Te Anau - Milford Sound
Oct 15, 2008
|Depart Te Anau: 3494 km (09.30)
Actually not that early, but we were up at 08.00 and out of the campsite by 09.30. The weather wasn't much different – overcast with light showers, on and off.
We drove straight to Milford Sound, which is about 120km, and took about 2 hours. We tried to stop a couple of times. Once to take a short walk to a signposted 'chasm', but we changed our minds when we saw the Kea hanging around. We also tried to stop just after the Homer Tunnel (a rather basic tunnel that descends 129 metres over its 1.2km length, a gradient of 1 in 10, and exits at 793 metres above sea level) where the sides of the valley were so steep that all the recent rain was creating loads of waterfalls over the rocky edge. It looked amazing at 60 kph, but unfortunately the signs said we weren't allowed to stop because it was an avalanche zone. Silly really because there's not enough snow left to create any avalanches and, even if they did, where's the law of nature that says you'll only be hit if you're parked. We'll try and stop on the way back.
We drove right into Milford Sound, which is nothing more than a base for the cruise ships that go out on the Sound. There's a cafe/bar where we had lunch (which was pretty crap – we had roast lamb apparently), 30 dollars down the toilet. There used to be a petrol station, but it closed down, and there is a very large, posh visitor centre which is where you buy your tickets for the cruises, and board the boats.
It took us about 5 minutes to suss out there wasn't anything more to the base than that, so then we drove back out of town a couple of kms to Milford Sound Lodge, which is the only place to stay here. It's backpacking and camping accommodation and compared to recent standards, it's pretty damn good. Nice clean, warm, modern bathroom and kitchen facilities, a nice big dining room and lounge and because we were here early, we've managed to nab one of the only spots with a view of the river flowing into the Sound.
Then we walked back down to the base, had the crappy lunch and jumped aboard the 14.00 cruise for a 1 hour 45 minute trip out through the Sound to the coast and back again (cost $65).
Amazingly they run the cruise if they have a minimum of 4 people on board. The vessel can actually take 250 and today we were...6. FANTASTIC. One other elderly english couple and a man with his son – also english I think. There were 5 different places on the boat to view from, so we could all keep out of each others way.
Also good was the fact that the captain/skipper was basically part of the middle deck, just separated from the rest of the deck behind him by a plastic screen. This meant that you could see all his controls and everything he did, and even stand alongside him. He and the rest of the 3 person crew were very nice, friendly and informative.
The weather was still bleak, but it added a bit of mystery to the trip. In fact several people have told us that 'locals' prefer the Sounds when it's raining because of all the waterfalls that are created. There were literally hundreds of them.
Milford Sound was amazing. It's impossible to appreciate how steeply the mountains come out of the water, and to imagine that there is another 450m of the mountains below the water line. There's also so much rain in the region that fresh water sits on top of the salt water of the sounds, sometimes several metres deep.
Being on the catamaran was great because the skipper took it right up to the edge of the mountains, under waterfalls, so we could look directly up (and get pics of course). The boats couldn't do that.
At some points it was so windy it was impossible to stand up without holding on. If you turned your head to the side, it was hard to catch breath. Also some of the waterfalls were forced upwards by the wind, creating an amazing affect known as 'forest fire' because the water actually looks like smoke drifting upwards.
We went out into the open sea, which was pretty choppy, and then turned back in again.
On the way back around the northern edge we stopped to see some sleeping seals, curled up on some rocks.
Then, joy of joys, I spotted a penguin! It was swimming just in front of the boat, and had to dive down quickly. We managed to track it (the water seemed black, but it was so clear) and saw it pop up again alongside the ship. It was very exciting – our first wild penguin.
When I mentioned it to one of the crew, he said we were very lucky, that we had managed to spot the rarest penguin on the planet. Milford Sound is the only place in the world that they nest, and there are thought to be only about 1000 pairs.
Towards the end of the cruise, the skipper said he needed to kill a bit of time, so he took us over into a cove to look for more penguins. Another boat had just come out, and the skipper of that vessel radioed to tell our skipper that there weren't any penguins about, but he thought it worth the trip. He slowed right down, and pretty much cut the engine, and we just sat there at this small, stoney beach, about 5 meters off shore, watching and waiting.
Then, one of the crew at the front of the boat with binoculars signaled that one was coming out of the bush, and sure enough, slowly, slowly, out he plodded. Like he'd just woken up actually. We watched him for about 5 minutes as he slowly made his way to the water's edge and paddled in. Then another one came out of the water and joined him.
It was really fantastic!
After that, the crew decided that they weren't going to get rid of the sandwiches and soup that were for sale on board, so they decided to give them away. So we had free soup and a sandwich each, and then some free coffee.
What a great excursion. We made sure we said our thank yous and everyone knew how much we'd enjoyed it.
We walked back up to the camp site, amazingly avoiding any serious rain. Thankfully I have just had the most amazing hot shower and we're now settling in for a quiet night as the wind and rain go mad around us.