Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Milford Sound (Days 19-20)

How can I describe to you a place virtually untouched by time?

Milford Sound is so remote, so inaccessible, that they literally had to create a 1.2km tunnel through a solid rock mountain in order to be able to drive there.  As we drove through it and looked through the dim lighting at the exposed rock-face of the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, and then finally came out into sunlight on the other side, I had this incredible sense of having crossed through some unspoken barrier, some thin-veil of parallel universe.  "We're somewhere we're not supposed to be..." I marvelled to J. 

Entrance to Homer Tunnel
 Or you can hike there - it would take about 4 days for an experienced hiker, and there are huts you can stay in along the way.

There is no cell phone service along the 2-ish hour drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, nor are there gas stations or any other kind of ammenities whatsoever.  For about half the year, the road is susceptible to avalanches.  The road is narrow and windy, and has a 65% higher accident rate than the rest of the country

That doesn't stop people, though.  The completely indescribable Milford Sound is actually a fjord.  (The National Park that encompases it was named Fiordland National Park to compensate for the error, but they managed to spell that wrong, too.)

This is a place where enormously tall mountains carved by glaciers grow straight out of the sea.  Where the sides of them are covered with impossible vegetation - lichens, shrubs, even trees - that cling to nothing but tiny cracks in the rock with no soil.  Occasionally, too much rain causes tree avalanches, and the entire face of the greenery comes sliding down into the water, and the barren rock has to start again.

This is a place where you can experience the startling delight of seeing the second-rarest penguin in the world, the Fordland-crested penguin, swim by your boat for a few minutes before disappearing.

Fjordland-crested Penguin

The Chasm - rushing glacial waterfall that has pounded and
swirled pebbles into the boulders to create these smooth holes

This is a place where on your drive up, you can experience one of the largest areas of untouched land in the world, where still clear lakes perfectly mirror mountains in their reflections; where glacial waterfalls have carved out smooth holes in large boulders over ages of pebbles being ground and swirled around in them.

Mirror Lakes.  Note the clever sign.

This is a place where you can hike for almost two hours, ever slowly upwards, through ever-changing vegetation until you reach The Key Summit, an incredible place where you are literally walking on top of a mountain and the plant life is small red and gold shrubs, rainbow-colour pastel arrays of lichens covering all the rocks, short hearty deep green trees, and 180 degree views of mountain ranges around you.

Milford Sound is one of the places time forgot - or rather, thanks to the incredible care the people of New Zealand take of their natural resources, it's a place that has been allowed to remain virtually untouched.  There is literally nothing in Milford Sound besides a marina for the nature cruises and a small cafe for those waiting to get on the boats.

Because it's really only by boat that you can experience this incredible, magical place.  The way the entire landscape was carved out by the sheer power of ice alone is something that can only be experienced in its full magnitude by actually being there.  Our boat took us around for two and a half hours, all the way out to the Tasman Sea and back, with a nature guide explaining all the minute details of how this landscape was formed and what we could find on it.  I couldn't get over the sight of the towering majesty all around us in our boat that was tiny by comparison.

The end of the tour brought us to the Discovery Centre, a floating building that has stairs where you descend into a reverse-aquarium.  The walls underneath are 180 degrees of clear view into the ocean around you, and the humans are the ones who are trapped.  The sea life is free to come and go, and you never know what is going to swim by the windows.  It is one of the few places in the world you can see black coral.

 Milford Sound's unique environment gets rain more than 2 out of 3 days in the year, making it one of the rainiest places in the world.  When it does, the entire sides of all the mountains turn into hundreds and hundreds of gushing waterfalls.  All this freshwater picks up plant matter from the vegetation on the mountains, so by the time it gets to the sea, it creates a thick later of dark freshwater on top of the sea water, which blocks out the sunlight.  This makes the underwater environment in Milford Sound a)very dark and b)very cold, which mimics the conditions only present in much deeper parts of the ocean.  This tricks ocean life that usually only lives much deeper (50 - 1500 metres under the sea) to live very close to the surface, and this include black coral (which is actually white coral living on a black waste-skeleton).

One of our guides in the Discovery Centre, who is actually from Kent, England but has been living in Milford Sound for over a year, told us about a secret spot that you can access a bright blue, crystal clear, glacially-fed pool.  It is in the same place as The Chasm, where we saw the rushing waterfall that caused smoothed-out holes in the stones.  He described to us how to get this off-the-beaten-track secret location, and we decided to try it on our way out of Milford Sound.

We didn't quite understand his directions, but soon found a foot path that branched off, and J followed her intuition straight to this spectacularly blue and clear pool, hidden in the deep woods.  Our excitement was palpable, and if it only weren't so frigid we would have definitely jumped in.  Instead, we just walked around precariously on all the rocks and boulders at the edge of its little shore, and even discovered a thick swing-rope that allowed you access to go around the corner of a tricky spot that otherwise could have very well sent you falling into the pool unexpectedly.

We both drank from this glacially-fed pool, cupping our hands and drinking the pure water straight from the source.

Milford Sound.  Purity in every way imaginable.  There is literally nowhere else in the world quite like it. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Beauty in the mountains, and *flying a plane* (Days 17-18)

We woke up fairly early this morning and continued our drive south and eventually east, with the goal of Queenstown in mind.  As we left the coast and turned eastwards, we were greeted by mountains upon mountains.  The entire landscape changed into spectacular views of brown mountains, green mountains, snow-capped mountains.  New Zealand seems to just change from one incredible landscape to the next.

The second time we've had to wait for cows to cross the road before continuing along the highway

One of our campgrounds

View from the beach at Gillepsies Beach campground

We stopped at some points of interest along the road that involved short walks, two of which were Thunder Creek Falls and the Blue Pools.  We marveled at the amazing blue colour and the crystal clear purity of the water in the Pools - I've never seen such clear water in my life.  It was incredible to look deep down into the depths of the water and see every single last stone and pebble.  There were no fish today, but according to the signs, when they are there you can see every last fish all the way down, and they look suspended in mid-air.
Blue Pools

We got off the bridge above the pools and walked down a small trail that led to their shore, and spent a short while skipping stones over the incredible clear water.  I love the meditative quality of stone-skipping, and the simple but captivating enjoyment it gives.  It always makes me feel like a small child that is enjoying the pureness of play.

Thunder Creek Falls

As we continued on our drive, we encountered two beautiful and famed lakes - Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea.  Both offer incredible blues that reflect the mountains that surround them.  I simply can't put this kind of beauty into words.  I feel as if I'm running out of words to describe how in love I am with this country.  Looking back at my photographs, it's even hard to believe I was there.  The experience of actually BE-ing in the presence of these beautiful, pure blue sights surrounded by towering, impossibly large mountains is something that can only be fully understood by being there yourself.

At one point, we were stopped on the highway on the side of a mountain for about 15 minutes as a helicopter flew back and forth across the lake bringing construction materials to workers high up on the mountain doing emergency repair work to put up a guard fence to prevent rock fall.  Everyone just stopped their cars, got out, and enjoyed the astounding beauty of being stopped next to this lake and mountains.

A few days ago, J had picked up a flyer for me.  It was a sight-seeing/fly-your-own-plane company based in Wanaka.  I have always had a dream of flying a small plane.  I don't exactly know where this desire came from, but she remembered I had mentioned it to her and there the flyer sat in my backpack.  As we approached Wanaka, I couldn't help but consider the idea, even though I am generally not a fan of heights or flying.  A short phone call confirmed that it was quite an easy thing to do, and so I just jumped in. You're in New Zealand, J told me.  What better time than now?

Besides taking off and landing, the pilot let me steer the rest of the 20 minute flight myself, while he took care of the rest of the controls.  It was so cool.  I don't know how else to describe it.  That feeling of being in control of flying this tiny aircraft over the gorgeous Wanaka river and hills was exactly like what I dreamed it would be.  I felt like a small child - I couldn't stop smiling and saying "this is so cool!".  J took photos and videos of me from the passenger's spot behind me while I flew a plane.  Over New Zealand.

I must say, it was a bit addicting, and something I know I will definitely do again.  The cool thing is that the 20 minutes of flight time counts towards my total number of flying-hours if I ever wanted to get my pilot's license one day, and is valid in any country.  I'm not saying this is a goal in the foreseeable future, but it's kind of a neat certificate to have tucked away...

That evening, we drove the rest of the windy, steep, and incredibly scenic road the rest of the way into Queenstown and checked into our first hostel of the trip, for a break from the campervan.  It felt a little strange to leave our home just parked on the street while we went into a building to sleep for the first time in almost three weeks. 

The next day, J was all set to go sky-diving in this adrenaline-junkie capital, but a last minute change of weather/high winds made it unsafe to go out, so her adventure was canceled last minute.   We hopped back in our sleepervan and headed back on the road towards Te Anau, the last stopping point to pick up gas and supplies before heading to the remote Milford Sound.  We camped in a small Department of Conservation site a little north of Te Anau.  These sites are generally $6/person or free, and this particular one was small and very quiet and serenely nestled alongside the mountains and a valley.  We settled in for the night, excited for our long-awaited journey to Milford Sound the next day.

Magical coastal walk, and Fox & Franz Joseph Glaciers (Day 16)

Being in New Zealand for so long, the sights and sounds and rhythm of the land has started to acquire a sort of familiarity.  The rolling green hills that are present in so much of the country have acquired a comforting presence, especially when we have been away from them for awhile up in the mountains or by the coast.  The ever-changing weather, from sunny to rainy back to sunny and everything in between, has become a normal part of the days.  Windy roads and one-lane bridges that used to slow J down and be approached with caution are now navigated almost intuitively.  I find myself naturally using words like "tramp", "hire", and "rubbish" instead of hike, rent, and garbage.

Today our target was the glaciers, but we decided to take what we thought would be a brief detour for a coastal walk.  We drove down a continuously narrowing road that also became progressively more unsealed as we went along.  As usual in New Zealand, we drove along further and further into seemingly the middle of nowhere until suddenly a parking lot appeared  with Department of Conservation signs announcing the start of the Hari Hari Coastal Walk.

We set off on the wooded trail, hoping we would encounter the ocean shortly, but as we got further and further in we realized it would take longer than we thought.  Nevertheless, we set off at a brisk pace, quietly immersed in the solitude of the seemingly never-ending shady woods.  At one point we encountered two large, fascinatingly-coloured New Zealand pigeons that eyed us in silence without moving until we got quite close, and then fluttered up into the trees.  Magical and eerie at the same time.  It seemed almost as if they were keeping watch.

Eventually we came to a partially dry riverbed and were confused about where to go next.  After looking around for a while, realized the trail indeed continued, but instead of being a well-packed trail like we had been following, it was a haphazard path cut through tall palm trees, with random layers of driftwood pieces and palm leaves layered chaotically over thick mud.  We walked precariously on this makeshift trail for about ten minutes until we finally heard, then saw, the crashing of waves.  "We found it!" I cried excitedly.  After walking for almost 45 minutes, the sight of that secluded beach was quite welcome.

The large stones and smaller pebbles all over the beach were quite fascinating.  All kinds of different colours, including fascinating shades of green.  And every stone was fantastically striped in all kinds of patterns.  We explored the interesting stones, even J picking up several and showing them to me. 
Eventually J started boulder-hopping her way over to the rockier, obviously not-meant-to-be-accessible portion of the shore near the cliff side, and I naturally followed.  J pointed out a large boulder that looked like a face; soon afterwards I spotted one that looked like a seal poking its head out of the water.  I felt very in tune with everything around me, as if there was meant to be no other moment but this one.
Peekaboo!  Do you see it?

Its hard to describe what long-term travel does to you.  You come outside of yourself and become something not quite new, but not quite what you were.  You discover and deepen parts of you that were hidden or dormant.  What is it that triggers it?  I'm not sure.  Is it the differentness of everything I've been seeing?  The break from the everyday routine?  The remoteness of the land?
Suddenly, I spied something grey poke out from behind a boulder and a large piece of driftwood.  I gasped.  "A seal!" I cried out to J.  "Where, where?" she wanted to know.  I tried to point and describe where she needed to look.  "There it is again!" I said.  Just for a brief second.  She still hadn't seen it.  We moved over a bit to try and get a different angle.  It appeared again, this time for longer.  "I see it!" she said with the same excitement.  We watched in awe as this lone young male seal poked his head out a few more times, and then inched out from behind the rock to lay its head to sleep on another boulder.  As we kept watching, it seemed to finally notice us and looked in our direction a few times.  Eventually it decided to get up and seal-hop its way over boulders into the ocean, and we watched as it gracefully swam away.

A very camouflaged seal

Oh hello there! 

It was an incredible few minutes where we were deeply and intimately part of this wild landscape.


After hiking back to our car, we continued ever south towards the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.  At the Fox glacier, we did the 1 hour hike to the terminal face.  The hike was slow and gradually uphill, amidst a fascinating landscape of sheer vertical mountain, rushing rivers of pure glacial water, and numerous signs urging extreme caution to stay on the make-shift paths through the rocks that are moved every day depending on rock fall and other unstable conditions.

We were able to get as close as 200m away from it on that particular day.  A sheet of ice between the mountains, grey with rock dust, it didn't give the initial impression of being very impressive, but as I sat on a rock and looked at it for several minutes, I gradually felt tears start to fall down my face.  I'm not sure what it was that triggered the emotion - perhaps it was staring at something that may very well not exist in the short future.  Both of the glaciers we saw today are receding due to warm climate, and are nothing like their former glory.  It was strange to see the interpretive signs showing images of where the glacier used to be even during the 1800's, when it was first discovered by Europeans.

So as to not end on a sad note, here are some photos of the New Zealand pigeons we saw on our coastal walk.  As we were looking at all our photos that night after a few long and exhausting day, J dissolved into hysterics by giving a verbal commentary of what she fancied might be in the birds' minds.  Below is the series of photos, taken by me, with captions by J.

"You shall not pass!"

"Should we let them pass?"

"Meh, they look all right..."
"I don't know, what do you think?"

"You shall pass!"

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hiking Abel Tasman, Swing Bridge, Seals, and Pancake Rocks (Day 14-15)

The past two days have been an incredible whirlwind of fascinating first-times.  The landscape of the South is very different than the north.  The rolling green hills of sheep have been largely replaced by incredible rocky mountains capped with white snow and breathtaking ocean views of the west coast.

Our first major activity in the South was hiking in Abel Tasman National Park.  The hiking trails in this park can take days, so we took a water taxi to the start of one of the nicest trails in the park, and got ready for a 14km hike from Torrents Bay up to Onetahuti, where our water taxi would then pick us up in four and a half hours.  The hiking was mostly through uphill woods, with the occasional break through the palm and silver fern trees that revealed stunning views of bright blue bays, greeny-blue ponds and pools, and deep blue seas.  It was certainly different than what we have previously seen in this country.  It was, however, completely exhausting to have to hike that much distance in such a short span of time.  We allowed ourselves a half hour lunch break at Barks Bay, a beautiful area of sand by soft waves, and then continued the rest of the hike.  We made it with about ten minutes to spare, enjoying a much-needed rest at Onetahuti Beach.  I dipped my tired feet in the cold water for a bit, and then we saw our water taxi speeding over to get us.

Split Apple Rock seen from the water taxi

Add caption

Yes, this is New Zealand!

After that very long day, we drove for a few more hours, enjoying the mountain views, and made our way to a free campsite for the night, Hope Saddle Lookout.  There is a nice little trail leading up to a spectacular view of the mountain range on all sides, so we went up there to watch the sunset turn the snow-capped mountains pale purple and pink, before cooking a much-deserved steak dinner on our little campstove at this secluded campsite.

The next day, we enjoyed a bowl of cereal and excellent cup of coffee on a picnic table surrounded by mountains before continuing our drive west towards the coast.  

On the way, J saw a sign for "New Zealand's longest swing bridge", and immediately pulled over into their parking lot.  We had walked a swing bridge in Abel Tasman, but how could J resist the LONGEST one in the country? 

The Buller Gorge Swing Bridge Adventure & Heritage Park is a fascinating bit of land that lies on a fault line, and for $10, you can walk the swing bridge and have access to their hiking trails that have all sorts of fascinating information about the land, such as pointing out where parts of it have been thrust up almost 5 metres INSTANTLY during earthquakes.  They also have a "Comet Line", which is a harness swing that zips across the gorge and river below, that you can ride for an extra fee.  J's excitement as she saw this was palpable, and while this is not usually the sort of thing I do, I told her that if she wanted to do it I would do it with her.
Swing Bridge

While I'm afraid of heights, after my sand-dune sliding experience, this actually wasn't as frightening as I expected it to be.  It was really cool to zip over the gorge at a moderate speed and enjoy the views from above. 

After that unplanned adventure, we continued our way on to the coast.  The views here are spectacular.  You drive immediately beside the ocean.  We stopped a few times to get out and take in the incredible sight of the oceans and cliffs. There really isn't anywhere in this country that isn't beautiful.  These spectacular views, while they have become somewhat expected, are never taken for granted.

A few hours in, we saw a sign for a seal colony.  "Can we stop at a seal colony?!" I asked in excitement.  And so down the road we went.  This amazing location near Cape Foulwinds
takes you to a viewing platform high above a year-round seal colony on the coast where you can watch wild Fur Seals to your heart's content.  At first it took a few moments to see them at all - their smooth grey bodies camouflage very well with the grey stones all along the coast.  Once we knew what to look for, every small movement was exciting.  "Look over there, that one's walking!" "That one's rolling over in its sleep!" "That one's jumping on the rocks!"  we'd excitedly point out to each other.

When I zoomed in with my camera, I realized that a baby seal that was snuggling against a larger seal was actually nursing from its mother, while what must have been a father (larger and with whiskers) kept guard nearby.  It was fascinating to watch this little family from high above.  Eventually, I had to let J drag me away so we could continue on our adventure.

We continued the magnificent drive down the coast towards Punakaiki, home of New Zealand's mysteriously fascinating "pancake rocks".  These incredible rock formations look like giant stacks of pancakes all along a small portion of the coast.  Scientists aren't exactly sure how they formed, which makes them even all the more interesting.

We took the short walk around them, marveling at these incredible rocks and the way the ocean waves crashed in and against them.  I love things that science hasn't quite figured out yet - the mystery makes them all the more alluring, gives them a touch of magic somehow.  They're impossible to describe any further so I'll leave you with a bunch of pictures instead.