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Travels through the Fiordland: A story of crazy, dumb luck (part 1) | We're Not There Yet

It’s true that New Zealand is a very beautiful, even spectacular country.  But it’s also very, very expensive, and it’s not really the best place to do a bicycle trip.  To give you a sense of why it’s so nice to do a bicycle tour, if it hasn’t already become clear through M’s posts on this blog, the benefits are that you get to see the small towns that you’d never get to see otherwise, and riding a loaded bike starts all kinds of really wonderful conversations that often bloom into friendships.

Nope, this is not Disneyland. This is Naseby, New Zealand- a tiny town literally at the end of the road

The problem in New Zealand is that, generally speaking, there’s nothing particularly unique about the small towns.  They’re just small towns, at least as expensive as every other place we visit.  Moreover, there are just so many touring cyclists in New Zealand.  I think that if there’s anything about us that’s special, it’s that we’re not German touring cyclists (since most of the cyclists seem to be).  So it’s not as if we ride into a town and people stop to chat with us.  It’s more like we ride into a town and the locals say “you can lean your bikes up over there, next to the other touring cyclists.”

And, without beating this point too hard, since it’s not really fair to make the comparison, suffice it to say that, while beautiful, New Zealand is not really any more impressive that California or Canada.  In other words, we flew halfway around the world to see sites we could see at home, and to a culture that is largely the same as in any English-speaking Western country.

This is all to say that, after only a month, we’re starting to get a bit run down on cycling New Zealand.  Maybe it’s just overall fatigue, but we’re not really having the experience that I think we’d both hoped for, and we’re paying triple the price for what we are getting.  So it was with that sense of disappointment that M and I kind of blurted out to each other, just a few days ago, “let’s just get the hell out of New Zealand already.”  So we made plans to wrap up our travels as soon as we get back from our upcoming 3-day Routeburn trek.

With that perspective in mind, we set out to enjoying the time that we had left.  And enjoying the time left meant seeing the one thing that New Zealand has that truly is awe-inspiring and not to be found anywhere else: the majestic Fiordland.

With just two days left on our 4-day car rental, we headed from the extreme southern tip of New Zealand (I like to think that, for a brief minute, I was the southernmost Buckeye fan in the world), which is in the windy- insanely windy- Catlins.

The end of the line

We headed west along the coast, reaching New Zealand’s southernmost city, Invercargill.  Now the thing to point out is that, as beautiful as New Zealand is, and as pretty as the South Island can be, it is forever at the mercy of nasty weather which whips across the island like a petulant child.  Cold winds come up from Antarctica, and when they hit the Southern Alps, which is basically Fiordland, they shade loads of cold, driving rain.  In fact, it rains 250 days per year in Fiordland, and it snows in every month of the year.  Weather forecasts are more like educated guesses.  The problem here is that you have a heavily-touristed area where tours, trips, flights and all manner of outdoor activities must be booked days or weeks, if not months, in advance, but there are absolutely no guarantees that the weather will cooperate.  Forgive me if this sounds like a digression, it’s more like I’m arranging my pieces on the board so as to explain more fully what came next.

As we headed into Invercargill, we worried about our plans to kayak the world famous Milford Sound the next morning at 6 am, a trip that had been very expensive, but which we’d been told was well worth it.  Well, by the time we reached the information center a cold, nasty rain was whipping down.  We stopped in to ask for a weather forecast and were assured that the nasty weather would continue all throughout the next 2 days.

We drove off, miserably, into Fiordland Park, following a road that is described by Lonely Planet as follows:

If you don’t have the opportunity to hike into Fiordland’s wilderness, the 119km road from Te Anau to Milford is the most easily accessible taste of its vastness and beauty. Even if you don’t do a cruise at the other end, this is a top road trip for sheer scenic wonder – it’s the kind of scenery that makes cars swerve wildly off the road as driver’s reach for their cameras.

We couldn’t see a thing. It was just mist and fog, everywhere.  We stopped at a campground where we were forced to sleep inside the car because the freezing cold rain wouldn’t let up enough for us to set up our tent.  Unfortunately, we ended up shut in the car with a 3-liter box of cheap, cheap wine, and can barely recall how the night ended.

Suffice to say that when our cellphone went off at 4:30 AM and we set off in the dark to finish the final part of the drive to Milford Sound, we were more concerned with pounding headaches than with noticing that the incessant pitter patter of rain on the car had seemed to stop.

When we arrived at Milford Sound, which is nothing more than a boat terminus at the end of the Milford highway (for cruise ships that go out into the sound) we were nearly dumb with fatigue and boxed-wine hangovers.  We didn’t notice until the sun came up that the rainclouds had gone.

Atmospheric clouds, but no rain!

What followed was, according to our guide, one of the best days of weather that she’d ever experienced in 5 years of leading kayaking tours on the sound.  Not only was it warm and sunny, the wind was down (30 foot swells are common in the sound, even on nice days), and there were still tons of waterfalls. We kayaked all the way from the beach to the open ocean, taking about 5 hours to do it. Along the way we paddled under a waterfall (terrifying M), spotted a baby seal colony, and stopped for many, many photo ops. We made it to the ocean in over double the time it took a sight-seeing boat to go there and back. But we saw it all up close (a little too close, in terms of the waterfall) and had a lot more time to enjoy the sound and no other annoying tourists to block our shots.

Getting started

Meeting the locals

See that little boat way int he backgorund? That is a double-decker tourist ship. Just to give you a sense of how massive tihs place is.

Now would be a good time to explain what Fiordland is. A fjord is a glacier-carved canyon that is at least partly filled with water.  So what happened in Fiordland is that there was this huge shelf on granite and then glaciers just ripped out these immensely deep grooves, which then filled with water.  So what you’re seeing below are not mountains, they’re just cliffs.  There is no real tectonic activity that causes mountains, just glaciers gouging the rock.

8 miles of paddling out to the sea

The problem with these photos is the scale.  What you’re seeing is immense.  A sea cliff that drops 1,000 meters almost completely vertically (the second tallest sea cliff in the world).  There’s a cute little waterfall that looks nice until you’re told that it’s over three times taller than Niagara Falls.  The cliffs are over 1 km over your head, and the water is still well over 300 meters deep. It’s just…incredible and beautiful.

Out to sea