January 24-29 South Island
Fiords and Glaciers
The town of Manapouri, set on the lake of same name is our first stop in Fiordland. It is small, with just a few motels, hostels, and campgrounds. There is one restaurant and a takeaway shop. Both were expensive and boring so we made our own toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches back at the motel. The price was right and we enjoyed them.
We are in what the motel calls a “backpacker” room. These are $50 and contain a double bed and two singles. We supply our own linens. There is an ensuite. There is also a very well equipped common kitchen and tv/lounge room. We have a stunning view of the mountains and fiords beyond. Tomorrow we leave on a full-day trip to Doubtful Sound.
Today’s trip actually has four components: a boat ride across Lake Manapouri; a tour of the hydro electric plant; a bus trip over the mountains; and a cruise down Doubtful Sound.
Lake Manapouri is large, dotted with islands and secluded beaches. It’s a pleasant 60 minute ride across – complimentary tea and coffee.
At the end of the lake we disembark and get on a large bus that takes us into the Manapouri Power Station, buried under the mountains. The ride down the tunnel is the most interesting part, the tunnel being only nine metres wide but two kilometres long. The driver has a heck of a time turning the bus around at the bottom. Apparently big trucks delivering equipment to the mine take up to seven hours, reversing all the way down the tunnel.
We disembark and trot down into the machine hall – which is the heart of the operation. It’s not very exciting though as all the action – water rushing around pushing the turbines, happens out of sight below the floor. All that is visible are some big blue machines called “exciters” which push the electricity around. A few staff walk around looking at dials and that is about it
So then, into the bus and back up the tunnel.
Next up, we drove 22 km over the mountains to Deep Cove at the end of Doubtful Sound. The route passes from rainforest to alpine to rainforest again. Very interesting changes in the vegetation. The trees at the summit are big old gnarly things dripping with sphagnum moss and hosting all manner of vegetation. They’ve got a wonderfully spooky look to them.
The trees in this area are virtually all deciduous, but in New Zealand they don’t have a season to lose their leaves as they do in North America. Leaves fall year round and new ones grow year round. They are never naked.
The bus finally deposits us at the jetty and we board for the 40 km trip down Doubtful Sound to open ocean. By now everyone is starved hungry and hauling out their lunches. You can pack your own or pay extra for a box lunch – $14 for a simple lunch or $18 for a deluxe lunch. Snooped at the lunches people were unpacking from the cruise company and they didn’t look very exciting. Glad we brought our own.
A helicopter arrives with some swish looking VIPs who disappear into the boat somewhere. Wonder what they got for lunch. We never see them again until the end of the trip when they disembark, first, and flutter off into the heavens on their whirlybird.
Doubtful Sound is beautiful ...tall, green-clad mountains, purple silhouettes in the distance, all soft and misty. Once in the Sound it was raining lightly, which is not surprising as Doubtful Sound “enjoys” 200 days and 27 feet of rain each year. The town of Manapouri, by comparison, only gets about three feet of rain a year.
At the end of the Sound the small rocky islands are full of New Zealand fur seals. Apparently there is also a resident pod of 60 dolphins who live here ...but were not in evidence today. There are also quite a few penguins who make these rocky islands their rookery and are due any day ...but not today.
It was a lovely day, but frankly, no big whoop. We both agreed that the BC Ferries trip through the Gulf Islands to Victoria has it beat. And if not that, then the trip up to Princess Louisa Inlet that we took last year has it beat for sure ...neither of those excursions cost anywhere near the $215 per person we paid for today’s excursion.
But it’s all just a matter of personal opinion. We both preferred the trip up Milford Sound which we took the next day, but I overhead a fellow telling some travellers that Milford Sound was boring, they should definitely do the Doubtful Sound trip because it was the best by far. So there you go.
The drive up to Milford Sound from Manapouri is extraordinary. When you start it is all about driving through a valley ...the mountains tower in the distance ...lots of agriculture ...sheep for the most part, occasionally cattle or the large red deer they raise here for venison and for their antler velvet –an Asian aphrodisiac.
Every time we turn around we are being told that this animal part or that animal part is being exported as an Asian aphrodisiac. With all the animal parts being touted as Asian aphrodisiacs, I cannot help wondering whether Asian-style sex is something we should all be trying or whether it is so desperately bad the participants need the help of animal antlers. I cannot help wondering.
Half way to Milford you come on this valley of golden grasses waving in the wind, with these massive, majestic mountains rising up around you. Then you start to climb and the final 30 km to Milford is through magnificent mountain passes. For breathtaking scenery, this section of the road rivals the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It would be a spectacular trip in a snowy winter.
There is even a long, basically one-lane tunnel that passes through one of the mountains just before Milford. Two small cars could pass each other, but you would be hard put to pass one of the massive tour buses that travel through here constantly so the tunnel is light-controlled until evening. Then I guess it is a matter of squeezing past each other, but by then the large tour coaches are long gone from the area.
There are several companies that offer boat tours of Milford Sound. The “Real Journey” company tours are very slick, using brand new big boats and really catering to the coach tour crowd. We booked with a smaller company, the Red Cruise Line, on an older, much smaller boat, the Lady Bowen. We also thought booking a trip later in the afternoon would make for more interesting lighting and would avoid the coach tour masses.
We were right on both counts. Light was fantastic and the coach tours were already leaving for their hotels as we arrived at the harbour. There weren’t more than 25 people on our boat. It was a magical trip through Milford Sound. A brilliant, blue sky day ...calm waters, just excellent. Couldn’t have been better. They said there is in excess of 260 days of rain here so the fact that we got a blue sky day is beyond wonderful.
There are many waterfalls through the Sound. In several cases the water overshoots the cliff face and lands into the Sound, permitting the boat to nose right under it. We got wet, but it was beautiful.
The boat heads right out to the open ocean where it turns around and heads back. As we were doing that a huge cruise ship started into the Sound. This was a very large ship, but even so, it was dwarfed by the majestic mountains comprising the walls of the Sound.
On the way back the boat stopped at the Underwater Observatory. If you want this “extra” the boat drops you off for 30-40 minutes and you are returned to Milford via a speedboat. We tend to operate on the principal that we’ll never be this way again, so why not.
The Observatory was built because the particular conditions in the sound simulate conditions at much deeper levels of the ocean. The corals and plants that are not normally observable anywhere but deep at the bottom of the ocean thrive there.
On entering the Observatory we descended down several stories into a circular aquarium of sorts. The corals and other vegetation are “planted” in window boxes just outside the windows.
Was it worth the extra $29? No.
If you actually know the difference between specific corals and get terribly excited about seeing a rare species then it might be worthwhile. To me, they looked just like all the other corals I’ve seen snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef or in the Caribbean. The fish were completely unremarkable.
From Milford we returned back down the scenic highway, but this time only went as far as the town of Tea Anau, about two hours drive. Tea Anau is a mid-sized resort town with lots of hotels, motels, and restaurants. We had a very expensive, but totally unremarkable dinner here.
There are also a disproportionate number of outdoor outfitters in this town because Tea Anau is the jumping off point for the Milford Walking Track. This is serious trekking and tramping territory for sure. If you’re not clomping around in muddy hiking boots with a huge pack on your back you look a bit out of place and wussy.
It was a slow drive to Queenstown along an interesting road that put me in mind of the Cape Breton Trail. This road arrived at Lake Wakatipu, a beautiful turquoise coloured lake, buzzing with boats and parasailers and people having fun. Queenstown is at the head of the lake, a lively holiday town with restaurants, cafes, bars. People and music spill out onto the sidewalks.
We took the gondola up the mountain and had a spectacular view of the city, the lake and surrounding area. Just spectacular. A busker at the foot of the mountain, played the bagpipes. The sound of the pipes carried all the way up the mountains ...haunting and beautiful.
Queenstown is a real backpackers town. By that I don’t mean “place for frugal travelers.” The “backpackers” I speak of don’t seem to be short of money. They do stay in hostels but I think that is more a matter of access to social life than finances. They seem to have endless amounts of cash for bungy jumping, luging down mountains, parasailing, whitewater rafting, horse trekking, etc. Never mind sitting around bars drinking all night –partying. Queenstown is their kind of town.
We both got managed to get our hair cut here ...at 8:00 at night. The young woman cutting our hair and virtually all her friends had at one time or another done a working holiday visa to Whistler in British Columbia. It’s a small world.
The Shotover River, running through this area is the second highest gold-bearing river in world history – according to the tourist propaganda. Only the Klondike in Canada’s north was greater. The Shotover yielded 12 ounces of gold per yard of gravel. The gold was discovered in 1862 by a couple of sheepherders.
In Arrowtown, just a few km up the road from Queenstown, they’ve restored over 60 buildings from the gold rush area. It’s quite an interesting main street ...but couldn’t help noticing that they are now building some new “old” building as the commercial trade in souvenirs and trinkets has become so lucrative. The tour buses were literally bumping into each other to rush the marks into town.
It is always exactly the same stuff though, no matter the town: same turned wooden bowls, same paua shell, carved bone, and greenstone jewellery, same Maori carvings, same woollen shawls, sweaters, and scarves.
Continuing on up the road we find ourselves in lake country. First the sapphire-coloured Lake Wanaka, then the equally beautiful Lake Hawea. This area reminds me of British Columbia’s Okanagan. It’s all about rounded, rolling hills, with the golden tussock grasses waving in the wind. Heaps of hot sun, very little rain, deep, deliciously blue lakes with warm waters, and people in a holiday-frame of mind. There are water sports of every description and of course, always, the fishing. The towns are fairly small but overpopulated with cafes, bars, and nightclubs. So many business are devoted to innovative ways to making you part with your money – keep you busy, keep you stimulated, make sure you are never bored.
Time to move on. But as we do, we come on an intriguing site – a fence that’s been populated with women’s bras. There are literally hundreds of them, many with messages inscribed, “Too much to handle, but if you want to try, call Angela at---.” Cannot imagine how this got started.
On the other side of the road is one lone pair of men’s boxers waving in the wind.
Eventually the road leaves the rolling hills and moves into the serious peaks of what are known as the Southern Alps. We travel through Mount Aspiring National Park, marvelling at the mountain vistas, stopping for photos that become repetitive, glacial streams rushing over rocks, waterfalls, towering snow-capped peaks, lower flanks a mass of evergreens. It smells like home.
We arrive, finally, at Haast on the West Coast. Here we will spend the night in the holiday park. We have a large room which includes a kitchen this time. Convenient and pleasant.
Unfortunately the West Coast also comes with its famous sand fly. These are the nastiest of creatures, arriving in swarms but without sound. They quietly crawl under pant legs, into sandals, down collars. Steve is getting bit too, shrieking when they do because for such a little creature they sure pack a needle-like sting. Like me, he gets bit, but his pain ends with the bites. Mine welt up and itch and for weeks.
On the Doubtful Sound Tour they pointed out an island that was used by the sealing ships for disciplinary purposes. When a crew member misbehaved, he was put on the island for three days. If he had been very very bad, he was stripped naked before he was put on the island. If what he’d done was grounds for the death penalty, he was tied to a tree naked. The sand flies will kill you in 2.5 days. That’s what they said.
I bought some special sand fly repellent at the pharmacy in Queenstown. It is 80% DEET and apart from the expected warnings about keeping away from children, and keeping it out of eyes and mouths ...it warns me not to sit on vinyl seats if I’ve applied it to my legs or it will damage the seats! Hmmmmmmm.
The stuff stinks and I know I shouldn’t use it but I am desperate so I am ignoring my suspicions about its toxicity ...but I cannot get the warning about not sitting on vinyl seats out of mind.
This morning we head for the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Driving up the coast from Haast we marvel at the endless clean sand beaches ...just miles and miles and miles of rolling surf. We come on people at the side of the road pointing – it’s dolphins. Several pods are playing in the surf, swimming and leaping about very close to shore. They are enchanting and we stop for the longest while, watching.
It is about 125 km from Haast to the Fox Glacier, a magical drive that takes us from the ocean surf up through dense rainforests, along glacial fed streams tumbling over rock beds, up into the Southern Alps again. A beautiful drive.
Up to 30 metres of snow falls on the neve, or catchment area of the glacier every year. Snow that is compacted on the neve forms blue glacier ice that is funnelled down the valleys of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. This flows under its own momentum, forming rivers of ice which are accessible from the Waiho (Franz Josef) and Cook (Fox) river beds. Flow rates are up to 10 times faster than most valley glaciers, leading to beautiful aqua and milky white rivers tumbling over rock beds and forming waterfalls.
At a latitude of only forty-four degrees south and in a relatively mild climate, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are very accessible, with their terminal faces only 5 km from the townships. You can walk up to what is called the terminal face ...about a 40 minute walk over a gravel path. Steve did it and said it was something indeed to see the glacial water rushing out from under the melting glacier.
We took a 30 minute helicopter ride up to see the Fox Glacier and Mount Cook / Aoraki and Mount Tasman. Very expensive, ($225) but the only way to get close to these mountains or the glaciers. When the helicopter stopped on the Fox Glacier we all got out and stomped around in the snow. It was a brilliant blue sky day, so conditions could not have been better.
Was it worth it? I don’t know. Everyone can only judge that for themselves. A helicopter gives you a special perspective and I do love riding in them. I think our trip was somewhat spoiled because the pilot was obviously bored beyond tears with what he was doing. He just droned out the commentary, never smiled, and kept yelling at me to keep my camera away from the window. I was in the front seat beside him and there was a reflection coming off the glass bubble that made photography useless so I was holding my camera close to the window – but never touching it, and he kept telling me to keep my camera back “or you’ll be paying to replace that $25,000 window.”
We’ve been in quite a few helicopters before and I’ve never been told I can’t hold my lens close to the window. He was rude and his obvious boredom greatly detracted from our experience.
At the Franz Josef Glacier Steve again hiked up to the terminal face ...he describes it as a long and dusty walk out there ...to a big dirty piece of ice. He came back covered in grey glacial dust from the thighs down.
Carried on north all day, through lovely forests, undulating over rolling hills with the Southern Alps looming over our right shoulders all day. The rivers and streams were a lovely glacial milky blue-green, cold and fresh, racing over rugged riverbeds of rock.
Had lunch on Lake Mahinapua just outside Ross. It’s a pretty lake and this being Sunday, the park was full of locals, picnicking, pulling jumping off the wharf into the water, teaching their kids to swim, pulling each other around on inner tubes with speed boats. An enterprising fellow had built his own paddle wheeler and was trying to interest people in a ride around the lake while kids were busy catching frogs in the small stream behind where we sat for lunch. It was a slice of small town life as cars pulled in and neighbours greeted each other with a cold beer, admiring the new babies.
Onward once again, to Hokitika. It seems as if everyone in this town must be crafting and selling something because the whole town looks like one big craft market: wood turning, jade, paua, glass blowing, wool craft, etc. We looked in a few shops but by now we’ve seen it all ...and have already tucked away the gifties for family and friends. We’ve lost our appetite for shopping.
We spend the night in Greymouth on the west coast. In the
morning we are heading over the Lewis Pass for a last look at Christchurch
and the east coast.