The day the world did not end – Milford Sound

Waiting in Te Anau

Waiting in Te Anau

On the 21st of December 2012, precisely on the day the Mayans predicted the world would end, we walked off our accommodation in Te Anau, Southern New Zealand, at 7 am in the morning to find a completely desolate town. It was a beautiful, crisp morning but there was no one in sight. For a moment, we could not help but wonder: was my sweet little daughter right? She insisted we should not be in a remote mountainous location in Southern New Zealand on that day because if the world truly came to a stand still we would have no way to connect with the rest of the inhabitants of this doomed planet and it will be impossible to get back to Australia? No way, the Mayan apocalypse was just the dawn of an era for them, it had nothing to do with the rest of us. And yet there were no cars, no noises, no life.

We were supposed to be picked up by the local bus to drive us to Milford Sound at 7 am. It was 7.15 and the bus was nowhere to be seen. We looked at each other in disbelief. 7.20 – nothing. Ok, now, this is too creepy. 7.25 and in the distance an object is moving. It slowly approaches us, and yes, it does look like our transport.

Phwww, the world as we know it seems to keep on turning (more or less).

A smiley man in his fifties, white hair, white moustache, big blue eyes, harsh skin gets off the driver´s seat, comes towards us, shakes our hand and I say, ¨I thought you´d forgotten us¨, to which he replies, ¨nahhh¨. He smiles, asks us to jump on board and starts driving at what seemed to be a vertiginous speed. Well, we thought,  if the Mayans did not put an end to us, this lovely New Zealander very well might.

Robert drove through 119 kms of some of the most stunning scenery I have seen in this country, and possibly in the entire planet. The landscape in the Fiordland National Park intensifies as you get closer to the legendary Homer Tunnel and steep mountain faces covered with thick vegetation edge the road. Sadly, we did not have enough time to savour the  unspoiled landscape of this precious World Heritage Area – Robert had a goal in mind, and that was to get us to Milford Sound before all the tourist buses from Queenstown arrived, but we did appreciate the majestic beauty of the Mirror Lake:

Mirror Lakes, New Zealand

and the superb, organic elegance of the peaks around us:

From Te Anau to Milford Sound

From Te Anau to Milford Sound

until reaching the Homer Tunel, the 1.2km long road tunnel opened in 1954 to link Milford Sound to Te Anau and Queenstown. This unforgetable experience suddenly emerges before you, a simple dug out hole leading  onto a single-lane road that runs for 1270 m in near complete darkness. Not the place for someone who suffers from claustrophobia.
Clearing snow at the Homer Tunnel

But believe me, driving through the Homer tunel is worth the trauma. As soon as you leave the guts of the Darran mountain range, you regain your breath and open your eyes, the  Cleddau river valley surprises you with impossibly vertical peaks drizzled with capricious, vanishing waterfalls.

Day 283 // Hairpin

milford sound 2

The rest can barely be justly described with words, images do a much better job but still fall short.

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Milford Sound

Milford Sound

The outstanding job that mother nature did in Milford Sound does not need any further recommendations. Every single second you spend in this privileged part of the world will have you jaw-dropping. But apart from the natural sceenery, there was one other thing that stood up for us in Milford Sound – the people.

Robert got us to the passenger terminal in time for our Milford boat experience. He helped us with our backpacks, and chatted to us about his life as a fisherman and his many trips to the other well-known Sound, the Doubtful Sound (but that´s another story I need to tell). We fell somewhat sad leaving this ruggedly sweet southerner behind but walked into the terminal to get our tickets sorted out. And then, the magic of the Milford community began unfolding. A lovely Malaysian young man helped us with everything and in no time, we were ready to jump on board. We talked to him and asked him about living in the sound, what life  was like here, in such a remote part of the world, where there is barely any Internet and mobile phone connectivity. He explained he had been here for nearly four years and loved every single minute of it and that what made it such a remarkable place to be was its beauty but above all else, its community – the Milford Sound community of young travellers that choose to remain isolated from the rest of us and enjoy each other, the visitors and nature for a few years of their lives.

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After navigating through the waters of the sound for three hours we made our way to theMilford Sound lodge and there, the magic continued. We were greeted by a smiley swedish young man who sorted all our accomodations details very merrily and efficiently and, in finding out we were from Barcelona he mentioned that two of the lodge´s employees were also from the peninsula. After having a rest in our room, we went back to the reception only to find Paco and Nicolás, two very helpful, jovial spaniards. They explained they had been in Milford for quite a number of seasons already and that even if they chose to move elsewhere, they always seemed to find their way back to this outstanding place. And somehow, and despite the aparent loneliness of this remote spot in this remote country, we understood what they meant.

Milford offers to these young travellers a perfect combination of a stress-free, simple life; a privileged work environment; contact with people from around the world who arrive to the Sound every day happy to be there; a community that choses to leave everything behind and experience what this far-flung, untarnished world has to offer; and above all, a superb display by mother nature when they open their eyes every single day.

Milford Sound Lodge Pano

Size does not matter in New Zealand

No, size did not seem to matter to the lovely New Zealanders we came across in our last visit to this majestic country. Don´t get me wrong, I´m all for getting rid of restrictions of any sort but let´s face it, when we are talking distances (both  horizontal and vertical), size (or length or height) does become an important factor and should indeed be taken into account.

But that doesn´t seem to be the case in New  Zealand. When you walk into any of the many information centres strategically located in the tourist  hot spots and you try asking the very helpful members of staff to give you an indication of the level of difficulty of this or that hike, bike ride, mountain climb, excursion – whatever physical activity you are planning for the day – you´ll most probably be met with a ¨no worries, that´s easy, we did it the other day and it was fine!¨ or ¨nahhh, you don´t need a map, mate, it´s well indicated¨. And so you are on your merry way full of confidence thinking that a mountain that starts its ascend after the second row of houses of a town like Queenstown cannot be too difficult to climb. You are well prepared, fancy mountain boots on, a couple of bottles of water to carry you all the way, sunblock, energy bars, sandwiches, apples and pears. And off you go.

You do notice that you are walking on possibly one of the steepest inclines you have ever walked as soon as you lose sight of  the lake (2o metres after leaving the information office) but that doesn´t face you, because you are full of energy and trust in the expert at the counter who just told you that this was a walk in the park. But somehow, 10 minutes in and you can no longer find the extremely well signalled path. Funny, it´s hard to miss those plastic orange triangles placed on a tree every now and then! Ah! You think you are back on track and start climbing on what seems to be a vertical cliff, grabbing on tree roots and thinking that if the whole walk is going to be like this, you best turn back right now and start figuring out some alternative way to make your life difficult. You get yourself out of that muddle, find the track and begin to climb.

Well, that was our first hour. By the time we got to the first and only rest place/water fountain, my husband was internally combusting, some sort of vapour exuding from his clothes. Bizarre. But, it´s all good. We are pumped, we are in New Zealand and Ben Lomond peak will not resist us.  The ascend begins again, we continue through a dark, misty (and of course steep , as steep as they come) forest. Still pumped because it is peaceful and extremely beautiful, exactly what we wanted. The fancy mountain boots start to hurt a little but that´s fine too.  We finally come to a clearing and continue our journey uphill, always uphill, without being able to see where the heck we are going because of the thick fog. We can´t see where Ben Lomond is, we can´t see the spectacular colours of Lake Wakatipu either. The fog is omnipresent. But that´s fine too.

So, we stopped probably about 40 metres from the peak and made the decision to give up.

Yes, we gave up, I publicly admit it (I could have not said anything and the whole world will think we made it to the top). While we were in the middle of nowhere trying to come to terms with our situation, a young topless specimen walked (at a very fast pace) past us, greeted us condescendingly and continued his speedy journey.  We saw him later running down the mountain. That´s when we realised that it´s all a matter of perspective, really. For the locals, this is indeed, a walk in the park, your average Sunday family excursion.And so, to cut a long story short. After four hours walk amidst the fog, we get to the saddle. A lovely American traveller shares the fact that it doesn´t get any better from here on. Naahhh, it can´t be that bad, after all, it was meant to be an easy walk! Well, my friends, our American climber was absolutely right. It did get a lot worse, and frustratingly dangerous. We wanted to make it badly. I wanted to make it badly, I´m very competitive with myself. But after nearly five hours climbing non-stop, reality hit me – this is not an easy walk, you are not prepared for this, you just had a tuna sandwich on the thickest loaf of bread you could find, which is making you extremely thirsty and almost have no water left (smart move), but most importantly, you have no clue how much more there is to climb in this rocky, dangerous terrain.

We went to the same ladies in the information office later during our trip to get details on the Queenstown hill walk and we were told exactly the same, ¨easy as¨! Well, I challenge any of you to do just the first 100 metres of that walk!  Or try the supposedly easy bike ride from Queenstown to Arrowtown, 25 kms away, a lovely ride on tortuous gravel paths meandering along rivers and some of the worst hills ever seen, so impossible I couldn´t even push the bike on foot.

But you know what? It´s all worth it, the blisters, the thirst, the sweat and the pain because it truly is one of the most stunning destinations you could wish for. And you know what´s best? Despite the seemingly different perspectives in life, when you cross paths with a New Zealander, he or she will look you in the eyes and will make a conscious effort to ask you : Hello, how are you? And if time permits, there will be more questions, more interest, more conversation, and a hand shake. I do love that about New Zealand.