9th Sept 2007:
Before coming to New Zealand I kept hearing from the Aussies that New Zealand is "so pretty". So, as an investigation, I decided I'd go on a sight seeing trip to the most famous place around these parts: Milford Sound.
The most common way used to get to Milford Sound from Queentown is to use one of the many tour bus operators. Its such a popular option that I nearly booked it without investigating alternatives first. Thankfully I happened to ask one of the hostel staff for her opinion and her quick answer instantly put me off: "its ten hours by bus" was all she had to say.
So, instead, this morning I made my way to the airport, jumped in a small 4-seater airplane and flew there. I was joined by two Chinese girls and our pilot for the day was a local girl, "Terry".
I had never been in such a small plane before and when Terry asked who wanted to ride in her co-pilot's seat I jumped straight in. I found it all fascinating: I had the head set on and was listening to the chatter between the tower and the pilot while watching her prime the engine and start taxiing along the grass towards the runway. Within minutes we were given the go ahead from the tower and shortly afterwards we had lift-off.
Small planes are very exposed to winds, I found out. Our flight path also took us over a mountain range and we had a lot of turbulence from up-drafts. The plane was bouncing around the pace and the engine kept sounding like it was struggling with the wildly changing air patterns: it was great :) One of the other passengers wasn't so impressed and had to make use of the sick bag, but I found it fab. Only problem was that it finished so quickly: 25 minutes after taking off we landed at Milford Sound. The flying option is 50 NZD more expensive per leg than the bus option, but for me 25 minutes v 5 hours made the extra cost well worth it.
Shortly after landing we jumped on a ferry and started taking a look at Milford Sound itself. A "sound", it seems is a flooded valley which is caused by erosion (e.g. by a river). Milford Sound though, despite its name, is actually a "fjord" as it was created by glaciers. The result does, in fairness, look specular with mile high snow capped mountains towering over smooth blue water below, into which flowed numerous crashing waterfalls.
The captain of the boat gave a running commentary of what made the place different from everywhere else. What stuck with me from his descriptions was that the walls of the fjord are too narrow to support soil and yet the walls are lined with a Beech tree forest. It seems moss can stick to the rocks and the trees can in turn cling to the moss. The downside of this growth approach is that the trees are linked: if one tree gets knocked over, the tress below don't have a solid enough root support to hold the falling tree and so the trees below also fall creating a "tree avalanche". The area also gets phenomenal rain fall with upto 24 inches a day and 7-9 metres of the stuff every year: all that rain makes the rocks slippy, which makes it harder for the moss to stick to it which makes tree avalanches quite common. It was a dry day when I was there though, so no timber action was visible.
The waterfalls are also quite impressive: "Spencer Falls", for example, is over 140 metres tall which apparently is higher than Niagra Falls. The captain maneuvered the boat right in front of the bigger falls and we could get a nice cool shower in amongst the rainbows if we wanted (given the freezing conditions, surprisingly enough there weren't any takers).
Also along the way we spotted penguins and seals. Apparently there can also be dolphins which ride the bow way in front of the boats but sadly they weren't there today.
A round trip around the fjord took about two hours and once we returned to the dock, Terry collected us and flew us back to Queenstown.
Overall it was a nice morning and was worth going to. Would it be worth 10 hours in a bus? I don't know... Maybe I'm just used to seeing pretty landscapes in Ireland. Nevertheless, well worth visiting if you have the chance.