Saturday, February 18, 2012

Milford Sound and Glowworms in Te Anau

The 5 highlights:

1. Flying into Queenstown on South Island yesterday morning. It's beautiful. And then picking up the car I rented (a Holden from Australia, the logo is a lion, and it is bright red). I have now mastered the art of driving on the "wrong" said of the road on highways...which is like saying I've mastered the art of high fiving with my left hand. I luckily do not think I will be in many congested areas that will demand lots of turns with traffic in numerous directions...

2. Speaking of which, I think the first sheep farm I saw yesterday (and I saw a LOT of sheep farms yesterday between Queenstown and Te Anau...that's about all there is) had more sheep than I saw cars in total during 4 hours of driving. The stretch of highway from Te Anau to the Milford Sound is about as remote as you can possibly get. I lost cell phone service five minutes away from Te Anau, and it never resurfaced. There are no gas stations, no cafes - basically no signs of human life except for the occasional car, the slightly more occasional tour buses going to and from the Sound, and some campers scattered about.

This is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world, and it's certainly the most breathtaking stretch of road I have ever been on. Driving back to Te Anau today took about 90 minutes; there are so many places to pull over, however, that yesterday's trip along the same stretch took an extra 45 minutes. Lots of photo opportunities. And although not beautiful, for those Googling pictures of the highway, check out Homer's Tunnel - which goes through a mountain, is one-lane only, and the light to enter only changes every 15 minutes.

3. Look at a map of New Zealand. Look at the area called Fiordland on South Island. It's huge. The settlement at Milford Sound (it does not justify the title of town) tops out at 200 people, and there are only 5,000 maximum in this vast region. There is nothing but forests and mountains and lakes in this area of the country.

With the highway, however, no beaten tracks need be taken to access the breathtaking Milford Sound - which is technically a fjord because it was formed by glacial ice, not a river. The area was first settled by the Maori, who found jade (or greenstone) near where the fjord meets the Tasman Sea, and jade is precious in Maori culture. Then the Welsh came in and hunted the seals to the brink of extinction. A guy named Donald Sutherland (not Jack Bauer's dad) was the first person to really live there permanently, and he set up the first tourism business there.

In the 1950s, the New Zealand government bought the land. A hotel, cafe, bar, and gas station were built. Trucks delivered supplies on a regular basis. The only difference between the 1950s and today is that the hotel is now closed (a small lodge down the street is the only other sign of life in the area), and the gas station has not pumped gas in years; there is also now a parking lot, and a welcome center next to the docks where boats come and go from every day. (Except when avalanches during the winter dump tons of snow on the highway, closing it, and isolating the town for days and weeks at a time.) The Sound gets 6 meters of a rain a year, so they are more than used to bringing tours out in the pouring rain.

4. Speaking of tours, I went on one. And it was amazing. We slept on the boat overnight, and no words or pictures can justify the Milford Sound. (But go ahead and Google'll get a small taste). We had beautiful weather all afternoon and evening, but we all prayed for rain when we went to bed. That's because when it's dry there are 3 waterfalls in the sound. When it rains, hundreds of waterfalls suddenly begin cascading down the steep sheer faces of the towering cliffs and mountains on either side of the water. Sadly, we woke up to rain, but barely a drizzle.

Some highlights within this highlight reel (meta-highlights?) : seeing seals basking on the rocks, spotting a pair of Fiordland Crested Penguin, the third rarest species of penguin in the world, seeing the stars at night (there are a lot of them, and the dipper is upside down), motoring to the edge of the Tasman Sea, and sleeping under Mount Pembroke, which has a glacier on top.

5. These highlights were in chronological order, and the most recent adventure I had was last night back in Te Anau in the Glowworm Caves here. It was a rainy day and night here in the small lakeside village of 1,900 people - the Takahe capital of the country because the species was rediscovered right across the lake in the Murchison Mountains. Anyway, we took a boat across the lake to the entrance of underground caves. What's amazing is that the only reason these caves were found was because Te Anau translates loosely to 'lake with swirling waters.' So a local in the early 1900s set out to find the caves and he did. I cannot imagine how long it took him.

No photos allowed here, but the caves were impressive. You walk through a dark narrow path they've constructed underground, and the water rushing below is so loud it's virtually impossible to hear anything. Then you reach a makeshift dock where a boat is waiting. We all boarded, and then the guide began maneuvering us deeper into the cave by moving hand over hand along a chain link set up above. It was pitch black and I could not see my hand in front of my face. But the glowworms were beautiful. They are all in the larval stage, hanging from the ceiling, and they glow to attract insects to eat; the brighter they glow, the hungrier they are. It looks like looking up at the most amazing night sky, especially in the grotto at the end of the cave. Really cool.

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