Day 44 Milford Sound
The gales that we avoided up on the Kepler Track were no less violent down at tent-level overnight. The only bonus was that we were spared the snow (and thus the risk of me freezing to death in my unfit-for-purpose sleeping bag, and Ruth having to deliver a eulogy of very mixed emotions). However, it was still rough as old boots outside. The wind threatened to lift the tent off the ground so it was another pretty spartan night's sleep.
However, today feels like a 'free day' (I mean, given that we are on holiday), as we were supposed to be walking down a mountain 50 miles away, so we decide to head 60 miles up the road to Milford Sound. The wind has blown off, but there’s still a persistent drizzle, making the tent-dismantling a soggy business.
The road is a pretty one: following an unravelling river along the valley floor with mountains looming over our left shoulder and pine forests on our right.
We were told by the two folks chainsawing the tree yesterday that the Key Summit walk was a cracker and it's on our route up to Milford. It was buried under a glacier a million years ago, and now forms part of the Routeburn Track, so we can weakly bolster our Great Walk credentials if we trot up it. However, when we get there it is smothered in low cloud that we can practically touch if we stretch on our toes. Given that it's a lot of walking in trees before the 'rewarding view' at the top that is going to have a heavy grey filter on it (which we did enough of yesterday) the consensus is that we do 'Summit' else.
So we drive on for another hour or so. We enter the narrow but long Homer tunnel they carved out of a mountain in the 1950s which opened Milford Sound up to the wider world. It's like driving into the Batcave. The other side of the tunnel is breathtaking, sheer mountain faces rising up, and a winding road disappearing off into fiords beyond.
When we get to the end of the road late morning, it's raining for a change. The shoreline opens out to a sea bay framed by mountains and waterfalls in what must be a truly spectacular setting if you could see it through the mist.
Gratefully, we empty the car of banana skins and empty bags of nuts before their smell gets too evil and go into the cafe by the shipping port. There are cruises aplenty from here if you wanted to drift under waterfalls on a boat, but we'll settle for coffee and a radiator this morning. Given the amount of settlement around here (none), the cafe has liberally applied it's 'captive market' multiplier on the prices. However, after two days of virtually no creature comforts and spending nothing but years off the marriage, we grudgingly hand over a small fortune for two coffees and a pastry, and then hog the radiator by the window, sucking warmth from it like vampires.
This is an unoriginal declaration, but it's such a pretty place. Kipling apparently called it the 8th Wonder of the World and he'd been around a bit. We sip coffee watching waterfalls pour from the mist and coaches honk at each other in the car park. The Maori fished these waters for centuries before the Europeans found it, (named after Milford Haven by the Welsh captain who got here first) and it is still admirably unspoiled.
After pumping some warmth and caffeine back in, we walk around the shoreline towards the waterfalls (and pose for a self-timer photo which regrettably just misses Ruth tripping over her own feet and falling over me like Laurel and Hardy), before getting back into the car and heading back south.
Having not had any form of washing for 48 hours, unless you count the rain, I am itching (literally) to get to our B&B to jetwash myself under a hot shower. So when we drive past a chasm along the road back I am in no frame of mind to walk the 10 minutes down to it among horizontal rain and a bus load of tourists to peer into a dark wet hole. Ruth, however, is and duly toddles off leaning into the rain. After 20 minutes of trying to connect my phone up to the Bluetooth radio, Ruth returns to the car looking like she's been swimming. "Was it worth it?" I ask.
There are some waterfalls on the other side of the tunnel which we do pull over to have a look at. They also require a short walk, but the rain has eased from "complete saturation" to "lightly soaking" so we're only partially submerged by the time we get back to the car. Given the thunderous, cascading Bowen waterfall we've just seen from the Sound, these were pretty lacklustre. Nearby Mount Christina was supposed to be quite the backdrop as well, but typically we couldn't see anything beyond about 18 feet in the air because of the rain. We decide to throw in the towel (literally, into the back of the car after drying off) and head to our room for the night.
The drive back south to Te Anau is long and damp. The rain doesn't let up the whole journey and the car is like a steam room when we stop at a supermarket to get supplies for the evening.
Our lodgings tonight are a charming-looking wooden cabin in Manapouri, a small town about 12 miles from here. All I can think about is having a shower and sitting in front of a log burner with a beer. Manapouri is New Zealand's most westerly settlement, and right in the heart of fiordland. So not any drier, I guess I'm trying to say. To my great distress when we drive up a mud track the satnav isn't happy about, the place is a trekker's hostel, which was certainly not explicit to us on the website we booked it on. While we have both enjoyed time (and prices) in hostels before, I was really not in in the market for a communal bathroom tonight. However, it's too late to change now, the sun is getting low and we're both exhausted. Ruth is fairly matter-of-fact in her precis of the situation (the epithet 'fanny' makes an unwelcome return).
We walk up to be greeted by the Jaclyn and Warren who are a friendly pair living in a huge house on a hill with a terrace overlooking the mountains to the north east, and a hillside garden full of cabins to the south. Most of which have gently drifting smoke rising from the chimneys. It's actually a charming scene and the (cubicled) shower turns out to be piping hot and blissfully welcome.
Afterwards, having chopped up our own wood and loaded our log burner to the point it's roaring like a steam engine, we unpack the sopping tent to dry it out, and fall wearily asleep, in the most tranquil landscape we've been in for two nights.
After our best night's sleep for a while (and probably for the next three) we say our goodbyes to the hosts and drive out into the drizzle. Manapouri serves as a gateway for the many tourists who make their way to Doubtful Sound to the south, (which is inaccessible by road), so has plenty of activity on its nearby lake. We leave all this behind us though, on our way to Invercargill. Our destination tonight to New Zealand's 'third' island, Stewart Island, 20 miles over the sea from Bluff. It's supposed to be another beautiful forested landscape with pretty coasts and wildlife aplenty (we're keen to actually see a kiwi who have so far proved to be elusive). It also has another Great Walk, the Rakiura Track, which we're going to have a crack at. The weather, however, is not looking spectacular for it. We told Jaclyn this morning of our plans and she said, "Ooh, you're doing the Foveaux Strait? We call that ferry crossing the Washing Machine." Marvellous.
It's about 120 miles to Bluff, where the ferry port is, which we have booked at 5pm, so we have a leisurely day to get there. We head due south to the coast and a small 'town' (there are perhaps 50 houses here) called Orepuki, where we've been recommended a windswept cafe to have breakfast.
New Zealand sits in the so-called Roaring Forties. The islands sit south of the 40th latitude line, where no other landmasses lie aside from Tasmania and, of course, the southern tip of South America. With so little in the way, the southern winds howl around the globe and slam into the west coast of New Zealand, making this particular stretch of the country feel like a wind tunnel.
It is with considerable difficulty we open the door to the Orepuki Cafe. There is a fire blazing away, and aside from a hitch-hiker shivering next to it, we are the only customers. We have a lovely late breakfast in there, an abundance of poached eggs and ham, watching the hitch-hiker through the window, standing on the side of the road in the most unfavourable of conditions having little luck with what few cars are heading back to Te Anau (the nearest big town north of here). When someone does finally stop and pick her up, we cheer with the chef who's also come out to watch.
Full and warm, we leave and continue east. We pass a place called Monkey Island, which was an absolute swine to find aged 11 on the Amiga, but here is signposted and everything. We drive through picturesque towns and arthritically bent trees.
We also drive through Invecargill, which we are through before we've realised we're there. It's the biggest town we've seen since Christchurch, but it's gone in a few sets of traffic lights.
We end up in Bluff, erroneously called the most southerly point in the South Island (this is Slope Point, east of here).
It's early afternoon, and we still have a few hours to spare before the ferry so we load up on more nut-heavy supplies, and head out to Stirling Point. Stirling Point marks the end of the Te Araroa walk (which begins at Cape Reinga in the North Island). It is also the site of a military defence outpost from the World War, when New Zealand feared invasion, which we have a short walk around now. Man alive, it's windy.
At 5pm in the ferry terminal, when we have dumped our repacked bags in a bin by the sea, apparently to be loaded onto our catamaran, we are waiting for the boat. It is late, possibly because of the windy conditions out there on the sea. Our car is parked up for the next few days, so we are at the mercy of other people's transport schedules again.
The boat finally rocks up about 5:40, and deposits a very pale set of passengers into the port. We all load on, and the first thing we notice are the sick bags. There are more than one per person.
"Hi there, this is your captain speaking. Sorry we're a bit late this afternoon, but it's a bit splashy over in the strait there. We do have a bar at the back of the boat, but I would say unless you're particularly good on the sea, just leave her well alone today."
The next 50 minutes are an exercise in digestive and nautical terror. The captain was being pretty heavy on understatement when he said it was "splashy". The swell is 3 metres high - Pummelling down way above our little catamaran. The wind is driving rain in all directions, and we have snatches of clear moments through the windows before another vast wall of water smashes into the side, and it looks like we're under water. 'Washing Machine" is bang on. There are moments when we are teetering off the crest of a particularly aggressive wave where I amazed the boat doesn't snap in half. There is a queue outside the toilet for the duration of the crossing, and some people are actively hurling into their sick bags in their seats.
Ruth and I have never particularly suffered from seasickness, but damn if we don't get off in Oban harbour on with rubber legs and distinctly unsettled stomachs.
Oban is Stewart Island's biggest settlement (there are less than 400 people on the island and most of them are in this town) and it is a pretty, deserted harbour we walk around at the edge of an angry sky to get to the South Sea Hotel, our B&B for the night, which also serves as the island's pub, and by the look of it, social hub.
We check in and sit upstairs for a bit, letting the gut roller-coasters settle down before heading downstairs for a beer and pizza. The place has a cracking atmosphere, everyone must know everyone here, and as this pub is the only place open, it's packed to the rafters. We have a couple of Tuis, (the beer named after the native bird which sounds like R2D2) but as we have to walk 20 kilometres tomorrow, we have to have an early night, and we can't walk with a hangover. Regretfully, but warm and well fed, we head to bed.