat bottoms, but valleys carved out by rivers tend to rounded or v-shaped floors.

Homer Tunnel entranceA chap called Homer (not Simpson) had the idea of making a tunnel through the mountain to save climbing over it but everyone thought he was mad. Eventually work did begin on a tunnel in 1935 and it was to be only a walkway, the work was fraught with problems such as avalanches and the tunnel was not completed until 1953. Even now it is only a single track tunnel and the traffic flow changes every 15 minutes. This gave us time to jump out of the coach and take photos, as the big display board showed there was nearly seven minutes to the flow change. We were however told to keep an eye on the time to avoid being left behind, as John was not going to miss this flow change.

FloodedOnce through the tunnel there was yet more unbelievable scenery so another photo stop was called for, even though most of the parking spaces were flooded. The almost sheer mountain sides are completely covered in dense forests of mainly silver beech with their shallow root system embedded in the moss clinging to the mountainside. Any strong winds can dislodge their roots giving rise to tree avalanches which leaves bare stretches of rock.

Result of a tree avalancheAs time is marching on we have to keep going to get to Milford Sound in time for our 1:35pm cruise. Dave and I agree that the coach journey was just the right mix of stopping and covering the necessary mileage without being too herded like sheep.

Sister shipThe boat, on the other hand was disappointing, starting with the compulsory photo of us both, for us to refuse to buy on our return. The boat carried out the perfunctory cruise up and down Milford Sound following its sister ship, with the naturalist commentator having to talk about the almost non-existent wildlife. We were told there were seals on the rock, only for him to later concede they were actually sea lions, but everyone calls then seals.

Nose in and getting wetMilford Sound itself was impressive with the steep rock face of the sides of the fiord and its waterfalls, with the standard routine of the boat heading nose first into the waterfall and spray those on the front deck. Do not get me wrong it was trip we had to take and would not have missed, but it was just a bit too regimented.

Lion RockIdeally it would have been good to fly back to Queenstown but we could not justify paying twice the price. Given the constraints of the distance to be covered Real Journeys did get it just right. The return journey had just one toilet stop and no commentary allowing passengers to sleep and the driver to complete the journey as fast as he could do so safely. Dave was happy, he listened to half an Economist and two technology podcasts.

The coach dropped us in town so we grabbed a pizza and headed back to the van to unwind before bed. A long day but overall thoroughly enjoyable. In case you are not aware a fiord (or Fjord) is made by a glacier and a sound made by a river. As the Welshman who named the place had never heard of a fjord he called it Milford Sound after his homeland namesake Milford Haven. Captain Cook passed the mouth of Milford Sound many years previously but thought it was just a bay so sailed on, otherwise he may have discovered it first! I could have said much more with the multitude of photos not included but will stop so we can all get on.

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