Team VA's Wonderings

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Wall of Sound

Milford Sound
There was frost on the cars this morning when I went out to wait for my bus to the boat. I wasn't in the best shape since I'd taken a while to get to sleep and it seemed only minutes later that some bloke started snoring as if he was trying to impersonate a chainsaw. Eventually, with no sign of him giving up, I did and got up.

I was pleased that at such an early hour, a local dog decided to entertain me. He started by staring out a house, then sat in the middle of the road and showed a good turn of speed when a cat appeared-it was real cartoon stuff, the cat ran in a house and the dog laid seige. I think the barking must have woken everybody else up, which made me feel much better. Then the bus arrived.

I'm very much the youngster today-not sure if it's the cost, the fact that Kiwi experience do a Milford Sound trip or just the lure of the word cruise, but today's crowd is a different bus pass to the one I have. It's all very pucker-this is definitely an executive sightseeing bus: the seats are angled towards the windows and there are ceiling windows too. The latter turn out to be very smart when we pass steep mountains.

On the way (Milford's about 120km from Te Anu), we find out that the road gets shut by snow, the bus has travelled 1.4 million kms in 13 years (I thought it was new) and that the km long tunnel through the mountain was a great depression project. We made a number of scenic stops, all of which seemed to heap more pressure on Milford. It's a wonderful, largely unpopulated piece of country. The ice crystals in the rivers and creeks result in the most beautiful colours. Mirror lakes was my favourite on the way up.

We arrived and it was straight on the boat.

High season's over and it wasn't too full. I took up position on the upper and lower front decks, shuffling up and down the stairs. When the mountains cut the sun off from me, it was quite chilly, but I stuck it out for 2 and a half hours aside from a tea stop.

So Milford Sound, worth the hype? Good enough to overcome being named after Milford Haven?

Er, yeah.

And some.

I will try and write something about it, but in essence you need to go there.

One key word is scale. It towers over you. The cliffs are almost shear-at one point we leaned back on the handrail and stared up. I think skipper said it 200 feet; I know he said it would take you 10 seconds to hit the water after stepping off the top. I'm not sure if the fellowship came down here in their boats, but it's that kind of grandiose, slightly unreal setting.

It's deep too, which allows the boat to get very close to the edges-we nearly sailed under a waterfall and I did get quite wet. There's only one bit shallow enough for boats to anchor and that's 17m. Much is 300m plus.

I was so pleased to be on the longer trip. The boat glided very slowly, which was marvellous as it gave you time to take in what was usually a 360 degree view of majestic loveliness. The scenery developed and altered as our angle and perspective shifted. The views evolved in front of us and despite the boat's slow pace, I felt the need to be alert to avoid missing anything. The Sound, which is actually a fjord, is constantly changing. I also saw how the weather would affect what you saw, some cloud cleared during the trip. Like Uluru, I can imagine many repeat visits each offering something fresh.

There was some commentary, but much of it washed over me. Like the centre of Australia I found it meditative and somewhat outer body. The kind of effect that makes talking redundant: I spent the voyage quiet and open mouthed. It's nice to be dwarfed, to be put in perspective, to feel awe.

We went all the way to the Tasman Sea before heading back. When the skipper warned it might be a little choppy, I thought 'I've been to Stewart Island'.

As if all that wasn't enough we got dolphins, lots of dolphins. They were surfing right alongside as well as frolicking in groups all around the boat. They really are the film stars of the marine world-they have a charisma that appeals more to humans than their fellow sea creatures. They brought the crowds flocking to the boat's edge, people leaned over the side, pointed dolphins out to strangers, called out to the dolphins and generally made the most noise of the day. Dolphins-they've got it.

I think I took more photos than at Uluru here's an almost random selection-I found it all amazing.

Can you see the helicopter?

I have two other pics that won't upload. Will try again 4152 4142

The feeling of the place echoed Uluru for me-it was spiritual and magnificent. Really quite good.

My decision to get going early was a good plan, it was quiet on the water while we were out, but when we returned there were a great many coaches piling in for the lunchtime rush. I'm thinking lunchtime could easily be circus time.

I quite hope it rains at Doubtful-like Uluru, people keep saying the temporary waterfalls are fantastic.

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound is 3 times the length of Milford and 10 times the area. It's also a lot more difficult to reach. For starters there's the bus from Te Anu to Manapouri, then a 45 minute boat trip across Lake Manapouri and then it gets fun. At the end of the lake there's a hydroelectric power station. During construction, the company decided to ship the bits of the plant in via Doubtful Sound, which led them to build New Zealand's most expensive road across the mountains. We take a bus over this, get our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound

and then head to our boat.

The boss man on the boat, who gives us our introductory talk and stuff is called Boss. I love that.

So time for some facts and stats and stuff. NZ's fjordland national park is a world heritage site covering a large portion (3 million acres) of the country's south west. That's 10% of New Zealand and bigger than the other 14 NZ National Parks put together. The peerlessly monikered 'Guardians of Fjordland' are charged with making sure the area is conserved.

Doubtful Sound is 14 nautical miles long, and after leaving our overnight mooring at Precipice Cove we travelled down the Hall Arm, where we were 23 nautical miles from the Tasman Sea. The Sounds have an odd thing with the water where there is a freshwater layer of a few metres on top of the seawater, which gives rise to black coral and great diving.

The Sounds have developed in the 14 ice ages that have taken place in the region in the past 2 million years. At their biggest the glaciers were 1.4km high, which has left Doubtful 434m at its deepest. We saw a waterfall 3 times the height of Niagara-it looked fairly puny in the monumental landscape.

The mosses, foliage and trees cling to the impossibly steep rock through a network of intertwined roots. This results in a codependency that can have disastrous results: when a tree loses its grip, it can start a domino like tree slide. If the tree is high up, then this can clear a huge triangular scar on the rockface.

Which reminds me that since the Europeans arrived, NZ has lost 76% of its forests. I find that a terrifying stat in a country that cares. In an Australian echo, NZ also has terrible problems with introduced animals. Ignoring Oz, some muppet introduced rabbits for a bit of hunting. When this turned out to be a predictable disaster, they brought in stoats to kill the rabbits. This was against the advice of the time. When NZ broke off Gondwanaland, mammals hadn't really evolved. Prior to man's arrival, the only mammals here were a few bats. It was a bird paradise with no real predators; consequently many of the birds had forgotten how to fly and were not afraid. Confronted with the choice of chasing fast moving rabbits, or easy prey, the stoats devastated the birds-leaving many species extinct.

Undeterred, to try and create a fur trade they introduced possums from Australia-there are now 90 million, eating a third of the 60,000 tonnes of foliage NZ's forest produce each night. Then there's the deer, eating all the lower forest foliage: hunters are allowed into national parks to curb numbers. And the moose....

Oh, and someone saw fit to call this the Hares Ears

Tom and James had been in my dorm in Te Anu and we were sharing again on the Fjordland Navigator.

There were a lot of families on board and, despite the fact it was the first day of low season and the trip was $75 cheaper, we were the only backpackers on board. Consequently we appeared to be the only people implementing a policy of 'the more we eat the cheaper it gets'. The idea was to eat now and not have to pay to eat when we got off the boat. In any case, the food was ace: muffins in the early afternoon, soup late afternoon, monster buffet (including desert and big plates) and a cooked/continental breakfast buffet. I'll be amazed if I eat as well before I get back to the Haywain and Mum's home cooking.

Quite full, we spent the evening playing poker. We had a fun solution to the usual problem of what to use for chips-take all the money out of the NZ monopoly set.

It was a great trip, I made a good decision in doing both Milford and Doubtful and it did rain. A lot, so we had a beautiful array of temporary waterfalls. It all ended on a surreal note: the crew do a week on, week off and ours had got into the habit of doing a song and dance routine to celebrate the end of their tour of duty. At the same time they rub the noses of the new crew in it, as they're waiting at the dock. They'd already had a conga and can-can. Today was the turn of the Macarena. More than Al Qaeda, the Macarena is proof of the existence of absolute evil on our planet.

Here are some Doubtful pics.

My bus from Te Anu got into a dark Queenstown at 8. Queenstown is the adrenaline capital of NZ-it's full of bungy, sky diving and jet boats. It's also got a reputation as a party town. While the rest of the country appears overrun with female tourists, I understand this is where the guys are. Having weighed up the attractions of Queenstown, I'm leaving on the 8.10 bus in the morning.

On my last trip to NZ, I got a filthy cold after about 2 and a half weeks. So, I've a real feeling of deja vu as the old health's letting me down. I guess I may have spent too long on cold and damp boat decks. I managed to get some drugs before the bus left this morning; last night's curry only offered temporary relief. As I'm going hiking on the Fox glacier tomorrow, I'm hoping for a quick cure.

Fox glacier
It looked like being a long day on the bus-Queenstown is nearly 8 hours to Fox glacier. As it turned out, I met Vicky and we talked almost the whole way, with a nice break for a power nap.

I reached my hostel, Ivory Towers, about 3.30. Under the circumstances, it would have been sensible to get a hot drink and watch a movie from underneath a blanket. However, I'd heard there was a shuttle to the glacier at 4, so I quickly headed out. I asked about the shuttle at the petrol station as it wasn't where it was supposed to be; turns out the shuttler was having a day off.

With rare determination, I decided to walk the 6km to the glacier car park and then do the hour walk to the glacier face. I'd got about half way when a French couple in a very nice campervan offered me a lift.

After a km of the return journey, the same couple picked me up. Just as well, had I had to walk the 8 km they drove me it would have been very dark when I got back to the township. In return I managed to give them some info on the glacier hike-they'll probably join my trip in the morning if the weather's good.

The glacier was more than impressive and I loved the way it radiated the cold as you got closer. I have no idea how the bloody hell we're going to climb up it tomorrow.

Glacier Hike
It's a glorious day, so this is going to be good. Alpine Guides bused us down to the glacier car park, saving me the walk this time. As we walked down to the glacier, there was a large and impressive collapse of ice at the terminal face. Turns out we don't ascend the glacier's front as it would be a tad dangerous-we climbed up the rainforest on the left side.

In itself this gave some top views.

Then it was on with the crampons and onto the ice.

I loved it. We went up and down, slipped a little, got photos in small caves, slithered through some tight crevasses and gawped a great deal. Obviously the environment was controlled and very safe (although, at Franz Joseph I heard one Alpine Guide got lost on a day trip). We could hear further ice falls at the front and jagged mountains of ice towered over us while the power and danger of the glacier was tangible.

We crossed the fault line where the Pacific and Australian plates meet creating the mountains, which continue to grow (Doubtful has a thousand earthquakes per month).

I didn't know that every snowflake is formed around a grain of dust. Parts of the glacier have a reddish hue-analysis has shown this is due to snow forming on red dust. From Australia. The mountains on the West coast catch weather that has travelled a long way. Near the summit, I think the annual rainfall was 15m.

I should have done the full day trip-it was not as physically taxing as the brochure had made out (refuse to believe I'm fit), we had a slow group and I felt a lot better than I thought I would.

I was surprised and disappointed when we suddenly stumbled off the ice and the glacier trek bit was over. Partly this was because the time had flown; mostly it was because I thought we'd be on the glacier longer and I'd been looking around, taking photos and hadn't got round to asking the American girl to join me in a homage to the Stanford Glacier Engagement. It was going to be a cracking photo. Clearly it would have been respectfully done.......

Of course, if I had done a full day, I wouldn't have spent the afternoon at Lake Matheson.

Later I met up with Tom and James who had found the amazing movie room in the hostel: I was in a self-contained 'house' in a separate building so had missed both this and the monster kitchen. It had a huge widescreen TV, real cinema seats and an enormous Dodgeball flag.

Franz Joseph Glacier
It's not every day you see a glacier, so I headed 30 mins down the road to the slightly more commercial Franz Joseph glacier-I couldn't say why this is the bigger draw, as they're both jaw dropping. I thought about helihikes (TC takes you high up the glacier in a chopper and you hike) and a similar trip to yesterday, but plumped for doing the number of walks between and around the village and glacier, which included a trip to Lake Wombat.

FJ seemed bigger to me, but apparently Fox is, so there you go. The weather was kind and walking alone, I barely paused in 6 hours.

On the rocky, scenic return I managed to clamber out into the middle of a river and sit on a very big rock. When I got back to the hostel I was exhausted; I listened to some Bon Jovi on a bus the other day and managed to keep going through the last few difficult kms energised by their mantra of 'I'll sleep when I'm dead'.

Leaving the mountains behind
Big travel day today-4 hours on the bus, then the 4 hour scenic rail journey across the Alps to Christchurch, where I may finally post this.


  • sounds ace, although I have to say that I am amused that you went on a cruise. How did you do in the bingo?

    Great photos too - especially the one with the big axe. You can't have too many big axe photos.

    By Blogger swisslet, at 7:58 PM  

  • Having witnessed the old hair in real life, I would just like to report that the new haircut is a big letdown.

    Cracking scenery mind..

    By Blogger Statue John, at 9:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home