After getting our full of glaciers and green-lipped mussels (a New Zealand specialty) we cruised along the west coast highway on Christmas Day to Wanaka where we stayed a couple of nights and spent the days biking around the huge lake, sampling wines and basking in the sun. After a grueling 6 AM hike up Mt. Iron on our last day in Wanaka and a mere 4 hour drive we finally ended up in our main destination – Fjordland and Te Anau. Our whole reason for coming to the South Island was to see the Fjords Milford and Doubtful (erringly named Sounds). What a thrill to finally be here! Our base camp was Te Anau, a very quiet lake side town known as the gateway to the fjords (as well as to the three “Great Walks” of New Zealand south island.). Having had a fairly active trip thus far we enjoyed just relaxing having leisurely walks around the lake and staring out at the water.
Side note about the water: It’s freezing. Yes the weather was gorgeous, it was SO HOT during the extremely long days (sunlight until 11:15 PM) and I was tempted, several times, to hop into the water along with the rest of the folks around us. Until I did. And I quickly realized that this water is damn cold. Being the remnants of glaciers and snowy winters I guess it’s to be expected. But you better believe that every single day (and night) there were beachgoers just swimming along, or just floating in the water chatting as if it were as comfy as their nightly bath. I’m guessing they were from the far north. Or just crazy.
The next day we were up bright and early to drive the Milford road up to the Milford Sound – we had high hopes of beating the tour buses which, on extremely windy alpine roads can slow your drive down immensely. As soon as you start to gain some height the weather changes almost instantly to eerie clouds, fog and on and off drizzling. It was beautiful! We took our time to do a couple of tramps (wow.) and, after arriving at Milford, decided to take a boat tour last minute upon realizing that we had to see more of it! What an experience – we are immediately confronting by Dusky Dolphins (a tiny species of dolphin native to Dusky Sound) and fur seals. We are astounded by the majesty of the place, the sides of the fjord so tall it’s hard to fathom, everything else is dwarfed by the mountains making us seriously question the nature guide’s information that the first waterfall we sighted was actually taller than Niagara Falls. We spent over 2 hours on the fjord and left ready for more. We couldn’t wait for our overnight trip on Doubtful Sound.
Our drive home we stopped to hike in the valley full of waterfalls, admired the mirror lakes and soaked in all of the mystery the Milford drive had to offer. It is so easy to see how Peter Jackson (director of the LOTR trilogy) connected the stories with his homeland of New Zealand – the line between reality and fantasy is so blurred here among the fog and clouds.
The next day we traveled down to Manapouri to pick up our transfer to Doubtful Sound – much more remote than Milford – to spend a night onboard and experience the much larger Doubtful Sound. What a gorgeous trip! Once on the boat we stopped mid-afternoon to get up-close and personal by kayaking in the fjord and even saw a fur seal basking in the sun – quite different at sea level than from the deck of a boat. Later we risked hypothermia by going for a dip in the 13 degree Celsius water. This was a new level of cold but so exhilarating to be swimming in a fjord hundreds of feet deep. It was only later that the guides informed us that great whites have been known to frequent that particular spot in years past…
Our lodging on the boat was quite cramped, wouldn’t you know it we were sharing our bunk room with two blonde twins from the Netherlands…Adam was almost forced to sleep up on deck. But the twins were so nice and affable as we shared stories of our travels and families back home. As dusk settled over the little arm of the fjord we had anchored in, the magical nature of the place kicked into high gear. Fog rolled in over the water, the stars came out in stunning clarity and, to top it all, Adam and I spotted a shooting star as we were taking it all in on the uppermost deck. It was definitely one of those moments you know you’ll never forget – pictures or no!
After a mixed night’s sleep (I slept great, Adam…well not so much) we were up and at ‘em for more sightseeing as we made our back to port (Adam’s note: a perk of being up at 5 AM is you get to raise the anchor!). It was incredible learning so much about how New Zealand came to be (why there are no land mammals for instance) and such a huge population of birds! The “Sound of silence” ended our tour as the boat found a smooth spot in a cove, shut down all the engines, and for 10 minutes we listened. No cameras allowed, no talking, no moving. Just the wind, water and a million different birds acting as if we weren’t even there. Makes you think twice about that whole “if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it…” riddle.
As always is the case, we realize as we headed back over the Wilmot Pass (one of the most remote roads in New Zealand) to catch the second boat back to civilization that our vacation was rapidly coming to an end. We had three exciting nights to look forward to in Queenstown: New Year’s celebrations, being on another lake…bungy jumping…