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No rooms in Queenstown and a Milford Sound Cruise

NEW ZEALAND | Friday, 13 March 2009 | Views [1047]

The next destination was Queenstown, probably the most touristy town on the South Island and home to pretty much every adrenaline sport known to man. Again it's a very picturesque setting for a town, on a lake and surrounded by The Remarkables, a range of mountains use widely to represent the Misty Mountains in The Lord of the Rings. I was very keen to check in and suss out where I could watch the Rugby that night/morning. Ireland were playing Scotland in what was turning out to be a promising six nations tournament.

The HI Hostel was full and on calling a few other places discovered that Queenstown was full for the weekend. We even tried a few hotels but to no avail. I accepted that I would not be seeing the Scotland game and we called ahead and booked a place in Te Anau, the main if not only town in Fjordland on the South West Coast.

We did however have some lunch and watched a crazy sport. I'm not sure what it's called, something like aquabatics but the idea is to jump off a mountain and open your chute, just as normal for a paraglider. Then the fun starts. You fire off a smoke trail on your foot and then do aerial stunts – somersaults, straight drops, figures of eight and other indescribables. The stunts increase in complexity as the flyer approaches the lake water. Then he tries to land on an inflatable the size of a big table. Pretty incredible to see – I can only imagine the rush from actually doing it!

It's a really long, boring straight drive from Queenstown to Te Anau, punctuated by one single event – a right turn about an hour in. The plan was to do a cruise on Doubtful Sound so once we arrived we went into a tour operator and tried to book one for the following day. It was Sunday and the next available one was 4 days later. Foiled again! We booked one for the more popular Milford Sound instead. I had just finished the Lord of the Rings and happily the hostel had a DVD collection with the Fellowship, so that entertained us as a stew bubbled away on the hob. I would say Irish stew only it had the Kiwi additions of a kumara, a tuber a bit like a sweet potato and a bottle of Speights ale. Quite tasty additions, I have to admit.

In the morning I was delighted to find the dream of Ireland's first 6 nations since 1985 alive and kicking. We set off up Milford road towards the sound, apparently one of the greatest drives on the planet – I am not one for superlatives like that but I have to agree it was spectacular and made all the better for a few stops on the way. First was a nature walk at the entrance to a long downwards tunnel. So long in fact that the set of traffic lights outside change signal every 15 minutes. A tall waterfall of snowcap run off glinted in the distance as we made our way around the DOC path with informative placards explaining the Alpine flora and fauna's fragility. Down the tunnel to a fabulous view of the glacial valleys before stopping at the chasm, an interesting rock that had been carved through by a combination of river force and wind over thousands of year. Heated up kiwi stew for lunch and finally we arrived at Milford itself, in reality a tiny support centre for the gazillions of tourists who cruise the sound every day. Helicopters, planes and cruise boats droned away the whole time but thankfully we were one of the much fewer groups who cruised overnight, when peace takes over.

The Milford Wandered, a 60 sleeper motorboat with a pretty but fake set of sails was to be our home for the night. MOT number 30 racked up already! The staff (it was a Real Journeys boat) were incredibly friendly and we were happy that the boat wasn't very full so we got a 4 sleeper bunk room to ourselves. They're not big so having 4 people in it would have been a bit crowded. A hearty soup was served as soon as we boarded and a commetary started explaining what we were seeing outside. Technically it shouldn't be called a sound at all, but a fjord, as it was created by glacial action rather than river water but hey. It was a beautifully calm day and the staff said it was unusual for us to get out so far. The ship anchored in a cove called Anita bay and everyone had a choice of activity – take a guided nature cruise in a launch, kayak or for the really brave, swim. We took the middle ground and kayaked.

The kayak guide, a nervous but pleasant Romanian girl wasn't really used to leading a group yet – I think it was her first cruise – she wasn't able to do up the life jacket in the safety demonstration. She wasn't able to control the group so everyone went off in their own direction much to her chagrin. As if to add insult to injury one tourist capsized while swatting the voracious sandflies and caused her all sorts of trouble bobbing about in the cold water and generally not being easy to save. Brilliant!

After our little kayak we all got back on board. The ship up-anchored and headed out to the Tasman Sea while a delicious and enormous roast beef dinner was served. We bought some bubbles and enjoyed the perfect sunset before dessert. At dusk the captain steered his ship back into the fjord to spend the evening in a silent cove. Just after dinner the staff brought out board games and local books. Claire was very pleased to have won her first game of chess (I blame the bubbles!) We retired with the black walls of the fjord on either side contrasted with the ceiling of dazzling stars above, just visible through our porthole. Absolute silence.

After a surprisingly pleasant shower and breakfast the whole group was out on deck again by 7.30 am. The staff were great at making every tiny thing an event – as we passed under a 200m waterfall we were all made to stand on deck – the myth goes that one spray of water from this fall takes ten years off the ladies. Not the men, but everyone got a bit wet anyway. We saw some seals doing headstands (their way of keeping cool) as well as 11 fingered star fish.

As the boat made for Milford again there was an announcement for all people who had arranged to visit the underwater observatory to make their way to port side. We hadn't booked but joined the group (of 2). The fjord and the surrounding climactic conditions are quite unusual in that the very high level of rainfall creates a layer of fresh water over the sea water. Sunlight cannot filter through the fresh water as well as salt water, so creatures that usually live at depths of 40m or more are quite happy at 8m or so. The floating observatory has a mobile “shelf” which is raised or lowered every day to enable people to see the rich diversity of sea life which you would only normally be able to see as an accomplished diver. It was amazing: rare black and red corals, sea cucumbers, horse mussels and star snakes and all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures whose names I have forgotten. It was all a little rushed though as after only about 20 minutes our guide said that the boat had come in to pick us up and it was time to leave. It was a huge modern monstrosity of a boat which had almost nowhere to stand outside. We were so glad we had taken the overnight option as the day cruiser option would have meant this type of boat and a completely different experience.

Tags: cruise, fjord, lord of the rings, nature, trekking


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