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Queenstown to Milford Sound; exploring the stunningly beautiful South Island in New Zealand

Not being thrill-seekers, our stay in Queenstown had been only a stopover. We rose early to head south to our next destination, the town of Te Anau. It was a glorious morning with just a few bubbly clouds in an otherwise deep blue sky. Before heading out we made a stop at the car rental store to exchange out our car for something a bit larger – so much for travelling light! Anyway, after a short delay, we were soon on the road. The scenery in the South Island of New Zealand is stunning, whilst somewhat similar to Scotland and the Lake District back in England, it had its own characteristics that made it very special. We made several stops en route including a picnic lunch on the banks of Lake Wakapitu at a point where several streams fed into it.

After lunch, we carried on further south leaving behind the akes and imposing mountains to a terrain of rolling green hills and farmland, but nonetheless pretty. It took quite some time to cover the near 90 miles to Te Anau (which was only about 40 as the crow flies from Queenstown!). We arrived mid-afternoon and are instantly in awe of the amazing setting of this small town. Te Anau sits on the banks of the largest lake in the South Island. On the opposite bank rose the imposing mountains that form the Fjordland National Park. Eager to find out more we dropped our bags at the hostel and walked into town to go to the visitor centre. The area is reputedly the hiking (or tramping as the New Zealanders call it) capital of the World, with numerous multi-day journeys into the surrounding wilderness. Sadly, in our short time in Te Anau, we did not have the time to “tramp”, so we had to settle for watching the videos in the visitor centre.

Although we had reached Te Anau at the end of the day we had an evening adventure planned, an evening trip to the glow worm caves. The journey started with a 40-minute boat ride across the lake. It was a little chilly but we were warmed by the scathing humour of the boat’s captain and the glorious view of the mountains in the failing daylight. After disembarking our vessel we took the short walk to the Visitor Centre, where we were split up into smaller groups. Whilst some groups headed off to the caves we hung back to get the talk on the geography of the caves and the biology of the glow worms!

Glow-worms aren’t a finished product in terms of their life cycle. They are actually the larval stage of a winged insect much like the fungus gnat (sounds delightful, eh!). The glow-worms themselves are about the size of a match stick, and they stay in that form for about 6 to 12 months, depending on the food. Whilst glow worms sound like they should be cute and cuddly they are voracious carnivores.

They spin a nest out of silk on the ceiling of the cave and then hang down as many as 70 threads of silk (called snares) from around the nest, each up to 30 or 40 cm long and holding droplets of mucus. The worms glow to attract prey into its threads, perhaps luring them into believing they are outdoors, for the roof of a cave covered with larva can look remarkably like a starry sky at night. A hungry worm glows brighter than one which has just eaten. When prey is caught by a line the glow-worm pulls it up (at up to about 2 millimetres a second) and feeds. If the prey is scarce the larvae will turn to cannibalism, eating other larvae, pupae or adult flies. Not so cute or cuddly! The glow is the result of a chemical reaction that involves a waste product, in other words, glow-worm poo, and an enzyme. The glow emanates from a small area at the end of its abdomen.

At the end of the larva stage, the glow worm becomes a pupa, hanging down from the roof of the cave. The pupa stage lasts about 1 or 2 weeks and it glows intermittently. The male stops glowing a few days before emerging, the female’s glow increases. The glow from the female is believed to be to attract a mate, and males may be waiting there when she emerges. The adults (of both sexes) cannot feed, and live only a short time. Adult insects are poor fliers and so will often remain in the same area, building a colony of glow-worms. The female lays a total of about 130 eggs, in clumps of 40 or 50, and dies soon after laying. The eggs hatch after about 20 days and the cycle repeats. Doesn’t seem much of a life!

Enough of the biology lesson! It was soon time for our tour. After a few steps from the Visitor Centre, we were at the mouth of the cave. The entrance was most definitely not built for Mark who almost had to bend double to get inside. Fortunately, after a few feet, the roof of the cave rose so we could all stand comfortably. The cave itself is relatively new in geologic terms so there are not many of the features you might look for in older caverns, in particular stalactites and stalagmites. What it does have is a very powerful stream of fast-flowing water, the noise of which is almost deafening inside the cave. Crossing a bridge over the tumultuous water we look down to see a 4-foot long eel quite peacefully hanging around in the water, this is not what you expect to find deep inside a cave. We walked a few yards further, where we came upon a gushing waterfall with a scary-looking whirlpool at its base. This was definitely not a place to fall in. Luckily there were some sturdy railings preventing this from happening. The next stage of our journey required us to climb into a somewhat rickety boat. The stream had been dammed at this point so it was not fast flowing so there was no danger of us being flushed over the waterfall. This boat was powered by our guide who used the ropes attached to the walls to navigate us along the narrow channel. This was to be the highlight of the tour. At this point, they turned off the lights and you could literally not see your hands in front of your face, but the scene around us was not gloomy because above our heads, only inches away, was an amazing display of light from the resident glow-worms. Because they are territorial the spacing between the lights was surprisingly even. It was astounding and we soon forgot the scary darkness around us. It was like looking up at a constellation of blue stars. Our journey took us to the end of the navigable cave and back, and we soon lost all sense of direction, which was a little disconcerting. As splendid as the display was it was reassuring to reach the dock and have the lights turned back on!

This was the end of our tour and we sadly made our way back to our boat. Despite being early fall it was a chilly night and as the boat powered its way back to port, sitting up on deck was like being in a force nine gale in the North Sea. Despite the cold, we braved the upper deck as it was such a beautiful, clear night. Karen and Jack were looking for the Southern Lights …but they never showed!

Tuesday 8th March: Milford Sound (75 miles) 

Sadly, the clear weather of the previous day didn’t make it into the next day, as we woke to a grey, cloud heavy morning. We had hoped for better as today we were making the 75 miles drive up to the spectacular Milford Sound. The ride itself is worthy of the journey. We journeyed north tracking the Southern Alps, passing through wide glacial valleys. Despite the not so good weather, we made frequent stops along the way to take pictures of mirrored lakes and ice-carved landscapes. The road steadily climbs into the mountains, which offers spectacular views of glacier topped mountains. Luckily the weather had started to improve so we were able to enjoy the unfolding scenery around us. These mountains present an impenetrable barrier, but some intrepid Kiwis decided to make a tunnel through them. It seemed they miscalculated the challenge of the exercise but eventually blew and hacked their way through creating the Homer tunnel, the gateway to Milford Sound.

Shortly before reaching Milford we pulled off the road at a stop simply named the Chasm. Not knowing exactly what this was we had little in the way of expectations. We took a 20-minute scenic walk through the dense forest. Our peace only being interrupted by a noisy and somewhat dishevelled tour group. Crossing a wooden footbridge we suddenly came across the Chasm. This is an example of the beauty that can be created by the powers of erosion. Spectacular!

Eventually, we reached Milford, which is very much the end of the road. Never one to miss a boat (apart from our honeymoon trip to Ireland) we were of course early and waited for our call to board. By now the weather had started to improve significantly, and by the time boarding had started the sun was beginning to shine brightly through the breaking cloud cover. We were very fortunate, as with a mean annual rainfall of 6,813mm on 182 days a year Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. Rainfall can reach 250 mm during a span of 24 hours. The rainfall creates dozens of temporary waterfalls (as well as a number of major, more permanent ones) cascading down the cliff faces, some reaching a thousand metres in length.

Mark had chosen a boat tour which included lunch, so as soon as we climbed onto the boat we joined a queue for the buffet lunch, which turned out to be excellent. But we did miss the early part of our journey whilst we ate on a table with not such a good view!

Milford Sound is a fjord within Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. It has been judged the world’s top travel destination in an international survey and is acclaimed as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. Rudyard Kipling called it the eighth Wonder of the World. Having not seen the seven others it is difficult to argue with his claim! But it is certainly spectacular. The sound is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 1,200metres or more on either side. Among the peaks is Mitre Peak which rises 1,692 metres above the sound, the Elephant at 1,517metres, said to resemble an elephant’s head and The Lion, 1,302 metres, in the shape of a crouching lion. On the sides of these imposing peaks, lush rain forests cling precariously, punctuated by spectacular waterfalls. Milford Sound itself is only 14 km in length and opens out onto the Tasman Sea.

After about 30 minutes of travelling our beady-eyed captain spots a pod of dolphins and we pulled across to join them. Emily was in heaven as 10 or more dolphins ducked and dived around our boat in the glimmering waters of the sound –by this time the clouds had left us and we were bathed in sunlight. A rare occurrence in these parts!

Sadly, we had to move on and the boat travelled down to the point where the sound opens out into the Tasman Sea, which is one of the wildest areas of open-ocean in the world. If we carried on our journey west for a day or two we’d eventually hit Australia. Although the sea looked calm today our mission was not trans-ocean so our captain turned us around back to the safety of the Sound. Although we have been referring to Milford Sound as a sound, it is actually a fjord. Sounds are actually formed by the sea flooding a river carved valley, whereas fjords are valleys cut by glaciers which are then filled by the sea. Milford was formed by glacial carving! It was also the last of the great fjords of Fjordland to be discovered, by Captain John Grono around 1812. Previous explorers like James Cook had missed it on their travels due to the disguise of the narrow opening in the surrounding mountains.

Our return journey down Milford Sound was even more fun than the outbound journey. Firstly we sailed past Seal Rock, which is a more or less guaranteed place to see seals basking in the sun. On this day there was not a lot of action but we still had the chance to spot a couple of young seals hanging out. The seals here are typically young males who have been evicted by the aggressive dominant males from the main seal colony a bit further along the coast. The next stop was the ever spectacular Stirling Falls which cascade 189 metres down the sheer cliff faces. Our tour boat nudged within a few feet of the falls, enabling those who were looking for a good soaking to get to the prow. As we pulled away from Stirling Falls we were once again greeted by our friends the dolphins who enthralled the passengers with their underwater ballet.

The last stop on our tour was Milford Deep Underwater Observatory which is nestled in Harrison Cove, beneath Pembroke Glacier. We disembarked our boat onto the floating observatory. There were a host of interesting displays telling stories of exploration and the geologic formation of Fjordland. Whilst these were informative the main reason for our visit was to see what was going on below the surface of the Sound.

Overlaying the seawater in the fjord is a layer of fresh water, the result of high annual rainfall in Fjordland. This, combined with the narrow shape of the fjord, causes a phenomenon known as deepwater emergence where light is not allowed to penetrate past the freshwater. This creates a similar environment to the deep ocean at a much shallower depth, allowing visitors the chance to see deep-sea species close up together with some wonderful examples of coral unique to this environment.

We descended 10.4 metres into the large, air-conditioned underwater viewing chamber where we were able to observe the intimate and undisturbed life of this vibrant underwater community.

Sadly all good things have to come to an end and after glorious hours we returned to port and began our journey back to Te Anau.

Wednesday 9th March: Return to Queenstown

It was time to travel back from Te Anau to Queenstown for our return flight to Auckland. The weather had decided to reflect our dark mood, the sun hidden behind a thick blanket of cloud. It wasn’t the best conditions for sightseeing so we decided to hurry back to Queenstown and hunker down for the night – our only stop being a small roadside café.  A regular homage to coffee is one of many bad habits we have picked from our moving to the USA (truth be known we never missed the chance to stop at a tea room in the UK either!).

We arrived back at the Youth Hostel, a different one from our previous stay. This hostel was out on the lakeshore and away from the noisy area of the town. We hoped for a good night sleep but Jack and Emily were determined to try out the waters of Lake Wakatipu. It was not clear what they expected from a lake fed from mountain streams and snowmelt, except for it to be frigid. Needless to say, their adventure was brief and we soon retreated to the warmth of our hostel room.

Our imagination had been sucked from us over the last week or so –so when it came to making that all-important decision about eating we fell back on a trusted and known quantity … Ferg Burgers. If nothing else it leaves you with a full tummy.

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