Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The hills are alive with the Sound of Milford

Day 11 (Wed, 30 Nov 2011)

Te Anau to Milford Sound to Te Anau: 242km

Sorry, corny title, I couldn't resist.

Milford Sound is a force of nature. It's a fjord in the southwest of NZ's South Island and a World Heritage site. It has been judged one of the world's top travel destinations and Rudyard Kipling previously called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Located in the remote north western part of the South Island, Milford Sound is accessible only by one road. We were a little apprehensive as to whether it would be a difficult drive but it turned out to be a very manageable and enjoyable 2-hour drive. Only in Winter would you need to be more careful as the route is prone to avalanches.

The path took us past unspoiled mountain landscapes and apart from a couple of short portions with winding mountain paths, it's otherwise a relatively straight route through impressive canyons.

We drove past vast fields of purple wildflowers, nestled in the arms of craggy mountains. Breath-taking.

Made a toilet stop at Knobs Flat. I'm amazed that the public toilets in an ulu place in the wilderness are cleaner than some of the toilets in Singapore's shopping centres.

There are several scenic stops along Milford Road. One of them is at Cascade Creek.

It was also here that we finally caught sight of NZ's more common birds, the kea. It's a green-plumed parrot.

Towards the last part of the drive to Milford Sound is the 1.2km Homer Tunnel, a one-way tunnel that bores through a mountain. The traffic light changes for each direction in 15-minute intervals.

Right at the entrance of Homer's Tunnel is where people like to stop as you can walk on the remnants of ice at ground level.

We reached Milford Sound at about 11.15am, in good time for our 11.45am cruise. We had booked with Southern Discoveries to go on the Discover More Milford Sound Cruise. We chose this one because it included a visit to the Milford Discovery Centre & Deep Underwater Observatory - not many cruises include that.

In the background is Mitre Peak, the highest mountain in these parts.

First thing that greeted us when we boarded the catamaran was the bbq kiwi-style lunch. Filling our tummies before enjoying the sights. Nice!

Milford Sound is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 1,200m or more on either side. According to the captain, the "steps" on the cliffs show the depth of the previous valleys. Every Ice Age, the valley floor would drop by a few hundred metres.

Technically, Milford Sounds is not a sound, which is a valley created by rivers. Milford Sound is actually a fjord, ie a valley created by glaciers. It's hard to imagine this entire area used to be glaciers, millions of years ago. Truly a natural wonder.

We passed by some fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks. According to the captain, these are young males who have been kicked out of their colonies by the adult alpha males. When they grow older, they'll go back to claim some more premier real estate.

Ever wondered why fur seals like to stay on very windy, rocky surfaces? Besides being safe from predators like the sea lions (who are unable to walk on rocks), the windy conditions also discourage the presence of sandflies.

Being on a small catamaran means we can see the seals up close.

We were truly very fortunate - it was a clear day and the entire sound was bathed in warm sunshine. It's perfect weather for sightseeing and is also very rare. Milford Sound is one of the wettest inhabited areas in the world and rainfall can reach some 250mm in 24 hours. In fact, most people I've met who have visited Milford Sound tell me it was raining when they were there.

With the abundant rainfall, you can often see hundreds of waterfalls running down the steep cliffs. The boat comes quite close to a couple of them and if you go right up to the bow, you'll enjoy a fine spray of water.

This is a photo of the boat who was at a waterfall just before ours.

This was a roaring, colossal monster of a waterfall. As we drew closer, Andre insisted on being on the front deck as he wanted to experience the full force of the water (that's him in the red jacket).

It was sublime. With the wind whipping the spray in all directions, we were sometimes right under the falls itself. Andre got drenched, but what an experience!

We then sailed on to the underwater observatory. This observatory is built on a floating platform which descends 10m underwater.

There is a spacious viewing chamber where you can have a 360-degree view of the very special marine ecosystem of Milford Sounds. By the way, in case you didn't realise, this is not an aquarium, ie what you see is really what is out there, not artificially created.

It’s a world of exotic creatures and habitats, including rare Black Coral.

Black Coral is usually found at depths of 500m or more but because Milford Sound has so much rain, the water is often very dark, so you can find Black Coral here in depths as shallow as 10m. Black Coral is not really black, it's actually white, as you can see in the right pic. The black rope-like thing you see wound in between the coral is a type of starfish - the snake star.

Taking in more panoramic views on the way back to the port.

And another waterfall.

On the drive back, we made a couple more stops. This one is to the Chasm. With a name like that, of course we had to stop! A short hike took us to a roaring creek.

Another stop was at Mirror Lake. At first, we thought the name was a misnomer as we couldn't see the reflection of the mountains on the lake.

Purely by accident, we took a photo and realised, "hey, we CAN see the mountains reflected in the water!"

When driving on NZ roads, we frequently saw the "Cow Crossing" sign but always wandered why there would be cows crossing the the highway. That day, we saw it with our own eyes!

Cows trotting right next to your car. Now, that's a sight you don't see everyday.

And then we're back at Te Anau. It's takeaway again from Ming Garden. Hot and satisfying.

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