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Day 6: The Best of The Best

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

05 June, 2010

I swore to myself that I would cut way down on pictures this trip. But then again, I had never been to Fiordland before, and I had no idea how gorgeous it would be. Between yesterday and today, I have nearly 600 pictures—just in the Fiordland area.

Our original plan was to climb Gertrude Saddle (an intense, 3.5 km, 5-hour hike that gives fantastic views of Milford) and then head back to Queenstown. Instead, we decided to take a boat tour of Milford. For ~$60, we got a two-hour tour of the beautiful Milford Sound, complete with tour guide and tea/coffee.

The day was a bit dreary looking; fog hung low and a lot of the sky was covered with clouds. The sun wasn’t showing, and it even threatened to rain. Still, I knew that the boat tour would be great. We hopped on the boat at 9:45am and began our tour.

Milford Sound

Taken from the boat heading out on our tour of Milford Sound.

Our boat was the Lady Bowen, named after the huge waterfall that is one of the main characteristics of the sound. The company it was with did a really good job. The crew was friendly, and the tour guide was knowledgeable about both the wildlife and geography/geology of the area. And best of all, the boat was fairly empty. There were less than 15 passengers, even though the boat had a capacity of 85. This made for great views without having to fight for a spot.

We took off into the harbor, complete with mist and fog surrounding the mountains. The water was perfectly still, looking almost like a mirror, so the ride was very gentle and easy. We got good views of Bowen Falls before heading out to the area of the sound you can’t see from the shore.

Looking Backwards

Looking back across the side of our boat.

Milford Sound is actually a fjord, a glacier carved valley that got filled with ocean water. Because the rock in the area is so hard, the cliffs held their shape and didn’t cave down. You can almost see the glacier marks as you look at the cliffs. The coolest part is that the peaks that you see are not the entire mountain; they begin below on the floor of the sound. If you count the part underwater, it makes the mountains in Milford some of the tallest in the country.

Because they are so steep, there is not much wildlife in the mountains. The water, though, is filled. While we didn’t see much on our journey, the tour guide said that it’s not uncommon to see sea lions, seals, eels, giant jellyfish, or even dolphins. Because there’s so much rain in Milford (about 30 ft/year), there’s a layer of fresh water that sits on the surface of the salt water, making for a unique habitat. Fresh water animals ride on the top layer, while ocean animals swim just below that. Because of the diffraction of light, though, little light gets below ~40 meters, and it’s completely dark below there—much like the very deepest parts of the oceans.

We're on a Boat

Katrina is very bright.

The vegetation grows thick since it’s a temperate rainforest, even on the rock cliffs. Moss starts to grow from the moisture, and trees plant the beginnings of their roots in there. As they grow, they can’t dig into the rock, so they form a sort of interwoven web that holds them together. (It reminds me a lot of the network of trees in Avatar.) While this helps the trees to grow, the downside is that a single tree can bring down the entire mountainside’s vegetation in a single tree avalanche. This leaves a huge scar on the side of the mountain, and it takes ~150 years to grow back.

The best part of the trip was about halfway through. Rain started to fall above us, but the sun peaked out just over the ocean. We got to see some beautiful rainbows forming between the cliffs. This, combined with the mist that was still hanging around, made for the single most spectacular thing I have ever seen.

Rainbow over Milford

The weather was just perfect for our tour. There was just enough misty rain that, combined with the bit of sun that peaked out, led to a bunch of rainbows along the tour. This particular one was spectacular, but my camera was not able to capture it anywhere near its initial splendor.

The other highlights of our trip:

-We pulled up to a rock where a bunch of young seals tend to congregate. They get pushed away from their usual ground by the older males and hang here for a while until the older males leave or calm down.

Backflips

Seal Rock

-We also saw Stirling Falls, the other of the two permanent waterfalls. We pulled up close to this and got to look straight up. My lens got soaked, but it was totally worth the pictures.

Stirling Falls v2

Our boat got right up next to the falls, allowing me to get quite a shot. Unfortunately, I also got a lens full of water, which you can really see towards the top of this shot.

After we returned, Kat and I drove back towards Te Anau, saying goodbye to Milford. We stopped at The Chasm, an area where the river carved deep into the rock, making a huge gorge. Even better, some areas of rock were softer than others, and large boulders had holes snaking through them through which water flowed, with the rest of the boulder remaining intact. The main path didn’t give a very good view, but a small dirt path off to the right gave much better views, taking you dangerously close to the edge of the chasm.

The Chasm Waterfall

The waterfall spilling out of The Chasm.

Our other stop was at the Gertrude Valley, the start of the Gertrude Saddle hike that we were originally going to do. While we didn’t have time for the whole hike, we did walk to the end of the flat section, the part just before the path heads into alpine territory. I didn’t take my camera, but it was a fantastic sight. It was weird being at the end of a valley: like a peninsula, but instead of being surrounded by water on three sides, we were surrounded by high mountains.

We drove back to Te Anau, hoping to get some coffee from the Sandfly Café. Unfortunately, it had closed just 10 minutes earlier. Still, we found a seafood stand and picked up some seafood chowder. We ate this while watching one of the best (and definitely pinkest) sunsets of my life. Three months ago in Kinloch, a German traveler said that he witnessed a sunset in Fiordland “so colorful that it made [him] physically ill.” I now understand what he meant.

On the Lake

Before the seafood chowder.

Lake Te Anau

During the seafood chowder.

Sunset on the Lake 2

After the seafood chowder.

We spent the next two hours driving to Queenstown. We walked around a bit before heading into Fergburger, what (I’ve been told) is the best burger in the world. And I have to say, it held up to its reputation.

I was surprised to find that Fergburger only had a small number of beef burgers, the rest being chicken, fish, tofu…you name it. Kat got the original beef Fergburger, and I (off the recommendation of the cashier) got a Cockadoodle Oink. It was, by far, the best thing I have ever tasted. The sandwich consisted of a huge, breaded chicken breast, American streaky bacon, avocado, tomato, red onion, and aioli, all on a bun about the size of my head—and all for $12 NZD. You can’t beat that.

Fergburger

Fergburger, home of the best burger I've eaten in my life. I ate there twice in two days, and am regretting not eating there a third time.

We ended up running into Jamie (my flatmate) and some other friends. I knew she was in the area, but never expected to run into them. That makes the third time I’ve seen someone that I know in a strange part of New Zealand, something I don’t even get at home. Just shows how small of a country it is.

I have to say, these past two days were filled with some of the best things I’ve experience in my life. The best latte, the most beautiful location, the best sunset, and the best burger. And it’s only two days out of our 10-day trip.

If nothing else, I have to say that everyone needs to make a trip to Fiordland, New Zealand at least once in their life. If you can see the rest of the country, that’s even better. But Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand is by far the most amazing place I’ve ever been.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)

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Day 5: On to Milford!

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

04 June, 2010

Turns out we picked a pretty nice spot to pull over.  After being honked at by a bunch of passing trucks, we woke up to find two really cool things.  1) Out of our side window was a range of snow-capped mountains, and 2) It was warm out—like really warm—enough to be in a t-shirt when the wind wasn’t blowing.

We ate a quick breakfast of eggs and bread and were on our way.  We had another hour or so to Te Anau, so we passed the time listening to Eddie Vedder in the Into the Wild soundtrack.  It set the mood perfectly.

We pulled over at one point to take pictures along a river.  When pulling in to park, though, I pulled our front tires into mud and got stuck.  A few quick turns of the wheel and a burst of gas got us out, luckily.

Fiordland

On our way to Te Anau, Kat and I stopped on the side of the road to take some photos looking into Fiordland. This is where we got stuck.

By the time we got to Te Anau, it was nearly lunch time.  A quick trip to the grocery store got us stocked for the next few days.  We saw a nice looking lunch stop, The Sandfly Café, across the street.  I got a flat white and Kat got “the best latte I’ve ever had.”  (It’s true, I even agreed with her.)  It had just enough coffee and the smoothest vanilla I’ve ever tasted.

Sandfly Cafe

Once we got into Te Anau, we grabbed some coffee at the Sandfly Cafe--it had the best latte that Kat or I have ever had.

We walked around town a bit, especially down by Lake Te Anau.  It was very pretty and the sun was hitting in just the right way for some great shots.

Seaplane

Lake Te Anau, and one of the seaplanes that could take you on an air tour of the area.

The drive to Milford is only 120km (80 miles), but it takes just about 2 hours.  The first half is easy, but it quickly gets windy and icy, drastically slowing the trip down.  Still, it is by far the most beautiful drive I’ve ever done.  You start out along Lake Te Anau with rolling hills.  As you enter Fiordland National Park, though, the rainforest quickly takes over.  Great expanses of dry riverbed (at least this time of year) stretch out beneath the vast mountains of The Southern Alps.  Some areas are permanently frosted because they never see the sun, and others are so warm that you could get a suntan there.  One of the most diverse areas I’ve ever seen.

Only a Boat

The boat that heads towards the start of the Milford Track lands at this dock. Not sure if this is the ferry that takes you or not.

Reflections

The Mirror Lakes, one of the stops along the way to Milford.

At one of the lookouts at which we stopped, a large bird swooped down from the trees just as I got out of the car.  I tried to take a picture, but he was too quick.  When I turned around, though, he had plopped himself down right on top of our van and sat firmly.

Kat and I took tons of pictures of him, not sure what type of bird it was.  At a cross between a parrot and the kaka I saw at Zealandia, I assumed it was unique to New Zealand.  We played with him a little while longer before saying goodbye to Kyle (our name for him) and driving off.  (We later found out that it is a Kea—a mountain parrot.)

Pensive

Kyle, our Kea.

Stare-down

Though we didn't know it at the time, we found out that you're not supposed to feed the kea. Not only does it screw up their diet, but it makes them less afraid of humans, sometimes leading to their death or (more likely) them eating the rubber molding on your car door frames. Apparently it's a tasty treat for them. (Taken by Kat)

To get to Milford Sound, you have to drive through the Homer Tunnel, a 1000+ meter tunnel cut through the mountain.  It’s too small for steady 2-way traffic, so stop lights at either end alternate every 15 minutes.  While waiting for the light to change on our side, we took a chance to explore a huge (mansion-sized) block of ice that had fallen off from one of the mountains into a nearby valley.

After getting through, it’s like a portal, and you’re transported to a place even more beautiful than the one you came from.  The road sloped down in sharp bends as gorges and peaks alternated around you.

Heading Towards Milford

The view after getting through the Homer Tunnel and down the bottom of the valley.

When we finally arrived at Milford Sound, it was nearing sunset.  We hurried out of the car and walked the 15 minutes from the car park to the actual sound to try and see it.  Though you can’t quite see the sunset on the horizon as I had hoped, I still got a few nice shots.

Milford Sound

One of the most photographed areas of New Zealand.

Milford

So many tour boats in the harbor at Milford.

We cooked a quick spaghetti dinner and then went back out to the water for some pictures.  By this time, it was dark and the stars were out, so I took my tripod and remote, hoping to take some long exposures.  We walked out to a spot we had been earlier in the day, only to realize that the tide had gone way out.  It looked as though half of the sound had dried up, but it was so dark that it was difficult to tell for sure.  Still, it felt eerie to be in a spot that had been covered in 2-feet of water just a few hours earlier—like I was doing something wrong and the sea would soon come back in to punish me.

I took a series of long (>5 minute) exposures.  Out of the four that I took, I got one great one from a shot that took just under 10 minutes.  You can see the star movement very clearly, appearing as shooting stars.

Starry Night

Kat and I walked out to a sandbar in the middle of the the sound and took this ~10 min. exposure. I wish I had more time to try a longer shot, but it was getting cold and the tide was coming in. Also, I was mostly shooting in the dark on this, as I couldn't really see anything through the viewfinder and didn't get an idea of what I was looking at until at least a 5-minute exposure.

The nearest DOC site was back through the Homer Tunnel, at least an hour back towards Te Anau.  So, once again, we looked for somewhere on the side of the road to park.  Most of the car parks here have signs for no overnight camping, so it was a little more difficult.  We finally found one that looked good, so we pulled over.  We weren’t quite off the road as far as I would have liked, so I backed up to try and get further off.

And I got stuck.

Again.

This one took a lot more finesse to get out of, and took us a good 5 minutes of fidgeting.  The good news is that if we were stuck, we could just sleep there (albeit on a weird slope).  No worries though, as we got out just fine.

Now we have found a much more secure location—a mini-car park just down the road.  This one is pavement, so we won’t get stuck.  (That was our rule after this: no more trying to sleep in anything that isn’t pavement.)  It’s pretty far off the road, and seeing as the closest two towns—each with population < 100—are more than 2 hours apart, I don’t think we’ll be getting too many people driving by overnight.  It’s looking to be a decent, albeit cold, night.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)