Friday, February 19, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Milford Sound: rain, more rain, and running.

The takahe pictured in the last post is one of New Zealand's endemic flightless birds, a knee-high, sturdy, slightly ridiculous creature that was thought for a long time to be extinct. Then, excitingly, in 1948 it was rediscovered near Lake Te Anau, in Fiordland, a part of the country so steep and remote that to this day there are bits no-one has laid eyes on. It was a cheerful thought that didn't sustain us long as we drove away from the threatening rainbow laid across the lake towards Milford Sound, famous for having the country's highest annual rainfall, at around 6.4 metres. It was about my sixth visit there, each time previously in bright sunshine, but today was clearly going to be much more typical, to the Poms' dismay.
Instead of being blue, white and gold, the palette was green, silver, blue and black - sombre, but still striking, especially with the steep-peaked mountains and the dense native bush. As always on the drive there, we were conscious of staying ahead of the hordes of tourist buses streaming in from Queenstown; but we did still stop at Mirror Lakes, to discover that someone at the Department of Conservation had been having a bit of fun.

Sadly, by the time we got through the mountains and the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound (actually a fiord), the rain had properly set in and, apart from the odd gleam of sunshine, didn't stop for hours. It didn't help that the boat terminal had no café, just a vending machine, and not much comfort for people waiting for their cruises to depart. Ours was with Mitre Peak Cruises, in a smaller vessel that supplied tea and coffee but no biscuits. The Poms stayed in the cabin, near the tea, watching the scenery through rain-streaked windows, never stirring from their seats.
I, meanwhile, along with some damp but enthusiastic French tourists, was up on the top deck being stirred by a multitude of quite spectacular waterfalls, the like of which I'd never seen before on my previous sunny visits. The rain was simply gushing off the bare rock of the mountains, thundering, pouring, hosing, foaming, in huge torrents or clusters of trails, white against the black, spray going everywhere. It was amazing.
The drive back to Te Anau was also dramatic, with tumbling rivers as well as the waterfalls. Waiting for our turn to go through the (one-way) Homer Tunnel, we saw that the kea - alpine parrots - were not as lively as usual, looking distinctly bedraggled as they hung around hopeful for some (frowned upon) food to be thrown their way. It was probably just as well that they were feeling less mischievous - they can wreak real havoc on cars when they're in the mood. There's a persistent story about their pulling away the rubber windscreen seal on one so that the glass fell out - they certainly like to attack wipers with their fearsome beaks.
The sun was out again by the time we got to Te Anau (though still raining at Milford, according to the phone) and it was a pretty drive back to Queenstown and then on through the steep gorge of the Gibbston Valley with its incongruous vineyards to Cromwell, famous for its slightly suggestive cluster of big fruit. After dinner there, we were into the Golden Hour and the best place for it - real Grahame Sydney country. Unfortunately, the Pom who was driving was unable to remove his foot from the accelerator, so there are no photos of all that beauty. (You'll have to go and see it for yourself.)
Finally, we got to Wanaka and our roomy but rather bare Airbnb in a suburb back from the lake. The sun was setting behind the mountains as the last Ironman contestants ran gamely towards the finish line, spurred on by generous applause from the spectators along the route, and the thought of rest, food and fireworks just ahead.

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