Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Milford Sound: Not So Silent

Everyone said we must visit. Whether by land or sea, bus or boat, it was imperative that Andy and I take in the wonders of Milford Sound, the heart and soul of Fiordland National Park, so we made arrangements to drive the five hours from Queenstown (not that making Andy drive anywhere after being a tuk-tuk and rickshaw passenger in Asia is a hardship), got reservations at the Milford Lodge for two nights and reserved ourselves spots on a sea kayak, a cruise, the underwater observatory and to hike the last two miles of the world famous Milford Track. If we were doing it, we were going to do it right -- and in as much style as is possible when backpacking. Thus, this meant new rainbow striped long underwear for me to survive the temperatures that are damn cold post-SE Asia, Cadbury hot chocolate and a bottle or two of Central Otago pinot noir.

Driving into Milford is beautiful, but honestly, nearly every journey you drive in New Zealand has moments of spectacular scenery whether it's fields of fuzzy and freshly-shorn sheep, pools of cerulean blue water with a clarity like glass, steep mountains wearing scarves of fluffy white clouds, or dense forests of hodgepodge ferns, beech, pine and palm trees. Driving NZ is a two-fold treat for us too as being in a car is constantly a unique sense of freedom -- we get in, we drive, we don't negotiate the fare, we're in control -- with a glorious backdrop of natural splendor. Add an iPod, and you're in heaven!

Things really got exciting as we emerged on the other side of the Homer Tunnel, an eerie, narrow chunk of rock they've cut through to make a primitive car passage, but one so raw it drips natural spring water from the roof and has the only occasional weak bulb lights that emit a yellowish glow for the near five-minute dark drive.~> read more (with photos)

  As bright light cut the darkness, we emerged on the other side of the mountain in a landscape that lived up to its Fiordland name.

Rocky mountains, with green vegetation scaling only halfway up the peaks, rose in sharp, jagged towers on either side of the car and into the distance ahead. From level ground where we sat in the car staring aghast at crystal-clear green-blue water, the cliffs pitched up so steeply to the sky that that you could truly imagine the great forces of the earth clashing together to make this sculptural site. Only the sheer power of Mother Nature and some magical plate tectonics could form something so massive, so intimidating and yet so beautiful.

Sudsy white waterfalls tumble down the fiords like hot icing dripping off warm cake, their fall from hundreds of meters making a dewy, fizzy spray that mingles with the leafy greens and icy blues to create a misty land that makes you actually believe in fairies and sprites. Add to this the occasional glacier peeking out on a rocky cliff into sun-streaked, cloud-speckled skies and you get a view (and photos, kudos to Andy!) so potent and dramatic that it looks like one of those inspiring image posters printed with bible verses and sold to the faithful.

Sea kayaking was, in our opinion, the best way to experience the elements and splendor to the fullest and we spent a full five hours paddling about Milford Sound. I loved skimming over the deep, clear water, touching my fingers to its icy current, and got so excited when seals greeted us that I had the kayak swerving and tipping! New Zealand fur seals are utterly irresistible; you can do nothing but smile when you see them swimming and swirling by your kayak, bewhiskered and sleek, and performing a hilarious, less graceful yet still elegant form of water ballet. Sitting on the water and staring straight up 1,700 meters of naturally cut rocky frontages, you feel the fiords in all their glory and sharp definition.

Andy and I also cruised the entire 16km of Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea on a sightseeing boat (the early sailing because the later ones are filled with tourists dwon for a day trip) and loved it when the captain put the bow of the boat right under one of the waterfalls, seemingly hair's breadth from the craggy rock cliffs, dousing everyone with spray for fun. The steep peaks go straight from sky into the sea, so even anything from a sea kayak to 150 foot cruiser can float up to the walls without scraping bottom. The most astonishing thing for me, however, is the color of the water in Milford, and frankly, all of New Zealand. During our brief hike on the Milford Track, we saw streams, flowing and still, with water that was so perfectly clear that you thought the river beds were empty! And the Sound itself... Its waters ranged from choppy to ripples to smooth, but the hues were everything a blue could be: sapphire, teal, azure, turquoise, midnight, cobalt. No matter how many photos we tried to take, none did it justice. Seeing water like that embodies the definition of pristine and adds an extra layer of beauty and belief that this land is untouched and pure.

What is not untouched and pure, however, though it is heavily regulated, is the number of travelers remote Milford sees in a day. In high season, between 2,000 and 4,000 per day! All three of our days, the sky was abuzz with scores of small planes and helicopters delivering tourists into the tiny airport for day trips, or flying their bags to fancy lodges on the Milford Track. The revving of jet engines and the whirring of propellers was discordant with the stunning scenery and chirping sea birds, and you can't imagine the number of full bus coaches on the road to and from the Sound that made our rental car feel like a Hot Wheels miniature on the narrow alpine roads. While I'm not sure it diminished our experience in any great way, I was surprised. It's that double-edged sword of tourism again for New Zealand as with "The Lord of the Rings". Now that it's been "discovered", finding balance between the natural and unnatural, the desire for dollars and the preservation of what embodies (for now) the definition of pristine, is as awesome as the landscape.

We have a few more photos up; This place makes it easy on the photographer!:



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