FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Driving up the devil’s staircase

Posted in Gibbston, Milford Sound, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 30, 2015

The 186 mile journey from Milford Sound took us back through the Homer Tunnel and onto the state highway towards Gibbston via Te Anau and Kingston. It is a long and somewhat awkward drive that takes you considerably further away from your destination (as the crow flies) at first but it’s not without points of interest. The winding stretch up the side of Lake Wakatipu, known as the Devil’s Staircase, was particularly memorable with its rises and falls.

The Devil's Staircase

The Devil’s Staircase

The traffic flow on the first part of the route tends to be tidal, with very little traffic out of Milford Sound in the morning and plenty coming in, leaving us with a largely empty road. In contrast, the last part of the journey was the most painful, skirting Queenstown at a crawl before making it into Gibbston in late afternoon.

Our route took us past what remains of the Kingston Flyer, one of the most high profile steam railways in New Zealand but sadly out of action for a few years now. We stopped off at the Kingston terminus and could see the locomotives fenced off in a compound and the station building looking rather forlorn.

The line originally ran from Invercargill to Kingston, where passengers could embark on a steamship for the crossing to Queenstown. A small monument on the waterfront reminds us that the Wakatipu steamers Mountaineer and Earnshaw were assembled in this vicinity on 11th February 1879 and 24th February 1912 respectively.

The Kingston Flyer compound

The Kingston Flyer compound

In its preservation days the line that the Kingston Flyer travelled was considerably shorter, with its final incarnation seeing trains on the eight and a half mile line between Fairlight and Kingston. Neither location seems to have offered passengers much in the way of attractions besides a ride on the train which perhaps limited its appeal. Nevertheless, the railway has a gorgeous setting on the shores of Lake Wakatipu with the mountains as a backdrop so it is a shame that it hasn’t proved to be more successful.

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Milford Sound (or sharing paradise with the sandflies)

Posted in Milford Sound, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 30, 2015

The Maori legend has it that the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved the southern fiords with his adze, getting closer to perfection with each attempt. Finally, he created the masterpiece of Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) with its breathtaking combination of mountain peaks and waterfalls.

Te-Hine-nui-to-po, goddess of the night, was far from impressed – fearing that man would want to live forever in such a paradise. To discourage such thoughts the goddess released the sandfly to torment any that dared to linger! And torment they do…

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

It is worth braving the sandflies to see Milford Sound, which really deserves the label of “the eighth wonder of the world” that Rudyard Kipling gave it (perhaps he had this in mind when he told a journalist that if you told him that the garden of Eden was located in New Zealand he would have believed it).

An incredibly generous gift of an overnight trip on the Milford Mariner gave us ample opportunity to see the sound up close and nothing can prepare you for how spectacular it is in person. No photographs can do this place justice, nor replicate the physical effects such as the incredible rush of wind that hits you as you sail out (a natural phenomenon with the sound acting as a wind tunnel).

Our cruise took us first to Anita Bay where we switched to kayaks or tenders to see some of the easily missed spots, such as the location of the garden used to supply the first walkers and the nearby hut (restored) of the owners of this business. The sandflies were incredibly active here, pouncing on anyone without the most liberal coating of insect repellent.

The black sandflies live up to the billing of “the most mischievous animal” that James Cook gave them in May 1773 after enduring the “swelling and such intolerable itching” that is their gift. In the early days settlers here protected themselves by covering themselves in seal fat, but thankfully no such extreme measures were necessary for us. The pioneers of the tourist industry were brave indeed!

The Milford Mariner in Anita Bay

The Milford Mariner in Anita Bay

We moored up at Harrison Cover overnight and I was more than a little surprised, but delighted, to see a dolphin come up to the porthole of our cabin in the early morning darkness. As the skies brightened we left the shelter of the cove and headed back out to the Tasman Sea, giving us some great views of the sound before the day boats started to ply the waters.

As we headed back to dock we took a good look at the seals sunbathing on the rocks and close enough to the Stirling Falls to feel the spray. Another fascinating sight to be observed was the way the water in the sound appears to ‘bleed’ which is simply the fresh water from the mountains lying on top of the salt water.

Our visit to the sound was in fine weather, following a dryish spell, so relatively few waterfalls were in action but if it rains you have the bonus of hundreds of additional waterfalls. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world with annual rainfall of 6 metres, so it’s better to be prepared for it!

Milford Sound exceeded every expectation and is certainly worth the long drive, which to be honest, is pretty fabulous in its own right.

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Key Summit

Posted in Milford Sound, New Zealand, Te Anau by folkestonejack on December 29, 2015

The road north from Te Anau offers many wonderful sights that are easily slotted in to a trip to Milford Sound, but it is worth building in some additional time to take in the hike up to Key Summit, which New Zealand Tourism has described as the best Fiordland day walk. It was one of the first things on my list when we started making plans for a trip to the South Island and I certainly didn’t regret it!

The path to Key Summit

The path to Key Summit

The walk takes you up a short section of the three-day long Routeburn Track (one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks) which curves upwards at a steady angle, making it an easy-ish walk to tackle. On this stretch the track offers a beautifully shaded path, under the forest canopy, which features a delightful waterfall and just enough glimpses of the mountains to encourage you onward.

About an hour into the walk you hit a clearly marked signpost indicating the short uphill track up to Key Summit (taking you away from the Routeburn Track) and from here on in the views just get better and better. As you climb above the treeline it is impossible not to be stunned by the incredible beauty that surrounds you – it is fair to say that I’ve never taken a hike that delivered a punch quite like this.

I took the trek up at a speedier pace than I should have, for fear of the clouds closing back in but I really needn’t have worried. The skies had largely cleared by the time I had cleared the treeline, though the few that lingered between the forest floor and the mountain peaks presented a wonderful sight in their own right as they mingled with the tree tops.

The view towards Mt Crosscut/Paekaru

The view towards Mt Crosscut/Paekaru

It is hard to imagine that the view from the top has many rivals – the 360 degree panoramic views over the Humboldt and Darran Mountains are simply breath-taking.

The summit also has the delights of an alpine nature walk leading up to a spectacular lookout with a view across to Lake Marian, a glacial tarn, with three peaks as a backdrop (Mt Christina/Te Taumata o Hinepipiwai, Mt Crosscut/Paekaru and Mt Lyttle/Puairuru). In absorbing this visual treat it’s easy to forget that all of this was carved by a glacier many thousands of years ago – what an achievement for a slow moving block of ice and rock!

At a reasonable pace the walk should take around three hours to the summit and back again, allowing plenty of time to soak up the view and take hundreds of photographs. I shaved a fair bit off that in my mad uphill dash, but I’m sure it is much more enjoyable if you don’t try repeating that!

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The road to Milford Sound

Posted in Milford Sound, New Zealand, Te Anau by folkestonejack on December 29, 2015

The 144 mile drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound presents one wonder after another, making it hard to resist stopping every time a sign highlights a new viewpoint, historic site or walk. However, it is quite impossible to do absolutely everything within a single day and still make it to Milford Sound in time for a trip on the water.

The Milford Highway

The Milford Highway

The skies were pretty grey when we made a start to our drive at 8.20am, choosing an early departure to give us a headstart on the coaches that come through here relentlessly later as morning progresses (the NZ Transport Authority advice states that most buses depart from Te Anau between 9am and 10am and advises independent travellers to hit the road before or after these times). The roads were fairly quiet, though we did have to weave our way through a flock of sheep along the way!

It is an astonishingly beautiful stretch of road to drive, even in the misty conditions that we faced this morning. At first you get delightful river scenes, fields full of pink and purple lupins and lakeside vistas but as you get closer to the Homer Tunnel the scenes become ever more mountainous and simply breathtaking with it. I anticipated this from everything that I read, but nothing quite prepares you for the scale of all this and the sense of wonderment you get from being surrounded on all sides by dramatic scenery.

The Hollyford River

The Hollyford River

Although you are, in effect, driving to the middle of nowhere, you know that you are not alone in your endeavour (in 2015 Milford Development Authority reported that 530,000 visitors had made it to Milford Sound whereas the figure forecast for 2016 is 650,000). A significant part of Milford Sound’s appeal comes from its remoteness and this impression is re-inforced by the notices reminding you that beyond Te Anau there is no mobile phone coverage and that there are no petrol stations or places to buy food on the Milford Road until you reach Milford Sound.

Over the years there have been a number of proposals to shortcut the route for visitors arriving from Queenstown (a five hour drive) including a road tunnel, a monorail and now an electrified railway with car shuttles which would run from a spot just beyond Glenorchy to a terminus near the historic Gunn’s Camp. Maybe the practicalities of providing capacity for the ever increasing numbers travelling here will make such a scheme a necessity at some point. However, I can’t help but feel that this would take away part of the magic of Milford Sound.

After a couple of hours driving we reached The Divide, the starting point for the hike up to Key Summit, and it was at this point that the first gap in the clouds opened up. I made a dash for the summit, fearing that the clouds would close in before I could take advantage of the change in conditions, but my luck was in today. In the meantime, most of the coaches between Queenstown and Milford Sound passed through, leaving the roads much quieter for our onward journey.

The Homer Tunnel

The Homer Tunnel

In the afternoon we continued our drive at a leisurely pace, stopping off at a number of scenic viewpoints over the Hollyford River and Valley before the entrance to the Homer Tunnel loomed before us. The tunnel was opened in 1954, some sixty five years since the idea was first proposed by William Henry Homer, providing a route through the Darran Mountains down the Cleddau Valley to Milford Sound. Traffic lights regulate one-way traffic through the tunnel during the summer months with a countdown clock on display to get you ready for your turn.

Before taking our position in the queue we had a wander towards the rockface where an impressively hefty block of snow and ice remained, having somehow defied the summer heat of the previous week. Everyone and everything seemed so small against the astonishing height of the mountains. A more sobering reminder of the power of nature can be seen in the memorial plaques to the men killed in the avalanches of 1936 and 1937.

A block of snow at the Homer Tunnel portal dwarfs a couple of visitors

A block of snow at the Homer Tunnel portal dwarfs a couple of visitors

Once we were through the tunnel we stretched our legs at The Chasm and enjoyed the rather more human-scale delights of the waterfalls on the Cleddau River. Our journey concluded in mid-afternoon when we arrived at the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal, a good hour or so ahead of our boarding time for an overnight cruise on Milford Sound.

The Department of Conservation have put together a good map showing the various stopping points on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Our chosen stops were:

1. Mackay Creek (51 km from Te Anau) for a good view of the wild lupins
2. Mirror lakes (56 km from Te Anau)
3. The Divide and Key Summit (83 km from Te Anau)
4. A couple of pull over spots where the Milford Sound Highway runs parallel to or crosses the Hollyford River
5. Homer Tunnel (99 km from Te Anau)
6. The Chasm (110 km from Te Anau)

It was hard to believe that so much natural beauty could have been packed into 144km of road before we had even boarded our boat to explore Milford Sound and we had only sampled a fraction of the views on offer. It made me appreciate once again that you need plenty of time to do this island any justice!

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