Thursday, March 1, 2012

Journey to Jurassic Park

Seals dozing on a rock in Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. At right is Elaine Ireland, who accompanied me on the overnight cruise.

No radio, no television, no internet and no telephone communication. Welcome to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park, south-west New Zealand. For the suburbanite seeking the ultimate escape, the chasms of this majestic fiord have it all: remoteness, astonishing scenery and superlative comfort aboard the Milford Mariner.
This cruise ship, like its sister vessel, Milford Wanderer, was designed along the lines of the traditional trading scow, and offers overnight cruises to a maximum of 60 people between September and May. Passengers embark at 3.30pm in the first and last months of the cruising season, and at 4.30pm in the intervening months. Disembarkations are between 9.15 and 9.30 the next morning.
With the exception of the sand flies, which form an attentive reception committee in the carpark of the Milford Sound Information Center, there is nothing to detract from what Real Journeys' brochures describe as a once-in-a-lifetime experience — a cliched statement that doesn't allow for the strong probability that many tourists will want to repeat their adventure. Indeed, I came away wondering why I had ever wanted to holiday anywhere else.
I chose to ignore an article in the Southland Times, which warned of dangerous conditions on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound and advised motorists to make the trip by coach. I did, however, decide to allow nearly four hours for a journey that normally takes a little more than two hours, and set off from Te Anau about 12.15pm. I also left with a full tank of gas, as there are no service stations on the route.
Our first stop was at Mirror Lakes, 58 kilometres into the journey up the Eglington Valley, where one senses something of the primordial mystique of Fiordland National Park. From a wooden walkway and a series of viewing platforms, tourists survey expanses of perfectly reflective water — provided the light is right — and inscrutable beds of reeds. A "What's out there" information board has been helpfully provided, in case the birds prove coy.
I didn't find the drive unduly difficult, although I was a little worried by the two stretches of road in which there is only one lane. In such situations, one dreads meeting a bus coming in the opposite direction. There is no room to maneuver, as the mountainside rises almost vertically on the left of the road, and falls away on the right into a valley of dark, dense native vegetation. Here and there, one catches flashes of a silvery river through the tree ferns and podocarps.
Our next stop was on the far side of the bumpy, 1270-metre Homer Tunnel, so named because the Homer Saddle, through which it passes, was discovered by William Homer and George Barber in 1889. Here, on an expansive layby, surrounded by misty mountains, we encountered a solitary scavenging kea — a mountain parrot that is noted for its inquisitive, mischievous behavior. In a flagrant violation of the rules, some giggling tourists were feeding it with biscuits and bread. (If you must feed these native birds, give them dates.)
My other worry, posed by the problem of what to do with our car during the overnight cruise, was dispelled on our arrival at the cruise terminal in Milford Sound. After 3.30pm, I was told, you can park outside the terminal building, in a bay vacated by a day-tour bus. I thus had no hesitation in leaving most of our luggage in the car and boarding the Milford Mariner with only an overnight bag.
As we trooped aboard, the crew seemed genuinely pleased to see us — almost as though we were the first group of people to take the cruise. Obediently, we assembled in the dining room, to be told what not to do during the next 17 hours. A capital offence is leaving your bathroom door open while having a shower, allowing a lot of steam to escape, and setting off the ship's alarm system.
We then collected our cabin keys and went in search of our accommodation: in each case, a small, neat room with immaculate ensuite. I wondered, though, how those of ample girth would be able to stand at the washbasin and close the door behind them.
Because it was cold, I turned up the heater, lay back on the bed, and looked forward to a cosy, comfortable evening. But I hadn't counted on the captivating scenery, which swept past my window as the cruise began.
Within minutes, I was back on deck, camera in hand, awestruck by the sheer rock walls that rise from the depths of the sound to as high as 1700 metres. Every crack, every ledge is colonized by a fern or shrub, while every ravine is crammed with competing trees.
A few days earlier, there had been torrential rain, and the crest of every precipice spouted innumerable waterfalls. Some were mere trickles, looking like icy spider veins from a distance; others were thunderous cascades that drenches us with spray as we passed almost underneath them. No wonder Rudyard Kipling described Milford as the eighth wonder of the world.
To ensure the experience was unforgettable, the captain nudged the Mariner's bow to within metres of the rock face, placing it directly under the 146-metre Stirling Falls, as tourists either scuttled for cover or risked their expensive photographic gear to record the occasion.
The Stirling Falls, named after a Captain Stirling, are roughly three times the height of the Niagara Falls, which have a height of between 50 and 53 metres (and less if you count the height of the rocks at the base).
After our drenching, we were off again, past seven fur seals, lounging like enormous slugs on a slab of stone, and a few black-backed gulls waiting patiently on rocks for the next incautious mollusc to emerge from its hiding place.
Tourists with sharp eyes spotted some bottle-nosed dolphins, and those who didn't were informed of the creatures' presence by the running commentary over the ship's public address system.
According to the Small Town Travel Guide, Milford Sound's rainfall of seven metres a year is second only to that of the mountains of Tahiti. But our day, though misty, was dry, and the Milford Mariner was able to put down its tender craft after anchoring in sheltered Harrison Cove. In this motorboat and a small fleet of kayaks, some of the more intrepid souls were able to take a closer look at the shoreline — and work up an appitite for the sumptuous buffet dinner.
Far from the cares of the world, filled with fine food, and loosened by liquor, people quickly shed their inhibitions. Complete strangers chatted like lifelong friends, and one woman provided impromptu entertainment to a passing boat by baring her bottom, amid shrieks of laughter from her fellow diners. Those in the other boat were so fascinated by the spectacle, they circled us for a second look. Just what the elderly Japanese tourists thought of it, I have no idea.
That night, my daughter and indefatigable travel companion, Elaine, slept as soundly as her inoperative cellphone. I awoke early to a steely dawn, dressed quietly and climbed up to the top deck to savor the stillness and silence. The latter was broken only by the hum of the ship's generator and, from the lower slopes of mist-shrouded mountains, the faint sounds of the dawn chorus as the bush came to life.
If the podocarps had parted and tyrannosaurus rex had come crashing to the shoreline of Harrison Cove, I wouldn't have been surprised. The millennia had melted away, and I was in Jurassic Park — in a primeval world that I left, reluctantly, for the trivial chatter of breakfasting tourists in the dining room below.
Soon we would be ashore again, putting luggage into the trunk of a car, and heading towards Te Anau. The rest of our holiday would be an anticlimax.

Elaine Ireland on the deck of the Milford Mariner.

Outside the Homer Tunnel, on the mountain pass that leads to Milford Sound.

Article written in January, 2006