Milford - Fjord he's a jolly good fellow!

Published: March 26th 2016
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Finally a New Zealander greets me with 'Sweet arse!' translating to 'sweet as' or 'great'. It's 7.30am as we set off towards Milford Sound and there's a gorgeous pink sky over Queenstown and the lake. Guess that's a 'shepherd's warning' which doesn't bode well for our boat trip in Milford Sound. Fingers crossed. As we drive out of the town I can't get over what a stunning setting Queenstown is in. Everywhere you look are craggy, towering folds of rocky mountains. Mum would have hated it, finding it oppressive and closing in on her. That's how she felt about the Yorkshire hills and moors never mind big mountains. It's why she loved flat, open, big skies Norfolk so much. A total contrast, but I'm the opposite and absolutely love it.

Our tour guide for the day is Vale, pronounced Val. He turns out to be a veritable mine of information. First off I find out the Queenstown lake is called Lake Wakatipu or 'place of sleeping giant'. It's the third largest lake in New Zealand after Lake Taupo, the largest and Lake Te Anau, the second largest, which we'll be stopping off at today. The way these lakes were formed is different in north and south islands. The two in the south were caused by glacial action 10-20 thousand years ago, whereas Lake Taupo came about as a result of volcanic action. The south island lakes are therefore extremely deep - 300m deep enough for you?! They are stocked with a number of different fish from brown and rainbow trout to salmon and long and short finned eels, cockerbellies and smoat (not sure about the spelling of those last two as I've never heard of them).

And so to the inevitable Maori legend linked to Lake Wakatipu: This one is all about young love and giants. To cut it short, basically the beautiful daughter of the Chief loves someone unsuitable, is taken by a giant, the unsuitable rescues her and wins her hand in marriage as a result. The giant still has to be killed in case he tries to take the daughter again. Wood is piled around his sleeping body and he is burnt to death in the shape he's sleeping - on his side in a zig zag. The indentation in the land left behind by his weight fills with water and becomes Lake Wakatipu. It's also said that the giant's still beating heart causes the odd tidal fluctuations that happen every five minutes. This odd phenomenon only occurs in one other lake, Lake Geneva, and it's actually thought to be caused by a combination of atmospheric pressure and tectonic plate movements.

We pass a place called Kingston which is situated at the furthest end of Lake Wakapitu. It used to be the hub of freight and passenger movements by paddle steamer up and down the lake. At their height there were 33 paddle steamers plying their trade. Once the lake-side road was built people abandoned the steamers and now only one remains, the TSS Ernslaw used for tourist pleasure cruises. Kingston is no longer a trade hub, but has holiday homes in abundance instead. The steam trains that linked to the steam paddle commerce operation also fell into decline but until recently a short section of track was open and running tourist journeys. Unfortunately financial problems meant it had to close. It's hoped a new buyer will come forward to make a success of the business so the steam trains can run once more.

As we pass the end of the lake we see crops being grown. These are kale and swede used as winter feed crops for the livestock. The animals need something that pokes above the snow.

To give Vale a break we are shown a DVD called Primevil. We find out loads about the animals and birds of New Zealand, most of which seem to have their origins in Australia. Because the only mammal was the short tailed bat (weirdly preferring to walk rather than fly), the birds lost the ability to fly as with no predators there was no need. The kiwi is unusual out of the birds of New Zealand and can be considered an honorary mammal as it has many mammalian features. For example it has marrow in its bones, two functioning ovaries, feathers that are more like fur and whiskers like a cat. It's also unique among birds in having nostrils at the end of its beak.

We also see this weird giant snail the size of palm that uses vacuum suction to grab its pray. I could go on and on, there were so many strange and interesting creatures, but my favourites had to be the overweight parrots called kakas who eat berries, seeds, flowers, fruit, nectar, invertebrates and are also partial to a few Big Macs of a weekend, or so it seems! The ones we saw on the video kept falling out of the tree they were in, landing with a thud.

We have a break at Te Anau known as the 'gateway to the fjords'. During the summer, from October to April the town is a humming buzz of activity, the rest of the year it's tumbleweed central. We find out about the longer hiking trails such as the Milford Track which take a number of days to complete. Before you go you need to book in with the huts you'll be staying at and also sign in the book of intentions. If you don't show up where you've said you intend to be this triggers a search and rescue operation. The tracks have to be closed down in the winter months as the passes/saddles are covered in snow and there's a resulting avalanche risk.

So Te Anau, you guessed it, there's another Maori legend. This time the Chief is blessed with owning a village with a secret cave of many fish. Every once in a while, however, the Chief needs to go on hunting gathering trips away from the village for a few days at a time. While he's gone his wife's lover comes to stay, basically cos he's trying to get access to the bounteous fish supplies. Eventually the wife relents, and agrees to show her lover the fishing cave. But when they try to fish there it turns out the waters are magical and only recognise the Chief. The wife and her lover are not recognised and because they try to steal the Chief's fish, are sucked into the waters and drowned! On his return the Chief realises what has happened and is so sad and angry he moves his tribe to a different village. They become known as the lost tribe of Fjordland. The cave is also lost, but in recent times an opening was found and there was the cave. It's now a tourist attraction, people going to see the glow worms that live there.

We find out about the idiocies of human beings over the ages. Not a lot of forward planning seems to be the theme. First the Maoris over hunted and over gathered to the extent that many species became extinct or close to extinction. Adding to the haste of decline in numbers of indigenous species they brought with them Polynesian rats who gobbled more of the poor defenceless, flightless birds. They also introduced the bush tailed possum for its meat and fur. Guess what? They too munched on the easy prey, but they also destroyed habitats too. The Department of Conservation (or Department of Death - all it seems to do is kill poor creatures who are here through no choice of their own) estimates there are about 300 million possums in New Zealand today munching an incredible 98 tonnes of vegetation - a night!

So to the English and Scots who brought rabbits for their fur and meat. They too created havoc their burrows destroying land and competing with the farmer's livestock for grass. Various tactics were tried to eradicate the rabbits after the stupid humans realised their mistake. Various strains of virus were inflicted on the poor bunnies, but this too was mismanaged by human idiocy, the timing of release meaning many rabbits became resistant and developed super bunny powers. 'Your virus cannot hurt me, my immune system is like a shield of steel!'. Next stupid human reaction, bring in stoats to kill the rabbits. Good plan, only flightless birds are a lot easier for hungry, pissed off stoats ripped away from their favourite haunts in England, to catch than flighty super bunnies.

Let's see, what other species have humans fecked up in New Zealand - Maoris ate all the 11 species of goose, the huge flightless moa bird and by default the amazingly large Haast eagle that hunted moa. The Maoris were pretty pleased about this one as Haast eagles could take down an unsuspecting human! Yes, they were THAT big! Albatrosses were also hunted by anyone and everyone it seems. Their meat, eggs, bones (to make flutes) all used!

Moving on, humans have also destroyed vast tracks of forests, habitat for the indigenous species. Despite this there still remain 3 million acres of protected National Park area, much of which is unexplored and virtually impenetrable.

Okay, enough of the human bashing. We have another couple of stops, one to admire the views of the Eglington Valley and one to take many 'mirror' photos at so called Mirror Lakes. We find out that the area is so unique and special it has been awarded world heritage status (the only other two areas in New Zealand to have this status are the South Antarctic Islands known as the Orkneys and Tongariro National Park on North Island. There are four reasons for being awarded world heritage status in fjord land, the landscape, its endangered birds, the 500 species of plants and ferns found only here and the cultural links via the Maoris.

We pass a sign saying Attitude 45 degrees south. This marks the point half days between the equator and the south pole. Apparently only 5% of the world's population has crossed this line. I think I probably already did this when I visited Ushuaia at the tip of South America.

We have to stop and wait at one place, for exactly 6 minutes, 45 seconds to be precise. There is a countdown running on entrance to the 1.3km long Homer Tunnel. This tunnel and the Milford Road were built using unemployment work schemers paid only $10 a month (today's equivalent!) plus accommodation and food such that it was. Conditions were atrocious with horrendous weather blighting their lives. Some even lost their lives in avalanches, prevalent in the area. Whole families were camped out here with schools set up for the children.

We pass an area called Holyford valley with really steep, tree-covered mountains. Here there is a risk of tree avalanches! We also make a stop at a place called Monkey Creek. The water is safe to drink here so loads of people fill up their water bottles. Knowing all about liver fluke and their minging life cycle I decide to give it a miss. Bet there's sheep somewhere about. There's also usually loads of naughty kea parrots here nicking people's stuff, but they must be having a lie in as there's none about today.

And so to our boat trip on the famous Milford Sound. Yes we finally arrive and after picking up our tickets we go on board our boat. We have an assigned area inside, but I spend the whole time on the open upper deck. We are docked in a bay with massive mountains all around and as we set off there's mist still around but no rain. It seems we are to be lucky in this respect. We are making our way up the left-hand side of the fjord and our large boat is made miniscule by the shear massiveness of the steep mountains abutting up to the very water's edge. Over the other side of the fjord, on its way back, is another boat that's been taken close to the base of a huge waterfall cascading off the side of the mountain. Those on deck must be getting soaked. Note to self, remember to put on waterproofs on the way back. Every turn brings a new incredible view. How lucky I am to be here surrounded by such awesome scenery.

When we get towards the sea the fjord mouth widens and the boat begins to rock with the action of the larger waves. It's quite exciting to be out at sea, the Tasman Sea to be precise. We turn back into the fjord and journey back down the other side. About half way down we stop at some rocks where we see New Zealand Fur Seals hauled out having a snooze. They wisely ignore us and our ooohings and ahhhings. And so to the close encounter with the huge waterfall we'd seen from afar on the way out. Those of us on the top deck got to watch the unsuspecting folk on the bottom deck suddenly getting a soaking mid photo poses and running away to try and avoid it. One guy obviously doesn't care and stays there getting soaked. Up this close you can hear and feel the might of the water falling from such a height.

All too soon we find ourselves heading back to the start ready to dock for the next set of passengers. But what's this? Finally some blue sky is struggling through the clouds. What a perfect end to our boat trip.

On our journey back to Queenstown be do 't have any more scenic stops, instead we get to watch a film about Bill Munroe, this eccentric New Zealander pensioner with a passion for motorbikes, the Indian in particular which he takes all the way to America to the Bonneville salt flats where they do speed trials. Played by Anthony Hopkins, Bill Munroe becomes a bit of a Kiwi folk hero, one that many New Zealanders had never heard of before the film came out. And yes, he did hit his 200mph!

We finish the film just as we are pulling into our drop off points in Queenstown. What an amazing day. One to be tucked away in my treasured memory files.

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