Magnificent Milford

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22/02/08
Hello all, and welcome to another chapter in my ongoing adventures. This day’s story is brought to you by the word Fiord, and not Sound. More on that in a little bit. Essentially, this was another rest day. Not that I necessarily needed it, but simply because I’m in Te Anau, and this is where the only road that heads out to Milford Sound starts and finishes, and I wasn’t going to come all the way to New Zealand without checking out the world famous Milford Sound! As such, I had booked a coach and cruise trip while I was still in Queenstown a few days ago. This was a bit of a gamble, since I didn’t know what the weather would be doing, but things worked out just fine, as you’ll find out if you read on. As per usual, and I’m sure I don’t even need to mention it anymore, you can check out the map I put together for the day, as well as hopefully some pictures that I’ll try to get up on Flickr. Read on, mates!

I had to get up extra early today in order to be ready for my bus pickup. The first problem with that was discovered last night, when I noticed my voucher said I’d be picked up at Rob and Nancy’s. The problem with that is that I’m at Bob and Maxine’s, which isn’t near to the other place. A quick phone call to the head offices sorted that out, and I was assured I’d be picked up at the right place. That was good news indeed. So at 6:45am I was awake, and decided to take a shower to start the day off right. Delightful. After that, I was outside waiting for my bus, and chatting with Bob and Maxine, who were also up already. I got picked up promptly at 7:50am, and we were on the way. I was the last person to get picked up, so there wasn’t a ton of room, but there was a free seat next to Trish from Calgary. She was traveling with her parents seated behind us, after having been living in Australia for over a year. They were very nice, and it was also nice to be seated with someone closer to my age group, as most of the passengers were silver or no-haired! I had decided to book a nicer coach and cruise than the standard backpacker experience, so it cost more, and therefore, the demographic was slightly shifted 🙂

Demographics aside, there isn’t a single thing that I would dare complain about this entire trip though. Once again, I’m sure I made the right decision by not biking out to Milford. For starters, it probably would have taken me two days to get up there, and two more to get back, so right there you can see how I’m a smart guy right? Well, not only that, but the road leading out there can be quite treacherous, with seemingly billions of tour buses whipping around every corner. Also, taking the bus allowed me to get some excellent commentary along the way, filling me in on a lot of things that I would never have been able to piece together had I been on my own. However, trying to take decent pictures from inside the bus proved to be rather taxing, so score one for the bike-bound traveler. At least when I see a shot, I can guarantee to get the best chance possible to snap it. Not so in the metal box. However, the driver / guide stopped at a few of the choice spots along the route to let us get out and snap shots. Very nice of them, even though we were on a schedule.

Arriving at Milford Sound, I was delighted to find out that I’d be on the Milford Mariner, which is one of the nicer boats out there, having a mast and sail rigging, and also delighted to hear that I’d be getting on and taking off right away, rather than wait a half hour like some other people. Also, on arrival, I’d be getting right back on the bus to go, unlike the other people again. Why? Well, because I booked the Nature cruise, which goes further and lasts longer. Also, it was nice because there are far too many sandflies at Milford Sound, and really nothing to see at the parking lot anyway. To give you an idea, one of the spots out there is actually called Sandfly point. Get the idea? Not fun. Luckily, they don’t follow you out into the water for some reason. I boarded the boat, and we were pretty much underway in no time flat. Before we had even blasted out horn, I had made my way to the wheelhouse and started talking to the skipper. Very nice chap, along with his crew, and I spent some time in the cabin checking out his gear and asking questions. The boat is pretty much full automated as far as systems go, but he’s gotta keep an eye on them. Seven days on, seven days off, and he does all the cruises in the day, including the overnight cruise.

On the subject of all the elaborate sail rigging? Well, for starters, it cost them about 700,000NZD to get all set up. And the result? Well, this boat can’t sail! Not one bit. There’s no damn keel or center board! Some kind of major oversight on their part I suppose, but the skipper told me that just shows you a bit about the idiots running the company. Ha ha. With 3 masts and a load of rigging and sails, all they actually set up is a Genoa right at the bow, but only let out to a half-reef, and only so that the tourists can snap pictures. However, it does make it look like a nicer boat overall, so who’s to complain, right? So why no keel? Well, although the fiord (yes, they spell it fiord, not fjord here) itself runs hundreds of meters deep, the harbour at Milford is only 3-4m I think. Anyway, blah blah blah, I’m sure only a handful of you are truly interested in the sailing aspects, right?

So, back to the cruise. I wish I could put it into words, but there’s really not much point in trying. Just check out the pictures. It’s far better to see than to describe. Either way, it was spectacular. Cliffs rising directly out of sea level to hundreds of meters above our heads. When you sail in close, you can’t even try to take a picture, because it’s just too high up. We passed extremely close to the waterfalls of the area, because the cliffs don’t just rise out of the water, they continue straight down, so even though you’re 2m from ‘shore’, the water is 200m deep! Very cool. We saw New Zealand fur seals, a penguin, but no dolphins. Too bad. We sailed all the way out of the ‘sound’ to the Tasman sea, went out a little into the sea, then circled back to the harbour. We were out in the water for a good 2.5 hours I’d say, and had a great running commentary most of the way. This tour was better than the ‘scenic’ cruise for a few reasons. First, longer trip, second, cooler boat, third, English-only commentary which went into much more depth. This was the explanation from the skipper, who knows all the tours, and said I picked the right one. Yay me. Oh yeah, by the way… Milford Sound? Huge misnomer. These are not sounds, but fiords. There’s a difference. Look it up if you’d like 🙂

Once back on land, it was back onto our happy fun bus for the ride back to Te Anau. However, we didn’t just ride straight back. Rather, we took our time in order to check out all the views and sights we couldn’t on the way down due to time restrictions for getting to the cruise. Oh yeah, I should also mention that going from Te Anau was the right call. When we arrived, there were only about 5 buses. By the time we were leaving, there must have been 45 buses there! It looked like a busy airport terminal. So anyway, we rode back, stopping periodically to see more and learn more. The Homer tunnel was a pretty cool thing, having taken 20 years to build through the Homer Pass mountain. It’s 1207m, and has a pretty steep grade. It’s only one lane, and has traffic lights at either end, that change every 15 minutes. Another cool stop was the Chasm, which are some natural rock features that were worn down over thousands of years to become smooth and contoured, as the pictures might show. Hard to describe.

All in all, I give my day 5 stars on the worth it scale. Even though it was built up quite highly, it didn’t disappoint. I was awed by the natural beauty, as well as the sheer stubbornness of man that it must have taken to build a road out there. Up to 60 years ago, the only way to see Milford was to take the Milford track to hike out there, taking 3 days out, and 3 days back. Now you can fly or drive easily in 15 minutes to 2 hours. Ironically, if you want to take the track now, the guided treks are booked out up to a year in advance! A year! And it’ll cost you 2200-2500NZD! Crazy eh?

Well, tomorrow, it’s back on the road. I don’t know where I’ll stop yet, having not properly researched it yet. I’ll pick Bob’s brain later tonight, as he goes to Inver-Vegas quite often, and can probably tell me of a few choice spots to check out on my way. I plan to be in Invercargill by Sunday night, and have even been lucky enough to secure a place to stay with a friend of a friend of a friend 🙂 Gotta love Kiwi hospitality! Till then, I hope you’re all doing well, and that the cold weather isn’t getting you down. Adios amigos.

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