Saturday, September 23, 2006

Day 17 - The Sound of the Sounds

What exactly is a sound? This was one of the questions I'd asked our pilot the night before as we flew over Milford Sound. I actually asked what the difference was between a sound and a fjord.

He told us that the sounds within Fiordland were produced by a glacier carving out a valley on the coast then receding. The glacier produces a sound that often has steep, near vertical, sides that extend deep under water. He explained the problem was that these aren't really sounds, they're really fjords. A sound is actually the term given to a water-filled valley that has been carved out by the sea and the sea alone, leaving a valley with sloping sides that also form a sloping sea floor.

The reason that Fiordland has its fjords incorrectly labeled as sounds can be blamed on a certain Captain Cook. When he discovered these wonderful lands named them as sounds, the reason for this being that he'd only encountered sounds before in Denmark and the term fjord did not exist yet in his vocabulary.

It was another early start today as we'd booked ourselves on a 9:30am cruise at Milford Sound. It takes around 2 hours to drive from Te Anau to Milford so we set out once again before the sun had shown itself.

As usual we'd planned a stop or two along the way and by the time we found the first one the sun was just coming up.

Mirror Lakes is a short stop off which is literally at the side of the road. It's a picturesque little place which is said to offer a near perfect reflection of the mountains in the lake due to the calm nature of the water. In fact somebody has even place a sign here which when reflected in the water reads "Mirror Lakes", funnily enough.

The going here is good as a boardwalk has been provided which runs parallel with the road alongside the lake. You should allow around 10-15 mins to soak up the atmosphere here before moving on and I'd recommend coming here first thing in the morning as later in the day it becomes quite busy.

Quite a bit further along the road our next stop off was pretty short too, well really we only stopped for as long as the traffic lights took to change!

The Homer Tunnel is a man-made feat of engineering set amongst the natural glory of the Hollyford Valley. It's a rough-hewn 1200m long tunnel with a 1 in 10 gradient which was begun in 1935 and took 18 years to complete. Before 1953 there was no way for traffic to get to Milford and the tunnel was heralded as a success.

Driving through it is an experience in itself. It really is like no tunnel I'd ever driven through before and I think this was mainly due to the rough, hacked out nature of the walls which drip and ooze water from every pore. You will need to use your windshield wipers in here, that's for sure. It's also narrow, dingy and dark with only a few passing places. Luckily the traffic light system operates for most of the day so you shouldn't have to worry about any oncoming tour buses taking you out.

The section of road immediately following the Homer Tunnel is one of the world's most avalanche prone and often gets closed due to snow at just about any time of year. As a precaution it's always best to listen to the local radio in the morning before you travel on the road, at least then you'll know if there are problems before you set off.

Milford Sound itself is a very small place with very little on offer apart from the allure of the sound itself. There is a cafe here but it's a bit of a tourist trap and appeared to be very pricey. The same goes for the petrol here, if you need fuel get it in Te Anau before you set off.

Parking at Milford Sound is not a problem so you don't have to worry about leaving your car on the street for the best part of a day.

The single biggest thing in Milford is of course the ferry terminal, which in all accounts to my mind seemed bigger than the one for the crossing between the north and south islands. It's here you'll find all the tour operators which have a license for trips on the sound itself.

There are 3 tour operators to pick from; Mitre Peak Cruises, Real Journeys and Red Boat Cruises. We chose Real Journeys as they offered a 3 tour discount which included a half day on Milford Sound, a full day on Doubtful Sound and a night tour of the Te Anau Gloworm Caves.

Real Journeys seem to be the biggest tour operator in the area and as such they offer all kinds of tours. They also run some of the biggest tour boats on the sounds and we were a little worried that that would be too large, too impersonal and too full to get a decent view. Luckily they also run a much smaller boat, the MV Friendship which only holds a maximun of 40 passengers so we decided this was the tour for us.

Sat alongside all the other monster ships the MV Friendship looked like a plankton compared to a whale but we were pleased with our choice and climbing on board it was soon apparent that everybody could get a seat if they wanted it, which was great and unheard of on many of these tours.

Today we'd been sensible and brought a bundle of food along with us, but if you so desire you can book a lunch in advance to be provided by Real Journeys, for a price of course.

Lunch for many would not be served until a couple of hours into the trip, but we'd brought enough food for the whole day and caught quite a few hungry glances as we began to tuck into our boysenberry danishes! There is free tea and coffee for all though and there is a constant supply of it too which you just help yourself to.

Milford Sound itself is stunning. It's truly difficult to imagine the immense scale of the mountains each side of you as the boat slowly makes it's way out towards the sea, you feel dwarfed, floating amongst a sea of giants.

The tallest giant is Mitre Peak which stands at 1694m. Sitting at its base in our tiny boat it was difficult to see the resemblance to the bishops mitre that it is named after, humbling as it may be.

I'm not going to write any more about Milford Sound, as it really is all about the scenery and we have a bunch of pictures that explain visually what I could never type. Yes I could talk about Milford Sound's underwater observatory, but we decided to stay on the boat to look at more scenery instead of going there so I have nothing to say on the matter anyway apart from the fact that it exists.

Clouds just seem to hug the mountains here at Milford Sound

One of the Red Boat cruiseships head out into the sound

Our boat gets itself under one of the fantastic waterfalls and catches a few passengers out. They'll learn!

Waterfalls don't come much more spectacular than this.

Mitre Peak in all its glory.

Heading back from Milford in the early afternoon meant we had the rest of the day to explore some more highlights of the stunning Milford Road. As so often happens in both Milford and Doubtful Sounds it had now begun to rain and what had started out as a sunny, clear day had now turned into a drab grey one instead.

After going back through the Homer Tunnel we pulled into a car park immediately after the tunnel's exit. There is a short 30 minute walk here which we really wanted to do but the weather was so miserable by now that it had put us completely off the idea.

We did get out of the car however to inspect the information board at the head of the tunnel and whilst we were doing so noticed a bit of a rucus going on at the front of the queue of traffic waiting for the lights to change. Sitting atop the first car was a kea, pecking at the roof. The people in the car tried everything to get the clever bird off but it was having none of it. Concerned for the birds safety the driver pulled the car into the car park with a view to getting rid of the bird, what he failed to see however was another 2 keas waddling along after the car into the car park.

The Homer tunnel is apparently a favourite home for the keas, the main reason that I could see for this is the fact that they prey on cars and their passengers until they get fed, which is a big no-no as the more you feed them the worse they get.

After driving around the car park a few times the keas got bored and moved onto another car further down the queue. Fortunately they didn't pick on us, I guess we just smelled bad or something because they seemed quite happy to pick on everyone else.

We drove around 10km further along the Milford Road and parked up at another car park, this time sans keas. Here we did a short 15 min return walk to a unique waterfall called The Chasm. By this time the rain had pretty much dried up again, thankfully.

A bridge takes you to a viewing point above the Cleddau River where The Chasm itself roars beneath you. The rock around The Chasm is very soft and the water has bored its way through it over time creating a swiss cheese kind of look, with water still gushing out of the holes it's made over the years. It's an amazing spectacle.

A bit futher along the road and we found our final walk of the day. Walking up to Lake Marian is about a 3 hour round trip, if you're fit that is. This is much more of a scramble than a walk, particularly for us. The going here is definately not easy and there's even one point in the walk where you jump across a river bed and then literally haul yourself up the side of a tree to get out the other side. It's hard going but it is worth it in the end.

Lake Marian is a glacier lake cut into the top of a mountain and even though it's a popular walk it is really peaceful up there. The trouble is it's so nice, particularly after the tough trip up there we really didn't want to leave. My advice is that when you do the walk make sure you have enough time rest, enjoy and to get back down again before it gets dark as this is one walk you really can't rush.

Driving back to our pretty little cabin we could feel the weight of the day starting to take its toll, but I did still stop the car one more time at the side of the road to take a shot which really just about summed the day up.