Rainbows, waterfalls and when adjectives fail you

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February 1st 2011
Published: February 3rd 2011
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31 January 2011


I am, in many ways, tempted to leave it there. To do so would rather defeat the point of keeping this blog yet, when faced with a day that provided in so many wonderful ways, attempting to sum it up in a couple of thousand words feels as if it would be to do the day a disservice.

There are times in the life of the average 32 year old woman when her intuition appears to be so finely tuned as to teeter on the brink of premonition. Last night, I like to think that I had one those moments as I set about drifting off into the land of nod for the second time.

The words were, roughly, as follows:

"I have a feeling that when we wake up tomorrow it will feel as if this storm never happened ...

and so it came to pass.

White cotton candy clouds danced about high in the bright blue sky and the early morning rays gave the earth below that glint that only early risers are ever lucky enough to witness. We had found shelter a short distance away from Clifden Bridge, a suspension bridge (no longer in use) originally built in 1899 to replace the government funded punt which, itself, replaced a ferry. The punt was not of the type more typically seen drifting along the Cherwell on balmy summers afternoons but, if the picture on the info board is to be believed, more closely resembled a sturdy raft that shuttled from bank to bank via permanently constructed chains - a bit more like a primitive Torpoint Ferry.

It is no longer possible to cross this bridge - even on foot - and we therefore had to make do with a riverbank viewing, stunning in the early morning lighting.

Today we had one destination in mind - Milford Sound. I am embarrassed, as a human being, to admit that I had not heard of this place until a week or so ago when, over brunch, Katherine asked us if we intended to visit. I am even more ashamed as a Geography graduate. Here's a quick geography lesson for those who, like the me of a week ago, have little or no grasp of the topography of South Island. It was pretty much covered in glaciation giving rise to dramatic mountainous scenery and equally vast plains. In the far south-west can be found fiordland (spelt correctly, for New Zealand) and the remnants of the fifth glacial epoch. This is a place where you are surrounded by everything that you learnt about glaciation at school, and then some.

I am getting ahead of myself, Milford Sound (which isn't a sound because it wasn't formed by a river, but a glacier) was something for the afternoon. Between us and Milford was a whole morning and, boy, was it full of surprises.

How often have you seen a rainbow? I'd like to hazard a guess at not that frequently, maybe once or twice a year if you are lucky. I remember one particular sighting when on our way home from Yorkshire many years ago. I must have been no more than 7 or 8 when Dad suddenly stopped the car and hopped out to find a camera to photograph it. The memory of a 7 or 8 year old is often less than perfect and, even more often, veiled in a bright rosy hue. On this particular occasion, then, I remember that the rainbow was particularly clear and arced before us over a road that could have lept from the early pages of the Lord of the Rings or, indeed to a child's eye, Enid Blyton's 'The Far Away Tree'. I also remember that Dad was concerned that his camera would not be capable of capturing the beauty of that rainbow and I am fairly sure that, after the obligatory wait to finish the film and for Boots to kindly develop it, the camera had failed Dad.

This morning, minus the road to Bree, New Zealand delivered what the nineteen eighties roads of North Yorkshire (and, in truth, the 1980's camera) could not - photographable rainbows. Yes, Rainbows plural. As the sun began its ascent up into the sky burning off mist as it travelled, not one but at least four rainbows (or parts thereof) obligingly twinkled to light our path to our first destination - Manapouri.

Manapouri is home to the eponymously named lake which is, according to our map, New Zealand's second deepest. Without wishing to sound dismissive, it was yet another impressively beautiful lake where we stopped for a moment, or two, to take photographs. The guidebook indicated that there wasn't really a great deal to Manapouri and that Te Anau, being the gateway to Fiordland and, ultimately, Milford sound, had more amenities and, most importantly, offered us the last place to top up the petrol tank before beginning the 240km round trip to Milford Sound. From this point, there is but one road in and out.

Te Anau is a small town that appears to have one major focus - selling boat trips on Milford Sound. It is just the kind of place that I imagine one would find in the American deep south. The shops sell two things:

1. Outdoor gear; and
2. Pies.

This happenend to be convenient since a) I was still feeling the cold despite having bought additional layers in Dunedin; and b) We had had a measly cereal bar for breakfast and a warming pie was just the ticket - and all purchasable from the supermarket. As Gregg would say, result.

We have started using the guidebook as a touch of light bedtime reading and, whilst I was snoring last night, Gregg took the opportunity to absorb the section on Milford Sound which advised either setting off from Te Anau at 8am or waiting until 11am in order to miss the tour buses heading up for the lunchtime cruises. We were in no particular hurry and, since it was around 9am, took the opportunity to share a cup of tea and a few hands of Monopoly Deal (introduced to us by Scott and Sara & a pack finally located in Manly) overlooking Lake Te Anau.

At just after 11am, we set off over the mountains towards Milford Sound. I pause here again totally at a loss for suitable, or indeed sufficient, adjectives. As the journey started, we found ourselves driving along the plains - flat beds left behind by the mighty power of glaciers and I think Gregg was slightly concerned that the big draw was not going to be as impressive as the landscapes that we have been passing through over the last week. What we were seeing was beautiful but not as outright stunning as some parts of the country that we have visited. Then, the road began to climb up into the mountains and, once again, every corner brought with it a chorus of fresh 'wow's' and my constant requests to "please find a spot where we can pull over . We duly stopped at numerous look outs to gawp in wonder at snow capped mountains festooned in rainforest (which, until today, we thought only existed in tropical climes) and cascading waterfalls. Sublime.

Then the sublime became the ridiculously amazing - we rounded a corner and found ourselves atop a small bridge that almost bisected a waterfall. And when I say waterfall, boy was that water falling. It seems that there was a supreme silver lining to last night's clouds - the rain brings the waterfalls of Fiordland out to play, much like the rainbows, I suspect.

We stopped for a while and attempted to do the waterfall justice in digital form, eventually deciding that the midday light was entirely wrong for such a shot - we'd have to hope that it wasn't raining by the time we passed back by later in the day.

Having stopped a couple more times for 'photo opps', we reached the most alpine traffic lights in the world - apparently. It was alpine and there were traffic lights so I will have to trust the guidebook as to the word 'most'. The traffic lights service a tunnel which is one lane wide. The tunnel passes through the mountain - all 1207 metres of it and drips with ground water from above. The purpose of me giving you the distance, lest I forget, is to explain that the traffic lights change once ever 15 minutes . We stopped to take some photos of a waterfall cascading beside the tunnel and promptly missed the end of our first 15 minute slot so, with nothing better to do, we sat and marvelled at the view until the traffic lights changed again and we were free to pass.

We had read that the area around the tunnel is home to Keas - flightless parrots - and we hoped to catch a glimpse on our way in/out but lucked out this time.

Emerging from the western end of the tunnel, we were greeted by the beginning of the final leg of our journey - a fairly sharp drop down to sea level (the fiords being at sea level) - time for some low gears.

We had expected to round the corner into Milford Sound and find ourselves immediately wowed by the scenery however the carpark, visitors centre and surrounding trees rather masked the inital view. Fortunately, the view from the carpark, was to provide the first stunning of the afternoon following which hundreds were sure to follow.

We booked ourselves on to the last 2 1/4 hour cruise of the day, totally blowing the budget - sometimes, you just have to - which gave us an hour and a half or so for a leisurely lunch followed by a stroll to the ferry terminal.

Milford Sound was absolutely stunning - a place on a completely different scale to anything that we have ever seen before. Huge mountains, right next to the ocean one of which is also home to a glacier - how does an East Anglian Brit compute all of that? With absolute awe, much like the Devonian. We were lucky enough to view it with a backdrop of bright blue sky dotted with yet more candy floss clouds and lit by the obliging rays of the late afternoon sun. I have, once again, attached a few too many pictures, with the hope that you can appreciate some of the splendour for yourselves.

Our cruise on Milford Sound was, without doubt, the highlight of my travels so far.

We planned to find a Department of Conservation campsite between Milford Sound and Te Anau and eventually, reluctantly, headed back along the same road that we had journeyd along earlier in the day. Department of Conservation campsites are basic - usually only with one or two convenieces and little else by way of amenities, camping is informal - you chuck your van wherever you fancy - and payment is minimal (the equivalent of £6 a night) and made by way of depositing payment in a envelope into a kind of honesty box. I say 'kind of' honesty box because at some point during the evening/early morning the sites are actually checked by Department of Conservation employees so, really, not being honest is not an option.

We selected our site - Cascade Creek - because the guide book told us that we could also do a 45 minute walk from the spot and we decided that it might be rather nice to stretch our legs and warm ourselves up before heading off for Queenstown in the morning.

We picked a spot by a babbling brook and opposite a French couple who seemed
The river below the waterfall on the first attemptThe river below the waterfall on the first attemptThe river below the waterfall on the first attempt

sunshine great for warmth but not for this photo
to have driven their van down a small bank and were having trouble persuading it to come back up again. Gregg offered our assistance (they had a rope attached to a tow ring on the front ot the van) but they very kindly declined as they didn't want to risk our 'hire van'. Eventually they found someone who could help and then drove off into the evening sun whilst we cooked ourselves up some pasta and then retired, setting an alarm to ensure that we would awake in the morning in time for our walk before moving on.

01 02 11

The alarm went off at 6.15am and, to our surprise, it was still dark. I took the executive decision that, if it wasn't light, then it wasn't a suitable time for walking so awarded us another few minutes sleep. Gregg was worried that we would oversleep so, reluctantly, I agreed to get up, pack the bed away and prepare the van for leaving before we headed off for our walk.

By the time we had prepared ourselves, it was light and we there headed off into the beech wood (the beech leaves are tiny here) in the direction of Lake Gunn. We stopped every now and then to admire fallen tree roots (the root systems are very shallow so the trees produce buttress roots but even those are insufficient at times to stop the biggest of these fellows from keeling over), spiders webs and the forrest canopy before emerging on the banks of Lake Gunn which was beautifully framed by the mountains beyond. Once again, an early morning scene that we felt very privileged to have witnessed.

We returned to the van, hopped in and set off back to Te Anau where we stopped for a while in search dry shampoo (impossible to find here, it seems) and topped up our cereal bars with another couple of pies. Pie shops in Te Anau are, it seems, rather like pasty shops in Padstow - proud to offer an array of interesting and unusual flavours. Chicken satay pie anyone? The pie shop that we picked even had 'Cornish Pasty' on offer unfortunately, it failed on two counts. The EU would be in uproar because there is no way that these particular pasties were made in Cornwall and, even more sinfully, they were not Cornish style at all but Devon (only a Devon boy would waste breath on pointing out the difference. Oh, and in case you are wondering, a Cornish pasty is crimped around the side and Devon over the top - now you know).

Yet more beautiful scenery abounded on our journey between Te Anau and Queenstown. Queenstown itself sits on the northern apex of Lake Wakatipu which is enormous and, as is common here, beautifully blue. Since it is the summer, I suspect that we did not see Queestown at its absolute best but it is a beautiful little town nevertheless. Having already decided to treat ourselves to a night at a proper campsite with power (to re-charge the computers and cameras) and showers, we checked in to a site a short walk from town, luxuriated in showers and then headed off in search of lunch. Since it was only 11am when we arrived at the campsite, we had an entire afternoon to explore this little town and made the most of the opportunity to share a pub meal over a pint and a glass of wine - it feels like a very long time since we last did that.

Later in the afternoon, the spending bug seemed to have a firm grip on Gregg and when we returned to the campsite he had a new baseball cap (the sun gets in his eyes when he is driving) a pair of walking trousers and a happy little smile on his face.

As the evening drew on, we realised that we ought to start thinking about when to get to Picton in the far north of South Island to catch the ferry to Wellington in North Island and we think we will make it by Sunday, of course, all of that could change if we don't make it as far as we hope tomorrow.

Additional photos below
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