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.
We 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.