Crossing from Queenstown to Fiordland
Milford Sound is about 70 km northwest of Queenstown. To get around (and through) the intervening mountains, however, takes you about 290 km, crossing over the 45th parallel (halfway from the equator to the south pole) twice. Our all-day tour began around 7:00 as our driver, Dion, drove south along Lake Wakatipu, past The Remarkables mountains and into hilly, mostly-dry farmland similar to that around Ellensburg. Then we turned west.
Among the more interesting commentary was Dion’s history of New Zealand deer farming. It all started when the Europeans introduced deer to a place with no natural predators.
After herds expanded to the point of damaging farms, government programs encouraged entrepreneurs to begin deer farming. That prompted lots of experimentation using helicopters to capture wild deer. “Cowboys of the air” earned reputations for risk-taking as they flew through difficult terrain.
They tried shooting tranquilizers from the air, but those often killed the deer. Then they shifted dropping nets on the deer and partners to secure the nets, before hauling the deer away. Getting up and down could be exciting.
Things calmed down once the focus turned to maintaining deer populations. Now about 3.5M deer are farm-raised, many in this part of the country.
We got as far west as Te Anau, which sits on a large lake of the same name. High clouds blocked views of the mountains further west. Te Anau provides the base for virtually everyone entering Fiordland, NZ’s largest national park. Fiordland is a UNESCO world heritage area, like the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon.
From here, we turned back north into evergreen Beech forest. The oldest native trees have been here for 1000 years.
Going north, we re-crossed the 45th parallel in a wide, flat valley with taller mountains in the distance, a bit like Montana’s Flathead Valley. The cloudy sky cut down on the view we saw in Mirror Lakes, whose clear, calm water provide sharp reflections. Imagine two images of a blue sky and white clouds.
Entering the deep and narrow Hollyford Valley reminded us of Yosemite, only Hollyford is more narrow and winding. “Hanging valleys” come in from each side, but stop above the valley floor.
Eventually, you run into an enormous wall of rock. The 1270 meter long Homer Tunnel is the only way to Milford Sound on the wet side of the mountains. The valley is so steep that you can see mountains through the bus’ skylight.
The initial drive from the tunnel felt like driving down around the inside of a huge bowl.
On the way down, we stopped at the Chasm for an example of a rainforest stream carving through the mountain. In a creative solution to slippery footing in a rain-soaked area, chicken wire covers footbridges.
The abundant rainfall on this side of the mountains supports lush vegetation, including many tree ferns.
While there, we spotted a Kea, an alpine parrot about a foot tall. Unique to the South Island, they’re called “monkeys with wings” because of their mischievous character.
We’re happy not to be driving, so we can enjoy the scenery, especially when the road narrows to 1 1/2 lanes. Unfortunately, one-car tourist accidents are common.
The end of the road was literally Milford Sound.