Our reason for coming to Te Anau was to take the day excursion to Milford Sound. We could have happily driven ourselves and taken a cruise as we did when we visited with Pat and Laura Ryan at the end of 2007. However, when Majella was arranging our accommodation with Birchwood Cottages they had suggested that they could arrange a guided excursion with cruise included with an attractive group discount. We could have opted for a private tour but decided that 10 of us would be sufficient to overwhelm any others who might join the same tour.
As we discovered today, our accommodation and Fiordland Tours, with whom we travelled to Milford Sound, are both operated by the same couple, Ray and Leonie Horrell. Ray dropped by our cottage last night to brief us about departure time (8:00 am) and some other details. At that time there were to be 2 other passengers travelling with us but by this morning somebody else had pulled out and they had been transferred to the other bus operating that day. Our tour had become a de facto private tour with Ray as our driver and guide.
We were ready for a prompt departure at 8:00 am. the weather was overcast but the forecast suggested that might improve by the time we reached Milford sound. Ray regaled us with ‘tall tales and true’ most of the way to Milford Sound and a good part of the way back though he did take a rest and allow Elvis to entertain us for part of the way home to Te Anau. He was an informative guide and entertaining host and obviously enjoyed having an Australian audience to tease.
First stop was at Te Anau Downs where Ray was to collect the freshly baked date scones for our morning tea. Our host, Tania, also offered coffee and Ray had dubbed her the Afghan Queen for the afghans that she makes with cornflakes adding the crunch. Ray had thought that our early start might break his record for reaching that first stop by a minute or two but we cleared it by 5 minutes leaving a mark that will be hard to beat while staying within the law.
Our next stop was a short photo opportunity on the Eglinton River flats, a little way beyond the point where we departed from the Te Anau lake shore. We grabbed our photos of the scenery and Ray kindly offered to take group photos with various cameras we were carrying.
Next stop was the Mirror Lakes – oxbow lakes formed by the meandering river and sheltered so they provide a reflective surface under most conditions. We parked and walked through the board walk pausing for photos at various points. There were some good reflections but without the lupins that were there on our previous visit with Pat and Laura there was not so much colour.
From there we drove on. pausing briefly at Knobs Flat, past Lake Gunn (brief pause for photos) and Lake Fergus, and on toward Marian Cascade on the Hollyford Road. We drove by the look out because the view was obscured by cloud and headed down the gravel road where we parked and walked up to the cascade. Access from carpark to cascades was via suspension bridge across another creek. As we crossed, the bridge developed a sway and made some of our party look and feel like the legendary drunken sailors. Beyond the bridge Ray was able to point out glow worms hanging on their threads in a dark depression on the side of the track. He had a new Samsung phone and had not downloaded the torch app but we had one and were able to assist. The cascade was a torrent fed by glacial melt with some addition from the recent rain. It roared impressively down its rocky channel.
Morning tea was a little further down that side road at Gunn’s Camp. It had originally been built for the workers on the Milford Road and the side road that had been planned to link up with the road from Haast. The latter was long since abandoned but Davey Gunn had bought the camp when the government resumed his grazing lease and had converted it for use as tourist accommodation. The buildings and facilities are basic but walkers would probably find them luxurious after a few days in the bush. The date scones went down well with instant coffee. A few of us ventured a short way into the bush to see the big kahikatea tree which is reputed to be about 1000 years old.
After morning tea we headed back up the track to the main road and on through the Homer tunnel and down the hill toward Milford Sound. We paused at the Chasm to take the 5 minute walk on the path through the bush to view another mighty torrent rushing down the hill.
We reached Milford Sound, still shrouded in cloud but with signs of some lifting, in good time for our cruise. Ray collected and distributed our passes and we boarded. Some chose to sit in the main cabin out of the weather but a few hardier souls opted for the top deck which had some shelter but was mostly in the open with great all round views. By the time we got up there the outside seats were taken but there were some in the sheltered area so we grabbed those and distributed lunch to those of us upstairs before taking the balance down for those inside.
Our cruise went first to the deep water area used by the fishing fleet and then out along the southern side of the sound, actually a fiord (both are backfilled by sea but V-shaped sounds are carved by rivers and U-shaped fiords are carved by glaciers), and back along the northern side. The cruise lasted about 2 hours and took us past waterfalls and fur seals on both sides of the fiord, out to the mouth where the ocean swell soon encouraged us to turn back, and back to the harbour. The cruise boats nose right up to the cliffs at waterfalls and, depending on wind conditions, the spray drenches most of the passengers who are at all exposed. There were intermittent showers and occasionally the clouds seemed to be lifting but were still there, though a little higher, when we returned to shore. The benefit of the rain was that we saw many more waterfalls than might be there on a finer day. The skipper commented at some stage that Milford Sound has rain on 360 days per year and between 7 and 14 metres of rain each year. We’d have been lucky to score one of 5 fine days and were lucky to have had a few mm of rain rather than bucket loads. Regardless of weather it was a memorable experience.
On the way back we stopped briefly at the car park on the inland side of the Homer tunnel to see some Keas that frequent the area. We had seen a couple across the road as we came up this morning but by afternoon there were several of them sitting on cars or on the ground in the car park and, in some cases, accepting fruit from tourists. There were plenty of opportunities for photographs. On close up observation we noticed that they were more colourful than we had thought with orange shades under the wings. I wasn’t able to capture the full effect of that but there is a little patch in this image.
Because Ray had picked up an extra job conveying tourists from a broken down bus back to Queenstown we hustled back to Te Anau from there, pausing only briefly at Te Anau Downs to drop off the container from the morning tea scones. By that time the weather had improved considerably, at least on our side of the range, and some of us were beginning to feel a little warm.
Ray dropped us back at Birchwood Cottages where we paused briefly before heading down town to find dinner. We settled on La Toscana which offered pasta and pizza with a variety of unusual topping combinations. Dinner seemed to meet with universal approval across the group and we returned to our accommodation to settle in for the night.