After a detour around the south, the weather looked to have improved in the west again so it was time to head back to Fiordland. Another of New Zealand's ‘Great Walks’ and a second view of Milford Sound, hopefully in the sun this time, were on the agenda.
Milford Sound lies at the end of what must be the most beautiful route of the country. We had been driven out of this route after the Milford Track, but at that point we had to deal with low hanging clouds, a lot of rain and overpowering sleepiness. This time, the sun was out, the clouds were gone, and all we could see was mountains. It's the kind of scenery you can only drive through with music using deep drums and dramatic choirs in background.
We were on this magical road because of a kayaking trip Dina got as a gift. We had been waiting for good weather since our rainy retreat, and the day didn't disappoint: sunny skies and not too much wind in the early morning. To help us deal with the wet and lingering cold, the kayaking company got everyone in our group to dress up in colourful striped thermal wear, a rubber cover, and big jackets. Outwardly transformed into a homogenous group, we then learned how to behave as a group, by coming together into a raft of kayaks and listening to the guides whenever there was an emergency of special sight.
Thankfully, we didn't have any emergencies, but plenty of interesting sights. As if just kayaking in the fjord next to giant mountain walls wasn't enough, after only a short while our guide spotted dolphins in the distance. We paddled as fast as we could to get closer to the group we could see jumping in the distance. Slowly but surely we got closer, but the dolphins stopped showing themselves. At one point, we were all waiting, paddles suspended in mid-air, while around us the blow of a whole pod of dolphins floated in tiny clouds. Then they started moving around us again. From up close, the dolphins didn't look perfectly smooth, but quite rugged, with scars on their backs. When they passed underneath us we could see the speed they have in perspective: there was really no sense in trying to keep up with them once they had decided to leave.
After a few more hours of lake, penguins, and waterfalls, we made our way back to the start again, this time against the current in a wind that the guides described as ‘character building’. We were very happy to give them back our new drenched outfits to go and explore Milford Sound on our own.
After the kayak trip we were supposed to do a three day hike on the Routeburn track, which starts close to Milford Sound. We had been procrastinating on getting the final preparations done, namely booking transport, because it was quite expensive. Then we got an email informing us that part of the track was closed because of avalanche risk and that we would have to pay for a helicopter to carry us over that part. We decided that we would not see this as the cheapest scenic helicopter ride ever but instead as the most expensive hike in history, and took the free cancellation that was offered as an alternative. We could do a lot of the route as day hikes from the start and finish, and spend the money on some other experiences.
The first cancellation money was used on a boat trip on Milford Sound. This one took us further than the parts we had kayaked in, past some more sea lions and penguins, and out towards the Tasman Sea. That was only the beginning: the boat also let us off at the highlight of the trip, a floating underwater observatory. We could descend 10 meters under water to see animals that were tricked into thinking they were in the deep sea by a unique separation between fresh and salt water in that part of the Sound. There were starfish that feel no pain and tear themselves in half when they feel like procreating, a coral that grows like a delicate white tree, and fish that get so tired from swimming that they fall asleep everywhere. There were so many new colours that even the bright green and blue of the world above seemed a bit monotonous.
The next day we did the first part of the Routeburn track, from the side where we would normally have finished. This included a side trip to Key Summit, from where you can see 360 degrees of Fiordland mountains. We saw some great views, but one thing we did not see was a lot of snow. When we did the biggest part of the Routeburn walk a few days later, up to the first hut and beyond to the area that was blocked off, it was the most beautiful day we had seen in New Zealand. Clear blue skies and a cold wind to keep photographers happy and hikers cool. After our endurance training on the Milford training and then some time of rest, we stormed up the mountains without our backpacks.
At the top, there were only some remnants of snow in some corners, but the path was still closed. Some hikers that were waiting for the helicopter told us it would only be a one minute ride over the top. Smug about our decision to cancel that day, we turned around to go back, only to run into two DOC rangers who told us about a nice side walk. This one was a bit more challenging in terms of climbing, but we did end up having lunch with a view. From the rocks we climbed on we could see the whole valley. It looked like the four seasons in one day: from plains with yellowed grass below to snowy rocks via luscious green hills.
All in all, it was a triumphant return to Fiordland. Next up is our return to Queenstown, a reunion with Ana and Steve of Auckland and a 10k run on Lake Wakatipu.