Exploring Fjordland

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Thursday, December 29, 2011

Today we have a long drive as we plan to go and see Milford Sound, it doesn't look far on the map but unfortunately we have to go around the big mountains and so it does take about four hours to get there. In this time we realise that New Zealand drivers are absolutely mental (definitely not known for their overtaking skills) but at least the police seem to know this and are out in force – we see several cars pulled over.  And so we’re quite happy to see cars that cut us up earlier at the side of the road having a nice chat with the policemen.  Although the main problem is the tour buses that are on a tight schedule, one tailgates us by what feels like inches when we’re sitting at 100km/hr until he finds a spot to overtake.  He then sits in front of us at possible 102km/hr – the road rage would have been difficult to hold back if we ever met him in person!

We drop our stuff off at the hostel in Te Anau, the hostel is called Bob and Maxine’s backpackers and is funnily enough run by a very friendly couple called Bob and Maxine.  The hostel is set out on open land behind their house with great views of the mountains – a nice spot to relax.

We continue along the road to Milford Sound, first we come to mirror lake where at times you can see the perfect reflection of the mountains.  Not today as it starts raining, and continues raining for the rest of the day.  This is a bit disappointing as the whole point of driving this road is to see the views and we can’t see a thing.  We drive up the road to the Homer Tunnel which is a 1km tunnel through the mountain and we get an idea of what the views could be like.  There are waterfalls tumbling down the rockfaces surrounding the road, clumps of snow and ice by the road side and the craziest road we have seen.  We have to wait at traffic lights for 15 mins as the tunnel is one way and then drive through the mountain downhill until we get to the other side and face a very steep descent winding its way down the side of the mountain.  A pretty surreal road even in the low cloud – maybe it’s best we couldn’t see some of the heights!

Milford Sounds is actually fiordland created by glaciers (another misnomer by the first settlers - the first settlers weren’t great at naming things, they either got things wrong, mistook the place they found for somewhere else or were extremely unimaginative e.g. Sandfly Bay is a popular name). So we were meant to be seeing steep cliffs surrounding us and waterfalls running down them.  What we could see was absolutely nothing, so we decide against any boat trip but hang around for an hour to see if the weather will clear.  It doesn’t so we face the return journey and cross our fingers that the weather isn’t the same tomorrow as we have booked an all day trip on Doubtful Sounds.

We get picked up first thing the next morning and it’s a bit cloudy but a whole lot better than yesterday so hopefully our luck is in.  We quickly realise that we are on a tour with several American families and so it’s going to be an interesting day at least.  Especially when one guy seems to be determined to hit Jonny with his tripod at every opportunity – it may be because Jonny gets to the best photo taking spots first but if you snooze you lose.

Doubtful Sounds is not the easiest place to get to but that’s meant to be whole magic of it.  First we get a ferry across Lake Manapouri which is a large lake surrounded by steep mountains and so is impressive in itself.  This lake also powers the power station that we are about to visit.  Not our usual activity in our travels but as its part of the tour we go along with it.  The power station is positioned here as the water can fall from the lake 800m to the turbines at sea level and so can produce a whole lot of power.  This power goes to an aluminium smelter that produces aluminium for Boeing.  It’s a pretty impressive site when you understand the engineering that went into it and we see a little of this as we have another tunnel to go in.  This time it’s a 2km tunnel underground to see the main factory hall.  It looks like an underground lair of a Bond villain and is interesting to see but thankfully we don’t hang about for long.  We then get a bus across the pass to get to Doubtful Sounds – it’s a small winding road cut into the side of the mountain that took the power station company a couple years to build so that they could get their equipment to the power station.  And finally we’re at Doubtful Sounds and on the boat.  The only issue with having a perfectly clear sunny day for these trips is that then there isn’t as many waterfalls (sounds like I’m never happy!) but it’s a very nice day for a boat trip and the views are good.  Plus in the history of these tours only 3 people have been seasick so I like those odds!  We have a few hours on the boat to appreciate the views and the remoteness of the area until we get close to the sea entrance to find a rather large cruise ship doing the rounds.  It did ruin the isolation of the trip a bit (like finding a nice spot to find a tour group unloading a whole bus) but on the other hand seeing the mountains against the cruise ship did give us an idea of scale at least.  Our wildlife sightings weren’t great for the day – we saw one sleeping seal but the staff were good and made it an enjoyable day.  We then had to repeat the whole process to get back to the hostel.  By the way, Doubtful Sounds is Doubtful Sounds as old Captain Cook sailed passed the inlet and thought it was doubtful that they would be able to navigate the ship into the inlet without crashing into the islands of rock. As I said they lacked imagination.
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