Leaving the Catlins we drove north west toward Te Anau, a small town that serves as the gateway to Milford Sound. We passed through huge valleys where massive tracts of intact natural vegetation became the norm. Above the river valleys we experienced constantly winding roads up into wild alpine meadowlands. These were huge, big sky places surrounded by a sweep of even higher peaks. Once we passed down into the far west fiordlands our journey took on a whole new level of landscape appreciation.
Fiordlands National Park was a world absolutely drenched by rains all year, with every nook and cranny filled with huge moss covered vegetation. With over 6 meters of average annual rainfall, this region is far and away the wettest spot in the country. It is also the area most impacted by ancient glaciation. Though 20 000 years distant, these geologically recent events, saw grinding ice flows carve out hundreds of fiords, many of them dozens of kilometers long. The resulting narrow inlets abound with permanent waterfalls, some as tall as 1000 meters. During the area’s most intense rainfall events, long stretches of high rock walls become virtual curtains of water.
We secured a tour on a small cruise boat to sail up the famous but ineptly named Milford Sound. In spite of the fact that Milford is not a sound, it surely is one of the most beautiful fiords within the huge national park. Our sturdy boat chugged up the straight, deep channel, hugging the cliff faces the whole way along. The boat’s captain took great delight in maneuvering the cruiser directly under 800 meter waterfalls, soaking those hearty enough to remain on deck. Gabe and I braved the high winds to fully appreciate the lashing water and soaking mists.
Our boat journey through Milford and the stunning road trip up the surrounding mountains, including a very steep climb through the Homer tunnel, were pure delight. The fun at the tunnel began with a hilarious visit by a bold posse of Kea parrots as we waited in the long queue of vehicles to enter the one-way passage. These large and whip smart birds stopped by every waiting vehicle hoping to induce some generous helpings of human fare. Fortunately, there was clear signage all around urging people to resist feeding these wobbly, squawking little dudes. Handouts make them far less capable of coping in the wild and extroverted with people to the point of obnoxiousness. We had read that they are not only hungry creatures, but curious as well, and that if you build a small but ornate pile of sticks they will hop over and dismantle it to see what’s inside. Our companions however, were more interested in trying to sneak into our van than the magnificent pile of sticks we offered.
Once underway in the tunnel, it was like any other long subterranean journey you may have encountered but with the added bonus of rising sharply some 130 metres in just over a kilometer.
This made for several interesting physiological effects such as mesmerizing strobe lighting from the passing lamps and an unpleasant popping of ears from rapid altitude change. By the time we left the sound it was getting late and driving all the way back to Te Anau for the night didn’t appeal to us, so we looked for a campsite along the Milford Sound road. We stumbled upon the quirky Lake Gunn site, located at the base of the mountains along a river and hunkered down for the night, ready for an early start in the morning.