For some reason, fjords here in New Zealand are fiords. No time to google it. Just sharing… In any event, I left Queenstown early in the morning to see the wonderful site that is Milford Sound in the southwest corner of the south island of New Zealand. As the bird flies, this should have taken, I don’t know, an hour or two. However, there is no direct route so we had to drive all around the lake by Queenstown – a VERY long lake – and backtrack to get to Milford Sound. This took about 5 hrs or so (I am guesstimating, my memory begins to confuse the segments’ durations…). I wondered why they would not just build a more direct route since Queenstown is such a popular destination in NZ for skiing and adventure (the adventure capital of the world, or is it of the southern hemisphere??), and Milford Sound is high on the list of must-sees in NZ.
The Answer? (Or My Theory of It)
Well, the question answered itself along the way. The trek to get to Milford Sound is the most beautiful of all the road scenery I had seen in the trip. You are, the last part of the way, driving on a road flanked on either side by a mountain range with snow-capped peaks. But I am not talking about far in the distance you see some mountains. No, they are right next to you!
The drive, needless to say, was spectacular. We passed a few mountains (Mt. Christina which in my mind was spelled Mt. Cristina as it made me think of my cousins named Cristina, all 3 of them; and Mt. Talbott where Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his eventual climb to Mt. Everest). Right by Mt. Talbott we entered a tunnel where ice stalactites had formed due to water seepage and some of these would fall on the roof of the bus as we passed – quite loud and it took us all by surprise!
The zone was beginning to show the effects of the arrival of winter. The contrast between how the zone looks in winter vs. how it looks in summer must be incredible to see. (Mental note: I need to go back in late spring or summer.)
During this drive, we passed the divide of the south island and the vegetation clearly became more rainforest-like as we went west over the divide. It was neat to see the contrast.
One interesting note is that, in this area, tree avalanches are possible. The trees along these mountains can’t develop a root system (if I recall correctly) that goes deep enough onto the mountain sides so the trees’ roots intermingle not only underground but above ground. If a tree dies, the overall root system weakens. With enough of this and high winds and entire group of trees can fall and it becomes a cascade of trees all the way down from wherever the avalanche started. We saw a couple of such avalanche sites and basically you can see, just like with a mudslide, the entire section where the trees rolled down. We were told one time it took 2 weeks to re-open the road below!
Milford Sound is a fiord that takes about 45 minutes to traverse in one direction until it hits the open seas (this would depend on boat speed). One can go in one of the boats that take tourists or kayak some of the way. The former was the way I did it and I enjoyed taking in the views, seeing the waterfalls that dot the very vertical faces of the mountains along the fiord (I still want to spell it fjord; Norway on my mind?). The Mitre mountain is the one typically shown on pictures of Milford Sound. It is called “Mitre” because it resembles the hat of the same name worn by bishops/cardinals. Unlike some fiords elsewhere, these are part of a national park and there is no development or habitants in the fiord.
Along the cruise we took, we saw seals and dolphins, the latter quite playful, following the boat, turning on the side as they swam with us, etc. The place had a peacefulness to it that made me want to kayak it on my own, just looking around and enjoying this wonderful corner of earth called Fiordland.
Milford Sound, as far as I understand, is just one corner of the Fiordland region. Now I want to come back and spend the same amount of time I spent in the south island in the Fiorland region! So much to see and do, so little time…