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Published: March 16th 2012
As well as revisiting old favourites, on my quick trip through the South Island I've tried to tick off a few sites on my must-do-still list. Abel Tasman and Dunedin were both on this list, as was Doubtful Sound, and a fortnight ago I finally visited this beautiful and remote part of Fiordland.
We piled camping gear into Luke and Lisa's beast of a 4x4 and drove out to Te Anau for a night under canvas...or under a $10 tent from the Salvation Army store as it turned out! We eventually settled on a grassy clearing after testing the off-road capabilities of the beast on a twilight drive up a muddy, overgrown track. I spent the night wearing all the clothes I own, having weird and scary dreams, and trying not to touch the sides of the tent. Luckily the tent withstood the drizzle and we awoke bleary-eyed to rainbows. After brewing a cuppa next to Lake Manapouri we headed to Pearl Harbour to join our tour to Doubtful Sound.
Our trip started with a ferry across Lake Manapouri to the huge power station at the head of the lake. Then we crammed into a
coach for the winding drive across the mountains. The previous night's rain had fuelled the waterfalls and the ferns and mosses glistened. At the top of the pass we got our first view of Doubtful Sound's still, dark waters and steep wooded mountains laid out below us. At the end of the road our ship awaited us, a big sailing vessel with several decks and, by our standards, luxurious cabins. For the first time in my entire life we had all been upgraded from the 4-berth backpacker cabin to swanky ensuite twin rooms with big windows rather than portholes. Being skanky backpackers though, we had packed a bag full of snacks and wine, forgetting that in the posh world of all-inclusive cruises byo is frowned upon and there was more than enough food for us to gorge on!
In this world of luxury there were more staff than guests it seemed, handing out muffins and fruit, pointing out wildlife, describing the history of the area, and crucially, captaining the boat! The best views were out on deck, but it was freezing cold up there. Autumn had most definitely descended on New Zealand while we had been travelling around. Wrapped
in hats, scarves, gloves and jackets we braved the elements to watch the towering mountains glide past us, eyes peeled for glimpses of Blue Penguins and Bottlenose Dolphins. We sailed out to the mouth of the fiord and were greeted with a face full of icy water as the boat plunged into the ocean swell - the captain had warned us of slightly splashy conditions, not a tsunami!
Luckily we weren't going far and when we slowed to look at a seal colony it was safe to come outside again, where we admired albatross skimming the waves in graceful arcs. The onboard nature guide got extremely excited telling us there was a Yellow Crested Fiordland Penguin on the rocks in front of us, but once everyone had snapped photos of the dark lump it unfurled its wings to reveal itself as a juvenille shag merely masquarading as an exotic penguin. After the wildlife spotting we stretched our arms paddling kayaks around one of the sheltered arms of the fiord. Without the breeze it was a lot warmer, but by this time the sun was well and truly hidden behind the steep cliffs and in the shadows it soon became
cool again - the perfect excuse to stop being energetic and make use of the steaming bowls of complimentary soup and tea!
To think we were worried at one stage that there wouldn't be enough food provided...if only! The buffet was a backpackers dream: piles of salads, roasted veges, whole lambs and cows being carved up, and possibly the most meltingly delicious salmon I have ever tasted. After two piled up plates each our bellies were bulging, and then they started bringing out the sweet treats! Unable to resist real Kiwi Pavlova or cheese we continued to eat until we all felt ill and needed to lie down. On the way back to our cabins I looked over board to see the water sparkling with phosphorescence like a reflection of the night sky.
It's a good job we all went to bed early, at 6:30am we were rudely awakened by the crunching and rattling of the anchor being heaved up several hundred metres from the depths of the fiord. After 25 minutes of that the engines rumbled to life and even I gave up pretending to doze and got up. We all sat around the breakfast
buffet in a bit of a daze, unable to pacify the two conflicting emotions of being full to our tonsils still, but not wishing to let good (free) food go to waste! In the morning the ship cruised back up Doubtful Sound and down another side channel, Hall Arm. In the early light the tops of the mountains shined out starkly against the darkness in the narrow inlet. The waters were so still they formed a perfect mirror image of the trees and rock face rising out of them. The crew cut the engines and generators for 'The Sound of Silence' and suddenly the only noises were the birds chirruping in the forest and camera shutters clicking in response.
Too quickly our cruise was over and we were back on the bus for the sickening drive over to Lake Manapouri and the ferry back to civilisation. Not wishing to end our time in the wilds of Fiordland so soon, we drove out to Milford Sound. The road from Te Anau to Milford is one of the most beautiful anywhere I have been. Mountains and lakes compete for attention with glaciers and waterfalls. Just off the road you
can tramp into dense rainforest packed with ferns and intersected by fast flowing streams. At The Chasm are awesome rock formations, huge bowls in the river bed carved from water and pebbles. Then you drive through the Homer Tunnel, an impressive testament to the incredible hard work of men during the last century, before popping out on the shores of Milford Sound. The cruise terminal may be an air-conditioned hangar, but just around the corner all you can see before you is the towering Mitre Peak rising darkly out of the sparkling waters of the fiord. Jeff went off to do another cruise while the rest of us cracked open a cider and admired this magnificent view, until the sandflies decided we had had too much time in paradise and moved us on.
The sandflies obviously thought we hadn't moved far enough because they continued to plague us at our campsite on the banks of a river just the other side of the Homer Tunnel. Unfortunately they didn't completely distract me from Luke's news that the river was teeming with eels when he came back from fishing a few hours later, so I had another restless night filled with
weird and scary dreams!
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