New Zealand: Milford Sound

Dave and I are picked up at our hotel early, early in the morning by the good people of Rosco’s Milford Sound Kayaks. After a long and very scenic drive to the coast, we’re off to explore the fiords by kayak. The kayaking group consists of me, Dave, and an entire school of teenagers from Colorado. They put us in thermal underwear covered bright horizontal stripes. We look like decoys from the Where’s Waldo books. They put us in purple jackets, purple kayak skirts, and purple life jackets. This doesn’t improve the look. We dance around a great deal in an attempt to get away from the sandflies*. Dave and I are sealed into our yellow, two person kayak and pushed out into the sea.

Dave and I have never kayaked before. Sea kayaks are very stable, and since we’re basically on an inlet, the water is very calm. But in the back of my mind, I’m always aware of the fact that should the kayak capsize, we’ll both need to (a) keep our wits about us, (b) locate the pull tab on the kayak skirt, (c) wriggle out of the kayak, and (d) get to the surface. All of this will have to happen in water that they tell us is about 9°C. (At the time, I just know this is cold. Now, with the benefit of a calculator, I know is 48°F.) I know Dave is going to have additional trouble with (c), as I watched him cram his long legs in the cockpit, and I suspect that extraction is going to require four strong guides and a shoehorn. My working assumption is that a capsize of any kind is going to result in the immediate death of one or both of us. Which would probably spoil our holiday.

As we start out (with extreme caution, due to my absolute terror of capsizing), we both realize instantly that we are in a bit of trouble. Apparently, paddling a kayak requires that one use one’s arm, shoulder, back, and abdominal muscles, and we don’t happen to have any. (And I thought I packed everything.) At least we’re in a two person kayak, so that we are literally “in the same boat”. If I’m tired and he has a spurt of energy, he can do the paddling. If he’s tired and I have a spurt of energy, I can do the paddling. Thanks to that, and thanks to the fact that I’m much more efficient at steering the kayak than the 12-16 year olds in the other kayaks (shocker!), we manage to muddle through.

We break for lunch on the water, and discover first hand how tricky it is to eat with one hand while using the other to hold the kayaks together side by side in a “raft” formation for stability. Along these lines, Dave and I both discover the joys of developing an itch that lies somewhere underneath the kayak skirt, and being unable to get to it effectively. And occasional attacks by swarms of sandflies* in the shallow sections cause mad spasms of swatting that threaten to overturn us completely.

But the fiords themselves are amazing. The cliffs are enormous, and were carved out by a series of glaciers. They are all solid granite. On the road to Milford Sound, we passed through a tunnel that was over a kilometer long, and had no supports whatsoever. The whole thing is just rough hewn rock, which can support its own weight very nicely. There are evergreens and fern trees growing all over the cliffs. The roots manage to hold onto the nooks and crannies, and to each other. We see one section where there has been a tree avalanche, where the trees became too large for the tangle of roots to support, and the whole thing came crashing down into the water. There are spectacular waterfalls. There are white herons and loons. There was one basking sea lion that was trying his best to ignore us. Every once in a while, one of the Milford Sound cruise boats goes by, carrying all of the people who were too unfit (smart?) to see the fiords under their own power. The wakes from these boats add a little excitement, especially given my concerns about capsizing and death.

Because everything is so big, it’s really difficult to gauge distances on the fiord. We see a waterfall that looks close, but is 20 km away. At the midway point, we cross from one side of the channel to the other, and it takes a good 30 minutes of hard labor.

All in all, the experience is magical.

When we return, we head over to Air Fiordland for our flight to Queenstown. This 30-40 minute flight will save us a 4+ hour bus ride, as the only roads that go from Milford Sound to Queenstown have to swing far, far to the south to go around the mountains. When we arrive at the airport, we discover that it consists of a runway, an itty bitty air control tower, a couple of fields, a scattering of teeny aircraft and helicopters, and a bunch of pilots leaning on a fence and shooting the breeze. Oh, and a billion trillion sandflies*, of course, because this is Milford Sound and they are EVERYWHERE. Our pilot takes pity on us and lets us sit in the Air Fiorland van until the rest of the passengers arrive, where we only have to contend with the sandflies that have already gotten in the car.

Our aircraft for the day is a Cessna 280, with seats for the pilot and copilot and four passengers. On this particular occasion, there is just a pilot. And there are five passengers. When he asks for somebody to sit in front, everybody looked appropriately horrified, except me. I’m not sure what possesses me, but I find myself leaping forward and saying “Ooh! Me!”. I begin to have second thoughts during takeoff, when the pilot pulls back on the stick that controls the flaps and the corresponding one on my side moves almost into my lap. There are dials and buttons and pedals and flashing lights and a carbon monoxide detector and a door unlocking mechanism and a big aircraft-steering stick and I am being very, very, very careful not to touch anything. Very, very careful. I stop regretting my decision once we were in the air, though, as I have the best views.

The flight is extraordinary. The Cessna has a top speed of 180 knots and we are flying at about 140 knots and 7000 feet. I know the former because vital Cessna stats are written on a plaque right in front of me, and I know the latter because this is the sort of important pilot information that is displayed on cockpit dials. I also keep an eye on the oil and suction and RPMs and the carbon monoxide detector, but more out of a sense of responsibility. The pilot, after all, is frequently busy craning his head around to look out one side window or the other and point out interesting features of the terrain to our passengers. I keep an eye on the higher peaks to make sure we aren’t getting too close. And I make sure the oil and RPMs and such all stay within the acceptable limits that were published next to them.

I am frequently distracted from my paranoid copilot duties by the truly magnificent views. The plane moves so slowly that it feels like we are floating along, helicopter-fashion. The average height of the peaks in this range is 7000 feet, so we fly over some and around others. We see amazing snow capped mountains, high valleys and low valleys, and waterfalls. There is a perfectly round basin full of blue water, level with the plane that has a tiny opening on one side, where water cascades down a HUGE vertical drop. We see Lake Te Anau in the distance. We descend over Lake Wakatipu when approaching Queenstown. It is glorious.

We are all a little perplexed (and alarmed) when we pass over the single paved Queenstown airport runway and begin to approach it at a 90° angle. (I compare notes with some of the other passengers after the flight.) Apparently, the pilot has elected to land on the grass and cross over the runway. Still, the landing is smooth and we make it in one piece into the terminal and on our way.

* The sandfly is the greatest insect menace that I have ever encountered. It is the size of a gnat but bites like a mosquito. Like a gnat, it prefers to hunt in a pack of about 300 billion of its brothers and sisters. It doesn’t appear to be overly bothered by bug spray, has no problems biting through thick clothing, likes to fly into eyeballs, ears and (especially!) noses, and is generally very unpleasant. Every time you swat them away, you come away with a couple of dead ones. And every time you kill one, you make the world a slightly better place. If I never see another sandfly, it will be too soon.

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