How can I describe the day? Magical, I guess. You know how it begins, dismal & grumpy, and then everything turns upside right!
The day was cold and rainy. Clouds covered the mountain peaks and hung low in the valleys. Snow was predicted in the high altitudes, and we had a long bus ride (180 miles one way took us from 7 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.) to look forward to, just to arrive at our destination: Milford Sound. And there was no guarantee we wouldn’t be turned back the last hour or so of our journey because of the weather. Vehicles were advised to carry chains. Some of our group opted out… but I’m so glad we persevered.
The six hour bus ride may seem daunting to you, but Yvonne and our bus driver, Stuart, kept us entertained with information on the geology, flora and fauna, history, farming all along the way. I dutifully took notes all the way, but too copious to write about here. We had several pit stops, plus a morning tea stop, and a sight-seeing stop to see The Chasm, a waterfall over a cliff, I guess. I started out, crossed two waterfalls, but the rain and clouds chased me back to the bus. Besides by then, I had seen a thousand waterfalls. There were too many waterfalls dropping from the mountains alongside the road to count! After the rains yesterday, these were temporary waterfalls. Come dry season, we wouldn’t have been able to see such spectacular views.
We drove by fields covered with farm-raised deer, cattle and sheep (there are 35 million sheep here, but only 4.5 million people!). We learned about Manuka honey and glow worms, both of which the post-trip group will see, but we won’t because we will be coming home. (I wonder if we can extend?) We learned the silver-leaf fern is the national emblem and saw it growing. We entered the National Forest Park, dark and dense with tall trees, cone-bearing hardwoods. We discovered there are no native mammals to NZ except the long-tailed bat. And the national bird, the kiwi, burrows underground. That eucalyptus has a narcotic effect, which is why koalas sleep so much!
Then we came to The Divide, that imaginary line separating the island like our Continental Divide. We crossed one-lane bridges and went through a one-lane tunnel that took over fifty years to construct. We passed the 45th parallel – South, of course. Had to get a photo, because each summer we pass the 45th parallel North on our way to Bay View. Twisting through switchbacks, we entered avalanche territory, and saw evidence of a tree avalanche, but snow and rock avalanches also occur in their seasons. Climbing up and up, we saw snow fields or small glaciers waiting for spring to reach them. But the mountain tops were still shrouded in clouds.
Then we arrived at Milford Sound and boarded our boat for our two-hour cruise. The Sound is actually a fjord, and as we cruised we thought it might look very much like Norway, only here in NZ the trees and brush grow right down to the water.
We were served a box lunch right away, and we shoved off. There was a naturalist guide on board who narrated the sights as we sailed past: disappearing waterfalls, misty waterfalls, towering mountains with names like The Mitre, rocks tinted green from the copper in them, or water which ran yellow and tan from the tannic acid from leaves and roots along the streams (like Tahquamenon Falls, as Michigan people know). We saw fur seals andFjordland yellow-crested penguins who mate for life. And we sailed down the entire fjord right into the Tasman Sea.
After the cruise, our return bus ride was equally pleasant. Yvonne taught us two NZ songs: the national anthem, “God Defend New Zealand”, and a Maori love song every NZer knows, Po-kare-kare Ana. Then she played two operatic arias sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the first Maori opera great. Oh my, how it affected me. Passing under these soaring mountains and cascading cataracts, with a lone hawk gliding on the wind currents, I felt small and insignificant and the beautiful music washed over me, and then I remembered, God knows every hair on my head, and I wept. And then! Right then, the sun came out and the mountains shone, each peak covered with fresh snow, wearing their white caps like crystalline crowns. Breath-taking.
To finish our ride home, Yvonne showed a NZ movie to us, “The Whale Rider”, about a young Maori girl and her traditional grandfather. Excellent, but thanks to Yvonne’s pre-screening tips, we could really enjoy it. I’d love to share it with you when we get home. There’s a method to Yvonne – you see, we’ll be heading to visit Maori country in a couple of days, so she’s preparing us for the experience.
But TOMORROW: We head to Arrowtown, the center of the gold rush days, and a wine/chocolate tasting at a NZ winery.