First of all, WOW! The trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound and back is amazing!! We decided to drive over to Milford Sound and meet the kayak trip rather than take the charter bus for an extra fee. Boy was that a good idea! We don't really like the tour bus deal. They say to give yourself at least two hours to make the drive with no stops. We made the drive in 4 hours!! Plus, at the top of the pass there's a one-way tunnel with a stoplight that takes 15 minutes. We would have been really late to our 0800 kayak appointment if we hadn't gone the day before.
Now I think we mentioned the sand flies before but holy moly!! Those little buggers are ferocious! It was really windy and rainy the night before our kayak trip. The van was shaking so hard we couldn't sleep, and the rain came through the back window. We thought for sure the trip would be cancelled. But we got up and made the meeting and since the weather changes so fast, we were fine for the boat trip, albeit in the rain! They say that's the Milford Sound experience though so what the hell....
The kayak trip was really fun, and Robin took over the captain spot on the two-person kayak while Grant took care of camera duties. You can't row when you're taking pictures so Grant thought he was getting the better deal with less rowing. Grant can't see behind him to know how little Robin is rowing though so maybe it was more even than we thought? Our guide is planning on being a river guide in Montana this summer with his girlfriend who is from the Flathead lake area so that was fun talking about the Rockies with him.
Some of the interesting things we saw in Milford Sound were Mitre Peak, which comes straight out of the lake 1692 meters.
These mountains are so steep, that a funny thing happens: tree slides. The way vegetation forms on these rock faces, is first bits of moss cling to the cracks, and sides. Once that is stable, shrubs and trees start in intertwine with each other carpeting the slopes, but not really setting roots into the earth or rocks. Occasionally during a storm or what have you, a tree at the top will slip a little and bring everything down with it in an avalanche of trees. It takes 100 years for it to regenerate, meanwhile leaving huge scars in the landscape. There is also a permanent waterfall we kayaked right under that is three times the height of Niagra Falls.
That was cool, but Robin didn't have the nerve to steer us too close to it. One more intersting thing is when Cook sailed into Milford Sound there were so many birds that the sailors could hardly hear each other talk over them! Now something like 70% of NZ native species, mostly birds, are extinct do mostly to the introduction of the rabbit, rat, stoat, and possum. It was intersting for us to paddle along the same route as that great explorer, and to see that though the birds are gone, it still looks largely untouched by humans.
After the kayak trip we went back over the pass and down the highway a wee bit before stopping for a hike to some cool waterfalls. There we got an upclose look at how these waterfalls carve out the rock, leaving odd holes and formations. Most of these waterfalls are not permanent, but when it rains, tons of water comes gushing down the face of the mountains forming impromptu falls everywhere. We found a nice little campground to stay at where they had a museum that seemed like a practical joke. There was a shackle that was supposedly from Capt Cook's ship, though it just looked like a big rusty shackle. Neat anyway.
The next day we made a 3 hour hike to Key Summit, which is the beginning portion of New Zealand's famous Routeburn Track. There were numerous trampers, but the hike was well worth the view as the clouds had lifted and we could see so much more compared to the previous two days. It was really neat climbing out of the rainforest and above the treeline to a subalpine environment. It is all so dramatic; the weather, the steep mountains, the water, and the change of scenery, all changing over hours and minutes, driving, walking, or standing still.
We retired to Te Anau for pizza and a good clean-up of the van which desperately needed it. Then we booked a tour for Doubtful Sound. We tried to get on the kayak tour again but they were full, so we decided to take a day off and take a busdriver's holiday (boat cruise). First we went back to Manapouri for a 4 hour hike on the Circle Track. We had to hire a row-boat and row ourselves across the small river to get to the start of the hike. It was a nice pleasant walk on spongy leave strewn forest floor for about 30 minutes and then it was literally straight uphill for an hour and a half! There were no switchbacks of course, and at some points it was like climbing a ladder using the tree roots for rungs! But once again the view at the top was worth it.
The Doubtful Sound is pretty remote, so to get there you have to take a 40 minute boat ride across lake Manapouri, then a 22 km bus ride over the pass and down to the sound, and then we had a 2-3 hour boat ride on the sound out to the Tasman Sea. When we woke up the morning of the tour we were kind of glad that we weren't kayaking because there was frost on the picnic table and it was colder than we cared for. On the plus side, it was a beautiful clear day. They say you can't know the weather out on the Sound until you get there as the weather in Te Anua can be completely different. Well we were in luck as there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It is very rare to see the Doubtful Sound in such conditions and it was absolutely stunning! It was also quite striking as there were hardly any waterfalls at all compared to our time in Milford Sound as it hadn't rained in a few days.
According to our tour guide, the Doubtful Sound was named by Capt Cook when he remarked that if he sailed into the sound, it was doubtful there would be enough wind to carry his ship back out again. Consequently he never sailed into the sound. The sounds in the Fiordland are also all misnamed in that they are all fiords (created by glaciers) and not sounds(created by rivers). But the English apparently have no word for fiord since they have no glaciers really.
Along the tour we also got to see the Manapouri Power Station, which is quite a remarkable engineering site. The power station was built during the late 1960's to supply power for the aluminium smelting plant located down in Bluff. Aluminium is made by passing massive electric currents through the ore slurry to smelt out the pure metal. The NZ govt allowed the company to investigate the use of the hydro-electric power possible with the level of the lake above the sea. This caused an environmental outcry as the lake was planned to be flooded by 30 meters in order to make an efficient power plant. The enviro's won, and instead of raising the lake level, the companies dug a bunch of holes into the hard rock and located the power station below the lake, and underground, with an outflow tunnel to the Doubtful Sound. Anyhow, it's quite impressive to see this giant underground hydro-electric power plant that was created a by a lot of tunneling! And it is still used primarily for the aluminium smelting plant, with only 15% going to Kiwi's homes.
After a long day of touristing around, we stayed one more night in Manapouri before heading out of Fiordland and on to our next adventure in the zoo of Queenstown!