Day 11 – Mitre Peak, Milford Sound

Helen and I really wanted to make a day of this trip, and to that end had an early start on a frosty morning, having been told by the RealNZ guy that it would take 2.5 hours to get there. (Including the walk to the boat at the end). So we were up at dawn, packing our similar packs, wearing similar hats and the same shoes. Layer upon layer of tops through to puffer jackets and raincoat, and gloves, hats, and insect repellant. In the end, apart from the raincoats, we needed it all.

The day just got better and better. From the frost that added a sheen to the fields and verges that we passed, to the gradually closing in mountains on every side, we were captivated. It has been a long time since I enjoyed seeing a proper frost, since Auckland has warmed up over the years. This time we pulled over and took photos of the distance and the fields sparkling in ice and were very glad we had chosen to get up early and make for the 11am sailing. Here’s the distant frost laden fields from the Eglinton Valley area. A number of DOC sites are sign-posted for campers to use, but of course, it was hard to imagine the attraction in the cold light of a frosty morning. (The tent signs I mean).

The road to Milford Sound is not that bad – lots of long straight stretches from Te Anau, and slowly curving sections that hug the river or lake edge. A few single lane bridges, and plenty of pull over spaces to stop and take pics until you get into the mountains, when they were replaced by yellow signs saying “Do not stop – Danger of Avalanche!”

To our mutual joy, about 3/4 hour into our drive, there was a small caravan selling coffee in a leafy glade, and so I screeched belatedly to a halt and backed up. At this point we met an Australian woman, who was with her sister and sister’s husband, heading out to the same boat trip. Back in the van we proceeded with much oohing and aahing at every moment the trees parted to see the increasing layers of sharp snow clad tips of mountains getting closer and overshadowing the road. The weather had been very kind to us. Just a bit overcast at times, but initially it was blue with puffy white clouds obscuring some of the mountain tops. Very beguiling indeed.

We began to encounter road works from a flood and rain in 2020, when slips had torn away at the tarmac in places. It meant one lane and a traffic light system which slowed us down a bit. We climbed gradually up into the mountains, stopping when we could to take photos. Suddenly in front of us was a small hole in the side of a vast mountainside, which proved to be a tunnel. Who knew!? Heart in our throats, we moved into the single lane tunnel, which ran for 1.4 kms through the mountain in a downward slope with dim lights. My headlights were on, but seemed to have no effect. Hearts racing we watched the gradually increasing light with a sense of relief! Knowing so much solid rock was just above your head was oppressive. Out in the daylight, we entered a world of sharp defined angles and gigantic shapes. Now the road zigzagged down sharply, and our ears popped as we levelled out at the bottom, one eye on the road, and one on the immense walls of mountains, dappled in the lower reaches with moss, and small clinging plants. We had to strain to look up and see where the slopes disappeared into the cloud above.

At last we found ourselves approaching signs to Milford Sound, and the sound of helicopters and air traffic. Only two hours to get there at most, so the 2.5 we were told was generous. We drove to the info centre but found the parking there was $25 for five hours, and thinking we needed the exercise anyway, we drove back to the free carpark. Getting out of the van we were both instantly swamped by the infamous midgies (sandfiles) that this place is known for. I got out the repellant and sprayed it liberally on, and then we set off on a pleasant pathway toward the info centre and then the small harbour where the boats are. About 30 minutes walk in all, and past the small aerodrome where helicopters and light planes seemed to continually descend and take off from. We stopped to take more photos from the walk – the most famous spot for many of the Mitre Peak photos I’ve seen.

The little departure and arrival centre was bustling, and a few large scenic cruisers were lined up to take passengers. There we saw our Aussie friends from the coffee cart, who would join us on our boat. The weather was not as blue as it had been upon our morning departure, but it was clear enough to see the mountains, some of which were hidden in cloud at the top. It was very cold and before long, because we both sat on the top of the boat to take in the best sights, we had all our warm gear on, including hoods over our hats and gloves on.

We purchased some lunch from the downstairs deck and waited for the buzzer to go off to go down and get it. My chicken and chips was very warming but needed to be held firmly or it would have been blown away. Helen had chips, but the portions of both were so generous, we could have shared mine. We had a pleasant commentary, a guy who told us some of the history of the place and the remarkable details we would have missed on our own. The boat went up to the wall of rock at one point to allow us to see the moss, lichen and other plants clinging to the sheer rock wall. When we came out into the Tasman Sea, the wind had picked up and the waters were choppy enough that not even my layers were keeping the cold off. Fortunately we didn’t linger there for long before turning to enter the mouth of the Sound again. From out there at sea, it looks like a bay, and you need to come in close to see how it opens out into the Milford Sound as it became known.

I’m going to let my pictures do the talking for me regarding descriptions. They do not do it justice either, for these mountains were too big to contain in our photos, and their inspiring size and colours were lost a little in a small iphone shot. Imagine rounding a bend in the very deep turquoise waters, and gazing up at the dark stone faces, with multicoloured rock walls, and greens of all colours dotted all over, and seeing a long white fall of water roaring down from extraordinary heights to the sea below.

At one point we had the seal pointed out to us from ‘seal rock’ where they sometimes bask in the sun. This one waved his flipper at just the right moment.

We clicked, we hunched in the lee of the seat we were on, we stared, we gasped. It was all so worth the trip out. Back on land again, we pushed through throngs of people arriving for the afternoon sailings, and also those who had arrived by air. Going back along the path past the aerodrome, we watched a line of small planes waiting to take off, and a helicopter about to rise. We were only too glad to have come by road, and to have the chance to see at close hand the vegetation, the streams, and the BIRDS we had just heard about. Yes, the boat guy told us about the keas who we would likely see up by the tunnel, and so we kept a look out. Great was our elation when two fat kea waddled out and past our van as we waited our turn to go through the tunnel. Such friendly birds, with green plumage and a red flash of feather under the back feathers.

Through the tunnel we went up to the highest part of this road, and then we slowly began the descent. This time a lot more cars were on the road, and we stopped as often as we could having more time to get back than we had in the morning. Not far from the tunnel we stopped to take pics, and hadn’t stepped out of the van when Helen exclaimed, “Oh, hello, look at you! Where did you come from?” She was talking to another kea who had wandered out of the bush by the van door and looked up curiously at us. I got out and took photos, and it posed nicely for the camera. Before long it was the centre of some excitement from the other cars in the area.

The sky lightened as we descended back towards Te Anau, and the mountains looked very different in the afternoon light, with no cloud obscuring their sharp shapes on the horizon. We had a cuppa in the van in a car park out of the slopes, and beside a flowing river. Then soon after, found ourselves on the home stretch for Te Anau. Very happy to get here and relax, and look at our photos, and feel thrilled with how the day had gone. I think they speak for our happiness.

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