An Attempted Trip to Milford Sound

Trip Start Jan 15, 2009
Trip End Mar 07, 2009

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Monday, March 2, 2009

I got up at 6:00 am this morning for a day trip to Milford Sound on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.  I had arranged to fly on Air New Zealand to Queenstown on an early flight.  The plan was to catch a sightseeing plane in Queenstown and fly to Milford Sound's airstrip, where I would take a couple hour boat tour of Milford Sound.  Then I was supposed to fly back to Queenstown where I would pick up the Air New Zealand flight back to Christchurch.  On paper it should have worked, but all did not go as planned. 

I arrived at Queenstown Airport on time.  I walked over to the Air Fjordland Desk to check in.  There was no one at the desk, but I was quite early.  There was a sign there that said "Activities Taking Place Today".  Underneath the heading of this sign, was a series of check boxes which listed activities including the flight to Milford Sound.  All of the boxes had been "x"ed in which I thought meant that all activities were a go.  So I went and got some brunch at the snackbar.

 I returned to the Air Fjordland Desk at 11:00 am.  There was a fellow at the desk now, so I told him I was here to check in for the flight to Milford Sound.  He said "are you Wooters?"  I said "yes".  He said "The flight to Milford Sound is Cancelled" matter of factly.  I asked him why the sign said that Milford Sound was taking place then.  He said, "We put an "x" in the box if it is NOT happening and a check in the box if it is happening.  To me this seemed bizarre.  Why would you not leave the box empty if the activity is not taking place.....but I didn't go there with him.  I asked why the flight was cancelled, and he said it was because of the weather-bad storms on the coast.  As it turns out, the storm system that brought our whale watching trip to an early end blew on through the East Coast of the island and went down to the South West Coast at Milford Sound overnight. So the same storm system has disrupted my plans in two different places for two different days!  I was quite irritated, but there was nothing to do.  I could have rented a car and driven to Milford Sound, but the drive is pretty long and I would not have been back in time for my flight back to Christchurch.  There was another tour company that flies there, but they had cancelled due to weather also. 

My next thought was, maybe I could go back to Christchurch on an earlier flight.  I checked with the Air New Zealand desk, and they said all their flights back to Christchurch were booked except for one at 4:10 pm.  My scheduled flight was at 5:20, so I didn't see any value in paying a $100 NZ to change the ticket just to get back one hour earlier.  So, I put my backpack in storage for a few hours and picked up some visitor information on Queenstown and started figuring out how to salvage my day.  I discovered that there is a cable car that goes up to the top of one of the mountains above the city.  The view is supposed to be beautiful from up there.  So I caught a bus into the city and then walked up the hill to the cable car station.  I bought a roundtrip ticket and climbed in a gondola car and was whisked up the mountainside.  The views were amazing from the top!  You could see the entire city of Queenstown in the valley below and the clear blue waters of Lake Wakatipu winding between the mountains.  This lake is 84 km long but is only 5 km wide.  It was dug by glaciers many thousands of years ago.  It is also quite deep at a maximum depth of 399 meters (that is over 1300 ft deep)!  It was drizzling rain, but the views were still worth the trip to the top.  I went on in to the snack bar and had some lunch and checked out the gift shop. 

While at the top, I also looked at some of the extreme activities you could participate in up here. They have a concrete luge track you can ride down on a luge sled on wheels.  I actually did this when I was younger at Winter Park, Colorado where they have a similar set-up.  There was also a tandem parasailing opportunity that takes you back to the bottom where you land in a field.  There is also a bungee jumping platform where you leap off into the valley and then bounce back up.  I decided to pass on all these activities and just take the gondola ride back to the valley below.

After I got off the cable car, I walked around the corner to Kiwi Bird World.  This is a little zoo with native New Zealand birds and reptiles.  They give you a headset and a bulky device that is kind of like a giant I-Pod and then push buttons on it that correspond with the exhibit you are at and a narrator tells you about what you are looking at.  It is a cool idea, but the equipment could due with some downsizing.

My first visit was the Kiwi house.  The Kiwi is a flightless, nocturnal bird which is native to New Zealand.  They are quite shy and not often seen in the wild.  They do not allow flash photography in the Kiwi House, so I do not have a good photo for you.  I did try taking a photo with my infrared setting on my camera, but the picture is pretty grainy.

Next to the Kiwi exhibit was a Tuatara exhibit.  The Tuatara is an ancient reptile which looks a bit like an iguana, but is not a lizard at all.  It is the only living representative of a branch of the reptiles called the Sphenodonta.  These reptiles used to live on the South Island of New Zealand and the surrounding islands as well.  When the Maury came here, they brought rats with them by accident in their sea canoes.  The rats killed off all the tuatara on the South Island, so now they only exist on the outlying islands off the coast.  These animals can live extremely long lives.  The oldest one in captivity has been at a zoo for 111 years! It seems healthy and may go for many more years-they are just not sure how long they live.  They eat mostly worms and bugs and these cold blooded reptiles can go into a state of torpor (suspended animation) if the weather gets too cold or food gets scarce.
My next stop was an exhibit on the Kea.  Kea are a type of parrot which have kind of drab coloration.  They are famous for having a special liking to rubber and plastic.  They are known to attack rubber tire on vehicles and all kinds of plastic and shred it to bits.  They don't eat it, but they do shred it with their substantial beak.  I have included a photo for you viewing pleasure.

I looked at a few other birds and then I heard the bird show starting up, so I wandered in there to see what they were doing.  A fellow came out with a Tuatara and talked about them. Then he brought out a stuffed Kiwi and told us about Kiwis.  One interesting thing he told us was that the female Kiwi lays an egg which is 1/3 of her body weight. It is the equivalent of a human female giving birth to a 37 pound baby.  The good news is that the male incubates it and takes care of the baby kiwi for a time after it is born, so the female's job is done once she lays the egg.  Next, the guy doing the show brought out a Rainbow Lorikete.  These are natives of Australia, and I caught a glimpse of one when I was in Victoria, but I never got a good, close look at one or was able to photograph one.  Apparently, people have been importing them as pets and then letting them go in New Zealand, where they are disrupting the native bird populations by outcompeting them for food resources.  He also brought out another introduced species in New Zealand-an Australian Opossum.  These were brought in for the fur trade and then ranchers let them go when the fur market collapse.  They are also disrupting local food webs and there is a program to eliminate them.

The show was still going on, but I needed to leave, so I ducked out and walked down to the CBD and caught a ride back to the airport.  I reclaimed my backpack and caught my Air New Zealand flight back to Christchurch.  The plane was a 25 minutes late leaving, but the pilot caught a tailwind on the way back to Christchurch, so we got in just about when we were supposed to.  I caught a cab back to the hotel and then went for a little walk.  I found a little strip of restaurants with outdoor tables and I selected one called the Boulevard Restaurant.  I ordered what I thought would be a tasty meal-the salmon and rock lobster combination.  It was ok, but the portion size was tiny and there wasn't much lobster on the plate at all, maybe a couple of small chunks.  So, I ordered a chocolate soufflé dessert.  It was pretty good, but it took forever to come out of the kitchen. The service was really bad here as well.  At one time I asked for some more bread and the waiter brought me some sugar syrup drizzled on a plate!  And it was not a language problem.  He spoke perfect English.  I think he was stoned or something. 

Now I should give you a word about tipping people here in New Zealand and Australia.  Tipping is not common in New Zealand or in Australia unless you receive exceptional service.  That sounds really great at first.  However, in practice, it is not great because that means that a waiter that gives you poor service gets paid the same as one that gives you good service.  Thus, there is no incentive to provide good service.  All the service I received at restaurants in Australia and New Zealand was mediocre at best.  Some, like this one, were downright poor.
When I returned to the hotel, I checked my email, did a load of laundry and went to bed.  Tomorrow, I go to Auckland on the North Island.
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