Pouring like hell, sounds like heaven

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Our visit to the glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox, had left us awestruck at the dramatic beauty of the west coast. With the Southern Alps tucked closely beside the sea, and the mountinsides covered in the lush mix of tall trees and ferns, it seeemed to us that one could find no better example of natureīs perfection.

On Thursday morning 26 October, after an early morning walk around nearby Lake Matheson to see 'one of NZīs greatest views' - the mountains reflected in the still waters of the lake - we set off on the long drive to Manapouri in Fiordland, the starting point for boat cruises to Doubtful Sound, one of the 14 dramatic fjords carved into the rugged south-west coast. Whereas its neighbour, Milford Sound, is world famous for its sheer cliffs and many waterfalls plunging straight into the sea, Doubtful is more isolated and wild, and better for spotting dolphims, penguins and other marine wildlife. We were really looking forward to a day exploring the sound.

But first, the route to Fiordland was an experience in itself. Our full day drive from the west coast to the south-western corner took us through the Haast pass, one of the few places one can cross the Southern Alps. Steep mountainsides clad in dark forests rise all around the windy road, which follows the course of a roaring river carrying crystal blue glacial melt water. And thereīs no development in sight; the land belongs entirely to nature. On the other side of the pass, we were astonished at how the landscape of the interior differs from that on the coast... it was dry, with golden grass and scrub covering the hills. Quite an amazing contrast.

We drove past sevaral beautiful large lakes - Hawea, Wanaka as well as Lake Wakatipu, where that famous adrenaline capital, Queenstown, is located. The wind was howling, so we didnīt stop to get out... anyway, we had our sights set on reaching Fiordland. We arrived in Manapouri at about 5.30pm and sussed out the options for cruising Doubtful Sound. Ouch! The prices were steep, over NZ$200 per person for a day cruise with Real Journeys, the main operator. However, the landlady at Possum Lodge, the cute little lakeside campsite we checked into, was extremely helpful and recommended a smaller outfit called Fiordland Cruises, who were charging $130 for the day on a small boat taking only 14 passengers. We liked the sound of a more intimate experience, and she offered to make a reservation for the Saturday (the next day was full already).

We had a lovely evening despite the high wind and the low cloud. We met a chap who was fishing on the lake shore - he caught a trout while we were chatting - and Rich was all inspired to buy a rod. Later, we made a wood fire for our barbeque... our first wood fire in ages!

The next morning, on Friday, we woke to the news that the small boat cruise was fully booked for the next two days - damn! We decided we could not wait around that long and would have to be content with cruising on Milford Sound only. So we set off on the 200km drive to Milford and stopped off in Te Anau, the largest town in the area, along the way for a bit of shopping. Rich spent ages in a sports shop, agonising over which fishing rod to buy (fly rod or spinning), before settling on a nifty collapsible spinning rod. By the time we left Te Anau at about 2pm, it was drizzling... not a good sign! We had planned to stop off along the way to do a couple of short walks along the way, but the drizzle soon turned to a downpour, and we kept driving.

We arrived in Milford at about 4pm, by which time it was bucketing down. We had booked a cruise on the sound for early the next (Saturday) morning and planned to pitch our tent in the campground at Milford Lodge for the night, but camping in the rain didnīt appeal, so we enquired about beds in the Lodge dorms. They were fully booked, so we had no option but to wait for a gap in the rain to pitch our tent. We made ourselves comfy in the communal lounge, read our books and drank coffee, and finally spotted a gap at about 7.30pm. After preparing our supper in the kitchen and numbing the senses with few glasses of wine, we dove into our little tent for the night.

Surprise, surprise... we awoke early the next morning to clear blue skies! We simply could not believe our luck as our eyes adjusted to the sunlight and we took in the amazing sight of hundreds of veil-like waterfalls streaming down the cliff-faces surrounding the village. We boarded a small cruise boat (Mitre Peak Cruises) just before 9am with about 20 others... everyone was grinning from ear to ear, delighted at the perfect weather.

The 2-hour cruise of the sound was just heavenly, simply perfect. In the crystal-clear morning light we drank in the views of sheer rock-faces with delicate wisps of waterfalls tumbling straight into the sea, and towering, snow-capped peaks all around. A pod of bottlenose dolphins appeared and surfed the bow wave of our boat, and we spotted a couple of rare Fiordland crested penguins, as well as some seals. The boat puttered out to the mouth of the sound, where the layer of brown freshwater that sits on top of the saltwater within the sound finally mixes and disperses. It was the most magical two hours you could imagine.

After disembarking, we took a leisurely drive back along the road we had come on the previous day - how different it looked in dry, sunny weather! We stopped off for a 3-hour walk up to Key Summit and back. The track took us through some lush native beech forests and up into the alpine zone, where scrub and stunted silver beeches grow. From the summit, we enjoyed incredible 360-degree views of glacial valleys, snowy peaks and endless green forests. A most spectacular spot for our picnic.

In the late afternoon we hit the road to the Mount Cook area, about 4 hours away, and arrived at our campsite on a lovely lake near Twizel at about 8pm.
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