nvercargill to Milford Sound
January 10 - March 27, 2010
Te Anau, its lake, and beyond it the road to Milford Sound, were our ultimate goals after Invercargill. En route, however, we made an overnight stop at another lake, Lake Hauroko, which is mostly visited by fishermen and jet-boaters, who take jet boats all along the lake and then downriver to the ocean. Lake Hauroko is at the end of a dead-end road that made a quite lovely drive. More proof of the advice that the further off the beaten track you go, the better it will be, At the end of the road, we camped in the official campsite which consisted of an open field. The only services were a pit toilet and a fire pit. We were prepared, however, for all of that and spent a very delightful late afternoon on the shore of the lake reading our books and enjoying the scenery. Unfortunately, we weren't quite prepared for what happened when sunset approached and the wind that had whipped up whitecaps on the lake suddenly subsided. The infamous sandflies appeared. We had heard stories about them, but had never experienced them in the numbers we encountered here. We covered up as much as we possibly could, but eating supper was a nightmare and we quickly repaired to the van and then the tent to escape them. Of course, it was impossible to get into either without bringing some in with you, so the first fifteen minutes after entry were always spent trying to kill as many of the blighters as you could find, because if not, you knew they would get you. Repellents helped a little but were no panacea.
We were a little miffed, when we did get back to our tent after our battle over supper with the sandflies to find that there were other unfriendly creatures around of the human kind. We had pitched our tent as far away as possible from the only other tent in the field. The next arrivals, however, had no such compunctions and not only pitched their tent very close to ours, but proceeded to make lots of noise for a couple of hours after dark, when we were trying to get to sleep. Thankfully inconsiderate fellow-campers weren't a frequent occurrence.
We had intended to drive all the way to Te Anau and spend the night there, but on our way into Manapouri, we saw a sign for a backpacker's called Freestone Lodge and decided to give them a call and see if they had room. They didn't have rooms in the house they said but they did have a cabin available. As we were at the bottom of their driveway, we decided to take a look and fell in love in an instant with the view from "our" cabin to the lake. The cabin had a kitchen and a nice deck, but no toilet. That meant a rather steep walk down to the shower building and back, but we figured the view was worth it. We liked the view so much that we settled down on the deck and didn't move until the sun started to go down. We cooked up a nice supper and watched the lake disappear into the darkness. We thought about extending our stay, but we now had a commitment to be in Wellington by the beginning of March and time was pressing on. In retrospect it was a very good decision because by midday the next day, I started to itch all over and suspected I had picked up bed bug bites. ugh!
Lots of people had praised Milford Sound, so we were quite curious about it. It certainly was hard to get to being not only at the end of a long, long dead-end road but also over the watershed to the west coast. Most people do a combined coach and boat trip from Queenstown or Te Anau. Having already spent one day at Lake Hauroko and another near Lake Manapouri, we had decided to drive through Te Anau, stoppping only to fill up our gas tank and top-up our leaky tyre. We had been told that you couldn't get gas at Milford Sound, but we hoped we would find a way to get some air for our tyre should we need it. From Te Anau, the road is long and very gradually steepens until the last few kilometers when it climbs quite steeply up to the watershed. All along the steep part of the highway, you get stupendous views of snow-capped peaks. No-one can resist getting just one more photgraph, so the road is a bit of an obstacle course of parked cars and wandering pedestrians. And we were a part of it of course. Fortunately, you don't have to climb up to the pass, because the NZ authorities have built a tunnel through the mountain. What you do have to do is wait in line for access to the one-way tunnel. Once through the tunnel, you follow the steep winding road all the way down to the coast and Milford Sound.
We had called ahead and booked two places in a dorm for one night (private rooms were all full) as well as a passage on an afternoon boat on Milford Sound itself. When we saw the line waiting to check in, we were happy to have booked ahead and even happier when check-in and payment went lickety-split. We arrived having picnicked en route and with just enough time to move ourselves into our four-bed room before high-tailing it down to the wharf for our boat trip. We quickly learned that Milford Sound was just like Lake Hauroko as far as sandflies were concerned. They were biting mad and were at you the instant you stepped outdoors. Even our Australian anti-fly nets would not have been much good, because the blighters attacked any bit of uncovered skin, not just the face.
Luckily, they were not a problem on the water, so once we were on our boat out to the Sound, they left us alone. We had taken a cheapo option, but were very happy with the fact that that meant we were not on a giant boat. Apart from us there were only about 25 other passengers and we happily claimed seats on the open top deck. The weather at the dock was clear and sunny but we were warned that out towards the ocean there was cloud cover. Our fear had been rain, so that all sounded pretty good. We don't have anything to compare Milford Sound to, so don't know how it measures up against a Norwegian or a Chilean fiord, but we can say that we found it beautiful and interesting and well worthwhile. Our only regret is that we didn't see any dolphins or whales which we would have liked, but we did see lots of seals sunning themselves on the rocks partway up the sound. Jan had some trouble with motion sickness once we got to the ocean end of the sound, where the water was much more churned up than inland, but even this didn't prove too much of a problem given that on the top deck it wasn't too hard for her to keep her eye on the horizon.
Back at the wharf, however, we had a disappointment. In spite of a thorough search, we could find no evidence of an air pump. We would have to cross our fingers and trust to luck that we would get back on our leaky tyre. Then it was back to the lodge for a meal and an early night.
Next morning we got going early and slowly climbed back up towards the tunnel we had crossed through just a day earlier. We would have to cross the watershed to get back to Te Anau, then cross it again to get back to the coast at Haast. But first we had to get to Te Anau without a flat tyre. Gerry was driving and as usual we found that the Serena had a hard time pulling uphill. But we made it and wonder of wonders made it all the way downhill to Te Anau, where we could fill up with air as well as gas.