|Blog 162 25th – 27th April The Sounds
Waking up early we find our choice of campsite was a good one the trees have kept it warmer and the tent is dry. We head toward Milford Sound, the ride in is exiting to say the least. It’s cold enough for ice and the roads are wet, also mist is hanging low in the valleys and sticking to my screen. The wiper does a good job of clearing it off the outside but I have to stop a few times to wipe the inside. We put the heated clothing on which keeps us warm and ride carefully, the road gets twistier and narrower.
Our first stop is another mirror lake, it’s surrounded by bush and snow capped hills and the reflections look spectacular. As the sun starts to burn through the mist the roads dry out and I can relax a little.
It’s a two hour ride in, the roads winds through steep sided valleys until we get to the Homer Tunnel. This is quite literally a road through the granite mountain, it was started by five men using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows in 1935. Later more manpower was sent in but even so it wasn’t completed until 1954. Until it was finished the only way into Milford Sound was on foot or by boat.
Lots of locals have warned us to be careful in the tunnel, it’s a 1 in 10 descent in the semi dark and although it is now sealed the surface is rough.
We don’t find it too bad, our bright lights mean we can see to dodge the holes and it’s traffic light controlled so only one way traffic. The tunnel is almost 1.3 km long and there have been a few accidents caused by tour buses jumping the lights in busy peak times. We are well out of peak season now but there are still a lot of people here. It’s a long switchback descent after the tunnel, the sun is out and it looks like it will be a nice day. We try not to stop too often for pictures on the way in but sometimes we just have to, the buses and coaches that drive tourists in from Te Anau or Queenstown arrive around lunchtime so we are trying to get there before then. Being out of season means we can book on a lunchtime cruise which includes lunch on the way out so that’s sorted. It’s a glorious day and the Fjord is spectacularly beautiful, surrounded by steep sided cliffs and dominated by the huge Mitre Peak. Any surface that can suport life is green and lush as it rains 200 to 250 days a year here, this area can sometimes get up to 9 metres of rainfall a year.
Trees cling to the rocky sides, with very little soil to get their roots into, they grip into cracks in the rock and intertwine roots to support each other. This sometimes results in tree avalanches where one loses grip and takes the rest out with it. We hug the shoreline and our captain noses us right into waterfalls. We go right up to the mouth before resuming our tour back down the other side of the Fjord the sun is behind us this way and we get some great pictures. On the way back we are treated to an impromptu display by some bottlenose dolphins who play in the pressure wave created by the boat. Our captain does a good job of keeping with them for a while whilst we all try to get photos. The Fjord also has another surprising twist which we discover when we stop off at an underwater observatory. Because it rains so much here and because the mouth out to sea is partially restricted by rocks the fresh water sits on top of the salt water in a layer which is often metres thick. This fresh water is full of Tannins and dark, this confuses deep water fish into thinking they are deeper than they actually are and makes this habitat almost unique. The chamber is under a floating jetty and offers amazing views of what’s going on down there.
The cruise wasn’t cheap but it was worth every cent to get out on the water. We have booked in at the only backpackers in Milford as we didn’t expect to have such an early boat ride. It means we have some time to kill so we head back up to the chasm, this is a river that has cut a crazy sculptural route through solid rock. The water is a torrent but it’s way down in the bottom today, you can easily see that in flood it comes up with massive force by the honeycomb of passages it has carved. It’s incredibly difficult to photograph but I do my best to capture some semblance of it. Our stay in the backpackers is a lot warmer than camping at the moment but poor Karen ends up on a top bunk above someone who thrashes about in his sleep like a man posessed. In the morning we have a leisurely pack up to give the roads time to dry out. We have a good ride out in glorious sunshine and stop for a late lunch at the “Divide”. This is on the famous “Routeburn track”, we decide after lunch to walk up to key summit. It’s a steep climb through bush but three quarters of the way up we get above the tree line and the views open up. At the top there is a stunning 360 degree view of the Humboldt and Darran mountains together with the three valleys which were carved out by a massive glacier 14000 years ago. There is also an excellent self guided nature walk at the top.
By the time we get back down we are starting to lose the light, heading back to Henry’s creek (our campsite on the way in) is our best option as it’s the most sheltered and we know where to go in the dark. The alarm goes off at 6am next day but our noses (the only part sticking out of the sleeping bags) tell us it’s bloody cold so we think sod that and get up at 9 am instead. This means we aren’t on the road until about 11, we intended to get up early to get down to Lake Manapouri today and we saunter into Te Anau thinking we have blown it for today only to discover it leaves at 12.35. Suddenly we are rushing round the supermarket to buy lunch and dinner and dashing the 20km to Manapouri to catch the boat. We make it on time and enjoy a 50min cruise across the lake before being picked up by a bus the other end. We get a bonus ride over Wilmot Pass down to Deep Cove as they need to pick up passengers who are returning from an overnight cruise around Doubtful Sound. Then it’s back over the Wilmot Saddle and into the hydro electric power station which is built into the mountain. Driving down the spiral access road 200m into the solid rock is a surreal experience. The visitors centre overlooks the turbine gallery and it’s seven massive turbines take advantage of the 230m drop from Lake Manpouri to Doubtful Sound. Building started in 1969 and faced massive opposition at the time, partly because of the enormous costs involved and partly because of environental concerns. There was huge debate over whether to adopt Hydro or Nuclear power but eventually Hydro won despite the NZ$135 million price tag (NZ$ 1.95 billion at 2008 prices) for just one plant. It looks a bit like the sort of lair a James Bond baddie would build, I kept expecting to see somone mad looking stroking a cat.
Sadly there were no enormous explosions just as we were leaving but then you can’t have everything. Back at Pearl Harbour (I am not kidding that’s what its called) we are fast running out of light, there is a quirky campsite in town full of classic cars which looks like home for tonight. Again it’s bitterly cold and the lady looks shocked when we ask for a tent site. She persuades us into a cabin as they are quite cheap and have heaters. There is also a camp kitchen which makes cooking dinner easier, we have spag bol for tea washed down with a few beers. It’s been another good day. We will have to explore the cars and surrounding site in the daylight.