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Terra Australis Incognita

South Island: Fiordland, Cave Exploration, and Penguin Spotting

NEW ZEALAND | Sunday, 28 December 2008 | Views [1055]

I've been a little negligent in these journals recently, but now that I'm back in the land of cheap internet, stay tuned, because you'll get a new tale and new pictures (links to the right, as always!) every three days until I come home. So stay tuned! Anyway, forging on:

It was four hours back to Queenstown on a bus, and after an exquisite celebratory dinner, we felt well justified in sleeping in. But we had to drive back the exact same way the next day, and a bit further to get to Milford Sound, one of the world's most spectacular fiords, for a cruise. But we didn't calculate how long this "bit further" part would take, and so we missed the cruise, but fortunately got on the next one, which also fortunately coincided with a break in the seemingly endless drizzle (but not the clouds). Despite all this, Milford Sound, as so many places in New Zealand have before it, beat expectations once again. In fact, the recent rain may have made it better, because so many of the several-dozen waterfalls tumbling down the sides of the fiord, some of them roaring huge, are only fleeting and temporary, and only come with the rain. But the really amazing thing about this place was the sheerness and incredible height of the mountain-cliffs that make this a fiord. The tops of some were a mile high, and no slope or anything, just a sheer drop. Would've made a great bungee-jump or canyon swing...

The wind picked up as the cruise ended, and then it started raining again as we left, going down the Milford Sound road for the third time. It wouldn't be the last.


After that we finally had a perfect blue sky day, which was good because we had a tour to kayak down another fiord, Doubtful Sound. This one is quite out of the way, and required a boat ride across a lake, followed by a bus ride to the fiord itself. This one didn't have nearly as many waterfalls, probably because of the sunny day. The carved mountains that made up the fiord may not have been quite as tall as at Milford, but I think there were more of them - Doubtful Sound is much more extensive. And it's quite a good experience to be out on the water, of course, even though it put us on the warpath of an angry seagull protecting her nearby nest.

The day continued to be so impossibly sunny, even when we returned to town, that it seemed silly not to do something else. So we went back on the Milford road, for the fourth time. But for only the first time, the true beauty was revealed, in the golden-red evening sun under finally cloudless skies. Those amazingly beautiful wildflowers that are every shade of color from purple to pink seemed even brighter, and then there were the mountains - amazing across the wildflower floodplains, and then truely awe inspiring close up, with their immense snow covered faces looming straight up ahead. This was the real New Zealand, the way it needs to be seen. At one lookout, we could even see the ridge we had hiked along for the Routeburn track, and the beautiful valley below, visible now where it hadn't been before. And then, despite ourselves, we had driven all 190 kilometers (120 miles) that evening to Milford Sound to see the sun set against the great mountain at the sound's head, Mitre Peak. It wasn't until 11 that we returned to Te Anau, but the best scenery available in New Zealand made it well worth it.

Despite the late end, it was an early start the next day to take full advantage of this sunny spell. The plan was to do part of the Kepler Track, another "Great Walk" like the Routeburn. It required a water taxi across the lake to the start of the track, which climbed through forest seemingly forever before opening to alpine scrub and amazing views of the lake and the snowcapped mountains rising straight up, fiordlike, on the other side. We continued until the trail started to descend, because after all we had to go back the same way we came, and just barely made it in time for the water taxi.

The sun continued the next morning as we cruised along the southern edge of New Zealand. But instead of enjoying it, we explored a cave. I'd be slapping myself for doing this, but this cave wouldn't have been possible in rainy conditions, because it would flood. What was cool about it, for a caving buff like me, is that you can just go in and explore it at will, free of charge. And this one, unlike the small cave near the Pancake Rocks, just went on and on, chamber after chamber, with plenty of tight squeezes and crawlspaces in between. It was also home to more glowworms than I had seen at the "adventure cave" and therefore more than I had ever seen.


We wizzed past a multitude of sights and attractions in order to traverse the south coast in one day, but did stop at the most southerly point on the South Island (but not New Zealand...the third largest island, Stewart Island, is even further south) which is also the "highest" latitude I've ever reached. And then, we drove out to a truly beautiful place, Nugget Point, where there are supposedly elephant seals. The weren't, but we did enjoy the view of the wave-smashed and kelp fringed islands sprinkled off of the end of the point, as well as the cliff-faced coasts on either side. And then, on a beach next to the parking lot, was a real sight: this is where yellow eyed penguins, the rarest kind in the world, nest. Late afternoon is when they come back from the sea, and while waiting in the viewing hut for this to happen with a pair of binoculars, I'd never felt more like David Attenborough. One waddled halfway out of the surf and then scuttled back in a desperate, pathetic "run" when he caught sight of a gargantuan sea lion lazing on the beach. And then, just as dad was about to drag me away so we could keep going, a pair came out of the surf and all the way across the beach to some rocks where their nest was. A really amazing way to end the day.


That night we got to Dunedin, and the next day I stupidly insisted on going to the Otago Peninsula to see Albatrosses, (which weren't readily visible) and then going surfing, (though there weren't any waves) instead of going on to Mt. Cook. But because we dawdled, by the time we did get there the clouds had moved in again, and they only got worse the day after that (Christmas), which was a disappointing way for dad to end his trip, and definitely a bummer for me as well. On Dec. 26th there was enough sun to see one last sight of the Alps north of Cook, but not the mighty mountain itself.

I spent the rest of the week until New Year's Eve in Christchurch, planning, plotting, and writing heaps to keep my loving fans entertained. New Year's was going to be spent at a music festival right in the middle of the mountains of Abel Tasman National Park, where you may recall I had been before. Of course, now that I was in a city and it didn't matter, the weather was perfect every day. I tried to rent a car to get to the festival a day early and take advantage, but they had none, and I was lucky to get one when I did.

This whole trip I had been longing for a native cultural experience - that was coming next.

 

 

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