Milford Sound and return to Te Anau Downs South Island 10th December 2007.
2 Jan 2008
After a week of really glorious weather we awoke on Monday morning to find the very large mountains that had surrounded us last night gone. In their place were a lot of very low cloud swirling around and a small amount of drizzle. We had breakfast, packed up and drove the short journey from the camp site to the car park before walking to the boat docking area to check in for our cruise down Milford Sound. Milford is one of the wettest places on earth with an average annual total of 21 feet of rain or snow falling on 182 days of the year. So the chances of visiting on a fine day are 50/50, and we got it wrong.
Milford Sound is not a sound but a fiord. We learnt that a sound is carved out by rivers and is much shallower and we would be seeing this when we travel through the Marlboro Sound, before sailing to the North Island. Fiords are carved out of glaciers and have steep mountainous sides that go down deep under the water. Regarded by many as one of the scenic wonders of the world, Milford Sound is NZ's most visited natural attraction, and the only fiord that can be accessed by road. The 10 mile long fiord is dominated by the mile high Mitre Peak, named because of it's resemblance to a Bishop's Mitre, which rises almost vertically upwards from the water. The peak rises to 1,682 meters and is believed to be one of the world's highest mountains to rise out of the sea. We caught a couple of fleeting glances of it as the mist swirled around.
There are a number of boat operators running trips down the fiord, some are sightseeing trips which just go a little way, and some offer a barbeque lunch and one does an overnight cruise. We chose the nature cruise, hoping to see some of the wild life along the way, so sailed on the Milford Wanderer. I managed to be one of the first on board and got a good viewing spot right at the front of the top deck, we had put our rain weather gear on in anticipation. It was not long before we were on our way and once out onto the water we passed the Bowen Falls, a lovely waterfall made even more so with the rain we had had last night.
Sailing down the fiord was a magnificent trip and made more dramatic with the mist shrouded mountains and the many rain dependant waterfalls we could now see. As I stood alone on the deck getting wet looking at this awe inspiring scenery I thought of all the people who come down here on a sunny day and miss just what I was seeing. Our wild life spotting was good as well; we saw a small pod of Dusky Dolphins making their way up the sound as we sailed towards the Tasman Sea. We were also lucky to see a few Fiordland Crested Penguins wondering if they should jump in the water or wait for another day. These were really the tail enders as most have left to return to sea now the breeding season has ended. We also passed a colony of NZ Fur Seals sitting on the rocks wondering where the sun was. Soon we were nearing the sea and the boat was beginning to rock and roll a little, the wind was getting up and the rain getting a bit heavier, so deserting my spot I headed up to the bridge area for a bit of shelter.
Yesterday a large cruise liner had sailed into the sound to give the passengers a view of this wonderful scenery. It would have been interesting to see it against the back drop of these mountains as the cruise boats that had looked big in the dock area were dwarfed as they sailed along. When we turned around at the end of the fiord we came across a large pod of Dusky Dolphins and they put on a wonderful show for us. Some looked like they were standing up as they jumped up out of the water, whist others swam backwards and forwards infront of the boat.
We passed by Stirling Falls, which at 509 feet high, are three times the height of Niagara Falls and yet looked very small, the captain took the front of the boat close to the falls so that we could feel the spray on our faces, or was it the rain and we only thought it was the spray. Close by was a 4,230 feet high rock formation called The Lion, named after its shape, but officially called Mt Kimberly, and as we sailed passed the captain had us all leaning over backwards to look up at it. What a sight it was and it seemed to go on for ever, we were told it was five times higher than the Empire State Building, (counting the bit under the water as well).
Soon we were at the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory where we left the boat and got a chance to observe Milford Sound below the waterline. We descended 8 metres down a ramp and saw some black coral, and many fish species swimming past. Our visit was soon over and we had to catch the next boat back to the dock. Once back on dry land, or should I say once off the water, we had a wet walk along the board walk which took us to the edge of the fiord and gave us more views of the Bowen Falls. Then we headed for the café for a warm meal and wait until all the buses headed home so we would get the road to ourselves for our journey back.
On our return journey we planned to make a couple of stops at places we had not visited on our way in. The first of these was The Chasm, an impressive rock chasm formed by the rushing waters of the Cleddau River, made even more impressive today after all the recent rain. There is a short forest walk leading up to the rock formations and we were greeted by the sight of deep waterfalls and rushing water through the narrow chasm and under a natural arch bridge. There were plenty of fallen trees upended into some of the rock formations demonstrating the force the water can come down the chasm at. Returning to the van we made the slow climb up through the Cleddau Valley on the zig zag road around some hairpin bends. Our journey up the valley was different to our trip down as there were waterfalls streaming off the hill sides which had not been there yesterday. The mist also added to the mood as it was still swirling around the tops of the mountains.
We reached the Homer Tunnel and had to wait for the lights to turn green before we could enter. The 3,921 feet long unlined tunnel slopes down towards Milford with a 1 in 10 gradient. In 1889 explorer and mountaineer W.H.Homer discovered the Homer Saddle and thought it feasible to drive a tunnel through it to connect the Upper Holyford and Cleddau Valleys, and form a route from Queenstown to Milford. Twelve months later the public works department surveyed the area and decided a tunnel should be built. It was not until the depression years of the 1930's that a start was made on the tunnel and not from Queenstown but from Te Anau. This was because a road had been built by hand from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs. Although started in 1935 the work was not completed until 1952, but enlargement work and rock bolting of the unstable sections held up the opening until 1954. Although it took 20 years to complete, work was halted for two periods of six months for weather conditions and nine years during World War II. The tunnel was driven from one end only and through rugged mountain country with the portals sited in sheer rock faces. In 1996 a section of the tunnel was widened to allow two passing bays, but in the busy season traffic passes through one way controlled by lights.
For the men who built this tunnel, life was harsh but the tunnel had to be built. The pay was meagre, the communities they lived in were many hours travel away and amenities were non existent. The terrain was ferocious, high in altitude, with artic snow and ice in the winter. The Homer Camp saw no sun from May to September and on a couple of occasions avalanches killed some of the workers. I wonder how many of the ten's of thousands of visitors who travel through this tunnel each year spare a thought for the workers who built it.
Opening the tunnel was not the end of the story; the road had to be maintained and until the 1970's the road was closed in the winter months. Today the tunnel is open all year round and a sophisticated avalanche system is in place enabling it to stay open and remain safe for the maintenance men. A video described the road to Milford as one of the most scenic in the world but also one of the most dangerous because of the avalanche threats.
Once through the tunnel we pulled over to admire the view from the other side and take some photos. It was not long until 3 Kea's came running across to see what we were doing and have a good look around our van. Jeff was out very smartly as we have seen video's of these parrots stripping cars to bits. However they just wanted to sit up on the overhead cab to get a better view of the world.
Our final stop of the day was at a DOC campsite on the edge of Lake Te Anau close to Te Anau Downs, where tomorrow we will catch the boat to take us up to the Milford Track where we will do a day walk.
We had enjoyed our trip to Milford Sound, both the drive down and our sail, and look forward to visiting Doubtful Sound in a few days time.