Friday, February 9, 2024

Milford Sound

Our third day in Queenstown, we decided to visit Milford Sound and take a boat cruise (after our dive trip, which would have been the previous day, was cancelled). We booked a cruise with Southern Discoveries, which included a visit to the “Underwater Observatory” - a diving bell thirty feet below the surface, which allows you to see some of the aquatic wildlife and the native “black coral.” A special biome exists in the Sound due to a phenomenon called “deep water emergence,” which is known to occur in only four places worldwide (Alaska, Patagonia, and Scandinavia being the other three).

Getting to Milford Sound from Queenstown requires almost a four hour drive, but we determined this was worth it, given many recommendations that this was a “must see” in New Zealand. We left early in the morning, and, as I was doing my headcount, made it to eight before Adam left to brush his teeth. Sam said, “Seven.” We made our customary gas station stop for Tanner snacks and had our first run in with gas station payment methods. Apparently, some more rural places in New Zealand require a chip and PIN combination for payment, which swipeable or tappable credit cards don’t necessarily have.

As we were driving towards the national park which contains Milford Sound, there were multiple large “No Drone” signs, which our group ensured I was apprized of. Our first stop was at the Mirror Lakes, which had some trout which Justin tried to feed. We made a bathroom stop at Flatbush, where a tour bus driver almost got into it with Tanner for taking up three parking spaces.

Mirror Lakes
After quite a bit of driving, we finally entered Fiordland National Park. The scenery was spectacular anywhere you looked. We made our way through the one way tunnel (which closes every night, apparently) and stopped at a short hike called “The Chasm,” which, unfortunately, was gated off, once we got near the top. However, we did see a couple of native “Kia” birds in the parking lot, who had quite the alarming call.

Milford Sound
We parked near the marina with time to spare and everyone went off in their own directions. John, Sam, Gabby, and I found the Milford Swing and got a couple of pictures before rushing back to the terminal for our cruise. We arrived in time to collect our tickets and stand in line for a few minutes, waiting to board. Our group all went up to the top deck, which was very windy, but offered the best views. We also discovered our tour company offered free coffee and tea, which several availed themselves of (foreshadowing).

Mount Pembroke

The cruise itself was full of sights, sounds, and information. The first fact we learned was that “Milford Sound” is not actually a sound, but a fjord. Sounds are formed by the movement of sediment down a river valley, resulting in a V shaped outlet to the sea. A fjord, on the other hand, is formed by a glacier and has a U shaped valley. We saw beautiful waterfalls pouring over the cliffs surrounding us and learned that they are a result of heavy rainfall and a thin layer of moss on top of a rocky topography. We saw fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks and black seagulls (or “rats with wings” as our guide called them). At the mouth of the sound (or fjord), we looped out towards the ocean briefly, so that we could get a picture of how hidden the entrance is, and the captain also pointed us in the direction of Australia.

Brochure day

Next, we stopped at the Underwater Observatory and Discovery Center. As we prepared to get off the ship, Tanner discovered he had grabbed one of the dirty empty coffee mugs for his coffee, instead of one of the fresh cups. Once inside, our tour guide welcomed us, and informed the group that there were language translation sheets for those who didn’t speak English or, “have trouble understanding my accent.” Our group looked at each other quizzically, because we understood this guy just fine. Turns out, our guide, Gordon (or “Gator”) was from Georgia. Not the country, but the state. Like, near Atlanta, Georgia. Mark it up as yet another non-native kiwi in New Zealand. We chatted with him afterwards, learned he was from Kennesaw, and had been in New Zealand for year or so on a work visa - which is apparently pretty common practice. With only five million native kiwis, New Zealand has a fairly extensive visa program to encourage temporary immigrant workers on which they depend to sustain their economy.

Gordon from Georgia

After spending our time “underwater,” we reboarded a smaller boat to return to the terminal. At this point, one of the tour guides told us that we were experiencing a “brochure day” in Milford Sound. As in, this is the day they take the pictures for the brochure, since it rarely looks this sunny and clear (being in a tropical rain forest with mainly rainy days). I made sure the rest of the group heard this remark. In addition to the scenery, I was also amazed by the flightseeing planes continually taking off and and landing from the very small Milford Sound airport. Flying approaches and departures what looked like mere feet off the canyon walls. I spoke to a couple of pilots in the terminal and one of them assured me, “It’s not as close as it looks.” That may be, but it still looked pretty scary!

Te Anu Dairy
On the way home, we stopped halfway back to Queenstown in a town called Te Anu to get some dinner. Tanner had picked a restaurant called The Fat Duck, but they were too full to take our large group when we arrived. The next spot, The Ranch, was the same story, so we decided we would all be on our own for dinner. The group started to split up, and Sam, Gabby, and I settled on the Te Anu Dairy. These “dairies” are sprinkled throughout New Zealand and usually serve some type of food, in addition to, principally, ice cream. This was a classic example of the genre and had three menu choices: fish and chips, burgers, and Chinese food. Sam said he knew this was going to be a great place because, 1. they only served three things, 2. three local teenagers came in with towels and flip flops soon after we arrived, and 3. they handed our food to us in a package the size of a football wrapped in brown paper. Sam was right, I think this might have been the best (and most authentic) restaurant experience we had all week!

A local establishment
While we were eating, I got to watch a NASA livestream of the launch of the PACE satellite, which the project I work on supports. We then wandered back to find the others, watched some kids wresting in the local skatepark, and eventually settled into some beanbags to watch the sun set. The rest of the group apparently ended up at a Mexican restaurant that wouldn’t bring Tanner ketchup no matter how many times he asked and mistook Adam for a girl.

We got home around 11:00 PM, and, with our last few hours in Queenstown, tried to rally the troops to go look for the native glowworms in a gully on the mountain behind our AirBnB. The whole group set out initially, but as the wayfinding became difficult, the ladies decided going to bed was perhaps a better use of their time. The guys keep going, first downhill (via some mountain bike trails), then back up, towards the point on Google Maps that said “Glowworms (Closed).” We eventually reached a “Trail Closed” sign, but, not to be deterred, Joe and Justin pulled us around. We made our way up the gulley to a waterfall where the trail petered out. We all turned off our lights, and, after a minute or so for our eyes to adjust, sure enough, there they were. The amebas with bioluminescent poop. Seeing a larger grouping on top of the waterfall, the next step was obvious. After climbing to the top, we quickly moved from “see the glowworms” to “touch the glowworms.” Tanner, Justin, and Sam scrambled across the creek. I turned on my light just in time to see Sam lose his balance near the edge, cartwheel his arms like a cartoon character to regain his balance, and fall forward (instead of backwards) into the stream. I had a friend that used to say, “I hope someone almost dies, because those are the best stories.” As we sat there, well past midnight, looking at the glowworms, Adam said, “Yep, you won’t get this on a tour bus.”

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