Day One: On the Water
I’ll confess that the main reason I had New Zealand on my bucket list was Milford Sound. It was about all I knew about the country. Well, I DID know that there were a lot of sheep creating a lot of methane. Oh, that worrisome hole in the ozone!
The time arrived for us to roll into Fiordland National Park and drive from Te Anau north to Milford Sound. The drive itself is impressive with stunning views ahead and the pink of a sunrise on snow capped mountains. Homer Tunnel cuts through the highest peak on the road and slopes down through the mountain to the temperate rain forest that awaits.
I thought the little town would be full of tourist shops and cafes much like other towns we had passed through. Not so. There are two lodges, a café, and a terminal where about ten catamaran ferry boats are docked. If you arrive early like we did, there is not much for you to do but watch the kayaks, helicopters, and airplanes. Lots of tour busses are taken care of quickly. This is the biggest tourist attraction in the country and they are used to lots of traffic including large cruise ships like the Queen Mary II which cruised up the sound while we were there.
We were told that the QM II had visited Milford Sound two years ago. This time like the last it just cruised in, took a look at the sights and headed back out. We didn’t see the big ship. It came and went that quickly.
Our cruise in the sound was a longer one including lunch and a stop at the underwater Discovery Centre. We boarded our catamaran, picked up our lunches, and sat down to eat while our cruise guide gave us safety tips.
We were barely away from the pier when we slowed down to see Fiordland penguins who are a rare sight this time of year. Then we made our way UNDER Fairy Falls where we got a natural shower. Because the water is so deep—about 1,000 feet—and the walls in the fiord are nearly vertical, ships large and small can pull right up to the near sheer granite walls.
Milford Sound was carved out by repeatedly advancing and receding glaciers. So it’s not really a sound, but a fiord. It was misnamed because early on it was believed to have been formed by a river cutting downward through the rock. Sounds are made by rivers; fiords by glaciers.
At its narrowest point at the entrance to the Sound/fjord, it is only 500 feet wide. The narrow and somewhat hidden entrance is why Captain Cook passed this area Three times and never saw Milford. It was discovered in 1812 by Captain John Grono, a sealer who was blown in during a storm.
When you advance toward the Tasman Sea the wind picks up. It’s a good time to head to the back of the boat and look back at Mitre Peak. This is a view that is often captured in brochures of Fiordland. Everyone was busy taking photos and holding onto their rain jacket hoods.
We took a short trip outside the Sound into the Tasman Sea and had views of seals and a beach where jade can be found before heading back up the Sound. Almost back to the pier we pulled into Harrison Cove and disembarked at Discovery Center—an underwater floating museum. I can’t call it an aquarium because the people are the ones in the tank not the fish. At the above water entrance is a display of the history of Milford Sound village, the road, the famous Milford Track hiking trail, and the growth of tourism. Finally, we made our way back to the village past the Bowman Falls. It is beautiful and one of the Sound’s four permanent waterfalls. It’s also generates the electricity and provides the drinking water the village.
While the sound is only about eight and a half miles long, it still manages to show all the features of fiords in other places of the world. In my mind, I expected a far bigger place but, all things considered, I was glad not to be overwhelmed by vastness.
Day Two: We Tramp the Milford Track
Twenty years ago, while on another trip, I heard of the best tramp in the world—the Milford Track. (In New Zealand trails are tracks and hikes are tramps.) I did some research, bought a tramping in New Zealand book, and dreamed about getting trained enough to do a 4 day tramp of 33.5 miles.
The years passed and my hips, knees, and bunions complained. My dream faded. That’s until I was actually here and there was an opportunity to sample a bit of Milford Track. Sign me up. And thanks to Dave for joining me!
Six intrepid trampers waited for our guide in the lodge lounge early Sunday morning. Douglas arrived and has us hop in our cars and follow him to a boat ramp. We got into lifejackets, climbed into the boat and headed up river to the dock where people who have walked the entire track meet a boat that takes them to the village for a shuttle ride to back to their cars. It turns out that 90 people a day register to tramp the track. This allows enough room for them to set up tents if they are “freedom” walking (without a guide) or have a bed, meals, and running water in a hut if they are guided.(A very pricey arrangement, by the way.)
Our walk on the track was mostly flat and went past a river, a lake, and over a swing bridge and water fall called Giant’s Gate. While I hadn’t trained for the walk, I still felt thrilled to be on Milford Track. Here at last!
The walk itself presented no challenge except to keep up with 22-year-old Douglas. Luckily, this native Kiwi knew lots of the flora and fauna. We saw the bell bird, the fantail, the weka, several wood pigeon, and several others. Of course, the notorious sand flies were annoyingly present as soon as you stopped walking. Forget repellent. It didn’t seem to work for me. And, oh yeah, we got to our stopping point at Giant’s Gate Falls.
The walk back to the dock was quick, and by the time we got there we had covered better than six and a half miles round trip. It was great to have a guide even thought it’s impossible to get lost on this well worn track.
We opened the door to the hut where we had left our lifejackets and came face to face with about 20 exhausted and heavily laden hikers. While we put on our jackets they looked at us tiredly. “Was the boat here,” they asked. Our small craft was, but not their ferry. They had the bragging rights, but we would be in a hot shower with a cold beer waiting in less than a half hour.