Mountains Beyond Mountains

Milford Sound. What a wonderfully sonorous name; a title befitting one of the world’s great natural wonders.
For me, the place has been a bit like buses. You wait years for one to show, and then two turn up at once. But if there was anywhere in the world you'd want to visit twice in quick succession, Milford Sound would surely be it. Certainly, of all the items on the New Zealand ‘to do’ list I drew up when I first came here, visiting the Fiords in the South Island was the one I was most excited about.
           It’s easy to get blasé about spectacular scenery when it’s as ubiquitous as it is here, but I could see from the pictures that Milford was something extra special, a place where the drama of nature is played out on a vast scale and visitors are reduced to awe-struck spectators. Had it been anything less special, I might have had second thoughts about devoting ten hours of driving time to getting there and back, for it is definitely not the most accessible of sights and steadfastly refuses to bow to any tourist. Which is exactly as it should be, of course. If there is anything that spoils the idyll of England’s countryside, it is the ever-present buzz of motorway traffic, which makes it near impossible to lose yourself in the bucolic arcadia the travel guides would have you believe it is. Milford might be a bugger of a place to reach, but when you’ve made the five hour trip by car from Queenstown – amazingly, the closest significant settlement – you’re rewarded with one of the most pristinely kept pieces of world famous natural landscape you’re ever likely to encounter.
           Apart from the grand prize of Milford Sound itself, the other motivator for taking the long-winded drive from Queenstown was the promise of stunning vistas en route. Our only real concern ahead of the trip in early January was the weather, as we’d read that rain and mist descend on Milford at least half of the year and the last thing we wanted was to travel all that way to find the views obscured by clouds. But the omens were good as we set off early that morning, thick rays of sunshine bursting out from behind the mountains at the head of the lake our Queenstown apartment looked out over. The first couple of hours of our drive were no less promising, the clear blue skies offering a startling contrast to the parched yellows and greens of the sun-sapped Otago countryside. By the time we reached the small township of Te Anau at the rough mid-point of our journey, however, a layer of fluffy white clouds had all but sealed off the blue sky from view and we began to fear the worst. Fuelled with a local café’s closest approximation to a full English breakfast (no baked beans or black pudding, yet again), we pressed on deeper into mountainous territory, rain flickering sporadically on our rental car’s windscreen.
            Despite the murky atmosphere, we were still able to marvel at the scenery, for even cloud-dressed mountains can provide an imperious spectacle. The landscapes on this section of the journey were rather different to those in Otago, the grassy tussock fields and tree-lined hills giving way to barren rock and snow-crested peaks. The final stretch to Milford began with entry to the Homer Tunnel, bored by some ingenious group of long-departed settlers straight through the mountain that separates the Eglinton Valley from the Hollyford Rivers. Traffic lights insisted we wait at the portal of the one-way tunnel for a good twenty minutes, but we were grateful for the break as it allowed us to pause and gaze up at the awesome surrounding mountains, which rose up violently like the palisades of a Tolkein fortress. After the tunnel, the views became even more magnificent, our car a mere ant in the presence of these vast creatures of rock and ice.  

            And then, the entrance to Milford Sound announced itself. There was an insistent drizzle now and foggy clouds hung low in the air. We feared a wasted journey until we actually saw the thing, for though the mist and rain heavily obscured the peaks of the mountains, they lent the place an otherworldly atmosphere that provided a different but no less beguiling impression to the clear-skied one you see in all the guidebooks. Standing at the foot of the Sound with feverishly clicking cameras, we studied an eerie wilderness. Hulking rock surged sheer out of gloomy water. Twisting trees climbed from rocky outcrops as if to greet the waterfalls that coursed down above them. And far above, white veils hovered impassively across spiring peaks.  

            We hadn’t come all this way just to stand and gawp though. The main draw was a ferry cruise along the Sound and out to the edge of the Tasman Sea. It was a cold and blustery afternoon and we felt like we were light years away from the blazing summer we’d left behind in Queenstown. Lucky, then, that our ferry tickets came with the promise of free tea and coffee, which we gratefully received.
            Standing on deck, we braved the wet and chill to make the most of the incredible views. As one of the ship’s attendants comfortingly informed us, rain and cloud did not have to be barriers to our enjoyment of Milford, for they not only afforded the place a distinct mien, but also ensured that the sequence of dizzying waterfalls cascading down right along the Sound were in full force. Clear days give you sight of the tops of the mountains, but the falls can dry up altogether, he explained. We were more appreciative after this, and even more so when the ferry became surrounded by some curious bottlenose dolphins. How wonderful that humans weren’t the only tourists to enjoy these majestic mountains. Another feast of wildlife soon presented itself when the skipper moored us a few meters away from a small colony of fur seals lolling on a rocky platform about halfway up the Sound. While the remoteness and sheerness of the mountains made Milford impossible for man to inhabit, it was pleasing to see that other species had no such issues making it their home. The lucky bastards.   
After about 45 minutes, we reached the furthest point of our journey as the ferry neared the entrance to the Tasman Sea. By this point, the steep-sided mountains of the inner Sound had become smaller protrusions of rock tailing out into the ocean. The waves chopped vigorously around us as we circled around the lip of the Sound before turning and heading back to our starting point, the ferry stopping only to sit for a moment with its bow nuzzling right beneath one of the larger waterfalls. 

After an hour and a half, our cruise drifted to an end and we trudged back to our car from the ferry terminal inspired, undoubtedly, by the sublime scenery we’d just encountered, but just a little bit irked that we had another 5 hour drive ahead of us. Just as well, then, that the gloom began to lift soon after we departed Milford and the mountain tops, formerly obscured by puffy clouds, were at last revealed to us. It was frustrating that we’d not been able to experience the Sound itself in this mist-free state, but we were grateful for the glorious views we were blessed with all the way back to Queenstown. One particular spot en route was in some ways even more magnificent than Milford, and we pulled over to experience it in the open air, rather than from the cramped confines of our vehicle. Sometimes words can’t do justice to scenes such as this so on this occasion I’ll use a photo to fire your imaginations instead:

My second trip to Milford came about in rather different circumstances. In March, my dad and brother made the long journey down from the UK to visit me in my adopted home country. As they were only going to be here a couple of weeks, the pressure was on to ensure that they experienced the very best that New Zealand has to offer. This, of course, meant a return visit to Queenstown and Milford only a couple of months on from my previous expedition. Thankfully, my family were not particularly keen on the idea of a ten hour drive, so instead we decided to splash out on the less circuitous route provided by the light aircraft operators that can fly you from Queenstown to Milford in less than an hour. Though this was a significantly higher-cost option, we felt a much shorter journey time, coupled with the promise of even more spectacular views, would be well worth paying for.
What I didn’t appreciate beforehand was that there was a hidden cost to these flights – one that should have been itemised on the receipt as “panic attack” in between the dollar cost and tax. Now, you will know from my previous blog that me and heights have never been the best of friends, but despite this I had never had any real issues with flying, even when I found myself at the controls of an RAF jet during my misspent school years in the Combined Cadet Force. Consequently, I barely twitched at the prospect of flying over mountains in a plane no larger than a limousine and was certainly not afflicted by “the fear” in the way I had been before my rope swinging episode in Costa Rica. That was just as well, for had I know how shit-yer-pants scary the flight was going to be, I may never have signed up for it in the first place.
My faintheartedness on this occasion stemmed not so much from the height of the aircraft as from its sheer flimsiness, coupled with the realization that only a few centimeters of metal separated me from one of those dreaded (and, on this occasion, almost certainly fatal) freefalls. Indeed, I probably would have felt safer if we had been higher up, for it was our seeming proximity to the mountains beneath us that really got to me, particularly when we experienced a bout of turbulence that lurched us around with such intensity that my poor father hit his head on an air conditioning nozzle. Our pilot, who, in fairness, was extremely professional and reassuring throughout, seemed quite proud of the fact that one of his passengers had drawn a thin trickle of blood from his scalp – apparently the first time this had happened in his professional career.
The pay-off for all this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some of New Zealand’s most remote and inhospitable environs. While the drive to Milford Sound on my previous trip had been almost impossibly scenic, the flight made me feel even more paltry next to the awesome landscapes the Earth had carved out beneath us. Flying beyond the northernmost reaches of Lake Wakatipu’s crisp turquoise expanse, we spent the final half hour of the flight traversing a vast tranche of mountainous wilderness. From this height, it appeared like a study of petrified violence, the rock contorted in great twisting grimaces, mollified only by the snowy brushstrokes daubing occasional peaks. Most remarkable were the lucent blue lakes that had formed in troughs so high and so remote that it is likely no human has ever doused a toe in them. So though I spent the entire journey clinging onto the seat in front with clammy paws, I felt incredibly privileged to be so close to such an inhospitable terrain. 

The final leg of the flight took us up and over one last ridge of mountains and out over the open sea, before heading back in land straight up the mouth of Milford Sound itself and coming to rest at the same terminal where our ferry had departed for its scenic cruise back in January. The weather could not have offered a sharper contrast to the day of our first visit. This time, the sky was blotched with only the faintest wisps of cloud, so the tops of the mountains were clearly defined and the Sound’s highest point, Mitre Peak, was now revealed in all its kingly glory. As we had learnt on our first trip, the absence of rain meant that many of the waterfalls had all but dried up, but being able to admire the full panorama of the Sound sparkling in the midday sun was in many ways even more thrilling. In any case, some of the larger falls were still in full flight, including the aptly named ‘Angel Falls’, whose cascades, in this light, shimmered with a startling rainbow effect that recalled, perhaps more than anything else I’ve seen in New Zealand, the fantasy land of Middle Earth. 

Returning to Queenstown along a different flight path that offered up yet more confounding scenery - as well as another significant dose of sweaty trepidation - I mulled on New Zealand’s ongoing ability to inspire awe and wonder. Though the not-insubstantial dollars exchanged for the flight suggested that this trip might well be the pinnacle of what the country has to offer as far as eye-popping vistas are concerned, I have thought as much before and been proven wrong. But even if nothing else here comes to match the sheer scale and spendor of Milford Sound, I'm unlikely to forget the blood, sweat and fears of those two very different visits in the summer of 2012.


1 comment:

  1. Reading that has made me very nostalgic. Milford Sound remains the most spectacular thing I've seen - simply stunning. Douglas Adams wrote in 'Last Chance to See' a description which captures it perfectly:

    "One's first impulse is simply to burst into spontaneous applause."