Wednesday, September 27, 2006

27 - September 2006

After a delightful breakfast at our inn (the innkeeper opened the kitchen early just for us, as we had an 8:00 AM pickup, and he went all out for Mike's Eggs Benedict!), we were off on a tour bus to Milford Sound. Our guide Ben has lived in these parts all his life, and he was full of personal and historical anecdotes to bring the area alive for us.

We drove along chunky alpine roads ("our roads are loaded with character, but at least they aren't loaded with vehicles!" Ben commented with pride) past the Remarkable Mountains, stunning blue lakes ("they're 98% pure water and 2% salmon, trout, and eel"), and all varieties of thriving plants and trees (some native and many brought here by gold miners from around the world who wanted to be reminded of their homelands).

We tucked into the peaceful town of Kingston for midmorning "tea" (coffee, actually--which, incidentally, has been absolutely delicious throughout the South Island). Kingstown is the hub of the historic (and still running) Kingston Flyer Steam Train (they happened to be filling it with steam as we arrived), and it's the kind of place, Ben said, "where you can stay a week, read a book, and gather sanity. There are no stress levels here." Afterward, we passed Garston, the most inland town in New Zealand (that's not saying a whole lot in this coastal country!) which, despite a very rich gold mining heritage, has been reduced to little more than stone chimneys cropping out of otherwise empty fields.

The land changed constantly on the road trip (as it has for all our travels in this remarkable country)--from rivers to plains, rocky hills to forested areas, pastures to rainforest--and we were never want for interesting and unusual sights (such as the unique Belted Galloway cows and calves--a bit like giant Oreo cookies--and the hold-up when dairy cattle were crossing the road, herded by a guy on a motorbike). Soon, we were in Te Anau, the gateway to the Fiordland and, as Ben put it, "a very down-to-earth, easygoing, nearly retarded place." It was here that we tried New Zealand's favorite icon in a cone, Hokey Pokey ice cream (a part-gooey, part-crunchy toffee and vanilla sensation--two thumbs up!).

And then we were in the virtually indescribable, very dramatic Fiordland (it's little wonder "The Lord of the Rings" crew chose to film this area!). "A theater for weather," there is no rainy season here; it can downpour in the middle of summer, and today it was breathtakingly perfect. We passed the last paddocks of farm country before the area became a national park. There, we saw Paradise ducks, crossed 45 South (at which point we were located precisely in the middle of the equator and the South Pole), and drove along cold glacial lakes, rocky white-water rivers (that look aqua in the sunshine), rushing waterfalls ("ah, but these are just a squirt of what you'll see at Milford Sound," Ben promised), and avalanche country (spring happens to be prime time for avalanches, he warned).

We stopped at Monkey Creek, where the water is so pure that if you drink it, it's said to add five years to your life. We drank--and then drank some more! Afterward, we drove through Homer Tunnel (it took some nine total years of digging through glacial rocks to create the tunnel), which is long, dark, narrow, and probably quite nerve-wracking to navigate, especially during storms. But it brought us to the awe-inspiring Milford Sound and our destination for the night, the Milford Mariner.

We checked into our room (cramped but cozy for one night--and with a splendid, ever-changing view!) and then settled onto the deck to take in the magnificent Sound (it was chilly, but not at all windy or unpleasant). We cruised to the well-protected, totally picturesque Harrison Cove, where we took the crew up on their offer to go kayaking in paradise (Mike's legs somehow got soaked, but he was all a'smile all the same). We even met up with noisy and adorable, rock-hopping Fiordland Crested Penguins!

Back on board and all blissed out by the kayaking, we enjoyed appetizers and drinks followed by soup and a grand buffet dinner and dessert spread. With full bellies, we then headed to an entertaining and informative slide show with a crew naturalist (his presentation of course included more possum bashing; we were urged to "turn possums to 'squash 'ems'" and reminded that "the only good possum in New Zealand is a dead possum;" and we were told there are an estimated 70-million of the "wretched" animals threatening New Zealand's native birds and trees, whereas there are only 14 million in Australia where they belong [nah, no hostility here]). We then retired to our cabin, where it sounds as though we'll be falling asleep to the bar-tab folks taking turns on the piano and singing in the saloon (covering hits from the '80s--there are lots of Aussies here tonight! Hmmm, we may need those ear plugs we found in our bedside tables after all...).

--"Good on ya" is not as sarcastic on this side of the Tasman Sea--Kiwis say it more like a genuine "thanks, that was nice of you" or a sincere "good job!"

--New Zealanders are the highest per capita consumers of ice cream in the world.

--The famed "Milford Track" is a 3-night, 4-day hike in the paradise that is Milford--and while there are no bears, foxes, snakes, goanas, "or anything else ugly" here in New Zealand (where the only native land mammal is the bat), says Ben, there are plenty of risks to hiking the wild and unpredictable country of the Fiordland. He highly recommends taking a guided hike (no, he's not affiliated!), which he says comes with not only the indispensable knowledge of a seasoned and trained guide, but also the best huts, hot showers, evening wine, and chef-prepared meals. I could probably be persuaded to hike like that!

--Both Aussies and Kiwis serve cheese, fruit, and cracker platters for breakfast and dessert--I love these people.

Favorite sign of the day:


Sonya said...

Just spectacular! I hope you two realise that you've made me tremendously homesick! I'm so excited that you took in the sound...I'd wondered! I'm also wondering if you'll be squeezing in Dunedin while you are down the bottom end...though I'm thinking not at this point as it's on the other side and you'll likely be heading home soon. Certainly Dunedin doesn't have a lot of the natural charm you are seeing now, but I remember there being some pretty darn cool castles.


10:10 AM  
twomels said...

Oh, I've loved hearing/seeing all the animals/wildlife you are encountering. And your blog is simply perfect, second best to actually being in Australia/New Zealand myself.

Mike, I guess Sawyer doesn't take after you when it comes to heights. Do you think he'd ever go for the bungee dive?

Alisa, so glad to 'see' that you're having fun. I guess that means the morning sickness has been gone for good.

6:54 PM  

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