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Baldwin to the Bay of Islands. The journey is the goal
Te Anau, New Zealand
Friday, Dec 31, 2004

Friday December 17th - Day 234

A cloudy, showery day spent driving the southern scenic route to Invercargill. It's a wild, rugged, exposed, wave lashed coastline.

We had a walk and our sandwiches at beautiful Nuggett Point, a lighthouse topped promontory that overlooks the only place on mainland NZ where fur seals, sea lions and elephant seals coexist.

An unsealed road then led us to Cannibal Beach, home to a breeding colony of the Hookers Sea Lion, and sat right in the middle of the beach was a 400kg male monster and his sleeping girlfriend. They're deceptively fast and have quite a bite, so we viewed from afar, with binoculars.

Back on the road we stayed on the southern scenic route all the way to Invercargill, where we found a dodgy looking motel to stay at.

Expenses - to follow

Saturday December 18th - Day 235
With a day of heavy wintry showers forecast (snow down to 600m) we decided to continue on to Te-Anau, the lakeside access town for Milford Sound.

It was another long drive as we followed the longer scenic route. Low cloud and snow covered the Takitimu Mountains before we brushed the edge of Lake Manapouri. We arrived in Te-Anau late afternoon, it was cold and raining with the mountains surrounding Te Anau shrouded in cloud.

At the visitors centre we learnt its best to just turn up at Milford and book a trip on the sound from there, and also that the weather forecast wasn't brilliant.

Expenses - to follow

Sunday December 19th - Day 236
The boats at Milford Sound run tours throughout the day from 9am to 4.30pm. It's a 2 hour drive to Milford and at last nights team meeting, it was decided that we should leave early, arriving in time to take the first boat if the weather was good, if not we were there in position to take advantage of any breaks.

The chances of having a clear day at Milford Sound are fairly remote as it recieves a staggering 6-7 metres of rainfall each year.

Our travel alarm jumped into life at 5.30am, we were allowing ourselves an extra half an hour because snow had been forecast for the Milford road last night.

I checked the weather outside, the mountains were still covered in cloud and it was windy, it wasn't looking too hopeful. Rene Van Winkle was refusing to budge, its tough at the best of times to extricate the human koala from her bed, but at 5.30am, with a cold room and Rene lying over an 'on low all night' electric blanket (dangerous but nice), my chances were slim.

Blatant lies about the outside weather did it in the end and by 6.15 we were on our way. The Milford road travels deep into the heart of Fiordland National Park, part of South West New Zealands 2.6 million hectare World Heritage Area and one of the great wilderness regions of the SOuthern Hemisphere. So we had a hunch it might be scenic.

The road runs along the edge of the once glacier filled Lake Te Anau, passing undulating farmland, mountain beech forest and Te Anau Downs, before entering Fiordland National PArk and the Eglinton Valley.

This beautiful valley has the Earl Mountains on one side and the Livingstone Mountains on the other, red beech is the dominant tree and native grasslands and wetlands fill the vally floor. Lake Gunn marked the end of Eglinton valley and the road turns and climbs towards the coast, following the Hollyford River between Mt.Christina and Mt. Charlton.

This is where things changed, having turned to the west the cloud dispersed and suddenly we were driving under blue skies, and hard though it is to imagine the scenery became even more dramatic and spectacular.

It's 7am and there's not a soul about and through narrow U shaped valleys, with incredibly steep and bare sides, rising to a snow covered 2000m, it feels as though the glaciers that ground their way through here have only just left. The scale is mind blowing and however far you lean forward with your face against the windscreen, looking up, you can't see the peaks. So we got out for a look.

Stunted silver beech, mountain ribbonwood, hebe and fuschia grow in this harsh climate on ground laid bare by frequent snow avalanches.

The road then rises towards the Homer tunnel which is preceeded by a staggeringly colossal natural amphitheatre formed by Mt.Talbot and Mt.Belle. The tunnel is named after Harry Homer who discovered the Homer Saddle in 1889. It's a rough hewn 1200m long, steep gradient, dripping black hole of a tunnel and more than a little claustrophobic.

On the Milford side we emerged back into the sunshine and the spectacular Cleddan Canyon. More mountain magnificence in every direction as the road descended into Milford Sound where silver beech, tree ferns, mosses and other ferns thrive in the wet conditions.

There's little accomodation at Milford Sound, a couple of backpacker lodges, one of which is solely for the use of trampers completing the four day Milford Track. There's also a small cafe/shop and the vast wharf visitors centre, where tours on the Sound are booked.

With the weather nigh on perfect, a breeze was rippling the water so the postcard scenes of a mirror like sound were out, we boarded the first boat out (there were at least half a dozen others) at 8.55am.

The Maori name for milford Sound is Piopiotahi, after the native thrush Piopio which is now thought to be extinct. Maori and their ancestors collected pounami (greenstone) from Anita Bay in the sound, but it was a sheltering from a storm Welsh sea captain, John Grono, who named the sound after his birth place, milford Haven. This is one of NZ's biggest tourist attractions and frankly it would be rude if it wasn't.

16km of fiord (in geographical terms its not a sound) leading out to the Tasman Sea and in places 265m deep. In all places though, its dominated by the towering, sheer, glacier scarified, weather worn peaks and cliffs that surround it ,in particular the 1692m high, Milford Sound icon that is stunning Mitre Peak.

On the lower slopes of many of the peaks, red, silver and mountain beech cling precariously to the rock, only keeping a grip by intertwining root systems. Tree avalanches are common after heavy rain, leaving great vertical scars on the landscape.

The deluge of rain that cascades into the sound creates an amazing natural phenomenon, with the freshwater forming a permanent layer on the sea surface. Because of the washed down material and nutruents in the fresh water, its kind of tea coloured and acts as a sunblock, replicating deep ocean conditions and allowing deep ocean species to thrive only metres below the surface.

Towards the mouth of the sound it turns direction and narrows, and once out in the Tasman Sea its hard to tell theres any entrance. Captain Cook missed it twice.

A stiff and cold headwind escorted us back through the sound, as did at one point a couple of dolphins, surfing through the bow wave. We also passed close sun basking seals and 100m high water falls.

Once again though, its the landscape that stays with you after you've left Milford Sound. Seismic shifted, glacier hewn, geographic wonderments as far as the eye can see, and today looking their absolute best.

Chilled to the bone, it took about an hour in the car to thaw, and it was mid afternoon by the time we arrived back in cloudy Te Anau.

Expenses to follow

Monday December 20th - Day 237
Having decided to spend Christmas in Kaikoura, we thought it best to start driving in that general direction. So we did.

More snow had fallen on the peaks overnight and the Eyre Mountain Range looked magnificent as we scooted around them on our way to Queenstown. The last 45km of this road follows the edge of lovely Lake Wakatipu from kingston to Queenstown, with James Peak on one side and Mt Dick on the other.

Roads already travelled took us through Cromwell and on to Omarama. before turning off toward tiny Twizel.

At Lake Pukaki, we stopped briefly to photgraph a slightly hazy and distant Mt Cook.

This area of expansive high ground is known as Mackenzie Country after the legendary (in these parts) James 'Jack' Mackenzie who stole sheep and wandered them round up here. Back in 1843 the region was uninhabited, but after he was eventually caught other settlers eralised its potential and followed in his rustling footsteps.

Passing through the small, sleepy towns of Fairlie and Geraldine we weer soon crossing the vast Cantebury Plain heading for Christchurch.

Afte the almost deserted roads we'd been experiencing, it was quite a shock when we joined Highway 1, and we realised why there had been 40 car crash deaths so far in December.

Single lane roads, with the odd double lane overtaking stretch, and impatient people driving right up the arse of the car in front is a recipe for a pile up and as the death toll show there's plenty of them.

Every day, the news on the radio has reports of an horrific accident, although the headlines for the last couple of days are all about the shark attacks in Australia. A man was taken by a shark on the Great Barrier Reef, a week or so ago and now an 18 year old, who was on a surfboard being towed by a speedbaot was attacked and ripped apart by two Great Whites off the coast of Adelaide. An horrific story, and as in the film 'Jaws', there is now a flotilla of vessels out trying to catch the sharks, despite a heart wrenching plea from the boys parents to leave them be.

Before we reached Christchurch we turned off Highway 1, back on to a quiet twisty scenic road that took us to pretty Akaroa, sat on the dep inlet that is Akaroa Harbour amidst the undulating, volcanic eruption formed, green hills of the Banks Peninsual.

As the weather has been unseasonaly cold we've kept moving in South Island like a pair of Texans doing Europe and including todays 8.5 hour drive we've clocked up 3,338km in 10 days.