As I’m writing this, the sun has yet to completely disappear behind the silhouettes of the mountains I can see across the lake from our bedroom window. This is not very exciting in and of itself, except for the fact that it is currently 10.15 pm and we are all quite excited to be experiencing a second longest day of the year in 2015, rather than the Winter Solstice that our North American friends currently are. We certainly made sure all of that daylight did not go to waste today.
The day started off quite early as we all met to go get breakfast. We met in the lobby and walked to the nearby corner grocery where we perused the selection before settling on a hodgepodge of various items. Yogurt, cheese, granola bars, and some fresh baked sourdough bread. We headed back to the hotel and back to our rooms to eat our various breakfast items, leading one to wonder why we had met to go get breakfast together in the first place. Lynn and I opened our yogurt and found something stringy floating in the berry jam on top. I was already a little mad at the yogurt, what with it being fruit on the top and finding what we are hoping was a stem from one of the berries really sealed the deal and Lynn was on her own with the yogurt.
After breakfast we all assembled again in the lobby and climbed aboard Little John with Lynn at the helm for our trip to Milford Sound. This road, like the road to Hana, is about both the journey and the destination and we had a guide for 13 different stops along the way before we needed to be in Milford by 12.15 for our boat ride around the sound. The drive started off along Lake Te Anau which was quite lovely in its own right, before veering off into bushes of yellow flowers lining the road. From here we passed a number of sheep dotted fields with very picturesque mountain backdrops before joining the streamline of a few creeks. Growing along these creeks in huge congregations were bright purple and pink Lupins. We pulled into a parking lot alongside the road and got out of the car to get a closer look. I took off running through the Lupins to find the best ones, stopping short at a wide creek that separated me from the thick of them. Not wanting to miss out I scouted a part of the creek that didn’t look that deep and chose to ford the river. It turned out it was a lot deeper than it looked and I instantly was ankle deep in cold glacier melt and my shoes and socks for the day were soaked through. I didn’t let that deter me though and really took in the field of lupins before heading back to the car where I changed into flip flops (or jandels as the locals say).
Our next stop was at the Mirror Lakes, where a quick walk along a boardwalk brought us to a few small ponds lined with flax plants. When the water was calm you got a perfect reflection of the mountains in the distance and the blue sky above us. At about this point in our drive we started heading further and further in Fiordlands (sic) National Park and up into a valley where we were surrounded by sheer granite cliffs with slender white waterfalls streaking down the sides of them. The rainstorm last night seems to have brought them all out and there were literally hundreds we would see throughout the rest of the day.
From here we drove further and further up into the valley and skipped a couple of the stops along our guided drive because they didn’t seem that interesting and we were already using up way too much of our time. We arrived at the Homer Tunnel which cuts through to the sound (fjord) and stopped at a red light, waiting for our direction’s turn in the one lane tunnel. While we waited we watched an Asian family pose for photos under a snow overhang that looked ready to collapse on them at any minute. Eventually the came out from underneath right as our light turned green and we all breathed a sigh of relief that we wouldn’t be needing to rescue anyone from a snowy burial. As we headed into the tunnel our feelings immediately changed. This was the shabbiest tunnel I have ever been in. The exposed rock was unsupported and a dim string of lights illuminated the craggy granite stained with the exhaust of thousands of cars. It also descended at a 10% grade as you went through it so it was quite easy to get rolling a bit out of control. Needless to say, Lynn was unphased. That is until we got out of the tunnel and realized we were stuck behind a tour bus who seemed unaware of the long line of cars stuck behind him (or her) and took their sweet time driving the rest of the hour to Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is not a town, it is a cruise terminal, a visitor center, and a cluster of huts where various staff live, so our plans of grabbing lunch in “town” quickly turned into pre-made sandwiches that were sold at the visitor center. Marginally satisfied, we headed off to check in for our boat ride and were quite surprised when we were handed ticket after ticket for things we had not paid for. Picnic lunch, ummm okay. Underwater aquarium tour, of course. So we boarded our boat laden with freebies and took up some spectacular spots on the front of the upper deck just as our cruise set off.
As we pulled out into the sound (fjord) we were all struck with how amazing everything looked. The only words anyone could think of to describe it were indeed “stupid beautiful.” Over the course of the next two hours we spotted penguins and seals near the water, and saw waterfall after gorgeous waterfall. Everyone says you want to be at Milford Sound in the rain so that it truly comes alive with waterfalls. I maintain that even better than that is to see it on a sunny day just after a massive rainstorm. You get all the waterfalls with the added bonus of the vivid colors that only a bright blue sky can bring. We even got up close and personal with two waterfalls, one of which we drank from, before being dropped off at the aquarium for our kayaking and free bonus aquarium tour.
We started off with an overview of the aquarium itself, some history of the sound, and the plants and animals we would see. The aquarium is floating in the sound (fjord) anchored only to the valley wall above the waterline to protect the natural environment below it. It includes an introduction room with signage about the area and a underwater portion 35 feet below the water with 12 cm thick acrylic windows that let you see the underwater world of the sound (fjord). After our brief education, we headed downstairs and got up and close and personal with black coral, starfish, and a number of very docile looking fish.
After we had our fill, we headed back up to go start our kayaking adventure. Here we split off from the people who had only come ashore for the aquarium and we headed to a third floating building where we were issued life jackets and given a quick kayaking intro. After some initial concern that there were not enough two person kayaks to go around a nice couple agreed to split up into singles so that my mom and dad and Sue and Phil could stay together. The kayaks were brought down and placed on a platform where we could get into them on dry land and the platform was then lowered into the water. This was, by far, the coolest and least wobbly way I had even entered a kayak and immediately wished everyone had them.
The tour itself was similar to our tour on the big boat but more intimate. Two nature guides led us around the cove and pointed out various natural phenomena in the valley and even had us drink from the surface of it, which was pure, clean glacial melt. Fortunately, they were a lot easier to understand than the nature guide projected over a PA system on the boat had been, and we learned a fair bit from them. The best part though was how immense the valley felt from the surface of the water. Looking up thousands of feet of sheer rock face that was interleaved with cascading waterfalls made you feel absolutely tiny.
After our kayak came to an end we fought the wind blowing up the valley and made our way back to the aquarium where we boarded a boat again, bound for the dock. As we got off I realized I had left my GoPro (purchased only a month before) in the pocket of my life vest back at the aquarium. After double checking my bag to make sure I grabbed one of the boat crew who radioed back to the aquarium. They found it, but we would need to wait for the next boat to arrive to get it back. No problem we thought, it gave us some time to warm up again inside the cruise terminal.
After thirty minutes, one of the employees came up to let us know that the boat had just come and gone and forgotten to drop off the GoPro, we would need to wait another thirty minutes. She was very apologetic but there was no need, none of us were really in a rush. The next time the boat came, Phil made sure he was out on the dock to help remind the boat captain and he successfully recovered the GoPro, now containing a few extra pictures from the aquarium staff.
After all that excitement, we got back into the car and headed back towards Te Anau. We made one stop along the way at what else, a waterfall. This one was called The Chasm and featured a 25 minute walk around it to see the falls up close and personal. The Chasm featured possibly the best evidence I had ever seen at the raw power of water as the rocks all around it had been carved out with giant holes and tree trunks the size of telephone poles were thrown and stuck into them. The forest around the river was comprised of ferns and, what we are now calling Dr. Seuss trees, blanketed in moss. My mom described it as exactly the kind of place you pictured Lord of the Rings should have been filmed. It turns out, it probably was as Peter Jackson seems to have used a lot of this area in his movies.
By this point it was getting on in the day and we made for the hotel without any further stops, arriving just after 8 pm but with the sun still high in the sky throwing off our internal clocks. We dropped things off at the hotel after a brief scare when I couldn’t find our room key (I seemed to be having trouble keeping track of things today – tomorrow Lynn will be in charge of valuables). We quickly regrouped in the lobby and headed the short walk into town for a dinner of pizzas that Phil had scouted out on our breakfast walk that morning.
The restaurant seemed understaffed and it was quite busy, especially for it being so late at night, but our food eventually came and it was pretty good pizza. I had ordered a spicy pizza hoping to clear out my sinuses that have been draining since they had river water blasted through them on our rafting trip two days prior but it didn’t really do anything. Lynn had a Godfather pizza which seemed to include anything that could be remotely construed as Italian and we both split a Greek Salad.
After dinner we returned home by way of a gas station where we grabbed a few items for breakfast the next day. We agreed to meet again in the morning at 9 am, this time already having had breakfast to start our second day in pretty much the most beautiful place on Earth.
Daily Walking Mileage : 5.4 miles
- Both a fjord and a sound are valleys that have been flooded by the sea but the way they are created is different. Sounds are valleys created by flowing water, like a river, that results in a V-shaped valley. Fjords are carved by glaciers and result in U-shaped valleys. Milford Sound is actually a fjord.
- Milford Sound is a unique underwater environment called a Deep Water Emergence caused by a layer of freshwater that has picked up tannins from runoff obscuring light. This creates the same environment found in deep water at a very shallow depth and results in a lot deep water species living at very accessible depths.
- The name of the national park is actually Fiordland National Park, even though its actually spelled fjord.