The quiet little town of Te Anau was just a stopover on my way to Milford Sound, but it had some quirky features and I hit the jackpot hostel-wise. I wasn’t in a dorm in the main building, but in a separate building, called The Cottage. It had its own bathroom, kitchenette, TV and DVD player, and although there was room for six people, I was sharing it with just two others. I had my best night’s sleep in ages – after I went out with Maria, 35, from Spain, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. The staff at the first bar, The Redcliff, had gone to some effort for the occasion but it was virtually empty, and I felt sorry for them. We stayed for a drink and a game of miniature pool, and then we went to a bar called The Moose, which was packed. There was a good atmosphere and a live band which had everyone on the dancefloor. I decided to spend an extra night in Te Anau after going to Milford Sound, to avoid another very long drive.
On Sunday, March 18, I headed to Milford. It was supposed to be an extremely scenic drive, with lots of mountains covered by dense forest, but the weather was terrible and I couldn’t see far. The cloud made the place seem very moody and slightly other-worldly. Where the mountains were bare, I could see hundreds of thin waterfalls tumbling down, and they looked a bit like lightning bolts. The tops of the mountains were hidden by clouds and it seemed like the waterfalls were coming straight from the heavens. The traffic lights at the Homer Tunnel took 15 minutes to change. When I was able to pass through, it was a slightly unnerving 1200m drive. I stopped to see The Chasm but left my camera in the car to keep it dry. I got soaked to the skin as I did the short walk to see the roaring waters and sculpted rocks. When I returned the next day, with my camera, I was quite disappointed that most of the waterfalls no longer even existed.
I knew there was basically nothing to the ‘village’ of Milford except for the cruise terminal and a cafe/bar – the only one within 120km – so I decided to pass some time by going for a walk, despite the torrential rain. (There were 90mm of rainfall overnight. Milford is one of the wettest places in the world, with around 7m of rainfall a year.) The thundering waterfalls, particularly the 160m Bowen Falls, were spectacular, but only the closest mountains were visible. When my waterproof shoes gave up the fight, I went to the BBH hostel, Milford Sound Lodge, had a nice hot shower, and resolved not to go outside again. I spent the evening drinking wine and playing versions of Pictionary and Cranium with Jenny from California in the hostel lounge. It was fun, but we couldn’t persuade anyone else to join us, even though there wasn’t much else to do. It was in the middle of nowhere; there wasn’t even any phone signal. On the way back to our dorm, we realised the rain had finally stopped, and we went outside. I’ve never seen so many stars at once. It was as if we were actually up in the middle of space.
It was as if it went from winter to summer overnight. The sun was shining as I boarded the Milford Mariner for my two-and-a-quarter-hour Real Journeys cruise. Unlike the previous day, the famous 1682m Mitre Peak could be seen, but Bowen Falls, while still impressive, seemed much tamer than before. As I’ve found to be the case with New Zealand’s most stunning spots, the sandflies were a pest. According to Maori legend, the goddess of death was afraid humans would be so entranced by the beauty of Milford Sound, they would forget their mortality, so she introduced sandflies to remind them not to linger.
The whole fiord, all 16km of it, was breathtaking. Rudyard Kipling called it ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, and while I haven’t seen the other seven, I wouldn’t disagree with him. The mountains, with their vertical sides (they had been carved by a glacier… the early explorers should have called Milford a fiord not a sound… sounds are created by river erosion, not glaciers, apparently), were imposing. It was only when a ship or kayaker was directly underneath that you could fully appreciate how massive they were. There were lots of huge waterfalls, in some of which rainbows could be seen, and we also saw some seals and bottlenose dolphins, which was lucky as the latter are only seen two or three days each week. As we drew right up to one waterfall, Ryan, from Real Journeys, went to the tip of the bow and got drenched as he collected a jug of water. Those of us who wanted to could drink the water from the waterfall. I thought it tasted more or less the same as tap water. All in all, it was an awesome cruise.
When I went back to Te Anau, it felt like going home. I had the same bed in The Cottage. I didn’t need a map to get around, and even the people in the petrol station and supermarket recognised me and had a chat. I was invited to play football with a bunch of guys from various European countries, and it felt really good to kick a ball around for the first time since I left Exeter two months ago. Then I had a girlie night in with Aude from France and Lisa from Minnesota, the only other people in The Cottage, and we ate Cadbury’s chocolate and watched a DVD. It was a perfect day, but as I lay in bed I couldn’t stop thinking about friends and family back home, especially in light of some recent sad news. I am enjoying myself, but I am missing you.