Wednesday, December 9, 2009

NZ - Te Anau, Milford Sound

The morning was dreary.  Knowing that a dreary day had been forecast, I arranged to stay a second night and took that opportunity to sleep in until about 10:30.  I then sat about in bed ‘til about 1pm figuring out where all I want to go within the remaining time of my trip.  Right around then the clouds began to thin a bit… this was unexpected.  I grabbed my backpack and skedaddled out the door: first destined for town to eat some lunch (an OK pizza).

Right up until I had hopped in my car upon finishing my meal, I’d been intending to do the nearby Kepler Track.  All of a sudden, however, the mood hit me to go to Milford Sound, instead.  And so I went.

The drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound could take the cake in the best of road trips I’ve had thus far in New Zealand, and by all estimates there’s a good chance it could keep that position.  The drive between Haast and Kingston (via Hawea, Wanaka, and Queenstown) is another contender, along with the coastal drive between Westport and Greymouth.

The first segment of the drive skirts Lake Te Anau, which has mountains on the west side of the lake and very soft hills to the east.  In between were some very scenic pastures with intermittent small forests (similar in size to the Pine Barrens along Rt 72 in New Jersey).

The second segment is a more heavily forested region within a valley, with mountains towering above the tree line on each side; and mountains on one side even holding a bit of snow.  The views down the valley provide some stellar photo ops of snowcapped mountaintops, which are the location of the next segment.

Along the first two segments: brilliant alpine flowers of yellow, pink, and purple lit up along the streambeds.  The scent of all these flowers created the most amazing potpourri: part flower; part forest.

Without necessarily realizing it, I drove through a cloudy portion of the valley which was actually the ascent up to the more alpine section of the roadway.  This segment includes the Homer Tunnel, a hole through the mountain located beside blankets of melting snow.  Kea inhabit the areas on each side of the tunnel, where cars queue up for the signal to give them the go-ahead through the alternating one-way tunnel.  The kea seek food from passersby, resulting in some very social and inquisitive kea.  On the Milford Sound side of the tunnel was a fantastic switchback roadway which was a blast to drive both up and down.

Waterfalls in the vicinity were frequent and massive, owing to the seemingly endless rain over the past several weeks; and the further influx of rain overnight.  When I say that there were frequent waterfalls, I seriously mean every several meters… and not just water trickling down the side of a cliff wall; actual raging gushing water.

The fourth segment, on the other side of Homer Tunnel, included a drive through thick forest until suddenly arriving at Milford Sound.  The Chasm en route was a neat diversion for a couple minutes.  I unfortunately skipped climbing up to Key Summit on account of it being in a cloud.

Milford Sound was indeed a stunningly beautiful place.  To revert to geekdom again, which in my opinion is totally warranted in this country, I’d best equate this to Tolkien’s Grey Havens.  It just felt so much like it: the Elven port west of the Shire.  I began to ponder: do the elves have sandflies?  How do they treat them… do they live harmoniously with them as they do the rest of nature, or do they frantically wave their arms through the air in a vain attempt to eradicate the entire species; or at least the portion of it within a 1-ft vicinity?  I personally went with the latter.

So Milford Sound really does have an absolutely stunning landscape.  However, as many people, books, websites, etc. have warned: sandflies cannot be ignored.  Fortunately, they weren’t biting me at all – I didn’t get a single bite.  I’d later learn that others weren’t nearly so fortunate… as with mosquitoes, I often don’t seem to be too tasty to bugs.  However, that didn’t stop the blasted insects from swarming all around me every time I’d pause for a moment.  You ever walk through a cloud of gnats, and you feel the tickle of them all over?  I had a cloud of sandflies just stalking me throughout my duration at the Sound.  Soon enough I could even taste them every time I’d swallow – I couldn’t even walk without breathing some in.  But through it all: no bites.

My drive back went considerably faster than the drive out, apart from a couple stops to get some photos of the setting sun’s light.  Back in Te Anau I grabbed some more pasta al nonno (same thing I had the previous night) and returned to Bob & Maxine’s to relax the rest of the evening… and to clear out the mass of photos I’d accumulated over the day.

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