Feb 17, 2003

Well, it seems we're quite behind on our updates, but that is only because we are having such a great time; it's hard to find time for updates.  We are back in Auckland, getting ready to leave for Australia a week today, but I'll take you back in time to the time we spent in Fiordland.

Just outside the Homer Tunnel.

First a little geography/geology lesson.  Fiords, as it's spelt here, are water filled inlets that are lined by mountains which have been carved out by glaciers.  Sounds are water filled inlets that are lined by mountains which have been carved out by rivers.  We spent time in Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, which are actually fiords.  We heard from two different people that the best way to see Milford Sound was on an overnight cruise. We booked ourselves in on the day following the Routeburn, and boarded the bus at 1 pm. Our bus driver’s name was Fly, although he never told us why. This was the first time we went on a true tour bus, seating 30 + people, but it wasn’t even half full. I would have thought that being the end of January that the tours would be full, but we even got a discount on the tour, to try to drum up business. It was a 3 hour drive along a very windy mountain road, and Bob was certainly glad he didn’t have to drive it. We stopped several times to look at the spectacular mountains and valleys, and also got to see some keas, which are mountain parrots. These birds are commonly known as cheeky keas, because they are very adept at helping themselves to tourists stuff—food, clothing, ripping open packs etc. The five that we saw were very well behaved and posed for pictures. Another feature of the road was a trip through the Homer tunnel.  Mmmm, tunnel. This is a tunnel that was built through solid granite, to make it easier to reach the fiord. It’s 1.3 km’s long, not illuminated, and admits only one tour bus at a time, pity if you are a car coming the other way, you’d better reverse. Once we made it safely through the tunnel, we were in the fiord. We had heard that this is the most beautiful part of New Zealand, and it is.

Our boat where we stayed for the night.

The thick forest grows tenaciously out of the granite, and is pretty much constantly bathed in rain. There is 7 meters of rain a year on average here, and since the ground is granite, the rain runs off in waterfalls. The mountains that rise from the fiord are 1-1.7 km high, so the waterfalls are huge.  The low lying clouds cling to the trees.  It's very hard to get an idea of the magnitude of it, because it all is so huge.  We boarded the boat and cruised up the fiord to the mouth where it empties into the Tasman sea.  It was past 5 pm once we'd gotten under way, and the rest of the fiord was empty.  There are no reference points to compare what is in front of you.  We were told that one of the waterfalls which came out of a hanging valley was 3 times the size of Niagra Falls, but it didn't appear to be half as big.  Because it had been raining almost constantly for the past 2 days, the waterfalls were very full.  We stood on deck of the boat, and got soaked.  There was also a seal who had a school of fish on the run, and was feeding beside the boat.  That was amazing to see, the school moved as a unit glinting with each turn. 

Check out the size of the peak behind this ship.

After our evening cruise we anchored in a cove, Bob went kayaking, and I went "tendercrafting", that is, I went in the small motor boat, but don't they make it sound active?   We saw a yellow crested penguin and another seal on the rocks.  Back in the boat, we had dinner, which was quite good, and played backgammon before retiring to our excedingly small cabin.  At least we had our own double bed, we actually paid for a dorm room.  The next day we were woken by the engines firing up, and emerged from below deck to find ourselves travelling up the fiord again.  The rain had stopped overnight, and the clouds lifted somewhat to reveal the mountain tops.  The waterfalls were noticably smaller that the day before, even though it had only stopped raining for a few hours.  It was great to be able to have seen the fiord in two different conditions, the mist and rain of the day before, and the relatively clear day after.  We even got to see an orange sun through a thin layer of clouds for a brief moment.  We took the bus back to Te Anau, and prepared for the next day's kayaking on Doubtful Sound.

We went kayaking with Fiordland Wilderness Experience, guided by Rikki.  We were glad that the owner, who gave us the briefing the day before wasn't our guide because he gave us the impression that he didn't actually like the people that paid him good money to rent his kayaks.  If by chance he reads this, Change your attitude.  Rikki on the other hand was great.  He was quite knowlegable on the natural history of the area and all of New Zealand, all the way back to Godwanaland times.  There were 3 other double kayaks on the trip, a couple from the US,  a couple from the UK, and two singles from the UK.  After getting up at 5 am to get an early start on the day, we made our way over land and lake, and land and sea to get to the sound.  Along the way we battled millions of sand flies, which are these little black bugs, who have a taste for mammals, and leave the itchiest bites which if you itch, get worse.  Once on the water they tended to leave us alone if you were travelling fast enough.  Doubtful Sound is flanked by mountains which are less steep than those that are found in Milford, but it has other features like islands, and the same waterfalls.  It was raining on and off for most of the day, although we did get 5 minutes where the sun broke through.

We were told not to get our sunglasses out or the sun would go away, and although we followed this instruction, it disappeared in a flash.  We saw some wee blue penguins in the water, and some Canada Geese!  It was nice to be out in kayaks again, we hadn't done that since northland.  We camped at a site maintained by the company, so awaiting us was an insect enclosure, to keep the sandflies out not in.  They also had tent sites that had great drainage, because everywhere else was swamp.  One of the great things about kayaking is that the food you carry stays somewhat cool, so you can bring things like meat.  We had pate, and beef stroganof for dinner.  A weka visited our enclosure, which is one of New Zealand's flightless birds.  It looks like a kiwi, but has a smaller beak.  It stole one of the plastic bags, and apparently when followed it will lead one to a cache of stolen kayaking gear.  It was a great evening, the people from the Commonwealth countries had some fun "taking the piss out of" the Americans.  They took it all in stride.  The next day was overcast, but not raining, and like the second day in Milford Sound, the waterfalls were less.  We put up a sail between two kayaks, and since there wre four kayaks in total, we had a little regatta.  We initially were in the lead, then there was a windshift and the other boats passed us.  Another windshift went our way and we led, and this is where the other team started playing dirty, ramming us from behind.  We still sailed away from them though, crossing the imaginary finish line first.  The day ended with us exhausted, it felt like we were dragging an anchor, but we made it back to shore, and traced out path back to Te Anau.  That night all the kayakers went to dinner at a cafe recommended by Rikki, and had the best dinner that we had on all our travels.

>> On to Mount Cook and Arthur's Pass


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