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Our Travels in New Zealand Part 2

Author: Mal Part (More Trip Reviews by Mal Part)
Date of Trip: March 2007

Since we have been having increasing trouble finding motels with vacancies and trips at time we want them (see About: Booking Ahead in Section 4), I get on the phone and book a motel in Te Anau, and a trip to Milford Sound. Since we are not much enamoured of Dunedin and since we’d have otherwise had to change rooms, we decided to leave a day early…. so, tomorrow has become a travelling. Day 22 – To Te Anau

Today we have the long drive to Te Anau – it’s just over 300 miles but again, we’re in no rush. This is just as well because, much like England, there are very few roads across NZ. We have to drive 60 miles south (almost to Invercargill) before we can pick up the SH-94 and head west. The further south we go, the more NZ looks like Scotland; the land and the place names - we drive through Balclatha, Arthurton, McNab, and past the MacLennan Mountains.

We stop at Gore for an egg and bacon breakfast – it’s a service town for the local agricultural communities, so we’re assured a hearty serving, and we get it. Gore styles itself, “the country music capital of NZ”. Every town is the (something) capital of NZ – we’re seen “sheep-shearing capital of NZ (several times), “cray-fish capital of NZ” (Kaikoura), and “the wildlife capital of NZ” (Dunedin).

Rested and refreshed, we head off west through Mossburn and Castlerock and get to Te Anau in the late afternoon. I’ve booked the Alpine View Motel – at $175 (£65) per night, it’s the most expensive place we’ve had so far. All accommodation in Te Anau comes at a premium but we have a good lake view and we’re happy to have three nights in the same place and plenty to do.

We’re quickly unpacked and take the 5-minute walk to the town for a look around. Te Anau is somewhat ‘up market’ and much like Taupo – a lakeside community with lots of good cafés and restaurants, a large i-Site, a cinema, a couple of useful supermarkets, a few souvenirs shops and a few more “activity booking centres”. It’s all very neat, with well-groomed gardens, wide roads and large grass verges. Of course, having the lake along one side and snow-capped mountains beyond adds to its scenic nature!!!

The Kiwis yen to make a dollar out of a beautiful site is manifest again – there’s a boat plane on the lake offering scenic flights and a couple of helicopters going up and down every hour taking people for an over-view of Doubtful Sound and beyond. But, hey….

We have dinner at The Moose – a sports bar, café and restaurant. It’s heaving and there’s a 30-minute wait for food but we stay anyway and sit outside so we can take in views of the lake, mountains and helicopters. I have a rack of lamb and Chris has her old favourite, Lasagne. After a few “Ummms” and “Ahs”, Chris announces it as the best she’s ever had, displacing the previous No 1 she’d had in Bermuda. After a couple of glasses of wine to end the day, we’re tucked up in bed by 10-30 – it’s an 8 o’clock start for our trip to Milford Sound tomorrow (see Note below).

===================== Note: As everybody knows, a sound is a valley that was cut by a river and subsequently flooded by the sea. A fiord is a valley cut by a glacier and then flooded by the sea. Since a glacier cut Milford, it should really be called Milford Fiord. The NZ’ers have put right the error of the original European settlers by calling the whole area, Fiordland.

Day 23 – My 60th Birthday on Milford Sound

Picking a trip remotely (as we had with our trip to Milford Sound) is always a bit of a lottery. Although the prices are generally very similar, some will be better/more friendly/longer than others. Previously we’d often had advice from locals, i-Site staff or others, but not this time. Chris had read several flyers and had picked out “Trips and Tramps” – it talked about a small group, a leisurely drive (Milford is 75 km from Te Anau), an expert local guide and was 10 hours long verses the more normal 6 – 8 hours. We were very reassured by the owner of our motel, who told us, “You’ve picked the best”. In any event, the mini-bus arrives at 8-05 and, after a few more pick ups, we’re on our way.

We are 12 people on the trip – 2 Swiss, 2 Kiwis, 2 Canadians, 4 Brits and a married couple; one a Kiwi and one from Colorado – quite a varied bunch, and very lively and talkative. Our guide is Dave (“or DT if you prefer”) – he is at or just passed retirement age, having previously been a road maintenance man on the Te Anau to Milford road! He knows every nook and cranny of the road and could tell us the name of everything (and why they were named that way) – he took us to several hidden and less used places that gave better views of the surrounding mountains, lakes, waterfalls and geological features. Since we are in a mini-bus, we can go where the big coaches can’t, and this gives us access to places and sights others miss. Chris definitely made the right decision.

Since we have the time, DT takes us right at the Great Divide – this is where the Milford road forks; left for Milford, and right to.. “No where”. He tells us the story of the road … the original plan was to drive it across the mountains to extend the west coast road south of Haast. At the moment, the west coast road leaves the coast and heads inland – there is no coast road south of Haast. Had it been finished, this road would have provided a second route across the Southern Alps. But, it never was finished … it runs for about 10 miles, as far as the Humboldt Falls, and peters out into a dust track.

About 8 miles along the road to nowhere, there’s still a road builder’s camp – Gunn’s Camp - it’s been turned into very rough and ready accommodation for backpackers and trampers. BUT, there’s a museum and a shop, and Chris buys herself a small greenstone necklace. The site has no mains electricity, but a small generator runs a computer and some small lights, and there’s Internet access via satellite too.

Having taken a look at the impressive Humboldt Falls, we head back to the Great Divide, and take the left turn this time to Milford.

We start our cruise from the quayside. Milford Sound is pretty much a wilderness site – there’s no development except the boat terminal and a small airstrip. Of course, there are the boats on the sound, and helicopters and small planes above. The sound (fiord) is deep and steep sided, with many waterfalls draining the mountains around. At this time of year, the water is from melting snow on the higher mountains around; I can hardly imagine what the falls would be like in winter and the rainy season – Milford gets 20 feet of rain a year (yes, 20 feet) – the waterfalls must be really gushing.

To get to Milford we have passed through the Homer Tunnel – it’s less than a mile long, but has a 1-in-10 gradient and a sharp turn at on end to align it with the road on the other side. Unlike most tunnel stories (where they turn out to be accurate to a few inches in the middle), this one was over 10 feet out at one end, and the sharp bend had to be made so that it linked with the road at the other side!

On the way to Milford, DT had told us of an option to take a helicopter ride after the cruise – it takes in an aerial view of the fiords and dropped you off on the Te Anau road so that the coach could pick you up. Unbeknown to all of us, the Canadians had decided to do this trip and DT gave us this explanation for their absence. Many of the party thought he was joking first time around, and there is a lot of chatter about whether or not it’s still a joke. As I said before this is a very chatty group: the Swiss are very talkative, especially about the 3,000 photographs they have taken – one of them is always missing, trying to get a better angle for the 3001st. The NZ wife of the American talks about US politics incessantly and tells us how corrupt it is. The other British couple are from Pinner and, like the Kiwis, can hardly get a word in edgeways.

DT continues to tell us more about local wildlife, and tells us to watch out for the NZ Pigeon flying from the trees as we motor by. These pigeons are a little bigger than the UK variety, and are black with a white breast. They stuff themselves on the fruit of fuchsia trees – they eat so much that, when they launch themselves to fly, they plummet and almost hit the ground in front of the mini-van. DT laughs every time it happens.

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