Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 22nd, 2009 - Queenstown, New Zealand to Milford Sound, New Zealand

Back on the bus after a confusing packing session of figuring out what needed to go in the Routeburn pack versus what needed to go in the Milford Sound overnight bag versus what would be stored in the trailer, we were headed towards Fiordland National Park. As we drove around Lake Wakitipu surveying retirement sites in Kelvin Heights, a peninsula jutting out into the lake with 360 degree views of the lakeshore and mountains, Jon told us that the lake actually rises and falls 10cm every 25 minutes and they don’t really know why. Some theories are based around the shape of the lake (although the rest of the members of the Kelvin Heights Homeowners Association and I don’t feel that the peninsula plays any role) while the local Maori legend has to do with a monster who melted to form the lake, leaving his still beating heart at the bottom. That’s much cooler. Science is stupid.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

Near Te Anau at the entrance to the Fiordlands National Park, we stopped at a bird sanctuary. For some reason, very few of the habitats had any birds in them. My theory is based around the fact that they were fenced in but very few of them had roofs. The devil is in the details when designing these things. One exhibit did have a Canadian Goose in residence which the plaque said was the only wild goose in New Zealand. I was very excited and explained to Ann that I’d never seen one. In fact the last time I went looking for one, the first place told me I had to come back the next day. When I did, they said they were closed but that if I wanted to see one I could go to their other location across town. I took the bus over there but it turned out they were on a different street than the lady had told me. When I found the place, the sign said the geese had already left for their migration. The whole thing turned out to be a… what’s the phrase?

Naturalist’s Note: There's a bird in New Zealand that sounds exactly like R2D2. Well, either that or something else is trying to shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level.

With Dakar Rally Truck Class driver Jon at the wheel of the bus, the Fiordlands whizzed past. The glacially carved walls streamed with waterfalls from snow on the peaks and the over 5 meters (haven’t we been through this before? It’s like 15 feet) of rain they get every year. The first sign of life that appears on rock that’s been scraped clean by a glacier is a red algae (they say “algy” and it sounds wrong every time but I’m sure it’s probly the correct pronunciation) which looks like rust. Next come lichen and moss and small plants and eventually trees. Because they’re growing on hard granite, the roots can’t penetrate and end up growing horizontally across the face, intertwining with those of other trees to form a thick carpet on the rock walls. The downside is that when enough water flows between the rock and the roots to loosen their hold, the entire carpet can come sliding off the wall in what they call a “tree avalanche” leaving a completely bare patch behind. Think of it as the Brazilian wax of glacial revegatation. I mean, if you want to.

The Homer Tunnel connects Te Anau and Milford Sound and was a welcome alternative to the Milford Track, the 4 or 5 day walking route, the Milford Track. This mostly unlined, single lane tunnel runs a kilometer or so through solid granite under the Main Divide. Well, it’s single lane now. They used to run it in both ways until there were a couple dramatic tour bus accidents. As we waited for the light to change in our direction, we watched the keas ripping rubber seals off RV’s while the occupants looked out wondering what everyone was pointing and laughing about. Good fun.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

We took a couple walks on the other side of the tunnel including one to “The Chasm.” I tried for a while to convince Ann that the chasm had been discovered by a man named Walter Orr but that there was some sort of objection to naming it after him. She typically just ignores me now.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

Note: All trail lengths in New Zealand are listed in times rather than distances. To further complicate things, they seem to take into account the average user of the trail so a waterfall immediately next to the road that would typically get lots of tour buses will say “30 mins” while a 2 mile backcountry track frequented by more experienced hikers will say the same.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

We stopped for a picnic lunch next to a river and a meadow with a backdrop of the glacially-carved granite walls, a scene strikingly evocative of that first view you get of El Cap once you’re down in Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately, since we’d arrived on the West Coast, our picnics have more resembled sped up scenes from Benny Hill as we’d run back and forth from the cold cuts by the trailer to open spaces with more wind to avoid the sandflies. My ankles and calves looked like the before of an OxyClean commercial.

Best New Piece of Kiwi Vocab: Chilly Bin. I will never use the word “cooler” again.

We pulled into Milford Sound and made one last attempt at a helicopter trip. Unfortunately, the clouds were just too low and they don’t fly if there’s no view. The one thing Jon made clear is that when you’re given a chance to do something in New Zealand that’s weather dependent, you take your opportunity. We’d been following his advice and had been ready for several possible flights in Fox Glacier and now in Milford Sound, but it just wasn’t going to happen. I like the fact that even in the glossy brochures for Milford Sound, there’s always at least one cloud sitting in front of Mitre Peak.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

At the dock in Milford Sound, we boarded the Milford Mariner for the night and cruised out into the fiord. Oh yeah. Did I just blow your mind? It’s a “fiord,” not a “sound.” Everyone knows a sound is created by a rising of sea level or geological event that floods a valley whereas a fiord is the result of a glacier carving its way to the ocean. Come on people, this is 300 level geology here. Try to keep up.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

Milford Sound is one of a number (let’s say 17?) of fiords that make up the Fiordlands National Park along the southwest coast of the South Island. In addition to the 2000-3000 ft walls rising almost vertical out of the water, it’s interesting to note that the landscape is pretty much mirrored below the water line. As a result, the tour boats can pull right up next to the walls and dip its nose under the waterfalls because the shoreline drops so steeply. Also of note is that due to the high rainfall in the area, there is a one meter layer of fresh water that floats on top of the more dense saltwater. Much of this water has flowed into the sounds – crap, fiords – in the endless waterfalls and has picked up the tannins from the vegetation, creating a dark tea-like filter layer. Between the cold glacial water and the darkness, the marine life in the fiords tends to be more like what’s typically found far offshore in much deeper water.

After a short cruise, the boat pulled into a protected nook called Harrison Cove [REMINDER: Add dirty joke about “Harrison Fiord” later], and we took some kayaks out while others explored in the tenders. At one point the kayak guide got a radio call that the other group had seen a little blue penguin on the shoreline. While the colony usually leaves in mid December, sometimes a chick won’t be ready for the journey or will get disoriented and stay on the beach. We did our best sprint paddle over there but the noisy tenders beat us there, and the notoriously shy penguin was gone.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

Being out on the water really emphasized the scale of the rock walls, particularly when the huge Diamond Princess cruise liner came into the fiord. Dinner and cabins on the boat were fine and Ann managed to manage her tendency towards sea sickness (medical term “onboatus throwupus). Definitely a nice addition to the trip.

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