Water Water Everywhere

Published: April 8th 2020
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The highlight most anticipated by many visitors to New Zealand's South Island is a visit to Fiordland National Park, and for many that means a cruise on Milford Sound. In normal times, this means about a two hour car drive from Te Anau or a longer drive from Manapouri or Queenstown, followed by a relatively short cruise on what is a surprisingly small body of water. However, this was not normal times. Continuing our string of catastrophic near-misses, we arrived in Fiordland just days after an historic flood event devastated the road to Milford, stranding hundreds and requiring several air rescues. Over 39 inches of rain fell within a 60 hour period.


The result of the consequent flooding was that the road into Milford was several damaged in several places. When you drive the road, yo see why repairing it is a challenge. They quickly got at least one lane going throughout the length of the road, but in order to minimize problems with areas of single land roadway and to help limit the traffic so that further repairs could be done, they instituted a system of convoys in and out of Milford, with no private vehicles allowed. The situation was made even more chaotic by the fact that you had to be in line for the convoy when the gate to the park was opened, but had only a fairly vague notionof when that would be. So we entered the park on one of at least 50 buses in a row. Since no stops were allowed once inside the park, all photos and viewing was through the bus windows, which is certainly not ideal. We were able to make a couple of stops along the road before entering the park, but could not stop at ll the usual places because of time constraints.

With all that said, the views from the road leading from Te Anau to Milford Sound were spectacular. In fact, we all agreed that the trip in and out was more spectacular than the Sound itself. As we started out we were in a broad plain with the road running alongside the Eglington River, then later alongside Mistake Creek, Cascade Creek, Lake Gunn, and Lake Fergus. But at a glance you can see that this U-shaped valley is not a river-carved feature, but actually a glacially carved remnant of the last ice age which ended about 14,000 years ago, with glaciers so large and deep that this one covered nearby Key Summit, whose peak is over 3000', was overtopped by about 500 m of glacier ice.

The farther you go up the valley, the closer the mountains on each side crowd in on you, until you reach The Divide, which marks a watershed dividing line. Beyond that, the mountains crowd you from both sides. Although they tops are usually not beyond the tree line, the slopes are often barren because of the frequent landslides. Rushing streams fly under bridges which in some cases were partially eroded and closed to a single lane. And EVERYWHERE there are waterfalls. Hundreds of them, large and small, rushing torrents and thin veils of spray. I suspect that the recent spectacular rain event had increased these, but they are ever present. Even in normal times this area gets about 250" of rain per year, making it one of the wettest places on earth. On our visit day, however, it was not raining (at least not during the drive). A misty rain began just as we reached the Sound.

Although we saw some beautiful waterfalls on the cruise on Milford Sound, overall we were somewhat disappointed. The Sound is only 15 km long, emptying into the Tasman Sea, and is is fairly narrow. The boat ride was only about two hours. It consisted of mostly motoring to a large waterfall and turning the boat head on to the water torrent to give spectacular views to all. The falls were beautiful, but somewhat monotonous after a while, and a continuing mist made staying outside a little unpleasant.

The high rainfall amounts produce some interesting effects. First, so much fresh water flows into the Sound that the salt water of the Sound is overtopped by up to a meter of fresh water. The fresh water contains large amounts of dissolved tannins from the trees on the slope, and these absorb enough light that they produce light conditions in the salt water that mimic those of much deeper water. As a result, black coral that is usually found at greater depths rises to within 10 m of the surface here, and in the past it was harvested for jewelry. That is now prohibited. The forests covering the steep slopes have a precarious existence. There is little soil, so what happens is that one or more trees will take root in a deeper crack or crevice, and the roots then spread out horizontally over the rock, where they trap additional small amounts of soil that is largely generated by the erosive effect of red algae on the rock. Trees can root in this and all are held up by their intermeshed root systems, held on the slop by the anchor tree. Eventually, the anchor tree grows large enough that its root system is unable to secure it to the slope, and it slides down the slope, taking with all or most of the connected trees in what is called a tree avalanche, Bare rock is exposed, red algae soon starts to grow on the rock, and the process starts over again.

Growing numbers of southern right whales and humpbacks have been seen offshore of the entrance of Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea, although we did not get that far in our cruise. We did see bottlenose dolphins, the most southernmost such group in the world.

The ride back was uneventful, and offered little new in the way of views and vistas.

Additional photos below
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