The good news is that I went to Milford Sound yesterday. The bad news is that it rained all day.
Located on New Zealand’s rugged west coast in an region named, appropriately, Fiordland, Milford Sound is a long, narrow fiord where sheer granite cliffs rise vertically from the ocean. The Sound was once described by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’ Maori legend attributes the creation of the fiords to a ‘titanic mason,’ Tute Rakiwhanoa, who hued out the steep sided valleys with keen edged adzes. This explanation seems to fit, as the sheer breadth of geological events that created this gash in the landscape is barely comprehensible. Geologists tell us that this otherworldly scenery was created by glaciers that advanced and then retreated, taking the underlying rock with them, allowing the Tasman Sea to intrude 16 kilometers into the land.
The bad news is that the bus trip required 13 hours along torturous, curving roads and I forgot to take my motion sickness medicine. The good news is that the trip incorporated numerous stops into its route.
At our halfway mark we stopped for coffee in the small town of Te Anau (Tee AH nee yew) and purchased our lunches, as this town is the last outpost of civilization before reaching Milford Sound. On our way out of Te Anau we made a brief stop at a Department of Conservation park that is responsible for protecting New Zealand‘s endangered birds. Among these endangered species is the Takahe, thought for many years to be extinct until only a few pairs were spotted. Since that time DOC has been breeding the Takahe in captivity, from pairs that were injured and nursed back to health. These pretty birds, with their iridescent blue feathers and red beaks strutted around their cages for us, totally unconcerned with the fact they were on display as our cameras clicked.
At lovely Eglinton Valley, distant mountains framed fields of golden grasses waving in the wind….
while at Mirror Lakes, the majestic, snow-capped mountains were reflected in the still waters at their feet:
We wound ever higher and deeper into the mountains and the waterfalls began to appear:
At Falls Creek our driver told us that just a week ago, this waterfall had been nothing more than a trickle. With recent rains, the volume of water had increased tremendously, so that when we arrived it was a rushing, roaring cascade that spewed from the mountain on one side of the road, crossed under our feet, and continued on the other side of the road, tumbling over gigantic black boulders as it made its way down the mountain.
I noticed that the landscape began to change. The long mountain vistas disappeared and forest crept in along the side of the road. At the one-lane Homer Tunnel we were delayed for some minutes as we waited for oncoming traffic to clear the 1.3 kilometer tunnel. Once we entered, there was no light visible from the other end. The roadbed, which descended sharply, was a rough mix of gravel and asphalt – even the walls of the tunnel remain the unlined granite as it was originally excavated, giving it the feel of a mine shaft. We emerged into an entirely different ecological zone – lush green forests, mists swirling through giant ferns, and the sheets of rain through which we had been driving were replaced by big fat raindrops that spattered our windshield.
We paused briefly at Monkey Creek, where we filled our water bottles from the icy cold, 99% pure glacial runoff water that we were assured was perfectly safe to drink. Then there was one more stop at The Chasm, a rushing river that plunges through a rock chasm on its way to the ocean. Although the water was a good fifty feet below the bridge that crossed it, several huge, polished tree trunks that were sticking from holes in the boulders at the top of the chasm attest to the fact that the water level is often MUCH higher. Finally, at 2 PM we arrived at Milford Sound and boarded the boat for the trip along the fiord.
The bad news is that it was still raining. The good news is that when it rains at Milford Sound, hundreds of waterfalls suddenly appear.
There was something ethereal about Milford Sound in the rain. Despite the fact that the weather turned most everything shades of black, white and grey, the beauty of the place was undeniable. Hundreds of waterfalls appeared. A couple of the larger falls flow year round and are a source of hydroelectric power for the country. Most of the falls were opportunists, appearing only with the rain. Some of these fell gently over rock lips, looking like satiny, shimmering ribbons falling into the sea. Others were narrow and twisted; dreadlock plaits cascading over their rock faces. Mostly we motored by these waterfalls but in the case of the two largest cascades, we actually motored INTO the falling water, where we felt firsthand the power of the water.
As we neared the mouth of the Sound the captain came over the loudspeaker to tell us that normally he would take the boat out into the Tasman Sea, but since the seas were quite heavy with the storm he would not be venturing too far out into the Tasman; rather he would spend more time in the Sound itself. Frankly, had I known that the boat went into open seas I would have thought twice about going – I never have had my sea legs. And, once again, I forgot to take my Dramamine. So I was quite relieved to hear we would be staying in the Sound. I think, however, that the captain had a sense of humor, because as we approached the Tasman he took the boat on out into rolling waves that were so huge that the boat disappeared beneath the top of the next wave each time it went down into a trough. After a couple dozen of these waves he announced we’d be turning back now – then had to time the turning of the boat precisely so as not to be swamped by a wave.He got us back into calm waters in the nick of time, too, or I’d have been hanging over the rail.
It was an awesome day, even though I struggled all day to keep the camera dry. But I did register one last good news/bad news thought:
The good news is that when I am focused on taking photos I don’t feel the cold. Wait….maybe that’s bad news….