Waking up this morning it’s hard to believe that this could be our last day in New Zealand. But it will be a doozy. We’ve had time overnight to consider the ramifications if we are unable to meet up with The Voyager of the Seas in Milford Sound. The road into The Fiordlands has been closed for several days due to a mudslide, and there’s uncertainty, on this first venture into New Zealand, about whether The Voyager will make it up the narrow channel and into the Sound if the seas are too rough. No one likes the alternative, which might mean being flown to Melbourne to meet up with the ship there in two days time. We’ve mercilessly grilled our bus driver for information but he remains non-committal, except to say that whether we meet up with the ship or not, we are in for a day that will blow our minds. And so it did.
Our first stop is rustic Arrowtown on the banks of the Arrow River. This is another settlement that sprang up around the gold rush of the 1860’s. It’s a tiny little place of about 2,000 souls – just a few streets nestled in between mountain and lake. Great care has been taken to preserve the heritage of Arrowtown, particularly on the main street where some of the buildings have endured since the eighteen hundreds.
The Arrow River was featured in the Lord of the Rings as the Brunien river, where Arwen caused a flood of charging horses that destroyed the Ringwraiths.
Arrowtown is a busy little community with a variety of sporting and service clubs, youth activity groups, performing arts and even a curling club. They also have a very fine museum that more than makes up for its modest size with a fine exhibit of Māori culture, an art gallery and gift shop and a series of very lifelike vignettes that take you back to the heddy days of the gold rush. The Lakes District Museum was first established in 1948 in the billiard hall of the local hotel as a centennial project. It’s considered to be one of the finest museums in New Zealand.
For $3 plus a $10 deposit (to make sure you don’t run off with it) you can rent a pan for as long as you want, and try your own luck at gold panning in the Arrow River.
One of the museum’s stated objectives is to “foster interest in the history and relics of the district” such as this significant display of cigarette and tobacco tins.
If you visited the Bank of New Zealand in the late 1800’s you might have ridden in on your horse. This original stable of the bank has been dismantled and reconstructed within the museum.
I always get a kick out of little reminders of home, especially when I’m so far away. I wonder if the person who tacked up the plastic plaque that says ‘Dominion of Canada is established’ had ever been to Canada or had any knowledge of it. In the same year two million ounces of gold were taken out of Otago – the equivalent today of US$3,369,040,000.
Our brief stop in Arrowtown was early in the morning. It was very quiet and the lovely shops that line the main street were mostly closed. The folks at the museum, though had come to work early just for us and oddly, the liquor store was open. Maybe it’s a tradition carried on from gold rush days. This little main street park was just too green and peaceful to resist a photo.
Gorgeous Lake Hayes on the road out of Arrowtown. The Queenstown Trail runs around Lake Hayes. It’s a 100-kilometer cycling track that opened in 2012 and it feels like a very good reason to come back to this fabulous country.
Red tussock grows throughout New Zealand on the mountain slopes of both the North and South islands. It grows to about a meter high and is native to the country. This is a red tussock preserve near Te Anau.
I know it seems like a cliche but when I think back on this trip – a small sampling of all New Zealand has to offer – I will think first of the spectacular green of the hills and pastoral lands, dotted with sheep.
We stopped for lunch in Te Anau at the start of the road into Milford Sound, about 120 kilometres to the north. Not long after leaving Te Anau we experienced another change in geography with the mountains that form New Zealand’s fiords looming ahead of us.
The aptly named Mirror Lakes (also known as Lake Matheson) on the way into Milford Sound reflect the gorgeous surrounding mountain range including Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.
Franz Josef and Fox glaciers drain into these lakes, giving them their beautiful colors.
The mountain slopes on the way into Milford Sound are thick with beech trees. They can live up to three hundred years and grow to thirty meters in height. This dense forest of silver beech flowers bright red in the spring. I’ll bet you’ve never thought of a possum as a predator but they are a serious threat to New Zealand’s beech forests.
It’s summer time in New Zealand as evidenced by the sheets of water cascading down the massive rock faces all around us from the melting glaciers above. It’s this runoff that periodically causes mudslides and road closures on the only passage into Milford Sound.
These large and striking looking birds are kea – pronounced kay-uh. They are sometimes referred to as the ‘clown of the mountains’ because of their curiosity. They are remarkably intelligent, able to figure out simple puzzles and that, combined with their curiosity makes for some interesting antics. Stories abound of kea pecking their way into backpacks and pulling boot straps loose, and there are numerous incidents every year of kea stripping the rubber from windshield wipers. They’re strong enough to do some some serious damage to a car and to hear our tour guide tell it, they’re bold enough to try and strip the metal braces off your teeth! There’s even a report of a kea making off with the passport of a visitor to the Fiordlands. When these birds take flight it’s a gorgeous sight not only because of their size but because of the brilliant red-orange feathers on the underside of their wings.
If I ever needed the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt, with her advice to ‘do something every day that scares you’ it was at my first sight of the Homer Tunnel, the only way through the Darran Mountain range into Milford Sound. The single-lane tunnel runs over a kilometer under the Homer Saddle, and for someone with an aversion to tight spaces this was a seriously sobering moment. Construction of the Homer Tunnel was started by relief workers during The Great Depression, then delayed by the start of the Second World War.
Traffic in and out of Milford Sound is described as ‘tidal’ – streaming mostly toward the Sound in the morning and away from it in the evening – so it wasn’t until 2004 that a traffic light was installed to allow traffic to be controlled one direction at a time. While the tunnel is technically wide enough for two vehicles to pass, it’s considered problematic. From where I sat, getting one large tour bus threaded through this tiny hole looked impossible. And to make sure we were suitably impressed by the engineering, or in my case even more frightened than I already was, our guide circulated this photo of the Homer Tunnel in winter. It was at this point that I decided it might be easier for me to scale the Homer Saddle than to be in a large tour bus shoved through this tiny hole under tons of solid granite. Seriously.
I was definitely interested in this convenient pull-out just before the tunnel entrance, and I hoped mightily that it might mark the beginning of a walking path over the pass. But it was only a spot to stretch our legs while we waited for the traffic light to change, and a vantage point for viewing the glacier camouflaged in the clouds above.
In 2002 a tour bus caught fire inside the tunnel. There was no lighting at the time so the driver and passengers, stranded in the smoke-filled blackness followed the headlight beams from cars at either end of the tunnel to make it out to safety. By 2004 they had installed lighting but I still felt that I would die here. My phobia of tight spaces would come home to roost and I would be buried under tons of cold rock, only emerging again millions of years from now as a fossil. As our long string of cars, vans and buses crept excruciatingly slowly through the tunnel I opened my eyes only once, and only long enough to take this revealing photo. I’m sure it was possible to reach out and touch the unlined granite walls from the window of our tour bus and, while I was grateful for the lighting I would have liked more of it.
I survived, of course and was very happy to be looking back and enjoying the view of the road we’ve travelled through the Homer Saddle.
Soaring granite bowls in World Heritage listed Fiordland National Park.
Then we are at the northern tip of Fiordland National Park in magnificent Milford Sound – New Zealand’s natural treasure. The Māori are said to have come to Milford Sound over a thousand years ago, coming back every year to collect the greenstone that was prized in their culture. They named the Sound Piopiotahi after the now extinct piopio bird. Māori legend says the Sound was carved out by the god, Tu-te-raki-whanoa, who was given the task of shaping the Fiordland coast and did so by hacking at the rock walls with his adze or axe.
At the center of the Sound is iconic Mitre Peak, named for it’s resemblance to a bishop’s hat, and in the background you can make out – woohoo! – The Voyager steaming it’s way up the fiord. This is the only fiord that’s accessible by road. It’s about sixteen kilometers to the ocean and for folks who make the drive there are various options to return by boat.
And this is one happy WestCoastGirl. Our two-day excursion has been fabulous and so much more than I’d expected, but we are all happy to know that we will finish the cruise as scheduled. I’m looking forward to re-uniting with my friends and being able to congratulate our newlyweds, who have pledged their vows aboard The Voyager this morning.
This day has a happy ending. We’ve made it through the road, The Voyager has made it up the fiord and as we tender out to the ship we have the added benefit of seeing Milford Sound close up.
This is our Welcoming Party as we pulled up alongside The Voyager. There was a considerable gap between the top of the deck on the tender and the entry ramp on the ship so re-boarding took some pushing and pulling but it was all part of the fun, and no one got hurt.
The Fiordlands has one of the most unique marine environments in the world. Water flowing from the surrounding mountains fill the fjords with tannins that from time to time cause the water to turn the deep brown color of strong tea.
Too soon we are leaving Milford Sound. The upper deck is a great place to watch as we creep through the steep channel.
I caught my breath watching tour planes fly low overhead then skim the sheer cliffs of Mitre Peak.
This harbor pilot will have lots to talk about at the dinner table tonight. He’s guiding one of the largest ships in the world through this frugal passage.
The joy of re-joining the cruise has given way to the reality that I am leaving New Zealand, and to the realization that the end of my time on The Voyager is a few short days away. A journey that at the outset felt like it would be so long, has gone in a heartbeat and I’m bereft. So I’ve retired to my stateroom balcony for some thoughtful reflection. It’s a room with a view.
This last view of New Zealand as we come out of Fiordlands National Park is breathtaking but poignant. It was too little and we are leaving too soon.
I took this postcard photo of The Voyager of the Seas in Milford Sound hoping that Royal Caribbean might spot it and like it enough to pay me for it. They haven’t called yet but when they do I think I’ll ask for free passage on another of their New Zealand cruises.
We are away to Australia. We will be at sea for the next two days in one of the most notorious stretches of ocean in the world – The Roaring Forties. Stay tuned!