Day 21: Milford Sound - Queenstown
16 January 2010
3920km - map

Rain overnight means it's a little tricky getting out of the campsite this morning as the ground is very soft underfoot but we're soon on our way to Milford Sound and the weather starts to clear up. The road gets more and more mountainous as we approach the Homer Tunnel which leads to the Milford Sound valley and while we wait the 15 minutes for our side of the tunnel to be let through (the tunnel is traffic light controlled during the day) we have a walk around in the snow by the side of the road. After driving around 120km from the nearest town the only sign of civilisation at Milford Sound is a bus terminal as a vast majority of visitors arrive by coach around the middle of the day, but as we got here at 10:30am there are very few people about. We are just in time for one of the many cruise ships taking tourists around the incredibly picturesque fiord and we set off on the two hour trip in a relatively small boat compared to some of the cruise ships here.

The weather by now is bright and sunny for the second day running (we are lucky indeed!) and the water is calm. The only drawback of such good weather two days in a row is that the many waterfalls that drain into the fiord are less impressive and some non-existant. But there are several permanent waterfalls which are still a sight to behold, one of which provides all the fresh water for the area essentially enabling the tourist industry on its own. Our boat sets off in what appears to be a continuous convoy of vessels making the same circuit of the fiord, each one about 30 minutes apart and the good weather means ample opportunity for some great photos of the stunning landscape. As the weather is so good the boat is able to go right out to the Tasman Sea where we some dolphins playing in the wash of ours and other boats.

One of the selling points of the cruise we have chosen and it's relatively small boat is that it can go very close to the edge of the fiord and on the way back to the harbour we get up close and very personal to one of the waterfalls as they manouver the boat so that its fore deck is actually under the spray of the falling water from high above. We all enjoy getting a little wet and are thankful for the sunny weather which dries us out in no time.

Just before we get back to the harbour the boat stops at an underwater observatory where we disembark and descend about 10 meters below the surface of the fiord where windows allow you to see out into the not-so-murky depths at all the marine life. There is a unique marine environment in these fiords in that there is a 1.5 meter layer of fresh water from all the waterfalls which sits atop the sea water below so both freshwater and saltwater life co-exists next to each other. This also allows the growth of black coral which is normally only found in much deeper depths of the sea and the underwater observatory has encouraged its growth by suspending a cradle in the water outside the viewing windows. When the rainfall is particularly heavy and the fresh water layer gets too big they can lower the cradle so that the precious coral remains in salt water but that's not a problem today and we see lots of different corals, fish and other marine life.

Getting the next boat that comes along back to the harbour we have a quick ice cream and start the long journey to Queenstown. As the crow flies it's only around 100km but there are so few roads in this part of New Zealand that the distance by road is closer to 300km. We stop in Te Anau again for a very nice freshly baked pizza and carry on soon after. Sarah drives us to Queenstown following the edge of Lake Wakatipu for half of its 80km length. In Queenstown we stay at a very modern campsite (and quite expensive compared to the rest of the places we have stayed) obviously catering for the increased tourism in the town over the last 15 years or so as this is the home of extreme sports. This is where bungee jumping was invented and all the variations that have come from it since. The town also offers everything from jet boats to white water rafting to sky diving and skiing in the winter months.

As we set up camp we put all our electronic devices on charge and do a huge load of laundry before finishing off the last of the pizza we had saved from our meal earlier in Te Anau and heading into the town center for a drink. Drinking is a copetitive sport in Queenstown with an inordinate number of bars for the size of the town. We find ourselves at a place called Barmuda as although it's been a warm day it gets quite chilly at night and the bar has a large fire in a courtyard to keep warm by. We get talking to a brother and sister, Ben and Prue who are here for the weekend from Christchurch and before we know it we've been invited to stay with them when we get to Christchurch in a week's time. They also recommend some places to go and things to do the following day and we drink with them until the early hours. Back to the campsite rather worse for drink at about 2am - the latest we've been up all holiday!

Walking in the snow by the Homer Tunnel
Milford Sound
Seal cub
Up close and personal with one of the many waterfalls
Milford Sound Underwater Observatory
Lake Wakatipu
Queenstown by night