Day 6 was a day we’d been looking forward to a lot, but I guess you could say that about almost every day on our itinerary for this trip! The day was devoted to an excursion to visit Milford Sound (Piopiotahi is the Maori name), which is considered by many to be New Zealand’s number one tourist attraction.
We had a pretty early start, so a return visit to Vudu was not possible since, like so many places outside the US, it’s hard to find a breakfast joint that opens before 8. We had picked up a half dozen eggs at the grocery store, so I scrambled some of them using the delicious butter we’d been able to keep from the Rainforest Retreat. We had a couple of Kiwi fruits left also, so we ate them on the side.
At 7:35 we were outside our hotel waiting for our taxi. We met another American couple who were off on the same excursion. They understood about social distancing, but that went out the window when a Prius C taxi showed up to take us to the hotel where the bus was picking us up. It’s a 5-seater so that was that. Turned out that the hotel where the bus was picking us up was a few hundred yards away, so we could easily have walked over if we’d known.
The bus arrived shortly afterwards and it turned out we were the last pickup. Real Journeys, the tour company, was doing its best to address concerns about social distancing and the coronavirus by doubling the amount of buses so that people didn’t have to sit so closely together. However, our driver had not quite calculated the spacing properly so Angie and I were bit at a loss but he managed to move things around and get us situated. I do have to give the company credit though because according to the driver, about 1,000 people employed by them are likely to be losing their jobs very soon so at least they were trying to max out the workload.
The ride ahead of us was going to be about four hours. On the upside, if the weather held up, we were to have a flight home that would be less than an hour. Another upside was that heavy flooding in February had actually caused tremendous damage to the roads, and the day we were to visit Milford Sound was the first day that the roads were reopened to buses (coaches) as well as private vehicles. We were SO lucky! Many of the local trails (known in New Zealand as tracks) have also been heavily damaged, reducing the ability for hiking (tramping) on some of the country’s most popular routes.
The ride was scenic and lovely, like all we’ve seen of New Zealand. There were some scheduled stops on the way, including a café in Te Anau, where there was an opportunity to purchase food since it was going to be a long day. We had brought some snacks with us but also picked up a pie, a scone, a yoghurt cup, and a cup of coffee. The café at which we stopped clearly has an arrangement with the tour company but I suspect that each company had it’s go-to café. We just about had enough time to distance ourselves from the rest of the party and check out the shore of Lake Te Anau before we carried on. Side note, two of New Zealand’s most notable tracks begin in Te Anau: the Milford Track and the Kepler Track.
We had a couple of scenery stops once we entered into Fjordland National Park and it was quite lovely. We were so fortunate to get such a wonderful day (in more ways than one).Homer Tunnel, which was constructed to provide a connection to Milford, and used the equivalent of CCC workers to do the work during New Zealand’s Depression era. The original work was really manual (picks, shovels, wheelbarrows) and arduous, and three men died due to avalanches during the construction. The progress was marred by avalanches and World War II and did not open until 1953. The tunnel is not really big enough for traffic in both directions, so we had to wait at a traffic light before we could go through.
One of our scenic walks had a nice little side experience. There was a short boardwalk on which we could take a walk. At the far end was a coffee cart (we actually got some tasty ginger tea). While we were waiting to reboard the bus, we noticed a small bird flittering around the side mirror. Our driver said that it was seeing its own reflection and trying to attack itself and one of our fellow riders identified it as tomtit. It was very cute but flew off before I could get a picture.
We arrived at the boat terminal a little before one p.m. and had time to visit the bathroom before boarding our boat. (Everyone does seem to be assiduously washing their hands on this trip at least.) There were several buses at the parking lot and several boats at the terminal though only a few going out around the same time as us.
The vessel’s route was to go from the terminal all the way to Saint Anne Point and out briefly into the Tasman Sea, where the ride did get a little more choppy but not too much. I had bought some Sea Legs medicine and Angie had wrist bands so we felt no ill effects even though we’re both susceptible to motion sickness. The views were spectacular and the experience was heightened by commentary from a guide on the boat. He did say that the day before, when it had rained, there had been thousands of temporary waterfalls coming off the rocks into the sound, but on this day we “only” saw a few dozen.
On the way back to the terminal, the boat went close in to a couple of the waterfalls and provided some spectacular views (and a little spray!). It also went close to a rock where some fur seals were lounging. The little things, they’re not so little. (Which I think we are all learning more and more these days.)
Part of the booking for this trip included an option between taking the bus back to Queenstown or flying back on a small plane. This was also contingent on the weather being good enough for the short flight. Amazingly it was, given that Milford Sound gets 252 inches of rain a year!
While we didn’t know the difference in cost for the plane option, we opted for the flight because we were not excited about another 4 hours on a bus when the plan was to get up early the next day and leave on our bike tour. Our bus driver was notifying others on the bus that there were still seats available on the flight if they were interested, and announced how much it would cost, so we learned that this was a huge splurge for us (though almost half the price of a helicopter ride it seems at a mere $400 NZ or so per person). But boy, was it worth it.
Angie had been a bit apprehensive about flying on a 10-seat Cessna, but I think we are both so glad we took this option. It was an incomparable experience. Takeoff was a tad scary as we zoomed upwards toward the craggy mountains in the area, but as we flew we had a birds eye view of these amazing peaks, including the many glaciers on their tops (mainly still looking grubby from the ash from the recent Australian fires). We both took tons of pictures with our phones because the views of the mountains, and then of Lake Wakatipu as we flew into town, were just amazing. This became a highlight of our trip without us having any expectation about the experience.
We spent the rest of the evening working on blog posts and preparing to leave on a three-day bike tour the next day. Things have been changing pretty fast and nothing seemed certain at this point, so read Saturday’s blog to find out more!