Our first port of call was the DOC office in Te Anau to check the status of the Milford Road. During winter the road is a designated avalanche zone, this means that the road can be closed or have certain restrictions such as a requirement to carry snow-chains. As the weather was forecast for rain there was a possibility that the avalanche probability level would be upgraded. Luckily the notice pinned to the door of the visitors centre said, 'Avalanche risk: Low', with no restrictions. We would have had to try and hire snow-chains otherwise.
The drive up the Milford road is well worth making in it's own right. It carries you deep into the heart of Fiordland through a landscape that changes from farmland to forest to mountain. Along the way are several scenic stops and lookouts. We stopped at Mirror Lakes, which because of the inclement weather were not very mirror like. On a clear day they must be lovely. Also by the road are beautiful creeks and rivers running with a deep turquoise water. The Homer Tunnel digs straight through the rock. It's a scary dark rough hewn worm hole of a tunnel. Gemma felt quite exhilarated driving through it. On either side of the tunnel is the avalanche zone. No stopping signs are posted everywhere.
Some way after the tunnel we stopped at the Chasm. A short walk from a car park leads through the forest. The trees are covered in thick, almost luminous, green moss. As we walked we heard a terrible thunderous noise. For a moment I almost imagined an avalanche somewhere nearby. Rounding a corner brought us to the source of the thunder. The Cleddau River runs here and a vast volume of water is forced through the narrow chasm. Soft areas of stone have been eroded from the large boulders leaving odd scooped out shapes.
In a couple of the car parks we saw our first Keas. The Kea is the worlds only alpine parrot. They are a fairly drab parrot, being an olive green colour, but inquisitive and with a reputation for being 'cheeky'. Although signs abounded imploring one against feeding the birds, people were still laying out bread for them. There are good reasons not to feed them, and luring them into photograph range is not a good reason to counteract them.
After 120km of driving through such lovely scenery we arrived at Milford and were disappointed to see a thick low lying cloud hanging over the sound. After a coffee we decided that as we'd come this far we may as well do a boat trip on the sound anyway. When we booked our ticket the bloke assured us that the boat would be so close to the walls of the sound that the mist wouldn't matter. Rain is an almost ever present feature of Fiordland. Milford Sound gets in the region of seven metres of rain annually. There are several companies operating out of the 'visitors centre', which may as well be renamed 'booking hall', although there are a few informational displays on the walls. We chose to go with Red Boat Cruises (www.redboats.co.nz) for no good reason. We were glad that we did because the wind made the journey slightly choppy in places the fact that we were on a stable catamaran style boat helped.
The cruise on the misnamed sound (it's a fiord not a sound) blew us away. We were glad we had rain as it made the cruise that much more spectacular. Milford Sound is bordered by the sheer faces of mountains and when it rains water cascades down these in massive waterfalls. Because of the wind some of these were stopped midway and blown back up and away from the rock. The boat manoeuvred close to the edges and almost under some of the falls. One waterfall ran down a vast rent in the rock. The captain informed us that this was actually a fault-line in the earth's crust. At one point Gemma and I standing on the lower outside deck saw a seal flip lazily out and back into the water. Apparently penguins and dolphins are fairly common sights although not for us unfortunately. The scenery of the fiord more than made up for it though. It was majestic and wild and a more superstitious person than I am might proclaim they saw the hand of God in its making. Gemma was moved almost to tears by how awesome it all was. She later described it as the most beautiful place she has ever been. It's a shame the photographs we took can't come close to accurately representing the reality of the place.
The cruise also presented some opportunities for laughing in amongst all the jaw dropping scenery. There was an older Australian woman with a shower cap over her woolly hat which tickled us somewhat. And the Asian family scurrying round for photographs. Where most people were taking photos of the fiord and mountains, the father was scurrying around trying to get his kids in front of every feature. He was up and down the stairs between decks looking harassed and even panicky, as if he couldn't decide where to position his two boys next. Constant shouts rang out. His running about lasted literally the whole trip and gave us no end of amusement.
We had booked to be dropped off at the underwater observatory, but the wind meant that they had closed so we had to get a refund. The fiords in the region have certain peculiar characteristics which allow the growth, near to the surface, of several deep water species such as black coral. The almost constant rain running off the mountains creates a layer of freshwater on top of the seawater. Because freshwater is less dense than seawater it forms a thick layer rather than mixing. The sides of the mountains are heavily forested and leech tannins into this freshwater layer meaning that sunlight cannot permeate. Deep water species can therefore live much closer to the surface.
Because the rain was getting worse and time was getting on we decided to drive back to Te Anau and the same caravan park that we had stayed in the previous night. The woman at reception asked the guy in front of us whether he wanted a site with a view, to which he pointed at the sheets of rain falling down outside and chuckled. She didn't ask us.