Day 11 Doubtful Sound

And tonight’s nocturnal disturbance was the battery going in the smoke detector, so that it bleeped annoyingly every few seconds. We finally braved the cold in order to disconnect it. Another day, another Sound; this time Doubtful Sound. Typically, although it has been dry all night, it begins to rain at breakfast time. We walk down to the Real Journeys office and board our coach for Lake Manapouri. Randomly, the driver detours round a housing estate in order to deliver a letter. Then it is on board the MV Titiroa to cross the lake to West Arm. We manage to avoid the lake’s thirty three islands. Next it is on a coach with Mike to Deep Cove. Actually it is on two coaches as the road have given way, so we have to walk across a bridge at one point. This road is only accessible by water at either end. We cross the snowy Wilmot Pass and see the HEP station. Most of the electricity generated is used at the aluminium smelting works near Invercargill.

We finally board the Fiordland Navigator for our cruise of Doubtful Sound. ‘Sound’ is actually a misnomer – blame Captain Cook. Technical a sound is a V shaped inlet, created by river action, whereas a fiord is a glacially cut U shape, so this is a fiord. The ‘Doubtful’ part of the name was because Cook was doubtful that the prevailing wind would allow vessels to get back out of the ‘sound’ easily. We tuck into our complimentary Mitre Peak lunch from yesterday. I have never seen such huge sandwiches. They were about three inches thick, making eating them delicately a bit of a challenge. They were accompanied by similarly large-scale muffins.

063 23 May 2018 Rainbow, Doubtful SoundOur geography field trip continues. We sail up Crooked Arm, which on its own is a similar size to Milford Sound. Today we can enjoy a sound that we can actually see, as the rain stops and there is even occasional sunshine. There are also rainbows, which, inevitably, are not done justice by the photography. The majority of our fellow travellers are American university students. Some are wearing more make-up than I have possessed in a life-time. Others are clad in tee-shirts and thin cardigans – it is three degrees, still others sleep the cruise away. At one point the captain cuts the engine and generator ‘so we can listen to nature’s silence’ for about ten minutes. This was never going to go well, especially as the rain begins again during the process.

Our return trip proceeds without incident and we are hoping that our journey tomorrow will not be impeded by snow. as we head still further south and east. Today there was snow between Queenstown and Te Anau, so we are only narrowly escaping the weather.


Day 10 Milford Sound

A some point in the middle of the night the heater we rented with the camper van whimpered and died. In other nocturnal news, having left Chris’ phone on in case of yet more re-arranging of our itinerary, we received a call at mid-night about PPI. It was a night of torrential rain, with thunder and lightening rolling and roaring round the lake. This was marginally quieter than the door of our neighbour’s camper van, which they felt obliged to open and shut approximately every thirty seconds between 11pm and 1am. This they recommenced at 6am.

We were ready in good time for our 7.45am pick up to (hopefully) go to Milford Sound. We can actually see the road from the camper van. Given the pouring rain, one of us wanted to wait until we saw a vehicle draw up and then make a run for it. The other one would have been out there getting soaked from at least 7.30am. No prizes for guessing which was which. In the end, the mini-bus was early so it was a case of head out when we spotted it, which was at 7.40am. One of us had only asked, ‘Can we go outside and wait now?’ about eleventy billion times by this point. We were the first on board, which meant that we could sit at the front but this position came with the responsibility of being umbrella monitor. Our super ace guide for the day on our Fiordland Tours/Mitre Peak Cruise was Jonathan. He began by asking us if we would rather go tomorrow instead, as the weather was forecast to be better. None of the fourteen on board were able/keen to do this so we headed intrepidly on.

Jonathan gave us some information about what we couldn’t actually see due to the poor visibility. He did try to make a positive out of the heavy rain: the waterfalls will be more impressive. Between the years 1000 and 1800 half of New Zealand’s rainforest was burnt in order to aid the hunting of the now extinct flightless bird, the moa. Farmers moved in and free ranging deer were introduced. These soon became a pest and wild deer were killed or corralled into venison farms. This apparently involved leaping out of helicopters and winching up deer in order to transport them. We do indeed see some impressive waterfalls through the murk and also some cabbage trees, the southernmost growing palm tree. There is beginning to be a problem with non-native pine trees. These have been planted as a carbon-emissions pay back but they are encroaching on the National Parks and altering the habitat. Fiordland covers 5% of New Zealand and at 1.25 million hectares, it is the country’s largest National Park. It is also one of the world’s wettest places. They are not wrong there. The ten metres annual rainfall here is twenty times the annual rainfall of Christchurch. Just a bit of a shame that all ten metres have decided to fall today.

We stop for morning tea and very acceptable scones at Gunn’s Camp. Then comes the news that the Milford Road is closed due to a ‘wet slide’ avalanche. The heavy rain has put weight on the snow and the road is blocked. It may, or may not, be passable later. We walk the Marian Lake trail while we wait to see what transpires. I was lured on this short walk by the possibility of seeing blue ducks or Pukeko. The rain is still torrential and we are wielding complementary umbrellas. I have my camera in my other hand. Then comes the unbelievably wobbly suspension bridge over the rushing torrent. I am never a fan of anything high up or wobbly and the feeble looking safety wires on either side were only about 2 foot six high. Given the umbrella and camera, I was left with no spare hand with which to cling to the side wires for grim death. I lurch from side to side alarmingly but somehow make it across and indeed back. There was not a Pukeko in sight.

We return to the road junction to find the road still closed so we resign ourselves to having to miss Milford Sound. As compensation, Jonathan drives us up back past Gunn’s Camp to the Humboldt Falls. Then comes the news that the road is open after all. We are too late for our scheduled cruise but Jonathan thinks they will hold a boat for us. We are now very short of time as we have to be back on the Te Anau side of the tunnel before 4.00pm when the road will be closed due to forecast snow and we may be marooned in Milford, perhaps for days. Either that or the mini-bus will turn into a pumpkin, probably the former. We decide to give it a go.

Our own boat is not sailing but we can hitch a ride on a Juicy cruise instead. Their booked party has given up and not risked coming through the tunnel. Better still there is a selection of curries on board that they have ordered and which we can consume. This is our second free meal of the day as we still have the bonus packed lunch awarded to us in return for not being able to go to Milford Sound yesterday. We set off on Juicy’s Gem of the Sound. We learn that the rainwater forms a layer on top of the salt water in the sound. This is a rare phenomenon that only occurs in a handful of places in the world. We stop at McKenzie falls and venture out to view the Tasman Sea, ‘the Roaring Forties’, with its four metre swell. Our voyage is slightly shortened to ensure that we get back through the tunnel before the witching hour. We do get up close an personal with Stirling Falls. Some of those on board accept the invitation to stand on deck. Any parts that were not already drenched by the rain are now soaked in spray. Judiciously, we remain indoors at this point.

049 22 May 2018 Mirror LakesWe make it back through the tunnel in time, just as snow is beginning to fall. There are a few stops on our way back to Te Anau, including a fruitless Kea hunting stop, a chance to photograph the Mirror Lakes and also to view Lake Te Anau from Te Anau Downs. By this point, the rain has almost stopped and we can actually see not just our hands in front of our faces but the lake as well.

Back on site, I become very grateful for the charm offensive that Chris has been launching on the ladies at reception since we arrived. He has managed to blag us the loan of a heater.

Day 9 Te Anau Glow Worm Caves

The night’s snowfall is visible on the mountains but hey, the good news is that we can actually see the mountains. Chris has managed to work out how to use the umbrella, there’s a magic hidden button that results in it springing into action. Fortunately, this vital information isn’t needed at the moment as there is no sign of rain. Despite 1 degree temperatures, it is quite pleasant in the sun as we set off to explore Te Anau. The tour company who were to take us to Milford Sound today have offered to take us tomorrow instead. The snag is that we have a trip to Te Anau Glow Worm Caves booked then. Our cunning plan is to see if we can go to the caves today, freeing us for the rearranged Milford Sound trip. Hurrah there is space for us on the 10.30am glow worm trip today. Unfortunately, the trip may not run as they are currently inspecting the caves for flooding. We wait for the verdict to be phoned in. This morning’s trip is off but we can go this afternoon, providing the flood water has subsided. On the strength of this and with the assistance of the very helpful receptionist at Te Anau Top 10, we call the Milford tour company and agree that we will be on their trip tomorrow. They even offer to throw in a free lunch for our inconvenience – result! Well done Mitre Tours.

We stroll along the lakeside and manage to look round the visitors’ centre that closed hastily yesterday. The Maori legend is that the demi-god Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved the fiords with his ko (digging stick). He practiced on the southern fiords and perfected the technique by the time he got to Piopiotahi, or Milford Sound. We learn about the parrot like Kakapo, of which there are believed to be only 160 remaining. I don’t think we are likely to spot one of those. In fact, so far, the birdlife has been disappointingly European, although we do see a tui today. In 1888, Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell became the first Europeans to travel overland from Te Anau to Milford Sound, establishing the Milford Track. Mackinnon disappeared on the lake in 1892.

In the afternoon, we set off across the lake in the Luminosa, heading for the glow worm caves. The fiords, of which there are 14 in the Fiordland National Park and the lake are glacial formations. Lake Te Anau is the largest in Australasia and is 410 metres deep. 210 metres of this is below sea level, making it a crypto-depression. The surrounding vegetation is a cool, temperate rainforest, consisting largely of beeches, mosses and lichens. The caves were rediscovered in 1948. Te Ana-au means ‘caves with a current of swirling water’, which prompted the search. We are to explore only the first 250 metres of the 7km Aurora caves system, which spreads under the Murchison Mountains, this will take us 40 metres underground. The caves are comparatively young, at 12,000 years of age, thus no stalagmites or stalactites have formed yet.

034 21 May 2018 Fantail by Glow Worm Caves, Te AnauWe have been warned that there is to be no photography or noise in the caves, in order not to disturb the glow worms. Experiences whilst penguin watching on our previous visit, suggests that this may not go well. As we disembark, a fantail gives a great display but they don’t stay still for long making photography a challenge. Last night’s rain means that the underground torrents are particularly fast and we have to enter the cave by crouching under a one metre high overhang. After a short walk, we sit on a punt in order to view the worms. The people on our trip were a bit more law abiding than the penguin watchers and it turns out that the worms don’t really mind lights from cameras or noise but this instruction is just a crowd control mechanism.

A brief presentation tells us about the life cycle of the glow worm. They lay 120-150 eggs then, when hatched, the larvae, which are 2mm-3cm long cling to the cave roof. They catch their insect prey on strings of mucus droplets and the flies are attracted by the glowing lights. Once they are caught, the ‘worm’ sucks up the droplets and the food. There is a short nature trail to enjoy and the fantail is in evidence again. Credit to ‘Real Journeys’ for a great trip and for allowing us to change our booking. Now to hope that the weather is in our favour for the next two days’ trips.

Days 7 & 8 Queenstown and Te Anau

025 19 May 2018 Shotover River, near QueenslandA shorter journey today, down the 6 to Queenstown. This does involve travelling alongside some rather scary sheer drops. There are plenty more vineyards along this route. Queenstown is by far the largest settlement we have encountered since Christchurch. Although we have a map of the town centre, this does not include the road in which the campsite is situated. Reasoning that Arthur’s Pass Road, Queenstown, should be somewhere between Queenstown and Arthur’s Pass, we head out beyond the town, in search of the site. Our suppositions are vindicated and we locate the site without much trouble.

There is a shuttle bus back in to town but it is just that, a town, so instead we stroll along the banks of the Shotover River in the Morningstar Reserve. There is some adrenaline inducing powerboat racing going on but we decide to leave that for another day. That would be another day in the very distant future. In the 1860s, the Shotover River was known a ‘the richest river in the world’ because of the gold workings, discovered by the Redfern brothers. Today’s gold dredges are based on the bucket dredge design that was pioneered here by Chinese Sew Hoy. By 1906, the easily accessible gold had been worked, so the Oxenbridge brothers and others spent three years and £10,000 creating a 170 metre tunnel to divert the river, thus giving them access to a new area of former river bed. They must have been a bit jolly annoyed to discover that they had miscalculated and when they broke through the tunnel, it was four metres too high. Their attempts to build a dam to raise the water were largely unsuccessful and their huge investment yielded just £600 worth of gold. We spent the late afternoon relaxing in the van, also known as ‘pacing ourselves’.

Our luck with the weather has finally run out and the rain begins during the night. There is a slight detour finding our way out of Queenstown but soon we are heading south on the 6 beside what we can see of Lake Wakatipu through the mist and rain. At appropriate points, we politely pull over to allow faster traffic to pass us, occasionally we even get an acknowledgement. Chris is keeping up a campaign of trying to get other camper drivers to wave to him as they pass. Although this is common practice in Britain, he isn’t having much success here.

We arrive at our destination, Te Anau. It seems very pleasant from the van but it really is too wet to explore properly. We pay a short visit to the visitors’ centre; somewhat shorter than we’d have liked! On realising the displays look interesting and we may want to stay a while, we repair to the adjoining toilets for a very brief ‘comfort stop’. In the half minute that this takes us, the centre has closed! We have purchased an umbrella before our departure, designed to protect us from inclement weather. We got this cheap in a discount store near us. We have got what we paid for. It is a bit of a shame that we didn’t realise that said umbrella does not have any visible means of being fixed in the open position. Nonetheless, a slight cessation in the downpour sees us venture out for a quick trip round the block on the hunt for souvenirs. Whilst sheltering in the information centre we hear the news that the Milford Road is to be closed tomorrow due to forecast bad weather. This is very disappointing as it was to be one of our special trips. Sure enough, a knock on the camper van door in the evening sends Chris, who was in a state of undress, hurriedly making himself in a fit state to greet the reception team, who confirm that tomorrow’s trip has indeed been cancelled. We don’t really have the wriggle room to rearrange this, which is a shame. There is some good news, we have rediscovered the missing shampoo down the back of a cupboard!

Day 6 Along the 8 to Cromwell

In one of our wakeful moments during the night, we looked out at the acclaimed stars. They were certainly very bright and numerous but our own at home are pretty impressive too, so perhaps we did not fully appreciate the awesomeness.

The next three days are more about the journeys than the destinations. Before leaving Lake Tekapo, we retrace our steps into the town for provisions and call in at the ‘historic’ Church of the Good Shepherd. Our arrival coincides with that of a coach load of selfie stick waving, Japanese tourists, who seem incapable of understanding the clear graphic that forbids photography inside the church. It appears that standing in the doorway and pointing one’s camera towards the interior is somehow not taking photographs of the inside of the church. To be honest, although there are lovely views of the lake from here, if you can dodge the plethora of tourists, we aren’t too impressed with the ‘historic’ nature of the church, even by Antipodean standards; it was built in 1935!

024 18 May 2018 Lake Dunstan, CromwellWe head south down the 8, passing through a more barren landscape. We drive through Twizel, a town that grew up round the Hydro-electric industry and along the twists and turns of the Lindis Valley to Cromwell. This town, on the shores of the man-made Lake Dunstan, is in what used to be a gold mining area but is now better known as a wine-growing region. We take a walk round the town, most of which is housing estate and eventually reach the deserted historic quarter, which we remember from our previous visit. I was expecting to need multiple coats, gloves and hats but it is beautifully warm and despite road signs warning us that it is winter, our camper van tells us that the outdoor temperature is 21 degrees, allegedly warmer that it is at home! This is as far south as we reached on our previous visit, so from here onwards we are in uncharted territory.

Day 5 Mount St John

We still haven’t quite cracked the time difference thing and after a disturbed night, wake up at what is a late hour for us. The sun is shining across the lake and there is not a cloud in sight, nor does there seem to have been any snow. The first snag is when the inhabitants of the neighbouring van, who are leaving early, unplug their electric cable and then turn off the master switch, which halts the supply to our van as well!

We decide to climb to the summit of Mount St John, where the dark sky observatory is located. There are signs of frost but the air is wonderfully fresh but on the thinnish side. Our destination is 1043 metres above sea level. I don’t know if I am still suffering from the after effects of the Peruvian trip but I did find reaching the top a bit of a struggle. Maybe there is a reason why almost everyone else we see is about half our age and those who are not have driven up. The views did make it worth the effort and we run out of superlatives.

019 17 May 2018 Mount St John SummitWe stop for refreshment at the top where, allegedly, we encounter the highest postbox in the southern hemisphere. It is a little early to post things home so we don’t make use of it. In an effort to control the caffeine intake, I have a very pleasant ginger, honey and lemon hot drink. There is free water available and my travelling companion offers to get me some while I am waiting for my purchased drink to arrive. The container is empty and whilst attempting to take it to the staff for refilling, he drops it on the floor. Fortunately it bounces. Later a small child, away from watchful parental eyes, turns on the tap at the bottom of this now full water container, so the contents runs all over the carpet. This makes our offence seem trivial.

The downward journey was much easier than the upward climb, although I somehow manage to trap my fingers in the door of the public toilets. Dripping blood in a spectacular fashion, I return to the van. Chris has discovered two overseas drivers’ permits in the glove box. I wonder if I can pose as Fabiola. Probably not. She is thirty something and no clothing is visible in her head and shoulders photograph. After a short recouperate, we head for the hot springs. We enjoy floating around in the open air, with views of the mountains. The water is 37 degrees but the cold wind makes getting out a little chilly. Still, with the summit and the swim, we have ticked off two of our guide book’s recommended 101 things to do in New Zealand in one day. Some are in North Island, some we have done on our previous visit and some are rather to ‘active’ for us but we should manage to accomplish a few more later in the trip.

Day 4 Methven to Lake Tekapo

Despite waking up at midnight thinking it must be morning, we manage to sleep until a reasonably sensible hour. Shampoo-gate then ensues, when all inhabitants of the van deny having hidden the small bottle of shampoo that must be in the van somewhere as we have just used it. As yet, it remains unfound. There still seems to be no hot water, another fail on the ‘how to work the camper van’ front.

008 16 May 2018 The van at Lake TekapoWe leave Methven at 10.25am and the dashboard tells us it is nine degrees outside (for the benefit of those who are more familiar with the other sort of temperature calibrations, about 50 degrees). With the beautiful Southern Alps on our right, we drive down the 77 and 72, crossing the Rangitata River and on to the 79 through Geraldine and Fairlie. Then it is ‘The Starlight Highway’ to Lake Tekapo. I hadn’t realised it when I planned the route but here we are in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. This is allegedly one of the best places in the world to view the night sky. It is pretty stunning by day too, with the autumn-tinted trees reflected in the clear lake. Apparently the glacial ‘rock flour’ gives the water its startling turquoise tinge. The people we speak to in shops, along with the site receptionist, all seem surprised that we are staying for two nights. Does no one normally stop for more than one night? We gather two nights may be a good thing as tomorrow is predicted to be particularly favourable for stargazing. The bad news is that snow is forecast. On this site, we have a premium lakeside pitch, only slightly marred by the boating clubhouse, if you look to the right.

We have now cracked turning on the gas in the van and procuring hot water – hurrah! Chris’ phone also seems to have staged a remarkable recovery so, if necessary, we might be able to make a phone call. After a coffee/tea break we stroll along the shores of the lake to the hot springs. It seems you can have a combined stargazing tour and swim in the thermal pool but this involves staying up until midnight, so we may give that a miss and just go for a swim at dusk tomorrow instead. Tekapo means ‘sleeping mat night’ and the settlement at the lake grew up in the 1940s as a centre for hydro-electric power. Now it centres on tourism. We are 710 metres above sea level, so I should be able to cope with the altitude. It is certainly very peaceful. Purple lupins are in flower and we see plenty of ducks. We plan a longer walk tomorrow.

Having given over our bag space to costumes and props, we do not have enough sets of clothes to last the holiday, so it is time to find the laundry. We abandon our newly-washed clothing on the communal washing line. We are fairly confident that no one would be likely to make off with it but it may be frozen solid by morning. Investing $15 in hiring a fan heater for the whole of our trip was probably a good move as the temperature drops rapidly in the evening. We have to devise menus that can be cooked using only a hob and a microwave as the van does not include an oven. Chilli-con-carne seems a good option. I am not sure if chilli powder is more powerful in New Zealand, or if the resident chef was a little over-generous but it fair took our heads off. Enjoyed the first portion of hokey-pokey ice cream of the trip, remembered from our previous visit.