Te Anau, NZ

Day 3

When we spent a few days in Franz Josef waiting out rain, there was a big group of chaperoned high school students staying in the backpackers accommodation with us. Each morning, they would all appear in the kitchen for breakfast, and when finished and cleaned up, they’d be nudged by their chaperones to find a seat on the big tour bus waiting for them, and go off to see whatever was on the list that day. I remember wistfully watching them load in one morning, thinking how nice it would be to not have to worry about weather or about riding a bicycle for hours, and not need to do a single bit of planning. Just settle into a warm comfortable seat, amongst your friends, and go wherever someone else has already decided.

A broad glacial valley where again the border between grassland and forest is starkly defined.

Well today, we would be replicating their mode of tourism! Milford Sound is the end of the “Sounds To Sounds” bikepacking route, with “end” being non-reversibly important: it’s almost never treated as the start. It sure would be fun to finish your ride with a 3000-foot descent to the Milford Sound over the last 11 miles, but then you’re stuck needing to go back up. It’s certainly possible to ride the really steep climb, fighting all the tour buses for space on the narrow twisting road, but in practice most people arrange some sort of transport. With barely anywhere to stay down on the water, and the closest campground 25 miles away, that would be a huge in-and-out ride, leaving little time or energy to enjoy it. So we have a 15-passenger bus scheduled to drive us from Te Anau, deliver us to a ~2 hour boat ride, and then return us to Te Anau, with plenty of stops in between.

MIrror Ponds, with some dumb ducks messing up what would have been some nearly-perfect mountain-mirrors.

Our bus picked us up from our campground, but racing to get all our shit together for the 8am departure meant we still weren’t as stress-free as those high-schoolers were! Our driver/guide, Stephen, was an experienced bike tourer himself (two bike-friendly bus drivers in a row!), so his particular interest in us, plus our front-seat location, plus me being more interested in asking questions than anyone else seemed to be, led to us being the the sort-of-celebrities of the group. That isn’t abnormal itself (our lifestyle makes us pretty unique even among fellow travelers), what’s abnormal is that it still happened with Rett being unusually subdued as our vocal promoter!

There was a small parking area (with this view) where the bus stopped for a tea/coffee (plus buttered scones!) break. There was a young Dutch couple there having a quiet breakfast out of the back of their van…until we all descended on their spot. Normally Rett and I would have been the ones sighing and rolling our eyes at this crowd of idiots invading “our space”, but in this case we were the invaders!! And to their credit, the Dutch couple was far more receptive and welcoming than we would have been!
Our bus at another photo stop. At least it’s not a big one!!
A close-up of that glacier in the previous bus photo.

Even before we got to the Homer Tunnel (the high point before the plunge), the drive was pretty spectacular, with the valleys both narrowing and deepening the further we went. While we had good views out of the bus windows, it was precisely the environment where the “no roof” setup of a bicycle seat would have been the ideal form of transport to open up the angles.

Waiting at the Homer Tunnel entrance, which like many of New Zealand’s bridges, is also one-way, controlled by lights at each end. Not a bad spot to be stuck at a traffic light.
Inside the Homer Tunnel. The highway department monitors the entrances with cameras, and supposedly will look out for cyclists, but there would have been enough room to pull off to the side if opposite-direction traffic came through sooner than you could ride through (up a 10% grade!)
Some other glacier-covered mountain (who can even keep track at this point!)

We descended the twisting road now through the even-sharper Darran Mountains, and at the bottom our guide dropped us at our tour boat, and handed out our packed lunches. As usual, everyone was commenting on how “lucky” we were to have such a clear sunny day at the Sound (it rains 200 days a year here, accumulating to more than 20 feet a year!) But at least in our case, it wasn’t luck, it was “hey, Sunday looks like the one sunny day, let’s book a tour to Milford Sound!” (and thankfully the 3-5 day forecasts seem quite accurate and stable around here). I’d talked to some people who did the tour during yesterday’s more-rainy day, and they said the clouds and fog made it incredible, but I’m gonna call that cope! Especially since we also had the benefit of more fresh snow-dusting on the high peaks from that weather (which our guide said was super-rare at this time of year).

Milford Sound, dominated here by Mitre Peak, and our tour boat.
Bowen Falls, a thundering surprise almost immediately after the boat left the dock. The big trees at the bottom give some perspective of the 531 ft. height.
Planes and boats everywhere on Milford Sound!
Stirling Falls is a little shorter (“only” 495 ft.) but drops more-directly straight into the sea (twin-masted ship for scale).
Some seasonal waterfalls and some crazy rock-climbers (look straight up from their yellow raft near the water line to find them).
Our captain pulled us directly up to the vertical wall under the falls, warning those up front that they would get wet!
Two waterfalls dropping yesterday’s rain onto us and Milford Sound.
A side-view of Mitre Peak, exploding 5551 ft. straight out of the sea (tour boat for scale).
A shy fur seal naps on the rocks.
Another angle of Stirling Falls leaving one U-shaped glacial valley for a second, much-larger, perpendicular U-shaped glacial valley.
Stirling Falls, with another boat for scale.
The view back up Milford Sound.
A pretty nice place to kayak.
Mount Pembroke and the remains of the glacier that once filled these valleys from here all the way up to there with solid ice.
One of several massive “tree slides”. This one (or two) happened just a couple years ago. Seeing the slick rock that the trees had somehow been growing on, it’s not shocking that they can catastrophically tumble down. Once again the scale of this place is so incomprehensible, I need to state that the top of the white stripe on the right is about 2000 feet above the water!
Hey, we’re on a boat in Milford Sound!
A version of the above photo without us mucking up nature’s work.
Back to the base of Bowen Falls. The amazing forest coating these mountains almost goes unnoticed at these scales, so here’s a way to highlight it.
Mitre Peak set in Milford Sound.
Mitre Peak. A few weeks ago when we were near Mount Cook, I wondered how rare it was to have such a tall mountain (12,000 ft) so close to the ocean (~15 miles). Some guy came up with a formula to rank such mountains, and while Mount Cook didn’t rank especially high, the worldwide winner (by a longshot) was Mitre Peak, and here we are to see it!

Three members of our group decided to take a helicopter flight (including a brief glacier landing, but not an actual glacier hike like we did on Fox Glacier) after we got off the boat, and while we drove back up the road in the bus, they were flying along and then we reconvened at a side-of-the-road helicopter landing site. Kind of a cool arrangement, and while they surely had the better trip, being stuck to the ground here isn’t bad either!

While waiting for the helicopter, Rett spotted this kea (intelligent, mischievous alpine parrot), so it was awesome to check that off our list as a side-effect. Especially since we didn’t have to worry about it poking and pulling all the stuff on our bikes!
Not a bad spot to wait for a helicopter to land.
Most of our tour crew either posing like The Fellowship of the Ring for me, or watching the helicopter land.
I think they would have gotten that ring to Mordor a lot faster and with fewer casualties if she had been part of the Fellowship.

Our final (and longest) stop was a short hike through the woods to Marian Falls, a gusher of white rapids. The forest was actually the highlight, perhaps even better than our forest hike up the Routeburn Track from Glenorchy had been (the other end of the Routeburn is near hear on this side of the mountains).

Fancy forest Rett.
Our guide encouraged us to fill water bottles here; seems like pretty non-stagnant water!
More Fancy Forest Rett.
Galadriel somehow making salmon grow out of a tree.
Nearly every tree in the forest looked like this, or even bigger and mossier and complexer.

Even though we were driven around the entire day, and our “hiking” was minimal, we were both surprisingly tired by the end of it. Maybe bike touring is easier after all! Without stops, our drive from Te Anau would have been nearly two hours each way, and from Queenstown, it’s 4 to 5 hours! Spending more than twice the time that we did sitting on a bus (far more Milford Sound visitors come from Queenstown than Te Anau) made me really understand where all the hare-brained schemes to cut the distance (monorail, tunnel from Glenorchy, etc.) come from! That would suck! The only thing you have time to stop for along the way is toilet breaks! We definitely made the right call to come to Te Anau, even if it took us two whole days to get here from Queenstown.


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