Tuesday September 7

I thought Milford was a Metro-North train station

Today's activity should be very exciting.  We're up early for a trip through some of the most beautiful countryside in New Zealand.  Some of Lord of the Rings was filmed near here.  I'll let the tour operator's description speak for itself:

Travel along the edge of Lake Wakatipu beneath the rugged Remarkables to Te Anau for a short break (morning tea own expense). Enter Fiordland National Park pausing at the Mirror Lakes before passing through Hollyford Valley. The road climbs to enter the Homer Tunnel, emerging above the Cleddau Valley before descending to Milford Sound. Here, we board a vessel for a cruise on the Sound itself. You may see dolphins frolic alongside as you marvel at Mitre Peak rising 6000 feet from the sound.

Courtesy of the Queenstown ministry of tourism, here's a map of the area:
Southern Region of New Zealand

The Trip to Milford Sound

The day started early, as evidenced by my unusual photo of dawn from Queenstown-
Dawn over Queenstown

But it was already going to be a rough day, because I came down with a cold and was starting to feel lousy.

We were picked up at the hotel and taken on an approximately 4.5 hour drive through southwestern New Zealand to take a cruise on a boat on Milford sound.  This was a good way to get an idea of what the western mountains look like from ground level.  Since much of New Zealand is of volcanic origin, we were anticipating some exciting views, which we got. 

You can follow the trip by looking at the above map.  We took route 6 south out of Queenstown to route 94 into Milford sound.  Incidentally, these roads, which appear on a map as the major highways in New Zealand, are the major highways.  They are also two-lane paved roads with an alarming number of one-lane bridges on it.  But on the plus side, there are NO STOP LIGHTS!

Below is a picture of some of the native scrub, including the red plant called Red Tussock, which is apparently a pest to all except small animals which hide behind it when the wind comes.
Red Tussock

The bus trip was long, longer than I felt I wanted.  Here's Alex after about 5 hours on the bus...

Once we got through a lot of the scrub country between Queenstown we got into some sheep country.  Baaaah!  I doubt the sheep appreciate the beautiful mountains behind them.

We had several stops along the way to see some various places of note.  Here are all three of us with some of the mountains behind us, I think Mt. McDougal is the big one.  It sure is beautiful in New Zealand.

As you drive around you can see why Peter Jackson thought he could find locations for all the scenes in Lord of the Rings in New Zealand.  It does seem to have almost every kind of topology and landscape imaginable.  Below is a very still lake known as "Mirror Lake", named because you can see a mirror image of the land in the lake.  Neat!
Mirror Lake

The Kiwis have a sense of humor, too.  Here's the official marker for the Mirror Lake.  Note how it's oriented.
Funny kiwis make their signs inverted for the amusement of tourists

Now we're getting to some REAL mountains. 

Further along, we come across a natural formation known as "The Chasm".  A river has flown through these rocks for so long that they are extremely smooth.  We think it looks like Buddha.

After more driving, including through a hand-hewn rock tunnel at about 2000 feet, we arrived at Milford Sound for lunch on the boat.  We went out barely to the Tasman sea, then turned around and came back, which seemed a bit like a gyp.  We hoped to see some of the shoreline from the sea, but that wasn't what they did.  But we did get to see the Tasman from the sound -
The Tasman Sea from Milford Sound

On the way back the weather changed, which isn't unusual for this particular cove.  See the low clouds?

But it was really beautiful.  As the snow and ice melts off the mountains, it creates lots of waterfalls into the sound.  Here Jen caught me smiling while being and having a cold.
Alex at Milford Sound

Some Korean tourists really wanted to take our picture so we accommodated them.  They even did a pretty nice job.

More waterfalls. 
One of the many waterfalls at Milford Sound

On the way back we passed through more parts of "untouched" New Zealand.  Here is a shot of what much of the south island looked like when Europeans discovered it.  Mostly these grey spiky bushes and other scrub grass.
NZ scrub grass

The way home was a return by the same path, so I won't show more pictures of that.  It probably sounds like I didn't enjoy the trip, and while it was great to see New Zealand's natural beauty, and the amazing variety, it was kind of anti-climactic to drive 4.5 hours to a boat, and then just go out and come back, and then be faced with another 4.5 hour drive back to where you started.  They don't really have any choice in that, since there are no alternative routes other than flying, but it was a VERY long day...

After dinner at the hotel, we hung around for a while, and Jen managed to capture a pretty decent picture of the Southern Cross.
Southern Cross 2004

Updates since our return home

The trip was actually pretty good, but it was a very long bus ride to be on when you're just getting sick on holiday.  The bus driver was really knowledgeable about everything in New Zealand, since he'd been doing the trip for about 30 years.  He said he had done this trip more than 6,000 times so if we ever thought he was getting lost, not to worry - he knew the way.  That's good because there were some times when you start to wonder...

We learned a lot about the land and history of New Zealand, such as the plants and trees we saw, the kind of honey that they make (manuka) which is also excellent as a skin cream.  Alex bought some while there to help with his cold and it really did help a lot.  Manuka honey is a darker, more flavorful honey which Americans find weird but the Kiwis love. 

Here are some additional pictures from this trip:

To get to Milford Sound, you have to go through the Homer Tunnel, which was done much by hand from 1935 through 1953.  It's a pretty narrow tunnel - in much of it only one vehicle can pass at a time, so they have a few passing bays which are barely wide enough for two buses. 
The Homer Tunnel

Some New Zealand Fur Seals lounging on the rocks:
NZ Fur Seals

A couple of better pictures of some of the many waterfalls at Milford Sound:
Big waterfall

The misty mountains?
The Misty Mountains?
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