Dolphins, Penguins, Seals and Te Namu (sand flies)

Trip Start Sep 30, 2004
Trip End Nov 05, 2004

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Thursday, October 28, 2004

Toda (Wednesday) has been pure magic; yes, I know this must be getting a bit boring to read by now, but believe me, the scenery round here is just awesome, spectacular, majestic....

First of all, we (well, Judith, to be precise and she did an amazing job) drove us along the Milford Road from Te Anau to Milford. Now Milford Road is 240 km (144 miles) of highly scenic landscapes; it earned World Heritage status for its beauty and scenic variety which includes Lake Te Anau; lakeland forests; rugged mountains; cascading alpine rivers. And presumably for some of the things that it doesn't have, eg Little Chefs, McDonalds, Starbucks, or petrol stations. Except that the latter could cause drivers a bit of a problem, especially when they reach their destinaton, ie Milford, and the one garage, with just one green pump and one red pump, has 'Sorry, run out' on the green one!!

There were two avalanche areas, but the hazard rating today was 'low' and we didn't need to put the wheel chains on. I was beginning to wonder just how we were going to get to the other side of this mountain that we were drawing closer and closer to, but these Kiwis are smart - out of the blue (or mist to be exact, as the weather was pretty poor), this tunnel appeared! The Homer Tunnel was opened up in the 1950s; originally it was fairly narrow, and the cars went through it one way on the hour, and the other way on the half hour. More recently, it's been widened a bit and there are now passing bays so the traffic can flow in both directions at once. Not speedily mind you, as the tunnel goes steeply uphill during the return journey (ie from Milford back to Te Anau).

During this whole journey, we saw something like five cars, one motorbike and a couple of coaches. The return journey mid-afternoon was totally different, though, as by then the tourist industry was in full flow and we saw nearly 50 coaches, all heading in the other direction fortunately as the roads are non too easy to navigate. Tourists are mainly from Scandinavia, Japan and the UK, apparently. We made an early start, so always were that little bit in front of the crowds. And if we hadn't have been, well the experience would have been quite different, eg every time you wanted to do that very special photo shot, well you'd find that someone had got there before you (that 'someone' was usually from Japan, and this is not prejudice on my part, it's an assessment based on the experiences of the last four weeks).

The Milford Road is a mixture of straight, hairpin bends and something inbetween, not to mention both and wide and narrow. Early morning, they're clearly ideal for all you boy (or girl) racers out there who just can't wait to get the Porsche out and get your foot down.

Now the travel books all say that the best way to see Milford Sound is by boat or by air. I now know that this is because you can't walk round the fiord; there just isn't a footpath (this is not Lake Windermere, no footpaths, no ice creams stands, no coffee shops). So we board the catamaran for our 90 min scenic cruise, and it realy did live up to everything I'd read about it. Enormous mountains, very very dark but with snow on the tops; waterfalls; I haven't got the words to describe it properly. And we saw blue nosed dolphins, and Fiordland crested pengins, and seals - and I got photos of them all. The captain of the catamaran was great; whenever he saw interesting marine life then he slowed the vessel down and went as close as he could so we could get pictures. So I've got pictures of blue nosed dolphins playing in a fiord here in New Zealand.

Like I said above, the weather was prett poor. It was raining on and off, and there was a lot of mist around. That's not surprising, given that rainfall in this part of the world is between 6 and 9 m per year. Interestingly, the mist gave the scenery its own mistical, magical quality; it didn't spoil it in the least, and whilst I can't compare (not at the minute, but I'll be back again in the future), the mist might even have added to the effect. Milford Sound is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and I've seen it!

The vessel turned round at Dale Point; if we hadn't, another four days and we'd have reached Sydney, Australia. But we might have turned green by then, cos that would have been when the waters changed from smooth to rough - and now that I know from the Kalkaouri video experience that my sealegs are virtually non-existent, then that wouldn't have been a good thing from my point of view.

The trip on Milford Sound included 30 mins in the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory. So I'm now one of the 0.02% of the population that has seen black coral (which is actually white). We were 9 metres or so below water level, and saw coral, fish, sea urchins, tubeworms and lots of other marine life. The guys who worked there had a rota and one of them had to don diving gear every three days and go for a quick dip to clean the windows so that the tourists could see out. He was at pains to point out to us that, unlike an aquarium, we were the ones inside the goldfish bowl and the marine life was the 'real' outside peering in at us!

On the return journey, there were more photo opportunities at the Chasm and Mirror Lakes. We were parked up once, and joined by a Kea. The Kea is an alpine parrot and 'mountain clown'. They're con artists, really, for instance they'll be all friendly and then nick your wallet, or your camera, or your keys. This particular one posed for a photo for me, and then flew onto the wing mirror and started to eat the car! At this point, Judith had had enough, so started the car and we sped off: 0 to 60 at a speed that would have put Schumaker to shame!

That's it for now. Tomorrow morning, we're meandering back to Invercargill but taking a different route to the one we used to get here so I'll have done a circle, as it were. And tomorrow evening I'm flying from Invercargill to Christchurch, and then Churchill to Wellington and back to Moira and Wayne. see you whenever.

(PS1: Te Namu is the Maori name for blackfly or sandfly, of which there are thousands if not millions in Milford Sound. Maori legend has it that the sandfly was created by the goddess of the underworld so that no-one would stay in the area for too long because it was such a paradise. It's a reminder of our mortality and a warning not to linger too long)

(PS2: for any Coxwold readers, Barbara was 'Queen of Muffins' at this year's Street Fayre)
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