16 July 2016

Milford Sound

I'm in Queenstown, a major ski and tourist centre quite far south in the country, home to abou 15,000 people, but at the height of ski season, as it is now, the population has swelled, and driving downtown to find dinner was like trying to drive down the Vegas strip...I couldn't believe how busy it was, but I guess I've never been to a major ski resort in the US during peak travel time either.

Anyway, it's a lovely town along a beautiful lake, ringed by mountains that had finally started to receive snow.  It has been a pretty late snow season here, so it was big news when big snow started arriving just before I did, but the city remained relatively warm, and it had stopped precipitating earlier in the day.

Yesterday was my big highlight trip to Milford Sound, and it nearly didn't happen because of the snow.  While access to the Sound is available year round, a heavy snow can often pause access, and the tunnel to get there during the previous two days had been shut down for snow removal.  As my tour bus wended its way through farms full of Kale and Swedes (turnips to Americans), we got word that the road would open mid-morning, and we could continue our journey.

By air, it is not far at all to the Sound, but because of the mountains and lakes, it is a good 4-hour bus ride, or longer if your bus driver doesn't know precisely where the gears are located on your particular bus.  We stopped along the way for some photo opportunities, including a snowy field where a number of adults had their first-ever encounter with snow, and two kea birds were there waiting for us.  Kea are the world's only Alpine parrot, and they are extremely clever and cheeky, as the local say.  Indeed, both birds tries to board our bus and when denied entry, then were plotting (successfully) to steal crackers from a clueless young woman. 

We then made it to Homer Tunnel, a steep narrow exposed granite tunnel that runs at 10% through the side of the mountain, and you emerge in a bowl shaped valley in total amazement that you are in this indescribable setting, with only a ribbon of road zig-zagging back and forth below you for miles in the distance.

At the end of your journey, you are rewarded with a cruise on Milford Sound.  Technically a fjord (or fiord as they spell it here)--because it was glacially formed--it opens onto the Tasman Sea, the large body of water between NZ and Australia.  Just as the British call the Atlantic Ocean "the pond", this large sea is known down under as "the ditch". 

Our large catamaran plied the calm waters of the sound for nearly two hours, where we saw native fur seals basking in the intermittent sun, and a few rare crested penguins frolicking in the water.  The captain then notified us that he had spotted some amorous dolphins amorousizing off the starboard side, which I missed, but some woman did not miss.  She was so amused by the mating that she soon started sounding like dolphins, perhaps also hoping to attract a mate, but really only repelling all on board.

The afternoon journey back was quiet, as the sun sets early in mountainous areas, and we watched a clever movie about a local legend who holds many land speed records set at the Bonneville Salt flats.

It's my last day here, so I'm sure I'll think of a few other things to write up before I get home, 50 hours and 6 airports from now.