04 August 2011


I don’t think there’s another place on earth where the sheer magnificence of the scenery could make a person blasé about the drive into Queenstown, New Zealand. Skirting the shores of Lake Wakatipu and winding beneath the spires of the aptly-named Remarkables mountain range, the road into town is nothing short of spectacular. And yet we stopped only once to take a photo – the landscape we’ve driven through for the past two weeks is so insanely rich with amazing vistas and heart-stopping scenery that a merely outstanding drive barely gets our attention.

When we got to Queenstown proper, it was pretty much what we expected: a town that’s being loved to death by adventure tourists from around the globe. Queenstown is the place to go if you want to bungee jump, ride a jet boat, roll down a hill in a giant inflatable ball, and all manner of lesser diversions. We don’t begrudge folks their desire for adrenaline, but the crowds and hubbub of Queenstown are pretty much the opposite of what we’ve been experiencing in New Zealand.

We kept driving, through the choked center of town, and followed signs to the small town of Glenorchy, about 40 km north of Queenstown and a world removed. The drive between the two, reputed to be one of the South Island’s finest, certainly got our attention. Like the approach to Queenstown, the road winds along the edge of Wakatipu, overlooking its impossibly blue waters and providing a shifting view of the snowcapped Humboldt Mountains across the lake. Near the northern terminus of the lake the landscape flattens a bit, providing a small area for pastureland and the tiny village of Glenorchy. Our final B&B of this trip is located a few kilometers past Glenorchy, on an ancient lake terrace that’s now pasture for a quartet of horses. There are a few dogs, a friendly grey cat, some horses, and a lovely apartment surrounded by mountains. Our innkeeper here, Vladka, came from the Czech Republic to study photography. In addition to running a top-notch B&B, she works as a tour operator, trail guide, and together with her black lab Jacques, as a certified avalanche search and rescue team.

The road to Glenorchy. This is Lord of the Rings country. Isn't it beautiful?

The welcoming committee at Precipice Creek.

The weather gods have smiled upon us for the past three days. We saw Milford and Doubtful Sounds in weather that included more sun than rain – a statistical improbability – and when we arrived here in Glenorchy we sat jacketless in the late afternoon sunshine. The sky is deep alpine blue, the sun’s rays flash on the snow peaks that surround us, and we’re happy to relax for a few minutes and reflect on our good luck and fortune to have visited this wonderful place.

Location:Airport Ave,Frankton,New Zealand

03 August 2011

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is the bridesmaid to Milford the bride. Before we started planning our trip to New Zealand, I (like countless other potential visitors) had never heard of Doubtful Sound. That iconic view of Mitre Peak reflected in Milford’s glassy
waters pretty much comprised the totality of my mental image of the South Island’s enormous Fiordland area. After visiting both places, we both agreed that we had a better time at Doubtful Sound. Here’s why.

The drive to Milford Sound is amazing, and arguably includes more scenic beauty than the subsequent cruise. Our journey to Doubtful Sound was less spectacular, but included a boat ride across Lake Manapouri, then a short but scenic drive up and over Wilmot Pass, down to sea level and the headwaters of Doubtful Sound where we boarded a comfortable boat. This is amazingly vertical country: the banks here are so steep that the small wharf from which our boat departed doesn’t rely upon traditional pilings. The water is so deep, even a scant 20 feet from shore, that the wharf is cantilevered from the shoreline.

When you sail on Milford Sound, you’ll experience that iconic view of Mitre Peak immediately after embarking. After that, you’ll sail for another hour or so with a lot of other boats, out to the Tasman Sea and back. It’s undeniably beautiful, but hardly a pristine experience. A comparably-priced cruise on Doubtful Sound will last two or more hours, and you’re unlikely to see another vessel.

Milford Sound is a single narrow body of water, extending some 15 km to the Tasman Sea. Doubtful Sound is nearly 45 km long and includes several distinct arms that we explored during our tour. Fewer visitors, fewer boats, and ten times more area adds up to a solitary experience.

The steep mountains and deep water aren't the only things that make this an unusual ecosystem. See how dark the water always looks? The hundred of inches of rain that hit the region every year collect tannins as they cross the rock. By the time it reaches the fjord, the freshwater is the color of tea. This thin, very dark layer of freshwater changes the marine environment below. It allows creatures (like coral) who usually live in much deeper water to thrive near the surface.

About a half hour after we departed, the glassy waters in front of our boat were suddenly disturbed by the churning antics of a pod of thirty or so bottle nosed dolphins. Our skipper killed the engines and we drifted quietly as the pod drew nearer. It’s only in my imagination that their approach was accompanied by a soundtrack of “Love Shack”, but that’s how it felt: an exuberant frat party in the water! The dolphins roiled the water, often in pairs, and swam around our boat. Except for orcas, these are the largest dolphins in the world, reaching up to 12 feet in length.

After the party… er, pod, departed, Melissa went to the stern of the boat to take a photo of the view – and by sheer luck, just as she snapped her photo a dolphin jumped out of the water. Best photo bomb ever?

We continued, sailing beneath range after range of snowcapped peaks and countless unnamed waterfalls, out to the mouth of the sound. More good luck, as the weather was unexpectedly fine and the swell (which can reach over 10 meters here in the Roaring 40s) was gentle. We sailed through intermittent sunshine and showers out to the barrier islands where we saw dozens of fur seals basking on the rocky shore.

Doubtful gave us a rainbow.

Lots of fur seals.

Somewhere among the rocks where Doubtful Sound meets the Tasman Sea is nature's original design for the Sydney Opera House. See it?

Glassy waters. Fewer boats, fewer wakes.

After we left Doubtful, we headed to the power station at Lake Manapouri. Every minute, enough water flows though these generators to fill eighty Olympic sized swimming pools. This hydro station provides electricity to a significant portion of the NZ population. To reach it, 700 meters below the lake's bottom, our coach spiraled 2km through a dark, narrow tunnel blasted through solid granite.

We traveled with about twenty to Doubtful, and for the most part, they were more low-key than the Milford group. For the most part. Meet Dutchie, unofficial ship's photographer and potato chip philanthropist. Hi, Dutchie! Dutchie lives along the French-German border, and his favorite Beatles song is Revolution. When not distributing crunchy snack foods to his fellow passengers, Dutchie can be found schmoozing with the crew, or shooting video of them as they add hot water to the "free coffee" dispenser.

We said goodbye to Doubtful Sound and Dutchie, and returned to our B&B for a delicious, homemade meal with our hosts, Brent and Gilly. Gilly made a feast!

Brent's a fascinating guy. He spends a month at home, and then spends a month on an oil platform in Chad. Then back to NZ, and back to Chad. In 2007, while on a platform in Nigeria, he was kidnapped by a band of separatists who hoped to use western prisoners as political leverage. They held Brent for five days before the government negotiated his release. He seems remarkably okay with what happened. "Those guys have no power. No choices. If I were a young Nigerian, I'd have been right there with them!"

The following morning, after we packed, Brent and Gilly took us out on their boat to see more remote parts of Lake Te Anau. It was our last glimpse of Fiordland, and it was magnificent. Thank you, Brent and Gilly, for your incredible hospitality!

How often do you see a rainbow, much less the secondary rainbow, from horizon to horizon? New Zealand gave us it's finest ear-to-ear smile.

02 August 2011

Milford Sound

Of all New Zealand's wonders, the one you're not supposed to miss is Milford Sound. A million travelers heed that advice each year. It's the travel brochure image that everyone associates with this country.

Milford is not actually a sound. It's a fjord-- a narrow, deep inlet carved straight through rock by glacial erosion. Milford is framed by impossibly steep peaks that rise thousands of feet above the water's surface, and continue just as precipitously a few thousand feet below the water's surface, allowing cruise ships to sail comfortably within a few feet of the shoreline. It's the most famous fjord in Fiordland National Park, and so New Zealand's government goes to great effort and expense to preserve it and make it accessible to visitors.

The drive to Milford Sound winds through particularly beautiful mountain scenery, even by New Zealand standards. We've been driving 2-4 hours a day here in all sorts of conditions, but our innkeeper in Te Anau advised us to take a bus into Milford. Weather changes constantly in winter, and the road sometimes closes for days or weeks at a time. The steep rock faces that border the fjords hold hazardous precariously perched blankets of snow that regularly break loose. The government drops explosives by helicopter to create preemptive, controlled avalanches, but they don't get everything. The topography of the slopes in this area creates an unusual and terrifying situation where high-level avalanches hit the sheer faces and become airborne. The mass of falling debris compresses the air trapped in these narrow valleys and creates a howling, 300 mile per hour windstorm that precedes the actual avalanche. Scary stuff.

In any case, on the day we visited, the forecast was for clear, unthreatening weather, but we decided to take the bus anyway. It was a nice change of pace for Steve to kick back and let someone else drive.

Our very comfortable coach left from scenic downtown Te Anau at about 10 AM. Before we reached Milford Sound, we stopped at a couple of places along the way. They weren't kidding when they named this Mirror Lake.

One of New Zealand's more interesting birds is the Kea-- an alpine parrot that loves tourists. There were a couple of keas at one of our stops, hopping around the parking lot from tourist to tourist in hopes of scoring a snack. It took enormous patience to get picture #1; the scene looked much more like picture #2.

Scenes like the one above drive us crazy. There are too many people, too much noise, and no opportunity for the kind of solitary experience we had in Curio Bay. We were getting very cranky.

We have an admittedly bad attitude about tours. We have a bad attitude about tour buses, a bad attitude about tour operators, and a downright misanthropic attitude about everyone else on the bus.

It was with this sort of attitude that we discovered the woman in the purple vest. We initially disliked her, because she kept tossing her puffy orange ski jacket over the back of her seat and into our laps, but we warmed up to her quickly.

She was the platonic ideal of tourists. She munched on chicken-flavored potato chips. She was always the last one back on the bus. She took twelve thousand pictures through the bus windows, sometimes climbing on her neighbor's lap to get a better angle. And here's the best part: she mostly took pictures of power lines and window frames. Melissa was too fascinated by her camera's view screen to look at ours. We have a couple dozen pictures of this woman taking pictures of all the wrong things. If it sounds like we're mocking her, maybe we are. A little. Her enthusiasm was very charming, and later on the boat, she walked around from person to person, generously offering to take pictures of them with their cameras.

So here's our bite of humble pie: the platonic ideal of tourists is a sweetheart. She may seem ridiculous, but she's really happy to be there. And that thick crowd of tourists? Each one traveled a long way to be there too, and we'd be better people if we cut them a little slack. We promise to be better people. Maybe.

We arrived at Milford Sound shortly before 1PM. It rains two hundred days a year in here, but July's the driest month. If that sounds promising, consider this: Fiordland's driest month has three times the precipitation of Portland's wettest month. The fog obscured the top of Mitre Peak, but we felt pretty lucky that it wasn't pouring - a distinct possibility on any day of the year here.

This was our boat.

We had a light lunch below deck while the captain reviewed all the safety information, and then we bundled up to go outside.

It rained on us, briefly, but the views were so pretty that we never considered going back inside. And within minutes, the rain stopped, and the weather progressively improved.

We mentioned earlier that the rock faces are as steep below the water as they are above it. This makes it possible to sail right up into Milford's many waterfalls. The people on the lower deck who didn't pay attention to the captain's warnings got a very cold shower.

Our tour was billed as a nature cruise. It's sometimes possible to see Hector's Dolphins, the smallest dolphins in the world, here in Milford Sound. As we learned in Curio Bay, they generally stay farther from the coast in the winter. We saw a couple of juvenile male fur seals, but never expected to see these guys from a boat at 2PM: a pair of rare Fiordland Crested Penguins. See if you can find them in the picture.

The clouds cleared as our boat entered the fiercely windy Tasman Sea and turned back toward Milford. We've seen many rainbows in NZ, but it was a real treat to see one here.

Back at the dock, the cloud cover returned, but it was so pretty that we didn't mind it at all.

With the Sun lower in the sky, the ride back to Te Anau was more beautiful than the ride to Milford had been a few hours before. The woman in the purple vest took pictures of the side of the bus, shot video of a vast field of sheep off in the distance (so far away they looked more like lice), and then fell asleep. With nothing else to focus on, we enjoyed the view and reflected on the day.

We both had this odd feeling that something was missing, but we couldn't really articulate it until dinner. When we went to Machu Picchu, we spent a few hours at the site, saw it from every angle, and then climbed to the Watchman's Hut for the iconic view that everyone associates with Machu Picchu. We saw a lot of beautiful things today, but with the top of Mitre Peak hidden by clouds, we never saw the one, iconic view that most people associate with Milford Sound. That doesn't diminish the experience on a conscious level, but in a more visceral way, we feel like we didn't "see it."

Tomorrow, Doubtful Sound.

Location:Rodeo Dr,Te Anau,New Zealand