jen yu: new zealand 2004 - day 10

new zealand 2004 - day 10

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milford sound, milford track, te anau
december 4, 2004
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We left the motel at 5:15 while Te Anau was still quiet and dark. I dozed on and off while Jeremy drove us to Milford Sound Lodge to meet our kayak guide. It was raining and cold. The lodge was very nice with great (read clean) bathroom facilities, a comfy lounge and dining area, plus a small snack store/cafe. We waited with three others (Brits) until Jason walked in wearing his spray skirt. We filled out paperwork and then filed into the van. It was a short drive to the boat launch where we met the other 13 members of our paddle group. Most of them were with "Active", some sort of adventure tour group (but it sounded very cushy to us). We had our own thermals, but were outfitted with everything else. They gave us pointers and safety instructions, and then we were off in our double kayaks!

Jeremy said I should steer so I could be in control since I had my camera along. We were thankful for the rain because it does keep the sandflies at bay. They also seemed to be less of a nuisance once we were on the water. We split up into three groups and our guide, Steph, led us around the sound. Steph lives in eternal high latitude summer. She guides in NZ for half the year, then guides in Canada for half the year (in BC)! Kayaking really is the best way to see Milford Sound. Giant cruise boats can't ever get close enough to anything interesting, and although flights allow for unrivaled views of hanging valleys and mountain tops, they can't see penguins like we did!

We paddled up to two known nesting sites for Fiordland Crested penguins and one of them had three penguins. They looked like the clumsiest creatures on earth. With each step/hop forward, you knew they were on the brink of toppling off the edge, but they never did. Oh, I should say that I think diving is also a very good way to see the sound. We learned that the runoff into Milford Sound has a tea color to it (occurs naturally). I think they said 3 meters of freshwater sits atop the saltwater in the sound and acts like a sunglass lens. Hence, the saltwater below is home to a lot of deep-sea marine life due to the filtering of the freshwater! How cool is that? We encountered another penguin on the water a little later. It was floating on its belly, looking at us, then looking down into the water (for food) then looking back at us. We came within 10 feet of her and the penguin looked pretty casual except when she kept looking up.

We paddled around to waterfalls and tree avalanches, had a hot thermos drink, and returned to the shore. Five hours after we started, we were dropped off at the lodge until 3:30 when we were to meet with Sam for the afternoon paddle and walk. We ate lunch, then took a much needed nap in the car, and then waited for Sam in the lobby. It was supposed to be just me and Jeremy, but then these 5 dutch fellows signed on at the last minute. That was too bad because these guys were idiots (nice, but idiots).

Once on the water, the sandflies still lingered about and I noticed them traveling in large swarms alongside the kayak as we paddled to Sandfly Point. We beached the kayaks and began our hike along the Milford Track - the finest track in the world. The thing was booked through April when I checked in November. Through the kayak combo, we got to hike part of it. It was WET and COLD. Recurring theme, eh? The Milford track is really lovely, but having seen a good deal of similar track elsewhere already, I felt the Routeburn was far more interesting. I do prefer alpine.

Sam had asked us at the lodge what we do for a living, so he was very excited to learn about tectonics and astronomy. On the track I explained basics to him and how cool New Zealand is from a mountain building perspective. This was his first season guiding. He used to be an eel fisherman on the north island, and his trade is pottery. We hiked to Lake Ada and had a hot drink, then headed back (very wet) to the kayaks and paddled back to shore. It was late (8:30) when we got to the car and we said our thanks and good-byes to Sam, changed into dry clothes and began our marathon drive back to Te Anau in light drizzle. We figured it would be clear on the other side.

Once we emerged from the Homer Tunnel, it was snowing and the road was slushy. This added to our other worries 1) that we wouldn't have enough gas to get to Te Anau 2) that everything would be closed (no food) and 3) we wouldn't be able to find a place to stay. The snow let up by the Divide, but the rain did not. As it grew darker, we realized that Te Anau was not going to be dry or clear. We pulled into town and the rain was coming down steadily. We opted for a room in a lodge - sort of a compromise between camping and motel. We got the last one (and this place was enormous). After being given the key to the wrong place and waking some poor guy at 11 pm, we were given the key to the proper room where we had one bed, a desk, and enough room to walk between the two. The lodges in NZ are really nice. We were too tired to be hungry, so we plopped down and fell asleep.

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