We leave Wanaka by the Cardrona Ski area and another spectacular pass. It always amazes me to see cyclists bursting their lungs up these roads that hairpin and climb so steeply. Perhaps more dangerous is the descent into the main road to Queenstown. Especially hazardous for cyclists I would imagine are the odd stretches where the seal in the road has gone and turned to gravel. Even taking the car down takes extra concentration.
Soon we are in Queenstown – the adrenalin centre of this part of New Zealand. Given the choice of bungy jumping, jet boating, paragliding, skydiving, mountain biking, kyaking or a hundred other mad pastimes, I can’t even persuade Marilyn that she should at least take the sky gondola up to the top of the hill overlooking the town. However, she is easily talked into coffee on the lakeside and a trip to Kathmandu – a very good outdoor pursuits retailer – where I buy a shirt and a pillow for making the camping more comfortable.
We leave Queenstown as a fierce wind starts to blow and the lake is soon churning as we hug the shoreline under the shadow of The Remarkeables mountains that loom above us to our left. We have to stay in the car at our lakeside picnic spot or risk getting blown away and the wind has a real chill to it. As we pass through Mossburn we can see a storm brewing in the distance and soon we are passing through heavy rain and visibility is limited to the valley edges. Marilyn has no idea just how spectacular the mountains are around us as we eventually get to Te Anau and find Caroline and John’s place where we are staying for the next few days.
I used to work with Caroline when she started her teaching career in London. I stayed with her and John on my last visit ten years ago and a lot has happened in the interim to both of us. We have both had serious illness to contend with but hers seems too cruel to happen to someone so young. Her positive spirit will see her through as will her lovely family. She and John have a gorgeous four year old lad who exudes energy and joy of life. He is immediately keen to tell us that his name is Jasper George and wants to know our full names and our history as he makes us very welcome.
They have a home close to the lake and looking out to the mountains that make up the Kepler Trail – one of New Zealand’s great walks. It is a three day walk but every year a group of athletes run it as a kind of marathon. John did it this year. He took just over ten hours! I am astonished and in awe until he tells me that the record is a little under five hours.
We are treated to a showing of a film about the local area that was shot by a local film-maker and helicopter pilot. He then built a cinema so that it could be shared. It is a lovely film that shows off the awesome scale of the Fjordland and its biodiversity and is keen to make the point that it is also a fragile environment that needs good care taken of it. Both John and Caroline are committed to helping make tourism sustainable and educational while still maintaining the sense of fun and adventure that being in such a challenging environment should have.
Friday 27th. Milford Sound……
One of the highlights of any trip to New Zealand has to be to experience the majesty of its Fjords and so we head off for Milford Sound early today to beat the folk who will be coming in by bus to enjoy this spectacle. The road trip there is definitely part of the experience, especially as we approach the high mountains and the tunnel that was built in the 50s. These are high,steep mountains that have been razored by ice that was thousands of metres deep 18,000 years ago. It is hard to imagine that we would have had a mile of glacier above our head as we drive through these carved valleys that are bedecked in trees that somehow cling to the rock. This is prime avalanche country. In the winter snow is a danger but all year round rock falls or tree falls are equally a threat to the motorist below. Everywhere are the grey scars on the hills that evidence a fall of trees that have given up the ghost and lost their grip to tumble down the hillside dragging all those below them in their path.
The tunnel has opened the road to Milford. It must have been an expensive project and it certainly cost lives to build and I have to wonder why this road and tunnel were built to service such a small community. I guess it is the reason why over 500,000 people can now visit every year and the economic bonus of that to the local area are obvious.
After a last vertiginous descent we arrive and book our boat trip on Milford Mariner – a converted sail boat run by ‘Real Journeys’, a firm that was recommended to us. They don’t disappoint. The commentary that there is concentrates on the natural features of the Fjord ( it is technically NOT a Sound ). The rain we had experienced yesterday adds to today’s enjoyment because it means that many of the thousand waterfalls are now on show.
The sea cliffs are among the tallest in the world. The famous Mitre Rock is a mile high coming straight out of the water and towering above. The boat can travel so close to the cliffs that it makes you dizzy to put your head back and look upwards.
Luckily, although there is a stiff breeze coming down the Fjord, the water is calm and so there is no repeat of the falling down and lying still on the floor that poor Marilyn experienced on our trip to Picton. Instead we can try to absorb the full awesome majesty of this journey as the boat takes us out of the Sound and into the Tasman Sea and we can look back and see why Captain Cook passed this spot twice and missed the narrow opening. We see basking seals in three separate colonies and all sorts of sea birds feed in the rich waters. Sadly no dolphins today but the two and a half hour journey has so much to take the breath away that it doesn’t matter.
The only thing that begins to disturb me is seeing and hearing the constant drone of small aircraft and helicopters that are also making the trip from the little airport at Milford. I’m not sure how I square this with a local commitment to eco-tourism. But I have driven a car 3000 kms around New Zealand in order to see what I have seen and it would have taken an awful long time to walk and even more effort it seems to me to have cycled. It is a difficult one.
Talking of walking and cycling – we are met at the car park by a young German lad who enquires politely if we are going back to Te Anau.
“ Yes”, I reply, “ But I will be stopping along the way to do various small walks and so I don’t know how long it will take.”
He wanders off to speak to his girlfriend who he had hidden and who seems to be sheepishly sidling away and we continue to pack the car. He soon returns.
“ Yes that would be good please. We come with you -yes – you take us to Te Anau – yes – and we enjoy the walking too – yes. We come now.”
If I could have taken a picture of Marilyn’s face it would have won a most shocked competition but having done a fair amount of hitching myself I accept his kind offer of company and proceed to unpack our loaded back seats into the boot to make space for the two Germans who it transpires are very nice people and have cycled or hitched here from Christchurch. So I hold a secret admiration for them. And they enjoy with us the walks around the waterfall at Lake Marian, The Gorge and the stop at Mirror Lakes. When we eventually reach Te Anau I recommend them to watch the film and tell them that we know the guy who manages the screenings.
That evening, over dinner, John tells us of a young German couple who had come into the cinema where he is working, claimed student poverty and blagued a big discount off the price of the screening. He had been so taken with their front he had obliged!