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Sunday 10 Mar 2013
Queenstown, New Zealand

Milford Sound simply beautiful.

They say that Milford Sound is one place that is actually better visited in the rain because the water runs off the mountains and down the rock faces into the fjord in a series of waterfalls as far as you can see. Given that New Zealand is now officially in a drought, this was unlikely to happen for my trip. However, seeing it in full sun was certainly not a disappointment.  It was a very long day, but I am so glad I made the trip.

Queenstown was as close as I could get with my Stray pass, so I booked a day trip to Milford.  Geographically, Milford is not actually too far away, but the presence of the Southern Alps means the detour is actually around 350km each way, via Te Anau and the Homer tunnel.  We had a very early start, but being picked up first meant I got the front seat on the coach for the best views.  En route to Milford, we stopped off at a few places to stretch our legs.  Mirror Lake (actually not much more than a pond) had great mountain reflections. Knobs Flats (a large area of meadow with random hillocks, made from boulders left behind by passing glaciers) was familiar because they filmed some scenes from the Hobbit here (when Radegast the Brown is leading the wolves on a chase to allow the Dwarves to escape).  The Chasm is a narrow but powerful stream that thunders through the rocks below the bridge, where it has carved out great spirals and caves, before dropping over a steep waterfall.  Even in low water it was impressive, so I can only imagine what it would be like after a heavy rain.

Not long before we reached the Divide - the highest point in the pass, at which the rivers all flow down in different directions to the Tasman  Sea or the Pacific Ocean - we passed the most recently named mountain in the Southern Alps.  There are still many peaks with numbers rather than names, but this one had just been named officially as Mount Tolkein.  Can't imagine what inspired that choice of name!

The Homer Tunnel (completed in 1954, about 1250m long) is the only road connecting East and West through this area of the Southern Alps.  It's a beautiful drive with stunning views up the mountains and down the Cleddau valley, but I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like for those men building the road all those years ago.  The tunnel itself took over a year to blast through and the whole time water was seeping though the rock above.  Even now, parts of the tunnel roof are lined with plastic to channel the water off to the sides.  There is an avalanche cover built over the eastern entrance to try and protect cars emerging from the tunnel during the winter months.

Our first glimpse of Milford Sound itself was the classic postcard view of Mitre Peak, so named for its reminiscence of the shape of a Bishop's Mitre hat.  Our cruise was two hours long and took us right up the fjord to the sea and back again.  Although Milford is named a Sound, it is actually a fjord.  The 13 other fjords in Fiordland (NZ spelling) are also incorrectly named as Sounds - in fact the only true Sound in the area is called a Fjord! But whatever they're called, they are spectacular.  Milford was carved out by the passage of five successive glaciers, each one carving deeper than before.  Glaciers leave a distinctive U-shaped valley behind, while rivers form a V-shaped valley.  Looking up at the enormous steep sides of the fjord, it was easy to see the scooped shelves higher up where the previous glaciers had passed through. 

The lush green forests on the rock walls are balanced on a winely woven tapestry of roots and trapped dirt, but not attached to the rock itself because it is so hard.  This means that the water can run straight down through the roots.  If a landslide occurs, it simply takes out everything in its path and leaves a big exposed scar in its wake.  The forest can then take up to a hundred years to regrow and fully mature again.

The usual plethora of rain fed waterfalls may have been missing, but there were two permanent falls still running.  Because the steep sides of the rock walls continue down under the water at the same angle, the cruise boats can get very close to the waterfalls without hitting anything, so our captain took us right into the mist under Sutherland falls - a lot closer than he usually needs to go.

The beautiful blue sky became more cloudy as we got closer to the sea, until it sat like a blanket over the treetops on the coast.  Very strange to see what a difference only a few hundred yards could make.  On the way back in, we saw a family of fur seals sunbathing on the rocks, but sadly no dolphins out to play.

The drive back was just as spectacular, with some weird and wonderful cloud formations over the hills.  I finally got back into Queenstown at 9.30pm, exhausted but happy.  I topped the day off by phoning home to wish Mum a happy Mothers' Day.

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