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Archive for the ‘Milford Sound’ Category

Oh what a night… There we were, expecting the main source of disturbance in our cabin to be from 55 people marginally younger than ourselves staying up late and partying. Well, we hardly knew the Contiki lot were there, but Mother Nature certainly got herself noticed. Rain pelting down on the deck which is also our ceiling; thunder reverberating around the cliffs of the sound; lightning illuminating the wall opposite the port-hole; waves colliding with the hull (our wall) as the wind picked up; a mysterious metal-on-rubber squeaking which might have been the hull against the yellow buoy floating above our anchor.

A patchy night’s sleep, shall we say, but we still managed to haul ourselves up before 7am to get a good place in the loo queue and to grab a seat for breakfast. Kirsten and I passed on the full cooked breakfast while the girls were grudgingly served just toast and sausages (plus bacon for Hannah). Tinned peaches went down a treat for those of us with scratchy throats.

As soon as they had cleared away empty plates it was announced (as another sick joke) that we would shortly leave the protection of Milford Sound to experience the 3-metre swell of the Tasman Sea. (The thick sea mist ensured that there was nothing to see there.) I guess those adventure types just love having a full fat fried breakfast after a night of drinking and then immediately being tossed up and down like some slow-motion marine bungy. Kirsten did not feel at all well and soon zoomed to the loos, while many of the Contikites seemed particularly subdued.

The girls found it fun initially, but they were glad when the boat turned to seek refuge in the sound once again. (Not really a sound but a fiord, of course; it’s a flooded glacial valley, not a flooded river valley.) Soon it was time to get ready for our early exit to visit the Milford Deep Underwater Observatory. Hannah, Ellen and I were the only passengers to disembark because the observatory takes an extra 45 minutes, too much of a delay for members of organised tours. However, the ‘rich cousin’ ship, Milford Mariner (which is twice as expensive) provided another ten or so people for our tour.

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We waited in the reception area before being led down a double spiral staircase to the viewing area 10 metres below sea level. The observatory is a bit like a champagne cork weighed down at the narrower end so that just the top remains above the water; it was too big to fit through the Homer Tunnel so they towed it round the coast from Invercargill and then filled it with concrete on-site to sink it sufficiently. The viewing windows are nearly six inches thick but divers clean them every three days to maintain visibility.

So what’s special about the site and what can you see? The huge rainfall runoff into Milford Sound gives it a freshwater layer at least 2.5 metres thick sitting atop the denser seawater. But the opacity of the fresh water (tannins from plants?) fools marine life into thinking it’s living at a greater depth than it really is. The upshot is that you can see some sea creatures at an unusually modest depth; 10m instead of 40-50m.
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The circular viewing area is surrounded by underwater ‘hanging baskets’ (which can be raised or lowered) colonised by tubeworms, sea urchins, corals, etc., and these in turn attract fish. Once we were down there they dimmed the internal lights and turned on – er – floodlights in the water. Dozens and dozens of splendid perch (their name, not my adjective) as well as various other fish both large and small (sorry, can’t name them all). The girls loved looking out into this marine underworld and spotted some tiny transparent pulsating jellyfish-like creatures, the size of the tip of your little finger; apparently these are medusas.
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After what seemed like barely enough time our guide announced that our taxi boat was waiting, so we climbed the ‘up’ helix of stairs and ten minutes later we were back at the terminal to meet Kirsten (who was happy not to venture ten metres under water). Thus concluded our Milford Sound Experience.

(Kirsten)  Whilst waiting in the terminal for Tim and the girls to return from their underwater adventure, I slowly recovered from the sea-sickness.  I was getting pretty hungry by now and contemplated buying one of those huge chocolate cookies.  As I was wondering whether to spend $2 on a biscuit, a mother and her two younger sons (about 9-11yrs old) walked past.  One of the boys complained that he was starving.  I could sympathise with him and we discussed the different types of cookies and had a little chat with his mother.  A couple of minutes later this hand suddenly appeared in front of my face, in it one of those huge double chocolate cookies.  It was one of the boys whose mother very kindly bought me a biscuit!
When the girls returned about 5 minutes later they reminded me of a bag of lollipops in my rucksack.  I quickly decided to return the kind favour and gave the boys a selection of our lollipops.  There still are kind and generous people in the world …

I must say it’s some masterpiece of marketing to take what must be one of the wettest and least accessible corners of New Zealand and promote it so successfully as a must-see destination. Apparently they’ve only had two sunny days there this summer, while 140mm of rain fell yesterday alone. It’s hardly a no-brainer: “Where shall we go today? I know – somewhere with spectacularly high rainfall, unreliable views and sandflies.”

Yes, the scenery is breathtaking, but we only know that from the previous time we visited. The unremitting sheets of rain and low cloud obscured any real sense of the scale of the setting, and unless you are out on open deck you aren’t ‘there’; you’re viewing but a fragment of the whole reality through a window, and that’s just TV. Our guide admitted to feeling sorry for all yesterday’s day trippers who had seen nothing at all, such was the cloud density. But there were no refunds, I’m sure.

As for our sharing the boat with Contiki, for the crew it was akin to supervising a class of 30 pupils, only two of whom are especially interested in what you’re saying. So we had lots of jollying along to keep the troublemakers out of mischief but only occasional half-apologetic fragments of real information which fell largely on deaf ears. Also some awkwardness at the realisation that these 18 to 35-year-olds have – by definition – chosen not to travel with the likes of us, and yet here we are.

The Sound of Silence? No chance, sadly. We didn’t come away overcome with the majesty and grandeur of the setting, we didn’t have the opportunity to savour the solitude, the tranquillity. It was a busy, crowded and expensive B&B with coastal views on a rainy day, with added sea-sickness. I suspect that an overnight trip to the lesser-frequented Doubtful Sound would have been an altogether more satisfying experience. (Good call, Chrislyn…)

Back to today; I drove back to Te Anau through more rain and we all arrived in varying states of exhaustion, so a few bakery purchases for a quick lunch and then a quiet afternoon in our apartment. The girls watched a DVD of Alice in Wonderland, the all-star 1972 version with Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit. Shocking nowadays to see such blatant baby-shaking in the Cook/Duchess scene; it certainly featured a real (and really upset) baby. How times change.

I, kea.
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Our last full day here tomorrow; we’ll see what the weather is like and how much energy we have. Maybe the Takahe wildlife park just down the road. This week has been something of a washout in several ways, but these things happen.

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A dry, almost sunny morning for once so we drove down to the lakeside to find out about the shore-to-shore swim we had read about. En route we bumped into my parents who were just off to the glow-worm caves by boat; they seem to have done far more than we have in even less time here, but there again I’m only slowly hauling myself back into the realm of feeling like doing anything at all (I’ve progressed from a dream-warping fever and a throat of concrete embedded with rusty, spiky metal to merely finding it uncomfortable to swallow). So please forgive me if I’m not at my sprightliest.

Anyway, we just caught the swimmers’ briefing (no, we didn’t walk in on their changing room) and saw a huddle of young to veteran swimmers, all clad in posh triathlon-standard bodysuits to keep out the chill of the water. Somewhat bizarrely, the little’uns were to be shipped across to the far side of the lake and made to swim the full width (well over 1km?) while the adults merely faced one 800-metre lap hugging the shore from one pink buoy up to another and back again.
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The adults set off and soon strung themselves out along the course, probably more desperate to be out of the 9C lake than anything else. Kirsten had no problem in declining the chance to swim in New Zealand; she’s been there and done that and has no desire to plunge into rivers or lakes again.
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We caught the first adult finishers and overheard the news that the junior swim had been called off; the conditions were simply too rough over on the other side. Perhaps that’s just the way over here – throw children in the deep end literally and metaphorically.

It wasn’t brilliantly warm on land either, so we adjourned to the library to grab our free WiFi while the girls gobbled up a few more books and magazines (also for free – a most satisfactory arrangement). Then to Fresh Choice supermarket to buy some pastries to warm up for lunch.

Then we gathered our overnight things for our Milford trip; one bag each including both fleeces, waterproof jacket and trousers, warm hats, gloves and scarves. Kirsten drove the 120km from Te Anau – just one long road so we only turned on the SatNav to see how far we had left. It’s a measure of our travelling that an 80-mile journey up into the mountains and down the other side is a mere short hop for us now. And it was more straightforward than we expected – much of it straight, and all of it forward…
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We paused at a few places on the way but the developing drizzle put us off anything but a quick photo as opposed to a countryside walk; we’d probably get wet enough on the other side of the pass. Just as we remember from last time, sweeping swathes of lupins brightening up an otherwise dismal day, and white water aplenty in rivers or cliffside cascades.
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The Mirror Lakes would be unspecular and unspectacular in the rain so we pressed on past Lake Gunn and along the Hollyford River up to the Homer Tunnel. A pause at the traffic lights (which are on a 15-minutes cycle!) to admire the pile of ice/snow to our left and a Far Eastern minibus party delicately tiptoeing up the slope – no time for a glacier walk?

The light turned green and Kirsten bravely followed the car in front; she doesn’t do underwater places and she doesn’t do dark places, and this was an ill-lit tunnel. Its main claim to fame is that on April 1st each year there is a nude running race from one end to the other; I bet there’s often a bitter wind whistling up the pass.

Past a parking bay with a resident kea (cheeky and destructive parrot) and down a hairpin bend or three giving views over an entire rock face streaming with multiple waterfalls. At last into the tourist settlement of Milford where we searched in vain for a parking spot closer than 10 minutes’ walk from the terminal. (Apparently you can park in the coach bays, but only after 4pm – we were much too early.)

So we donned full waterproofs and trudged through quite a downpour; the last little bit of the walkway is covered, but it’s too late by then… We seemed better prepared than most; one man had a plastic bag tied around each shoe and many other had cheap disposable transparent ponchos (sold at some overinflated price, no doubt).

We checked in with about an hour to spare, then I decided I’d be better off with my walking boots rather than my holey shoes; so back through the deluge, into the car to change footwear and steam up the windows then back to the terminal.

No sign of the Kon-Tiki group, though we had seen their coach pause in Te Anau before we departed. And thanks to some quick internet research, I discovered that they are in fact Contiki Tours (with a C) for 18 to 35-year-olds, but not particularly the singles market. They offer all the adventure sports stuff as well as ‘doing’ Milford Sound, Fox Glacier, Christchurch, Kaikoura, etc. Is 35 the new 30 now? Though I somehow suspect there won’t be many group members near the upper age limit. Their tours run for 12-15 days for the seemingly bargain price of a little over £50 a day.

About 4pm the Contiki coach rolled in; *they* get dropped off right outside the covered entrance to the terminal, of course. Fifty-five buzzing twenty-somethings disgorged into the atrium, mostly unsuitably attired but not unduly alarming at first sight.

At twenty past we gave in our laminated boarding passes and filed onto the Milford Wanderer. Cabin Q for the Prices; where’s that? The wrong staircase to start with, then smug reassurance when we discovered we were in a separate section at the front of the ship – no noisy neighbours, and also a safe distance from the main saloon area with its bar. We were so near the front pointy bit (impressed with my nautical prowess?) that the very walls of the cabin curved in and under and there were special trapezoidal mattresses to fit.

Our presence was requested in the saloon so we went up, out, right, left and in again to find that all the ten nice horse-shoe seating areas had been grabbed by the last of the Contikans. We occupied the central long table instead, complete with maps of the area under the glass top. (There’s a Price’s Point somewhere to the south, we learned.) The safety briefing – pretty brief – then Sean Tell (no, I mean Chantelle) laid down the law to the youngsters: “Don’t treat us like a pub; this isn’t a Booze Cruise and there’s no BYO [bring your own alcohol] allowed. I’ll close the bar if there’s any problem.” Perhaps I should have warned the crew about Nana and Grandad…

Outside it grew dismaller and dismaller. Through the grey cloud and rain you could glimpse grey waterfalls channelling down grey wet cliffs to the grey fiord (that’s the spelling here – well, of both words).
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As some kind of sick joke they then took the boat almost right under one mighty cascade so that the adventure sports types could get their money’s worth of moisture; consequently we got a saloon augmented by a draggle of sopping, steaming young men (for the most part). So then we needed the deck door open, letting in more cold, humid air.

In one corner inside we were curious about a set of sign-up lists on the windows. They were sadly not intended for us or the other two non-Contiki passengers (two Dutch girls), so we would be denied the optional extras of the Kawarau bungy, skydiving, the canyon swing, the Shotover Jet, quad biking or white-water rafting. So this explains the ‘con’ in Contiki; it’s cheap to book, but to have any ‘fun’ will cost you extra. The ‘wuss factor’ ensures that if all the rest of your group elect for a bungy jump ($200?), you’ll have to join in too, and the ‘Billy No-Mates factor’ gets the entire group signing up for the ‘optional’ SkyLine restaurant meal in Queenstown (at $50 a head, from what I recall).

They served soup (a thick mushroom and capsicum concoction) early on, and then offered us kayaking, swimming or a ride in the tender craft as pre-dinner activities. The blokes did the swimming and paddling while the little boat had the four of us along with a group of shivering girls ill-dressed in flip-flops, shorts and a vest. I suppose the word ‘tender’ isn’t particularly macho. We were treated to a brief nature tour (although too many ‘sights’ were directly behind us) prefaced by the recurring “welcome to my office”. Not that I especially envy an office where you get between seven and nine metres of rain a year.
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Dinner came along. A bit like school lunch; queue up for your plate, eat, then scrape the leftovers into a bin once you’ve had enough. Beef with veges (we’re going Kiwi) and mash followed by sticky date pudding with cookies-and-cream ice cream. When I asked for a small portion for the girls, I was told “Don’t worry – all the leftovers are going in the bin anyway.”

As soon as dinner was over we retreated to the calm of our cabin, but as we were leaving we discovered the crew’s secret weapon against 18-35 groups – boardgames! They emerged from secret cubby-holes under seats; one title – “Fact or Crap” – gives the general idea. Apparently things later progressed to charades, so it’s a bit like Friday afternoon at the end of term with the fourth form.

We brushed teeth (the basins were very close to our quad bunk cabin) but the trek to the loo took us outside and right down to the other end of the boat; hope we all make it through the night.

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