We woke up early. A fast breakfast of muesli and fruit; high octane coffee for those of age. I had filled up the minivan with fuel the night before. There would be no gas stations between us and our destination, two and a half hours away.
Our first paid excursion in New Zealand
The day before we had splurged on our first paid excursion of our New Zealand road trip: the glow worms. From the small town centre of Te Anau, we boarded a motor catamaran along with forty or fifty other people and traveled up Lake Te Anau to the conservation centre. After being sorted into smaller groups, we received a presentation about these bizarre little creatures before being led into the nearby caves. Absolutely no photography was allowed inside the caves, so here’s a picture from the Inter-web. In reality, it was much more like looking up into the night sky: constellations of tiny glowing dots.
Glow worms are actually the larvae of a fly. This species only exists in the caves of New Zealand, attaching themselves to rocks above slow moving water. From this vantage point, they extend fine silk snares with sticky droplets to catch insects that are attracted to their luciferous light show. Drifting through subterranean caves, peering upward at the eerie luminescent patterns was a special experience, but the main attraction of New Zealand’s far south wasn’t tiny insects, it was something much bigger – the crown jewel of Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound.
The day after our glow worm experience we piled into the minivan at 7:30am, allowing three hours for what should be a two and a half hour drive. Little did we know that this extra time would be so valuable.
Rolling out of town, the cold air was still and heavy with moisture. The light of the sun, still hidden behind mountains, slowly illuminated the soggy atmosphere in muted shades of grey, like the dial of nature’s dimmer switch being turned up in achingly small increments.
It lit up layers of fog, easing off the mountain slopes and settling in the valleys; they covered the road and swallowed vehicles whole. Rivers jostled under the misty blankets like giddy lovers on a lazy morning. The jagged peaks of the mountains began to glow from the top down, like blushing voyeurs.
We must have stopped ten times on our way to Milford Sound. The compulsion to try to capture these scenes was irresistible. As we drove, the sun continued its inexorable ascent. Everything was changing so quickly. I would pull over and exit the car, walking a few steps through air so saturated with cool vapor it was almost drinkable. Frost had crystallized on rocks and dead grass. The slightest touch turned it into water; the whole thing felt fragile and transient.
We thought we were driving to the “main event” – our boat tour of Milford Sound – but in the end we used up every extra minute we had on the drive up. From the panoply of natural spectacles to the engineering masterpiece that was the Homer Tunnel – for me, it was perhaps the most memorable three hours of our month in New Zealand.
Sometimes you get lucky
By the time we arrived at Milford Sound, the sky was turning blue. There was no town there, just campsites, parking lots and a huge docking area in front of the visitor’s centre. We retrieved our tickets and waited in front of a big boat called “Sinbad”. It’s capacity was 75 people, but there was only one other couple in line.
Pretty soon the captain arrived, then our guide and finally our “hospitality host” (free coffee, tea and hot chocolate!). No other guests arrived, and I thought they were going to move us to another boat with more people – there were plenty of them – but, no, the eleven of us departed the dock and we spent the next three hours getting a private boat tour of Milford Sound!
Milford Sound is not a sound
The engines roared as we sipped our hot drinks and inched down the fjord – that’s right, “fjord”. “Sounds” are created when riverbeds are back-filled by the sea. They tend to have a “V” shape. Fjords, like this one, are carved by glaciers pushing down from the mountains toward the sea, resulting in a U-shape. So, Milford Sound is not a sound, it’s a fjord – and the only one in New Zealand that is accessible by road.
Sky, rock, trees, and water
Nearly as remarkable as the paucity of other guests on our boat was the fact that the weather was perfect – clear blue skies. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on the planet with annual rainfall averaging almost seven metres (252 inches). We learned from our guide that after a good rain, the steep sides of the fjord will come alive with dozens of waterfalls. This fresh water is stained with tannins from the land and sits on top of the heavier salt water, blocking the light, creating a unique habitat for sea life like dolphins and whales (although we didn’t see any).
Of course, we couldn’t see below the surface, but there was lots to marvel at above the waterline. Our captain inched Sinbad into the spray of waterfalls; maneuvered around fur seals lounging on the rocks; and in between sights, let each of the boys take turns sitting in his seat and using his bincoulars. Everywhere we looked was like a painting – some idealized landscaped conjured in an artists imagination.
One hard to believe aspect of the landscape was the tress – a carpet of them covered the sheer faces of the mountains as they plunged into the water. How could they grow on such an incline? Our guide let us in on the secret: Even though it’s a rainforest, there is almost no soil; a tree’s roots intertwine with those of other trees around it. Over years, this woven blanket of roots, only inches thick, extends further and further . . . until the mass of trees overcomes the friction with the underlying rock – and they slide, en masse, into the water. Looking around we could see evidence of these arboreal avalanches: huge vertical swathes of bare rock amid the surrounding forest. Trunks and branches on the shoreline below.
Rudyard Kipling once labeled Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world. We would concur with his assessment and certainly recommend going there if you’re ever in New Zealand. Just give yourself plenty of time for the drive up.