Today was WAY too early. The luggage had to be ready at 6:00am, which meant a 5:30 wake-up call (actually a 5:26 wake-up call because Dad jumped the gun… yes, I do resent those four extra minutes I could have been sleeping…).
The reason it had to be so early was because the luggage had to beat us to Queenstown tonight, and it had to be taken to the airport earlier than us. We had to get up so early that the restaurant had to open an hour early, just for Tauck. It was dark upstairs when we got there… NOT an appropriate time to be awake on vacation.
It was okay though, our day turned out to be totally worth it.
We again boarded our private jet and headed to Te Anau, a tiny town about two hours away from Milford Sound. It actually turned into quite an event, because we were the first jet ever to land at Te Anau. They just lengthened their runway and installed lights. This town is so tiny it has to get its kicks where it can, so they made a big to-do over us.
Our welcoming committee included helicopters, firetrucks hosing down the plane, and the entire town (60 or 70 whole people, including the entire 6 person elementary school) turned out. When we disembarked we were met by the mayor and a whole line of people shaking out hands. They gave each of us a gift bag with stamped postcards, bookmarks, and informational brochures about the area. There were press people there, a bagpiper, people filming our landing… It was quite the show. I felt like royalty!
Renee shepherded us through the crowd after a while and got us installed on our bus. The drive to Milford Sound was very scenic. There were lots of sheep, cows and deer outside Te Anau. There weren’t nearly as many lambs as on the north island though, just a lot of really really fat sheep. Guess spring comes later here!
We were racing a tour bus full of 20-something students from England, but we managed to beat them to all the major locations, including our first stop, which was at mirror lake. The lake was named that because it perfectly reflects the mountain behind it. I used my mad-skills to take a picture of Renee and myself, because Dad’s camera is too complicated for the other patrons on the trip (it has a touch screen…).
Then Renee took a picture of Dad and I. But she told us to remember the scenery only got better…
After about 30 minutes we drove over the line that would be called a continental divide if New Zealand were a continent, where the Pacific Plate meets the adjoining one, causing the mountains to rise 7cm a year.
This line also causes a climate change. The side we approached from was hotter and drying all year long. The other side of the line gets all the rain, and there is a Temperate Rainforest on that side of the mountain. Once we drove over the line there were suddenly ferns everywhere and the foliage was definitely different. After a few more miles we entered avalanche country and started seeing lots of snow.
We stopped to take a 20 minute walk into the beautiful temperate rainforest. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. The driver told us to keep a look out for the waterfall, and then come back and tell him who was the more beautiful sculptor, nature of Michelangelo. Michelangelo got left in the dust!
In the parking lot we saw four Kea birds. They are the only alpine parrot in the world and they are really smart! They have very attractive green plumage, but when they fly they have bright red/orange spots on their wings.
The rest of our drive was quite striking because of all the snow highlighting the mountains. This part of the country got much more snow than usual this year and there were still piles of it everywhere.
The road we were driving on is the most expensive road in all of New Zealand to maintain because of all the avalanches. Sometimes the road used to be closed up to 3 months a year, but now they have a new system. Some people who trained in Canada watch out for avalanche danger, and when it gets too high, they close the road, and drop explosives on the snow, creating a controlled avalanche. It only takes them a few days to clear any snow that ended up on the road and get it open again.
Dad and I started trying to get a good picture of one of the “No Stopping” signs warning about avalanches. They were hard to catch because they went by so quickly.
We took a Southern Discoveries cruise around the actual Milford Sound, which is actually a fiord because it was created by a glacier. It is 800 feet deep in most spots, much deeper than Marlborough Sound which was only about 6 feet in spots! It’s known for its beautiful waterfalls. Unfortunately only two of them were really going because they hadn’t gotten any rain in about nine days.
At first we thought the cruise was kind of a bust after such a beautiful drive, but once we turned around and started coming back we saw a rock full of seals and then, best off all, we encountered a huge pod of dolphins! There must have been 10 or 12 of them. They came right up to the boat and swam next to us. I also saw a baby dolphin playing with his mom.
We had lunch on the boat, which was very casual but tasty. We had sandwiches on bagels (the first bagels I’ve seen on this trip) with some excellent tomato soup, perfect for a cold day.
Our drive back to the airport was just as scenic. For our snooze-and-cruise Renee played a movie-score (1492) composed by the greek composer who wrote Chariots of Fire. It reminded Dad and I of the soundtrack to Ka, the cirque de solei show in Las Vegas. It drizzled a little bit by the rainforest, but it was actually nice because some of the waterfalls started running down the mountain sides.
We hopped back on board the jet (no crowds in sight this time) and took a 15 minute flight to Queenstown. Because of the rugby world cup there is more security than usual for these flights. Today’s was weird though… they confiscated all of our hand-carries and made them ride in the hold… The hole in this plan? It meant there were 17 cell-phones and iPads that couldn’t be turned off or switched to airplane mode… whoops.
We have been so lucky with the weather on this trip. We’ve had wonderful weather for flying. Any place we go the weather clears up as soon as we get there and we get sun and warm weather for our sightseeing.
The same applied to our trip into Queenstown. The ride was remarkable smooth, especially since we’d been warned the mountains might make it bumpy, and the sun was setting, turning the mountains gold and pink as we drove to the hotel. The Remarkables were quite a sight lit up like that.
Dad and I were more tired than hungry so we ended up skipping dinner and going straight to bed. Ah… what a day…