Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thursday Evening

I don’t have words to describe Milford Sound. I’m going to use a lot of adjectives here, but trust me when I say that none of them adequately convey the majesty of this place. It is the grandest sight I’ve ever seen, on a scale which puts everything else to shame. The highway through the mountains weaves though dense rainforest at the base of absolutely incredible peaks capped in snow and scraping the sky. It almost feels indecent to take photos.

We drove up from Te Anau shortly after noon, arriving at the mountains after an hour or so. Though the forecast called for rain, it was a beautiful day. I’m told this is unusual for the area. Tony, our hotelier, had recommended a hike to Key Summit, so we parked the car and started off through the forest. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on Earth, with an average rainfall of 70 meters per year. Everywhere we looked was running water; it cascades down the sheer walls of the mountains, courses through the valley below, and drips off every single surface. The trees are all vivid green from root to canopy, draped in moss and epiphytical ferns and creepers. No surface is bare.

The path led us upward and over numerous small streams, eventually branching off after 45 minutes of brisk hiking. We were both pretty sweaty at this juncture and conscious of the time, so we headed back down to the car.

I took a brief break to play in the snow.

Continuing up the valley, we craned our heads and exclaimed at every primeval vista. Eventually we arrived at the boat landing and Milford Sound itself, where we parked the car and checked in with our cruise company. The boat boarded at 4 and we headed out toward sea.

The vessel’s capacity was something like 80 or 90, but there couldn’t have been more than 15 of us on board. Ljuba and I set up shop on the lower deck and ate a quick lunch. Our cruise was guided by a smart young woman named Danielle who delivered a humorous and educational narration of the natural splendor through which we were passing. Milford Sound is actually a fjord, we were told, the difference being glacial origins rather than the erosive work of a river or stream. Apparently one of the glaciers moving down toward sea had progressed at a rate of 7 meters per day, a speed discernible by the naked eye. I thought this was pretty cool.

We tooted down the south wall of the fjord past innumerable waterfalls. Danielle told us that only 10% of the thick tree cover we were seeing was actually rooted in rock crevices, and that the remaining population was actually latched onto one another and dependent on those so-called anchor trees to keep the whole lot from sliding to the bottom. It seems an anchor tree gives way on occasion, resulting in tree avalanches and bald scars on the rock face.

After an hour or so we emerged from the mouth of the fjord into the Tasman sea. The weather had held; we couldn’t have asked for calmer waters or bluer skies. By Danielle’s account it was the nicest day in the two months she’d been on the job.

After returning up the north face and seeing fur seals and Stirling Falls, which plummets a stunning 150 meters from the rocks above, we pulled back into the small bay where the cruise ships have their berth. Ljuba and I walked back to the car elated by the experience.

As we emerged from an 80-meter tunnel through solid rock, I was delighted to see a large green bird perched atop a parked campervan. Keas are the world’s only alpine parrot, and notorious for their mischievous disposition. These fellows seemed on their best behavior, however, as they simply hopped about picking at pebbles before flying away.

We stopped at The Chasm to see river-carved formations in the rock and again to have a quick dinner of closing-time discounted food from the ship. By the time we got back to Te Anau it was late, and now we’re headed to bed.

[note: I had a hard time picking photos to include in this post. You can see many more on my Flickr feed]

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