Blessed to be a witness

Wednesday, 7th September

Sound as a pound

Before I begin, I must first say "Ow," and then follow it up with "ow ow ow ow ow ow" and furthermore "OW!" I hurt all over. The skiing left me mostly unbruised, but physically wrecked. My body is having a go at me: "you rarely take me out to do anything, so now you have done I'm going to punish you so you do it more often." None of my leg muscles work, parts of them are knotted and strained, and my back is in bits, with my sciatic nerve being bullied by my spine. Dammit. Now I'm thankful that I'm driving an automatic. Anyway -

Milford Sound is one of the wonders of the natural world. A fiord (that's 'fjord', spelled without the help of Norwegians) in Fiordland, it's amazingly isolated, ridiculously deep, surrounded by mountains, with unspoiled flora and, due to the tannin in the water, a unique marine fauna. It's also a must-see in New Zealand, so we had to see it.

Milford village only exists for the tourism industry, and because it's in a huge national park, there's only one place to stay. We left Queenstown for Milford, and we arrived in Te Anau, the nearest real civilisation to Milford, being two hours' drive south of the place. I booked a boat tour of the Sound for 9.30 the next morning, and I called the Milford hostel to book a room. Alas, it was only 1 pm, and the hostel desk didn't open until after 2, so we set off north into the wilderness, resolving to call as soon as it opened.

We drove up into indigenous beechwood forest, up and down gentle slopes, into a glacial valley covered in grasslands, ringed with mountains, that looked like it should have herds of brontosaurus grazing on it. When 2 pm came, I called the number. No signal. I have no idea why I thought there'd be any mobile phone coverage in the middle of bloody nowhere, but I did, so urbanised have I become. We stopped at the last accommodation before nothingness. "Hi," I said to the lady doing the gardening. "Is there any mobile phone coverage near here?" I asked. "No," she cheerily replied. "OK, never mind. Is there a payphone then?" "No," she smiled. "Ah. Can we get a coffee?" "No," she grinned. "Not much help, am I?" she said as she waved us off.

In the absence of any communications, we resolved to continue all the way to Milford, as it is off-season and ir wouldn't surely be booked out. After about an hour and a quarter of driving through primordial forests, dodging dead possums (when the Maoris arrived 1,000 years ago, there were only two species of mammal in New Zealand, both being a species of bat. Subsequent settlers have introduced many nuisance mammals that cause havoc, particularly with native ground-dwelling birds. These species include rabbits, rats, cats, and worst of all possums, which have now multiplied to a population estimated to be more than 70 million in strength. Thus I didn't mourn when I saw one squashed on the road), I eventually saw a sign for a payphone. I called the hostel. No rooms.


We drove the hour-and-a-half back to Te Anau, from a glacial valley covered in grasslands, ringed with mountains, that looked like it should have herds of brontosaurus grazing on it, up and down gentle slopes, into indigenous beechwood forest, into the town and got a place in a hostel where we met an English investment banker with whom we played a few games of pool in the nearest bar.

The next morning we got up very early indeed, and headed back into indigenous beechwood forest, up and down gentle slopes, into a glacial valley covered in grasslands, ringed with mountains, that looked like it should have herds of brontosaurus grazing on it. Then up into the mountains and even more prehistoric looking forests, into clouds, past avalanche warning signs, then through a very scary tunnel under a mountain with water dripping through it, and finally down into Milford.

The boat was a big catamaran with free tea and coffee, not that this was particularly relevant to the scenery, but served to make me happier, having been driving for quite a little while. We set out into the sound and passed deep glacier-gut gorges pissing with waterfalls - it rains a hell of a lot here, and most of the rain doesn't accumulate anywhere. It just flows off the sides of the mountains. Sometimes it stops, if it hasn't rained for a few days, but most of the time it keeps on gushing.

If the clouds hadn't been so low, we'd have seen a lot more, including Mitre Peak, the tallest mountain to rise from the sea floor (though I suspect that's hyperbole, as I've heard that most of the islands of Hawaii are seafloor mountain volcanoes taller than Everest), which in Maori language has a much more colourful name: 'Thrusting Manhood'. In the mists we entered the outlet to the Tasman Sea, next stop Australia, four days hence, bobbed about a bit on a large oceanic swell, then went back, saying hello to a seal and a couple of penguins on the way.

The area is prone to earthquakes, and occasionally one of them shakes swathes of rock from the cliffside, that fallen thousands of metres into the sea. We saw a few of these landslides from recent years, which are being slowly regrown, the flora illustrating the astonishing tenacity of plants, and New Zealand ones in particular: first lichen, then moss. Then grasses grow on the moss-root, then ferns and shrub cling to the mulch, and finally trees come back. It takes about a century for the bare rock to return to being tree-covered - and bear in mind that many of these cliffs are up to 85º from the horizontal. Quite an achievement.

It was a pain in the butt to get here, largely due to our incompetence, but worth it. Better weather would certainly have meant a better experience, but it was great nonetheless. And of course it was to here that my grandfather walked when he did the Milford Track. If I'd had more time I would have done that too, but it takes four days. I'm glad we were here anyway.

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