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

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