The Milford Mariner with the Good Doctor
Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
84Trip End Jun 11, 2011
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One of the most popular sights in southern New Zealand is Fjordland National Park that encompasses a huge area southwest of the island. The closest part of this area to where we were in Queenstown was Milford Sound. Milford Sound runs 15 kilometers inland from the Tasman Sea surrounded by rock faces that rise up more than 4,000 feet high. There are two permanent waterfalls although several others appear depending in rainfall during the year, and the area hosts seals, dolphins, and penguins. Milford Sound is a 4-5 hour drive from Queenstown so rather than try this drive ourselves in the campervan we opted to book a tour to provide both the transportation to Milford Sound and also take care of booking the 2 hour boat cruise in the Sound once there.
At 6:45am the taxi picked us up right out front of our hotel along with another group and took us to the tour office a few blocks away. We quickly checked in at the front desk and just a few minutes later the big tour bus pulled up and we boarded. We picked a seat towards the front about 8 rows back on the right-hand side. The great thing about this tour bus was that it was specially designed for this tour with floor to ceiling windows so that even if you had a middle seat you had a great view of the passing landscape. We picked up a few more people along the way so that entire bus was full with all 58 seats taken. We noticed that at the last pick-up stop a whole tour group of older Americans joined the bus which raised the average age to 50 which is fine for this kind of tour. After a few hours’ drive the sun started to rise and around 9am we stopped in Te Anu, the closest small town to Fjordland National Park. We had a break to get some breakfast and coffee at the café, look at some souvenir shops and the bus could check in. Back on board we drove for another hour before finally entering the park. Our first stop was the Mirror Lakes, completely still black lakes with stunning mountains reflected in the waters. It was around this point that we realized the elderly couple across the aisle from our seats had the annoying habit of standing up in the aisle as soon as the bus stopped and just standing there collecting their items so that no one else could pass them. Once we noticed this we noticed all kinds of other annoying habits they had – talking super loudly and hearing only every other word, blocking our path multiple times on and off the bus and the wife was continuously checking her makeup every time we’re back on the bus (this really bothered me – who needs to keep checking their makeup in the Fjordland National Park?). Since their conversations were so loud we learned that the gentleman was a doctor and they were part of an entire group of 30+ retired folks from the US on a 28-day tour of Australia and New Zealand. Good for them!
Our next stop was a natural spring where we saw a Kea. Keas are large parrots only found in New Zealand and are super smart and use their powers for evil - they can even tear through rubber. We boarded the bus and after one more toilet break (where again we were blocked by the good doctor and last to get off the bus) we entered the Homer Tunnel. The tunnel is 1.2 kilometers long and emerges into rain-forest-carpeted canyons that descend to the sound. The winding mountain road, while of high standards, is very prone to avalanches and closures during the winter half of the year. Needless to say, even looking through the tour bus roof, the views were breathtaking. Shortly afterwards we pulled into Dale Point and I made a beeline to our dock to board the Milford Mariner, our boat. I wanted to be sure to have a seat outside and towards the front since I have a tendency for sea-sickness. The good doctor was right on my heels but I snagged a block of seats on the top deck right in front and Dave and Adam picked up our boxed lunches and then met me there. The boxed lunches were nothing spectacular (just a turkey sandwich with mayo so those who didn’t like mayo were out of luck, an apple, juice box, granola bar, cheese and crackers). We had to bundle up once we got moving as it was quite chilly but the sun was out and the captain said it was one of the clearest days they’ve seen a few weeks so we lucked out with the weather.
As soon as the boat turned around to head into the sound we came across Mitre Peak which is the most recognizable mountain in the sound. Mitre Peak rises 1,692 meters above sea level and from far away you think it’s not that big but then as you get closer to it the size is astounding. A local fisherman flew 50 of his closes friends up there 2 years ago for his wedding but otherwise the mountain is untouched. Shortly after turning away from the peak we came across some waterfalls and the captain took the boat right up under the falls so those were on the bottom deck up front got a bit wet. While we were under the falls we could see rainbows as the sunlight hit them. Getting that close to the rock also made us realize how huge the rock formations are – taller than any buildings we’ve come across! Eventually we cruised down the river to where it opened to the Tasman Sea and the waters became very choppy and the wind picked up. We didn’t stay long in the open waters, just long enough for a slow turn around and then headed back down the sound. Along the way back we came across a seal sleeping on the rocks. Just after the seal we came to Stirling Falls, one of the permanent waterfalls in the sound. The captain warned us that he was going to give the boat a washing and he wasn’t joking – we got right up in the falls and everyone got a bit wet. Dave got some really great pictures of the falls hitting the sound and then the captain pointed out a family of dolphins approaching our boat on the starboard side. They circled the boat and came up on the port side right next to us! It was amazing – like they were greeting us, checking us out and wishing us well on our way. Very cool. We then moved inside as the wind and cold really got to us by this point.
The kitchen staff was wrapping up and came out with a tray of leftover sandwiches and some cake offering some free goodies for us which of course we accepted (didn’t want to be rude) and then we docked at Dale Point. We headed back to the bus and had a few stops along the way back to Queenstown but mostly we all slept. When I woke up we were about 20 miles outside of Queenstown and I looked up to see a sky full of hundreds of stars through the bus window. It’s so clear out here you can see every single star which is just amazing. The bus dropped us off downtown as we wanted to grab some dinner before turning in.
We wandered for a bit but it was cold and we came across a Mexican restaurant so without even discussing it we headed upstairs to the second floor for some Mexican! There was only one other table in the restaurant and when we looked at the menu we figured out why – they wanted $22NZ for 2 chicken tacos! Our waiter was really nice (an ex-pat from the US) and explained that Mexican is a delicacy here and something new so it’s not cheap like in the US where you can get 2 chicken tacos for $2.20. We order food anyway as we’re tired and just want to get this over with and the waiter brings over a basket of a dozen different kind of hot sauces. I found the names really funny – Sadam Insane and Burn in Hell Osama.