So, we were enjoying our merry holiday around the South Island of New Zealand. Our last major stop was to be an overnight visit to Milford Sound. When we left Queenstown, the weather was pretty good – or, as they say in New Zealand, “fine.” The closer that got to Te Anau, the poorer the weather looked.
After a Friday night stay in Te Anau we continued to Milford. Along the way, we thought that it would be a good idea to enjoy some short hikes, even though the rain was picking up. At one stop, for a twenty-minute hike to Marian Falls, we came back to the car and were drenched. After that, the thought of hiking anymore was replaced by sanity. And, we also had planned on stopping along the way for a picnic lunch, but that gave way to the rain, too.
The high point of the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is the Homer Tunnel. It’s a tight, narrow, dark tunnel that’s at a pretty significant grade, and a little hairy when the windows on your car are fogging over a bit. After the Homer Tunnel, which separates the “ocean” side of the mountains at Milford Sound from the “inland” side, the rain became heavier. In fact, the rain even changed over to snow. At that point, the windows were totally fogged over and we had to stop for several minutes for the windows to clear. The road on down to Milford Sound is marked with several avalanche zones and you’re not permitted to stop during that length. We finally made it to the village of Milford Sound after about a four-hour drive from Te Anau, and stopped at the Blue Duck Café for lunch.
The most remarkable thing about the drive were all of the waterfalls that we saw after we crossed the divide toward the ocean-side of the mountains! The quantity of waterfalls was like nothing that we had ever seen before – small ribbons and massive gushers. It was one of the most beautiful water displays that we’ve ever seen. Every time that we turned a corner, our jaws were dropping! Unfortunately, we couldn’t really stop because of the avalanche zones.
In Milford Sound, we stayed at the Milford Sound Lodge in one of their riverside chalets. Again, outside our windows, the views of the waterfalls all around was stunning. Our chalet sat on the banks of the Cleddau River. I do have to insert here that the environmental scientist in me was a bit worried as the river raged by, and I could tell that it was slowly rising – we would have to evacuate during the night??? It was just needless worrying on my part since the Lodge sits well above the river. It ended up raining about 4″ overnight, which is alot for most anywhere.
The rain let up during the night (but didn’t fully stop – this is New Zealand, right?) and the river dropped considerably. After breakfast, we wandered over to the reception area of the Lodge and discovered that all of the rain had loosened a rockslide across the road (Highway 94) during the night. No problems, we thought; we’ll go on our rainy Milford Sound cruise in the morning and then enjoy a beautiful day in Milford, and then drive out after the road is opened that day.
Well, on Sunday, we awoke to absolutely beautiful weather – clear and gorgeous. There also was a sign in the Lodge reception area that said that the road was still closed – bummer. The Lodge staff had spent a great deal of time on Saturday helping various guests fly out of Milford Sound, and Asta decided that it was her turn to do the same on Sunday. After she left us, we wandered around a bit, took care of ourselves as we moved from the luxurious digs of a chalet to a backpacker dorm room outfitted with two bunk beds – Aras & Julija were both very happy to be able to sleep on the top of a bunk!
In the afternoon, since the weather was so nice and beautiful, we decided to take another Milford Sound cruise, again with Southern Discoveries – kids ride free! The second cruise wasn’t as exciting as the first cruise, but it was still wonderful. The waterfalls were a bit reduced, but the skies were blue.
By this time, we were hearing and reading more on-line that the rockslide might be worse than we had hoped. It turns out that there was a humungous boulder that had fallen on the road (~200 tons they said) and that it was going be very difficult to move. And, later on we heard that there hadn’t been a single rockslide, but at least five rockslides along with a snow avalanche. No worries, mate! We’ll just leave on Monday!
On Monday morning, we slept in. When we went to the reception area, we found that the road was still closed. Bummer again. Monday turned out to be a nice day to just chill out and relax. Aras’ chickenpox (I didn’t mention that part earlier, did I?) seem to have peaked on Monday, and it was good for him to have a slow, restful day.
Tuesday morning, slept in. We went to the reception area with low expectations and we were not disappointed! The road was still closed. The road crews had been making good progress. They were building a detour around the largest of the rockslides, so that traffic might get in and out. But, it was still slow going, and now the weather is expected to get worse, which will slow their work because of safety considerations – fear of more rockslides and avalanches. When will we get out of here, get the kids back to school, and allow Dad to regain his solitude and sanity???
So, you’ve been reading about the less than appealing aspects of this moment in our lives. But, there are a LOT of great moments in this difficult time. The most notable is the quality and warmth of the staff at the Milford Sound Lodge. They are just awesome and I can’t say enough about them and their efforts to keep us comfortable. They recognize that they can’t do anything about the road, and we recognize it, too. But, they have been bending over backwards to help guests fly out of Milford Sound – booking flights, arranging buses at the other destinations and so on.
On Monday evening, we walked into the Blue Duck Café & Bar to find that they bartender, Paul, was wearing a cheesehead! He’s originally from Richmond, VA, and a Green Bay Packer’s fan! He was celebrating the Packers victory over the Houston Texans.
One of my favorite stories is how the staff, especially Emma and Japke (along with Lorena, Parker, Jorunn, Nicolas and others), helped guests with alternate arrangements. When we arrived, there were several different guests here in their rented cars and camper vans. A couple from England needed to fly out of Milford Sound and back to “civilization” so that they could make their connections home. Well, their rental car company wanted to charge them rental fees for the car that they would be leaving in Milford Sound as well as the new rental car that they would pick up in Queenstown. Well, the Lodge staff weren’t too keen on this potential arrangement. They helped the car rental company to understand that this disaster was receiving a fair amount of media attention and to consider how might it look if the glowing feelings of kiwi hospitality might be tarnished by reports of specific and NAMED rental car companies appeared in the newspapers? The rental car company quickly changed their tune. J Similar situations appeared for the folks with camper vans who needed to move on; the camper van companies easily found alternate vans for these guests, at no additional cost.
The number of guests at the Milford Sound Lodge is now down to about ten very patient lodgers. A couple of families are here in camper vans, and the rest of us are in the lodge. Aras & Julija have been borrowing movie after movie to entertain themselves. They’ve also been crawling around beneath the slatted decks around the lodge (they’re badgers, right?). They found about ten room keys that have been lost over who knows how long of a period of time, as well as about twenty five dollars in coins! (They’ve made more money today than me!)
On Tuesday, the staff arranged with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks to take a gratis two-hour kayak trip in the backwaters of the Sound, near the wharves here. Again, the hospitality of Hory and Blake at Rosco’s was amazing. Yes, they’re a bit bored, too, since they don’t have any clients, but they didn’t have to take us out. What’s in it for them? I guess a few beers at the Blue Duck Bar and Café!
Here it is Wednesday, and it appears that the road will be opened to “essential traffic” on Thursday. The official word to the general public is that the road will be closed for many more days, but we’re hearing that we’ll be able to get out on Thursday. And, today, the staff is arranging a movie presentation in the Lodge’s lounge – the New Zealand classic “Whale Rider.” They’re so nice and thoughtful!!
Thursday morning arrives with good news! The “official” word is that Highway 94 should open at 1:00 pm. We take our time, pack and enjoy our declining food supply (no, we didn’t starve – not even close). About 12:30, we bid adieu to all of the wonderful folks at Milford Sound Lodge and drive up to the gate across the road. Annoyingly, it appears that “essential traffic” means allowing hordes of tourists (buses, cars and campers) access to Milford Sound and its cruises before allowing those of us of who have been holed up at Milford Sound to leave. Oh well…
Finally, on our way out on the road, we slow down at the major landslide and it is pretty impressive and massive. The highlight, though, is that after our wave of vehicles passes by the landslide, a TV cameraman for TV3 stops us for a chat with the camera in our faces. Once he started to interview Julija, I knew that she’d be on the news. Who can resist a cute, little girl?
So, our saga ends. What was supposed to a eleven-day trip ends up being about a sixteen-day trip. And, my feeling is that of all of our adventures on this trip, Aras & Julija will most remember the coins and room keys that they found beneath the decks at the Milford Sound Lodge… Me, I’ve got a lot more and different memories.
46 S EnZed signing off…