After we uploaded the last post, we packed up in Riverton and had a leisurely drive to Te Anau. We stopped for coffee a couple of times on the way – we’re really enjoying cooking for ourselves, and it’s much cheaper doing it that way, so we’re not eating meals out generally, but we decided we wouldn’t buy coffee for the van and we’ll just stop for coffee somewhere nice when Chris wants one! So we stopped for coffee and a piece of cake on the way, and eventually got to Te Anau, and wandered up and down the lakefront looking for the Milford Sound tour operators. We booked a tour for the next day, leaving at 9.45 a.m. – we wanted to get on an early one, as we’d read in our Lonely Planet that all the big tour buses arrive for the midday boats. It’s funny, we’re having a lovely time pootling around independently in our camper, and so are lots of other people, and we get chatting to people at campsites or on hiking trails or even in supermarket car parks when we see we’re both loading our camper vans, and you feel as though everyone who’s travelling is travelling like this. But actually, there’s a huge tourist industry running alongside that with busloads of people on organised tours, and every now and then you run into one somewhere, and it does dilute the experience a bit to be suddenly sharing it with another 100 people rather than another 2 or 3!
Anyway, from Te Anau we started driving along the road to Milford Sound, which is about a 2 and a half hour drive – we decided we’d take it easy, stop wherever we wanted, and pick a campsite when we felt like it. We stopped at a few different viewpoints, and the Mirror Lakes which have amazing reflections of the mountains behind them. In the end we made it nearly to the last campsite along the road, a DOC site at Cascade Creek, which was amazing – it felt very isolated, even though there were a few other vehicles there the sites were so spread out, in the darkness we could easily believe we were on our own. And it’s SO dark, with no light pollution anywhere!
It started raining during the night – we’ve had mostly beautiful weather so far, all sunny days, but by the time we woke up it was chucking it down. We got out our hiking boots and waterproofs, and drove the last hour to Milford Sound – just the most stunning drive we’ve ever done, it was a really tight, narrow, steep road in places, and with the most incredible waterfalls everywhere. We found out later that 90% of the waterfalls only appear when it rains, and dry up again within hours of the rain stopping, so in fact we were really lucky to have such a wet day! The road winds through the valley with high mountains on each side, each side with hundreds of rivers of water cascading down them. In some places, the water falls partway down and then gets caught by the wind and turned to spray before it gets close to the ground. In other places, it runs all the way to the valley, and sometimes four or five streams meet and create a huge rolling river by the time it’s near the road. Just absolutely amazing. Chris did a sterling job of concentrating on the road, even while enjoying the stunning scenery! We drove through a 1km tunnel in the rock, which was amazing, the inside is just hewn from the rock, no neat and tidy concrete job there, and it really makes you appreciate what a huge feat it was to cut the tunnel. Before that, the only way into Milford was to walk. We met a few people who’d walked in – it’s one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, a 3-day walk staying at DOC huts along the trail.
We arrived at the dock and it was still raining hard, so we just resigned ourselves to getting wet – by the time we’d walked from the car park to the boat terminal, we were soaked! We waited about 15 minutes and got on the boat with about 30 other people – amazing to be in such a small group, and it was a small boat, but very comfortable – soft seats and heaters and free tea and coffee! We got chatting to a group sitting near us, a young crowd from Christchurch who’d just walked the track and were doing a boat trip before they got picked up to be driven back to town. As we cruised down the Sound, the guide gave a running commentary on how the waterfalls are formed, how much it rains, how the Sound was discovered, the walking tracks, the first settlers, the tunnel, the road, the trees, the avalanches – really interesting stuff, I was really glad we’d done the trip with commentary and not just the ‘scenic cruise’, which was the other option.
We went out on the front deck in the rain to get a closer view of the waterfalls as we cruised out of the harbour, and we spent most of the 2 ½ hour cruise popping in and out – we couldn’t take the cameras outside for too long, as the spray from the waterfalls combined with the rain made it very wet! We saw dolphins – I spotted them first, which I was very proud about! – and they swam next to the boat for a few minutes, which was wonderful. We saw seals on the rocks, who totally ignored us. The boat went right up under the biggest waterfalls, so we could stand on deck under the spray and get totally soaked and look up to see the water cascading down from the cliffs, being caught by the wind and fanning out in all directions. It was absolutely amazing – we both loved the whole thing, it’s such a beautiful place and really like nowhere else I’ve ever been, and I think we really saw it at its best by having such a rainy day!
On the way back the boat stopped and let us off at the underwater observatory, which was very interesting (they also had a huge fan heater that more or less dried us off in minutes!) We got picked up again and taken the last 15 minutes back to the terminal by another boat, and when we got back, it was heaving – there must have been 500 people there, waiting for their boats, and more arriving all the time – we were SO glad we’d got in early! We walked back to our van, closed the curtains and put on dry clothes right there in the car park, and then made a huge pile of ham sandwiches and sat and had lunch.
From Milford, we had a slow drive back along the beautiful road to Te Anau – stopped for coffee by the lake there – then started driving towards Queenstown, thinking we’d stop when we got sick of driving, but actually we made it to Queenstown just before dark and went to find a campsite there. Being in the middle of town, it was horribly expensive and totally unwelcoming – signs everywhere saying ‘Guests only, if you use these facilities you will be prosecuted’, and codes on all the doors to the loos and everything, and a TV lounge like a doctor’s waiting room, and a kitchen like a school canteen! We decided to have a night off cooking, so just made our bed, locked the van and walked into town.
Queenstown is nothing like I remember it – it’s like a huge, wealthy ski resort, which I suppose is what it is, really! Lots of designer shops and expensive wine bars. We had a wander round town and had a drink in a nice place with roaring fires, and then found our way to a restaurant I’d spotted in the Lonely Planet – we don’t usually bother with restaurant recommendations and that sort of thing, but Queenstown seemed like the sort of place it would make sense. We were really glad we did – it was down a little backstreet and we’d never have spotted it ourselves, a place called The Cow in an old cowshed, that just serves pizza and pasta. We cosied up in a candlelit wooden booth near a big fireplace, and ordered pretty much everything on the menu – we shared salad and garlic bread, had a different pasta each, and then shared a dessert (only one dessert, today’s was ice cream sundae) and everything was absolutely delicious, the garlic bread was a huge home-baked loaf on a breadboard with a huge pat of garlic butter, the salad was simple and perfect, we had a lovely bottle of Otago pinot noir – fantastic meal.
This morning we made the most of the lovely hot showers, then headed off for a drive around Arrowtown – a lovely old town, historically preserved as it was during the 1880s gold rush, lots of lovely old buildings. We spent an informative hour wandering around the old Chinese settlement there, reading all the display boards about how the Chinese gold miners lived. Took a quick walk down to the river but decided it was a bit cold to try panning for gold (seriously, you can hire pans from town!) We carried on towards Wanaka, and saw a turn-off for the Crown Range Road, so took that – it was a stunning road, the highest sealed road in NZ, apparently! Our TomTom clocked it at 1070 metres. We took it slowly – lots of tight turns! – and stopped a couple of times to take photos, and wandered into Wanaka just after lunchtime. We parked up by the lake and made some lunch, then carried on down the road to ‘Puzzling World.’
Brilliant place – it was a giant maze, which we spent an hour running around, we found all four corners but spent so long trying to find our way out again that I got bored and gave up, and scuttled out of an emergency exit! Then a hall of optical illusions – a room full of holograms, another of faces that follow you around the room, an ‘Ames room’ that looks from one corner as though you’re a giant, and from the other as though you’re a Hobbit, a ‘tilted room’ where everything looks a bit squiffy – we loved wandering around, and I think Chris would happily have stayed in the cafe all day, as they had different puzzles out on all the tables that he was dying to figure out!
We headed off eventually, though, and went to the Toy and Transport Museum, which was a hell of an experience! It’s basically a demonstration of the power of hoarding – it’s one man’s collection, which I suppose has snowballed as other people happen upon it and donate other things, but it’s just incredible – there are three aircraft hangars absolutely stuffed with old cars, planes, fire engines, trucks, buses, tanks, motorbikes – then hanging from the rafters above them are bicycles, hang gliders, scooters, trikes – then arranged on the walls are collections of hubcaps, oil cans, boat engines, steering wheels, lawnmowers – it is truly mind-boggling the things this guy has collected!
Inside, there are hundreds of display cases with Barbies, Matchbox cars, model trains, Sylvanian families, Lego, Star Wars memorabilia, Smurfs, teddy bears, dolls, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys – seriously, huge numbers of all sorts of random things! We came across a lady who was putting together a display of Sylvanians, making trees by spray-painting pinecones, and chipping off bits of slate to pave the road in front of the hotel – absolutely amazing details, and what a fun job! I said to Chris later that I bet she’s a volunteer!
We eventually left there at 5pm when they closed, and drove up the road a while to a DOC campsite at Boundary Creek, at the top of Lake Wanaka. We had a few minutes of light left, so walked down to the lake and enjoyed the view from there before coming back to shut ourselves into our little van! It’s quite cold tonight, so we’re now in here with the curtains shut, keeping in the heat from cooking supper while we have a couple of glasses of wine and catch up on the last couple of days’ events – I’m writing while Chris sorts through photos. We’ve got no Internet connection here as there’s no mobile signal, so we’ll upload this next time we’re somewhere with signal!