I spent the spring semester of 2010 studying in New Zealand through the ISEP program. I used this blog to keep an account of my school experience and as a record of the adventures I found. Hopefully it can serve two purposes: to have kept my friends and family informed of my travels and experiences; as well as to serve as a reminder of how important the study abroad experience is, whether it's in New Zealand or not.

19 June 2010

Easter Break - Monday 12/4/10 - Milford Sound

We’re up bright and early to start out on our drive to Milford sound. We know there’s a long road in and out with no petrol along the way and many interesting stops. We also know there are boat rides out into the sound leaving from the end of the road regularly during the day and we’ve been told they’re quite worthwhile.

After a quick breakfast we head out on the road. There’s rain forecasted for the whole day, up to 500mm they’ve said. So we plan to be wet and layer on the clothing. Of course, with rain comes rainbows and I catch a glimpse of the first one in the rear-view mirror. We get a good look back up the valley as the mountains begin to close in on us, the clouds sink in for the day, and the rain starts up. Once we enter the narrow gap between mountains the clouds are thick above us and the water is falling steadily, but not yet very heavily. We see just a few waterfalls along the way before making our first stop. As we’re driving, we approach a bridge where a car is moving very slowly. So, naturally we do the same across the bridge to discover what it is they are looking at. As soon as we see it, we know we need to stop. So I make a quick U-y and go back across the bridge to turn in to a little parking spot. This is one of the most breathtakingly strong waterfalls either of us has ever seen. It’s so loud we can hardly hear what’s going on and it’s so beautifully placed, there’s just no looking away. That is until a car comes by and pushes us off the bridge. I do my best to manoeuvre my way around taking pictures without either dropping my camera into the swiftly (an understatement) moving river or allowing the rain to work its way into some important electronic piece.

We move on, stopping now and again for a photo op of the never ending waterfalls pouring down the mountain sides. The thing about Milford Sound is that there are really no words to describe it. Coming back from the trip, I had people ask me what my favourite thing was and I kept saying Milford Sound and Kaikoura (more on that later). They of course would ask me why Milford and I would be hard pressed to explain. It would go something like this: “Why was Milford Sound your favourite?” “It was so beautiful, there were just so many . . . waterfalls.” See? It just leaves so much to be desired in a description. Even now I don’t believe I have the words, so I’ll leave a lot of it up to the pictures, but in all honesty, it’s really one of those places you have to see to believe and understand. I could spend an entire day describing how you take one look and think there are three waterfalls on one cliff face, but then you look again and you see that there are thirty little ones feeding into and out of one big one. How the clouds hung in the air above us and made the mountains appear to go on and on up forever and all that water was just part of the mountain, no coming from somewhere else. How the road wound around and around with the same endless grey and water, but the view was always different. How it felt as though this must be some other strange world, one completely disconnected from the rest of New Zealand and certainly from the rest of the planet. How we seemed to have gone into some time trap of a place that had never evolved and never would, but would remain in its continuing majesty forever. And I would begin to do it some kind of justice, but there are still no words to describe how one feels looking at this stunning piece of nature and seeing something they have never encountered before.

Eventually we wind our way to the tunnel. This is something like the longest tunnel in NZ with the most alpine set of traffic lights and home to the ever curious Kea; a giant green parrot that has a particular liking of shoe chewing. Tourists love to drive by and then feed the parrots as they wait for the light to change to green allowing their passage through the tunnel, but these cheeky little guys will eat the rubber caulking around your windows and have been known to put nicks in the paintwork. While we see no Keas in our short wait, we do see a last patch of remaining snow at the bottom of the mountains, which has formed itself into a sort of tunnel. Once we get our green light we make our way into the tunnel of rock and find the whole thing slopes down and down and down. It seems to almost never end going down and I can only imagine how deep we are as the clouds covered the tops of the mountains above. We emerge into a giant ampetheatre of rock. It’s no wonder they had to build a tunnel through. The mountains have formed together, creating the world’s best defensive line. Any original Maoris coming in from the sound would have met this and had to turn back, there would be no way though and the rock face is too sheer to climb, especially with all the water coming down. At this point the road starts to wind downward, closely, in on itself and my dad starts to panic we’ll fall over the edge again. But with my trusty driving skills we make it to the bottom harm free. By now we’re practically at the water, just a short jaunt through more waterfall covered cliffs, but now they are moving further apart, letting the valley open up for us more.

We book ourselves for a boat tour and then decide to take two short walks while we wait. The first one takes us along the waterside and onto the beach area. We poke around looking for living things in the water and find almost none. We then take a little hike upward for a few minutes to get a view out to the sound. After a quick break in the super heated cafe to dry our clothing just a little before the boat ride, we make our way along the covered walkway to the boat launch. We have a good sized boat, not one of the largest, but not the smallest either, so it’s quite comfortable and all the free coffee and tea you can drink. This boat ride beats any other I’ve ever taken. The views are breathtaking and the weather, while it doesn’t stop raining, it certainly cooperates enough to only drizzle a bit. One of our first major landmarks is Mitre Peak, a tall peak almost invisible in all of my pictures, but there none the less. We even manage to get a couple of fairly clear moments where we can make out the tops of the cliffs quite clearly. After a while, and everyone’s already wet, our captain decides to show off a bit and manoeuvres us under a waterfall so that the spray hits those of us brave enough to make our way onto the top observation deck with no roof. The blast is powerful and I can feel it pushing me backwards as we make our way under the water.

Eventually our captain gets bored and we back out and move our way closer to the open ocean. A sudden patch of warm air surprises us and is greatly welcome for the few minutes we get to enjoy it before the sudden blast of the Tasman Sea hits us with cold wet wind and freezes us again. Along our way we encounter a few fur seals sleeping on the rocks, their picture eludes me as the boat sways more strongly close to the rocks. However, they are cute and peaceful and quite close to the front of the boat. Our captain brings us under another waterfall just as my clothes were starting to dry out a bit from our few moments of warm air. Our final major landmark (or watermark if you prefer) is the largest (in the sense of volume) waterfall in New Zealand. The upside to being in this place when it’s raining is that everything is much more alive in the water world. The waterfalls are so much more vivid against the rock and they are so much more powerful.

After this we head to the car where we get the heat going to dry ourselves out and start our trip back to the hostel as it’ll be dark soon. We have one last stop along the way we want to check out, it’s called the Chasm. It’s a short walk into the woods before a dull rushing noise begins. The bottom of the falls can be seen rushing through a chasm of rock below our bridge, but it’s not until we make our next turn that the full on noise and power reach us. It’s a deafening boom and you know immediately that if you feel in you would be done for in seconds.

When we make it to the tunnel, we just miss the green light. However, after the red light ends, the light turns off all together, so we are left to fend for ourselves. Trusting that we’ve been through it once, there are pull off bays and it goes only upward, so affording a view up the entire tunnel virtually to the other entrance, we begin our way through. We don’t meet a sole going through and I figure, since no one lives out there, no one will be travelling in to Milford Sound tonight anyway. I’m proved wrong though as several cars pass us on our journey out. We spend the entire time from the end of the sound valley back to Te Anau in total darkness.

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