Sunday, November 8, 2009

Milford Sound

Today we are already halfway through our New Zealand experience and also the farthest south we have been. Actually, this is the most south we've have ever been. The day started in our secret little camping spot in the woods on Lake Te Anau, and was a bit overhwhelming when we made it into town to plan the day. There were so many options and not enough time (and especially money) for them all. We had initially thought of going into Milford Sound tomorrow, but since it was clear and sunny and gorgeous out, we figured we really should take advantage of this day to go. Milford Sound is one of the rainiest places in the entire world and gets an average of seven meters (23 FEET) of rain per year and we were told to expect to see it in either rain or drizzle.

The best way to see the sound is by boat since the road basically stops at the edge. So, since the day was perfect, we booked our "nature cruise" and headed down the road for about two and a half hours to the sound. The drive into the area was unreal with enormous snow-capped and steep pyramid shaped peaks surrounding us and crystal clear rivers running alongside the road. There were loads of tour buses out and essentially this is the number one tourist attraction on the South Island, maybe in all of New Zealand. Hence why we were hesitant to even come to this spot at all, but once we did, we realized what all the hype was about.

The town of Milford is nothing more than a little lodge and airstrip with the docks not far away for the boat tours. We lucked out and boarded a brand new ship with the "Real Journies" tour company, much smaller and more able to get close the the edges of the sound. Turns out Milford Sound should actually be called Milford Fiord, as the Glaciers had carved away the mountains. (A sound is when a river carves away at the mountains.) The boat was immaculate and uncrowded with two levels and a nature tour guide over the loud speaker.

Inside the sound was probably the highlight of our trip, if not the most amazing thing we've seen, and we could easily see why it is dubbed as the eighth wonder of the world. It's impossible to describe the grand scale of the scenery, granite walls ascending vertically out of the water for thousands of feet. Waterfalls were everywhere alongside the edge of the sound, and the boat actually put the bow under a couple of them! The fiord walls go straight down for another 300 meters so there was nothing blocking the boat from getting right up against the walls of the fiord. It was unbelievable to learn that they get SO much rainfall here that a layer of water about 15 feet deep on top of the sound is actually freshwater, with the salty ocean water layer under that. It confuses the marine life and makes for some interesting unique differences.

Along the two and a half hour trip, we saw countless waterfalls and geological features, such as the fault line between New Zealand and Australia, but also plenty of wildlife as well. Bottlenose dolphins cruised along with the boat (although this is the farthest south they will go and they weigh more here to stay warm) but didn't get too close as they had babies with them. We finally got to see those elusive penguins we'd been searching for this trip, several Crested Penguins were up on some rocks by the water. As opposed to the dolphins, this is as far north as they will live before it gets too warm. On the way back into the sound, we passed a massive boulder with 15 or so New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves, and not the least bit bothered by the boat within ten feet of them. Unfortunately, this is why they were almost totally wiped out in the 1700s from the fur traders.

Back at the dock after the trip, we felt lucky to see the sound on such a clear and beautiful day with no clouds blocking the mountain peaks. We avoided the mass of people streaming from the other big boats onto their buses, and headed for the Chasm, back up the road a bit. It was an impressive series of waterfalls where the river had carved the rock walls into a chasm with holes, basins and arches in the rock. On the drive out of Milford, we passed once again through the long, dark Homer tunnel and checked out some campsites for the night. We found a great spot (albeit swarming with black flies like most of the area) with a panoramic view of the Fiordland mountains and the river flowing along behind the site.

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