We woke up in Queenstown with no real plans except to leave. Taking the bus to Milford sound proved exceptionally time-consuming, expensive, and inconvenient, so we decided that we would rent a car. This proved to be ridiculously easy. We walked into the car rental office, told them what we wanted, and an hour later had a nice little Toyota Corona loaded up with all of our bags. My parents will be glad to know that we decided to buy the optional insurance (not required in NZ at all). This later proved to be a good decision (more on this later - we did not get in an accident, and that’s all that is important right now).
Driving on the left side of the road, and the right side of the car, doesn’t actually take that much getting used to. Might have been a different story if we had rented a car with manual transmission, especially since I don’t even know how to drive standard (add to list of thugs to do). The biggest problem is that both Sarah and I kept hitting the wipers rather than the signal lights… The windshield was very clean.
We had planned to stay in Te Anau and drive to Milford the next day, but since we wanted to do a kayak trip that started at 8am and it was a 2-hour drive, this would not have been ideal. Conveniently, once we reached Te Anau, we called the Milford Sound Lodge, which is the only tourist accommodation in Milford Sound, and they had exactly two dorm beds left. We snatched those up and hit the road once more.
The drive to Milford was breathtaking. Anytime you drive for more than 2 hours in this country, you will see the landscape change several times, and very quickly at that. It’s pretty incredible. We stopped at a few viewpoints along the way, including the Mirror Lakes, which were nearly perfect. It was really foggy, so some places we couldn’t see anything. It was pouring rain, and this only added to the scenery. The mountains in Fiordland are super steep and sheer granite. Hundreds of waterfalls formed in the mist and we were awestruck. We pulled the car over to take pictures. Immediately after, we drove through a mountain! No jokes. The map showed a tunnel, but it wasn’t until we were driving through that we realised we were actually going through a massive mountain! The tunnel only has space for cars to pass through one way at a time, so it is controlled by a traffic light. But it turns off between 6pm and 8am - I would not want to attempt it then…
The next morning we rose early to head of on our day of kayaking adventures. It was definitely one of the more amazing experiences of my life. We spent a solid 4 hours paddling, and were really able to take in the scenery and enjoy the day. We saw New Zealand fur seals, which are actually a type of sea lion. They were all young males, which are sent away from the main colony until about 4-5 years of age, when they return to mate. We saw the Stirling Falls, named after a ship captain, and the Lady Elizabeth Bowen Falls. The Maori name for the latter has something to do with it looking like a wood pigeon, because they are green with a brilliant white breast. It is actually pretty accurate. Bowen Falls is about 160 metres tall, which is over 3 times the height of Niagara Falls. Even though I’ve never been there, I found this hard to believe. But everything here is so massive, perspective just goes right out the window. We could also see Mitre Peak, which is quite iconic, the Pembroke glacier, and lots of evidence of tree avalanches. Since the mountainsides are so sheer and steep, nothing can properly grow there, rooted down, so all the roots just get tangled together and when one thing falls, everything gets pulled down. You could really see how the landscape had been formed by glaciation and erosion over the thousands of years, and I thought that was neat. Like the fur “seals,” Milford SOUND is a misnomer, since it is actually a fiord/fjord. You can’t see into the fjord from the sea, because the mountains rise out of the sea in a criss-crossing fashion. For that reason, it was the last part of Fiordland to be discovered.
After the kayak adventure (so much better than the nature cruises most people do here), we headed back to Milford Sound for the evening. We stopped along the way at all of the places we had missed or skipped on the way up, plus some repeats.
When we got to Te Anau, we went to see the film Ata Whenua, which translates to Shadowlands. It is all about the Fiordlands and its name comes from the Maori creation story of the Fiordlands. It was quite the beautiful movie, and was made by a local helicopter pilot over a period of 5 years. He received support from various people over the years, including Lord of the Rings film crew. He then built the theatre for the express purpose of showing the movie. Really awesome! It was a great way to cap off the day and see the parts of the area that we couldn’t see from sea level.
Next day we were headed to Dunedin to meet up with Amy for the weekend!