Monday, October 31, 2011

New Zealand Day Six: Milford Sound

We were up and ready to go early the next morning. We had a cruise to catch! The night before the nice lady at the Milford Sound Lodge had helped us book a cruise around Milford Sound. We had booked the Encounter Nature Cruise (sounds perfect for us, right?!) through Southern Discoveries, and it left pretty early in the morning. So we made our way for the Milford Wharf, where we met our cute little boat! We knew it was going to be a great experience because even the view from the wharf was nice!
View from Milford Wharf
Check out our cute little boat!

We boarded the boat, and sat down in the enclosed part downstairs. It was pretty chilly, so it was nice to get warm and drink some of the piping hot coffee that was provided. We were visiting Milford Sound in the off-season, so the already small boat wasn't fully booked, and there was lots of space. A hint: if you want to take one of these cruises, try to get on one that leaves first thing in the morning. Peak hours are around noon right after the tour buses roll in, so if you get tickets for eleven or later, there are more boats on the water to obscure your view, the boats are fuller, AND tickets are more expensive!

So anyway, once the boat got cruising, Bryan and I went out on the deck so we could see better. Every little turn revealed a new, astounding view.
Pulling away from the wharf
The waters were really calm early in the morning

We had a very knowledgeable guide who started to tell us about the area. He said that it rains there about 200 days a year, and that we were very lucky to be visiting on one of the few truly clear and sunny days of the year. Apparently rainy days have a silver lining in that when it rains, lots of additional waterfalls start running down the sides of the cliffs. On dry days there are fewer waterfalls, but they can be seen more clearly. Even though it was dry out, there were waterfalls ALL OVER the place! It was crazy!
Pretty falls

Sometimes the boat took us really close to the hills and we could see details in the rocks. Our guide said that there are lots of valuable minerals in the mountains, but luckily they're protected as part of the Fiordland National Park. No mining allowed!
New Zealand has cool rock formations!

Our guide also said that Milford Sound is inaccurately named. Both Milford Sound and its companion, Doubtful Sound, are in fact fjords, not sounds. Apparently New Zealand officials realized this later, and tried to fix the problem a bit by calling the whole area Fiordland National Park, but they used an uncommon spelling of fjord, so really they just kind of made things complicated.
If you look closely, you can see a rainbow about 2/3rds of the way up

When we got to some of the bigger falls, the boat driver would drive us right up under them so that some of the spray would hit the deck. The water was icy cold! Our guide said that some of the falls are higher than a 30 story building. That's bigger than our huge apartment tower!
Probably about 50 feet high
Trying to stay warm in about 4 layers of clothes!
Up close, the sound of the fall hitting the water was thundering

Milford Sound was carved out by a massive glacier during the last ice age, which has led to some interesting geographical features. In some places, large scars show where the glacier scraped along the rock as it moved. Due to the irregular shape of the glacier, there is great variation in the depth of the water in the sound. Other places show large cracks where water trickled down into crevices and then froze, pushing the rocks apart.
Moving glaciers do strange things to rocks!

Eventually the boat took us all the way out into the open Tasman Sea. After being hemmed in on all sides by steeply rising mountains, it was weird to suddenly be out in the middle of nothing. It felt a little desolate. But we were only out there for a few minutes as we turned around and headed back into the Sound. It's weird, when you're heading back from the open sea, it's hard to see how anyone ever found the place from the sea. It just looks like the water ends and the land begins right beyond the first couple of hills, but really the Sound extends for 15 kilometers!
Looking back from the Tasman Sea
Way more hidden at an angle. See the tiny boat on the right for perspective?

We hadn't had much wildlife luck on our way out. We'd spotted some pretty commonplace birds, but that was about it. As we headed back in, we got lucky right away with lots of fur seal sightings! It was exciting to watch them with some other people. We'd seen them a few times over the past few days, but some of the people on the cruise were ecstatic to be viewing them for the first time. We were excited too, because we'd never seen so many in one place! The guide said it was a group of young males.
A lazy band of bachelors
Lookin' proud

The seals had chosen a pretty cool hang-out spot, right next to another big waterfall. We tried to take a photo next to it but we kind of missed it. Instead we ended up with a photo where Bryan looks very nice and I look like a huge dork.

Makin' a serious fashion statement. My ears were cold!
Do you think Bryan's rethinking his proposal yet?!

The boat driver navigated into a small inlet, and we learned that our wildlife luck was still running strong. Our guide enthusiastically announced that there were penguins up ahead! We'd already seen yellow-eyed penguins and the adorable little blues, but we knew that neither of those penguins inhabit Milford Sound. Instead, they have the punkish fiordland crested penguins! Sure enough, there were three of them on the shore up ahead, with their yellow hair tufts sticking out conspicuously.
Hey! What are you lookin' at?!

The fiordland crested penguins live only on the west coast of New Zealand. They're not quite as endangered as the yellow-eyed penguins, but they're not exactly thriving either. Their conservation status is "vulnerable," and it's not likely to get better any time in the near future. Apparently these guys are very timid, so our boat kept its distance while everyone admired them in hushed whispers.
Their yellow feathers look like adorable penguin cowlicks

It was kind of hard to top such a cool find, so we didn't take as many pictures after we left the penguins. We were pretty near the wharf anyway. The cruise lasted over two hours, and I was the only fool to spend the entire time outside, freezing my buns off to catch every second of it. But it was totally worth it. Milford Sound is one of the most unreal places I've ever seen. It was fantastic.
One last waterfall. See the kayakers?

Touring the Sound was an experience of a lifetime, but after we got off the boat, we felt like we'd seen all the best parts, so we were ready to head out. We swung by the Blue Duck Cafe and picked up a couple of take-out sandwiches, ate them in the car, and got moving. Because we'd chosen the early cruise, we still had a lot of the day left, so we had plenty of time for stops. We pulled off at the Chasm Walk, which we'd missed the day before, when we were heading for the Lodge. We were instantly glad we'd stopped. Waiting for us in the parking lot were the infamous kea!!
The cheekiest bird I've ever met

Kea are another type of alpine parrot, and they have quite the reputation in New Zealand. The kea are troublesome in New Zealand for many of the same reasons that the macaques are troublesome in Singapore. The kea approach people to get access to human food, they perch on cars and chew on anything left out for them. They can cause substantial property damage with their sharp talons and beaks. And just like with the monkeys, people ignore the signs and feed the kea, which can be very bad for their health and can perpetuate their bad behavior. But despite their mischievous nature, they're very pretty, and a ton of fun to watch. There were three in the parking lot, and they definitely looked like they were interested in handouts.

After watching the birds for awhile, we started to follow the dauntingly named "CHASM TRAIL." The trail weaved along through a verdant forest for a few minutes, then emerged at one of the strangest geological formations I've ever encountered. It was a stream and a waterfall, cascading down very smooth, shiny rock that had obviously been worn away over a long period of time. The so-called "chasm" was very deep. We walked across it on a bridge, and it really gaped below us.
Photos don't communicate its gaping size

After some time spent gawking at the Chasm, we continued along the circular path back to the car. The kea were gone when we returned, so we moved on as well. We were again sidetracked by a viewpoint a couple of miles later, where we stopped and snapped some photos.
Snowy peaks

It was a smooth ride down the road to Te Anau. I took the wheel for most of the way. Bryan had been doing most of the driving and I wanted to give him a break and get acquainted with this whole left-side-of-the-road thing. It was a little weird, and the AVALANCHE WARNING signs were definitely a bit unnerving, but overall it was easier than I thought it would be. I noticed a few sharp intakes of breath from Bryan when I drifted a little far to my left, but I never accidentally found myself on the wrong side of the road or anything. We made a few more scenic detours before Te Anau. I was sad to be leaving such intense scenery behind, but I knew there was still great stuff ahead of us.

Our stop at Mirror Lakes was pretty neat. The lakes are named because they're so reflective that it's like looking at two mountain ranges instead of one. Unfortunately the wind was blowing a bit, so it was hard to capture the effect in a photo.
Mirror Lakes
Ducks hanging out on the lake

After we left Mirror Lakes, we got on the road for good. We were heading to Queenstown for the night, and we still had a ways to go. We drove straight on through, only stopping along the way for one more irresistible view. It was along a lake, and I couldn't resist a quick stop to run up and dip my fingers in the cool water. Besides, the view was excellent.
I don't know where we were, but it was worthy of a pit stop!

We were in Queenstown in no time. It's a big town, but it's very compact. After a quick drive around, we could see that it was a fun, young town with a laid-back, snowboarder/skier kind of vibe. It's the kind of place where you'd meet a lot of 45-year-old ski instructors who quit their 9-5 jobs because "that's just too mainstream, man." Anyway, town was a little congested with pedestrians and a little hard for us to navigate, so again we went toward the edge of town for a hotel. We ended up at the Alexis Motor Lodge in a cozy room with a great view. The friendly proprietor even let us borrow some DVD's off the shelf. Neat!

After getting settled in, we set off on foot to explore the town at a more leisurely pace. The place was full of hip little bars and restaurants, trendy clothing stores, and lots of winter apparel places. The best part of town was down by the shore of Lake Wakatipu. It was in the middle of town, but it felt more like a quad in the middle of a college campus. People were hanging out, drinking beer, listening to music, and playing hacky sack.
The local hang-out spot
Even the birds like it there!

Queenstown is a great place to wander aimlessly while you people-watch and window-shop, and we did that for a while before we started to get hungry. We decided to eat at Winnie's, a centrally located pizza place that smelled delicious even from a few doors down. We got seats on the second-story balcony, where we could continue scoping out the town while we ate. The view was nice from up there, and when we got our food, that pretty much sealed the deal. Winnie's is one of the best pizza places of all time.
The view from our tucked-away table at Winnie's
Hahaha....obviously we liked it! Try the skinny dips and breads...SO GOOD!

After dinner we went out in search of All Blacks t-shirts, but all we found were really expensive Adidas rugby jerseys. I did get really excited and started doing the haka in the store, but after I accidentally elbowed a man, Bryan decided maybe it was time to head home for the night. We swung by a grocery store and picked up some things we can't get in Singapore (black licorice for Bryan, cheap granola bars for me), then headed back to our place. Queenstown was fun to explore, but Milford Sound definitely took the cake for the day!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

New Zealand Day Five: Catlins Wilderness

You know something fabulous about waking up in New Zealand? Most of the hotels have electric blankets on the beds, so when you awake in the morning, it's like you're in a toasty cocoon. I used to have an electric blanket on my bed when I was young, so it just brings back all these warm and fuzzy memories for me...and it definitely does not motivate me to get out of bed. It was especially hard to get up on the fifth day, when it was cold and rainy outside, but somehow we managed.

That morning we got right on the road and left tiny Owaka behind. The Catlins Wilderness Area is full of trailheads that start right along the side of the road. We pulled off right away and followed a trail back to some waterfalls. It was drizzling, so we had the trail completely to ourselves. It was peaceful, plus the rain left everything bright green and smelling fresh.
A rainy morning walk in the woods
Matai Falls
The falls further up...with a branch in the way

I'd been flying high since we got engaged a few days before. New Zealand is already the destination of a lifetime, so I would have been excited just to be there, but combine THAT excitement with WE JUST GOT ENGAGED euphoria, and poor Bryan had his hands full, with me skipping up and down the path to the falls and making him look at my ring every five minutes (as though he'd never seen it before...). Well, he can't say he didn't know what he was getting himself into!

After our walk to the falls, we continued driving along until we got super hungry, realized we were in the middle of nowhere, and had to tough it out for a while until we came upon the excellently named Whistling Frog Cafe. In the meanwhile, the drive was beautiful enough to keep our minds off of being hungry (mostly).
Pretty even in the rain!

One of my favorite things about the food in New Zealand is that they seriously know how to do vegetarian food! In the US, the one vegetarian option on the menu is often something wimpy- a freezer-burned veggie burger with French fries, or some spaghetti with marinara sauce. Not in New Zealand - there, the vegetarian options were always creative, fresh, delicious, and nutritious. It was refreshing. One of the Whistling Frog's vegetarian options was thyme pancakes with a filling of silverbeet, mushrooms, pine nuts, and feta. I've never had silverbeet before, but I'll tell you what, at The Whistling Frog, it tastes awesome. Bryan said his quesadilla was pretty great too.

We'd planned on taking some more nature walks, but the rain got heavier while we ate lunch, so we decided to keep driving toward Fiordlands National Park. The drive was pretty uneventful for the next few hours, except that once the rain stopped, we pulled in at a small cemetery to look around a bit. We'd passed a lot of little graveyards, and many of them looked really old. Sure enough, when we poked around, some of the gravestones dated back to the 1800's.
A pretty spot for a cemetery
No more rain
One of the oldest tombstones

We decided to go ahead and try to drive all the way to Milford Sound so we could spend the night there. We stopped in Te Anau for gas, and the nice man working at the gas station let us use his phone to call ahead to the Milford Sound Lodge, where they said they still had a room and they'd be waiting for us. Great!

The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound takes about two hours and it's really beautiful. At first, it's pretty tame, with lots of sheep pastures and fields. We stopped along the way so I could gush over some little lambs while Bryan took photos.
Quite a backdrop for a pasture!
Looks like a pretty good life for these sheep
Did you just say "AWWW" out loud?! You should have.

Along the road from Te Anau to Milford is a place called the Wilderness Scientific Reserve. We pulled off there and took a walk. It was a strange area that seemed sort of mismatched with the rest of the surroundings. The reserve was a scrubland, full of short, scraggly pines and other small plants that called to mind New Mexico more than New Zealand. Apparently bog pines and cicadas are two of the most common things in the reserve. It doesn't sound too exciting, but it was a neat place.
Layers of color
Bright orange scrub plants

As we got further along the road, the scenery got more rugged. There were turnoffs all over the place, where you could get out of the car and enjoy the scenery. We pulled off at a few of them and enjoyed the crisp, clean air. Sometimes it's nice to get a lungful of something other than gross Singapore air.

Big mountains!
Foggy but still impressive

One of the turnoffs had a lake and a long, skinny wharf. We walked along it and reached down into the water. As expected, it was icy cold.
Snow-capped mountains beyond the lake
Chilly scenery
We definitely felt like we were in the middle of nowhere

The road was well-maintained, but we saw piles of rocks along the road at a few points. Then we saw this:
For 5 km Avalanche Zone. Well, that's one way to get people to stay alert!

I suppose the fact that I'm writing this blog post lets you know that we weren't squished by any giant boulders. But I did start paying more attention to the mountains around us. And when we drove through this tunnel, I think we were both a little tense!
Yes, we are driving into the side of that snow-covered mountain
The light at the end of the Homer Tunnel

On the other side of the tunnel, the scenery was even more intense, with high peaks rising all around us, with waterfalls cascading down the sides. As you probably know, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand, and the scenery we passed was definitely looking more and more like Middle Earth. There were fewer turnoffs and the road was a little more twisty and tricky, so we didn't take many pictures of that part of our journey. But it wasn't much longer before we reached the Milford Sound Lodge. The accommodations were basic backpacker rooms - ours just had a bed with a nightstand, and we had to walk down the porch to a shared bathroom. But the lodge was so scenic and homey that it made up for the shared bathroom.
The cozy lodge. That's our room on the end!

OK, I'll be honest- I took that lovely picture the next day. By the time we got to the lodge it was raining again, so we didn't take any pictures that night. We just dumped all our stuff in our room, then drove the short distance to the Blue Duck Cafe. It was located right on Milford Sound, and the view was outstanding despite the rain. The Blue Duck has huge windows, so we got to enjoy the view while we ate dinner.
Milford Sound from the Blue Duck Cafe

The service at the Blue Duck wasn't so hot, but we couldn't complain much, because when we'd told the people at the Lodge we were going there, they'd given us coupons for two free drinks. So, hey, free beer and mediocre service. I'd say we came out ahead.

After dinner, we went back to the Lodge and hung out in the common room for awhile, playing Citadels and talking about travel plans. After our little taste of the sound, I was very excited about the next day's agenda, which included lots of exploration!