Saturday 30th November
We said goodbye to 10 people at Queenstown and as the coach departed it felt rather empty as we began our journey to Milford Sound. Our first stop at lunch was to the small town of Te Anau which was our last opportunity to have contact with the outside world before entering the Fiordland National Park.
I hadn’t really read or seen any pictures about this part of the trip so didn’t have any real expectations except for the fact I knew it was meant to be spectacular mostly untouched scenery. Before entering the national park Craig made us close our eyes and put some atmospheric music on and then told us to open our eyes. The atmospheric soundtrack continued and combined with the low hanging cloud the scenery took on a mystical quality. Even with the summits covered in cloud the views from the coach were indescribably wonderful and we weren’t sure whether to look out of the left or right side such was the fear you’d blink and miss something amazing.
Our first stop was to the Mirror Lakes so named because on a settled day the lakes reflect the views of the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately the conditions couldn’t have been any less ideal. There was a slight breeze creating ripples, there was a bit of rain and the mountains were surrounded by mist anyway. Still it was a nice location, just perhaps not perfect picture weather.
After stopping at Monkey creek to get some pictures of the Upper Hollyford valley we continued travelling through the beautiful scenery and were given a brief description about how a valley is formed (by a river) and how a Fiord is formed (by glacier).
We got to the Homer Tunnel where a temporary entrance had been built because the original had been destroyed in a fairly recent avalanche. We stopped to get a few final pictures of the Hollyford valley before it started to rain/snow. Unfortunately the tunnel was only one lane and there appeared to be a problem with the lights so we were waiting some time. Eventually the lights did change and to the tune of Mission Impossible we entered the 1200m long tunnel. Next Star Wars was played and as the music ended we emerged to views of the spectacular Cleddau Valley.
We arrived at the wharf for cruises around Milford Sound. The weather was starting to improve and whilst there was still quite a bit of cloud the mountains still looked dominating. From a distance in particular it was obvious how much they towered over cruise ships of a similar size to ours.
The rain had made the main waterfalls particularly impressive. The rain had also created smaller waterfalls that would not have been there in drier weather and water appeared to be sluicing directly from the rocky cliffs. We went close to a number of waterfalls and having already broken one camera I was careful to make sure I was inside when we approached. I could see people on deck taking pictures up until the final seconds and then rushing away before the bow was swamped in spray.
The guide explained the water of Milford Sound is mainly fed by the Tasman Sea however due to regular rainfalls rain water washes sediment down from the cliffs which creates a darker fresh water layer above the warmer sea water. This creates conditions that allow deep sea water species to thrive despite in reality not being far from the surface. The guide also explained the area had been shaped by earthquake activity but that the region was overdue an earthquake by approximately 200 years.
The journey through the sound was over 2 hours and apart from the seeing the waterfalls and mighty peak of Mitre Peak we also sailed close to a New Zealand Fur Seal colony that were lazing on some rocks. We had also been told to look out for a rare breed of small penguin and amazingly saw three of the little birds despite the fact most would have begun their migration away from the region.
We were spending the evening at a chalet near to Milford Sound and that night we had a roast lamb meal at a nearby restaurant. If the weather had been nicer a walk home along the river may have been pleasant but it was cold and wet so we all boarded the coach when it was time to leave. Late nights, early starts and action packed days with no real naps were beginning to take their toll on my eyes and after a shower to heat up fell asleep.
Sunday 1st December
On leaving the accommodation our first stop was to ‘The Chasm’ which we’d had to skip the previous day as a result of the delays caused by the malfunctioning traffic lights to the Homer Tunnel. This area was in a forest location and had been created by a earthquake and the erosion of boulders as the Cleddau river plunged down waterfalls and forced its way through the narrow chasm.
On leaving the Fiordland National Park we stopped at The Anau and I saw a Kiwi Experience bus. This was a hop on hop off bus company so I wondered whether anyone from my first trip would be on it and I wondered how Phil and Simon were getting on. Then I heard my name and like something out of the “Truman Show” there they suddenly were with 2 of the girls from the trip. I’d had my haircut since seeing them all but we only had a few minutes to catch up before they had to board the bus to Milford Sound.
We then made our way back towards Queenstown briefly stopping at a town on the outskirts for lunch before making our way through the Gibbston Valley. The Gibbston Valley is the southern wine region of New Zealand and we were told how the sometimes harsh and unpredictable climate is combatted to protect the grapes.
We then travelled through the old mining district of Cromwell though we didn’t stop to see any of the remains of the old settlements. We did however pass Lake Dunston where part of the settlement of Cromwell had been located before the historic area was removed so a dam could be built. The region is now used for fruit growing including cherries and as with the wineries the owners have to combat the weather that doesn’t suit the fruit. We carried on to ‘Jone’s fruit store’ where I had a fresh kiwi fruit mixed with frozen yogurt ice cream.
We’d been told today would mostly be spent travelling but we were now on the final leg towards Lake Ohau crossing over the Lindis Pass in the process. During this stage we saw a wild fire slowly being controlled by a helicopter but it still looked pretty destructive and were told the story of Shrek the Sheep. Shrek was a sheep that went missing for a number of years and his wool grew very long. When he was found he became a New Zealand celebrity.
We were now in the Mackenzie District, named after a man that stole sheep at ran a farm in the area before he was caught. When we got to Lake Ohau the cloud of Milford Sound was a memory and we were presented with a fine view of Mt Cooks flat topped summit. A few of us walked down to the lake to get a better look of Australasia’s highest point.
Returning to the lodge we had dinner and a few games of pool. I was on the winning team for all three but can’t take much credit for the first as it was really down to Mike. However in the second and third matches Shane and I united as the Northern Hemisphere against the Southern Hemisphere. First in a match against Dee and Mike and then against Dee and Jacob. Despite a gallant effort, especially from Dee, Shane and I were in inspirational form especially once we’d had an opportunity to sing along to our war song “Fairy Tale of New York”.
By now the sun was finally beginning to set so I went back down to the lake to get some more pictures. Despite my main camera still being out of action I was pleased that my old camera was just about managing to do what I wanted it to capture.
We’d been told the night sky was particularly good for star gazing and that it was protected from further possible light pollution development. I’ve been to a number of places that have provided a dazzling amount of stars and this more than matched them and probably even beat Iceland. It really was something else to look at. I always enjoy looking up at the stars, it helps to ground me and makes me appreciate how small our planet is. I also always have that kid like hope that a shooting star (or a UFO – joke) will fly by.
Monday 2nd December
The sun was shining and as it was a clear day the beginning of our final day as a group was spent on a short drive to the Mt Cook National Park. From Mt Cook Village we went on a short walk to Kea Point which provided good views of Mt Cook, the Hooker Valley, and ice faces of other surrounding mountains. We’d been told to listen out for bits of ice breaking off the mountain due to the ice melting as the season moved towards Summer and as we waited to get on the bus we heard what sounded like thunder. We turned to see what looked like a small waterfall tumbling down the mountain side but what was actually ice.
Getting back on the bus we travelled more through Mackenzie country before reaching Lake Pukaki which was a particularly interesting turquoise colour. The reason for the unique colour of the water was ‘rock flour’ created when the basin was gouged out by the glacier moving across the surface leaving sediment in the melted glacial water in the process.
We stopped at the village of Lake Tekapu, on the shore of the lake with the same name for lunch and again had the opportunity to take pictures of a lake with snow capped mountains in the background. This village also had a church called the ‘Church of the Good Shepherd’. This was a fairly modern and unspectacular Church built in 1935 but its location has meant it’s become the most photographed church in New Zealand. There was also a statue of a border collie to signify how important the breed of dog has been to sheep farming and the Mackenzie economy.
Whilst we were in an area where farming is still so important we visited a sheep farm. Here we were shown sheep shearing and saw the border collie in action herding up the sheep. Next we had the opportunity to feed them and some held a very cute little lamb. I’m not sure how I expected the sheep to react when I stretched out my hand to feed it but I had certainly not expected it to try and start feasting on my hand like it did. There was a sheep called Mary that provided some amusement and it kept calling to us whilst we were given scones with jam and cream.
Our final stop before our return to Christchurch was Geraldine though this was just for the coach to be filled with petrol and we didn’t explore. Leaving Mackenzie country behind we crossed new Zealand’s longest bridge and we attempted to hold our breath the whole length to the sound of Chariots on Fire. There were no prizes except possible death so I gave up but two made it to the end.
As we crossed in to the Canterbury Plains we had another game of guessing the soundtrack this time to movies and then all of a sudden it was announced we were arriving at the Jail House. The tour was officially over. After checking in the majority of us arranged to meet up for dinner and that was a nice way to bring the journey to a close rather than a sudden stop which is what normally happens.
To everyone on the trip, it was an intense action packed 14 days, with something new to see and do everyday but it’s the people that make it extra memorable. I wish you all the best in your future travels and I’m sure our paths will cross again.