jen yu: new zealand 2004 - day 9

new zealand 2004 - day 9

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milford sound, te anau
december 3, 2004
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Te Anau was all abuzz because of the Kepler Challenge. The Kepler track is another of New Zealand's Great Walks - 60 km of track that enters fine alpine terrain in the Kepler Range. The Challenge is a footrace on the entire loop and the record time is 4 hours 22 minutes. Our host was going to work the race at Luxmore Hut, but that morning we learned that a storm the night before dumped enough snow on the track (and was still snowing at the time) for the DOC to close it. Now they were re-routing the race to go up to the hut, then back to town, across town, then up the other side - essentially cutting out the part threatened by avalanche danger.

At the DOC office in Te Anau, the line for track reservations was out the door. Hikers were scrambling to make alternative plans and salvage what they could of their vacations. The Kepler track was closed due to avalanche hazard. The Routeburn(!) was closed due to avalanche hazard. The forecast for Milford Sound was "Miserable weather!" with no foreseeable relief. I felt so sorry for the travelers - some were just like us, traveling thousands of miles to get here only to find that Mother Nature put the kibosh on their plans. The DOC refund is small consolation for a cancelled backpack. I felt fortunate that we had done the Routeburn when we did.

We made a day of sightseeing and short hikes. First we visited the free wildlife center in Te Anau where we read about and saw some of New Zealand's fascinating bird species. We could see across the lake that snowline had dropped significantly on the Keplers from the night before. From there we began our drive north to Milford Sound. Lonely Planet New Zealand is good about pointing out scenic drives. This drive was a favorite of mine. It takes 1 hour and 40 minutes to drive the road, but that is without stopping. There are dozens of places to turn out and drink in fabulous views of valleys, mountains, flowers, lakes. It gets better and better as you approach Milford.

We did quick stops like Mirror Lakes. As the road climbs higher, the overlooks afford breathtaking views of Fiordland National Park, part of a World Heritage Area. Most of these overlooks had a token Kea too. They were quite bold, hopping onto your car, demanding handouts. The signature U-shaped glacial valleys were impressive anywhere you looked. We passed "The Divide" which is where the Routeburn track ends. Just before the Homer Tunnel (a tunnel running through the mountain) near Gertrude Valley, it began to snow. The weather changes quickly in Fiordland. On the other side of the tunnel it was downhill, past "The Chasm" and ending at Milford Sound.

The sound was veiled in clouds and sandflies loitered about. We ate lunch in the car (tuna fish with cheese bread - thanks for the mayo from JPL, Trudi!) and walked around a little. Most of the short hikes in Milford were closed for one reason or another. We would have the entire next day to explore the sound, so we headed back to Te Anau. We made a stop at "The Chasm" to do a short hike up to some roaring slot falls and admire the abundant plant life. Milford gets an average of 6-7 meters of rainfall a year, sometimes as much as 9 meters. This place "leaks" waterfalls from enormous heights above the road. Rain is not necessarily a bad thing here, it is quite beautiful to see the cascades of falls coming down the steep valley walls.

Somewhere about halfway back to Te Anau, the skies cleared and the sun sparkled. It was a strange transition between the two areas. In Te Anau, we checked in with our kayak booking for the next day, then went to Fiordland Takeaway to get - what else? - fish and chips. We've dabbled with the seafood baskets and such, but I really don't care for the fried squid rings, mussels, krab (surimi). I just want my blue cod or hoki filet and tartare sauce. After eating, we walked around town and noticed there was not one vacancy anywhere. I was excited about our kayak, but I also wished we could have hung out in town to watch the Kepler Challenge. We checked email at the laudromat, and then turned in early for the night.

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