Fri 21 Nov: Fiordland gets so much rain that they measure it in metres. Typically it gets between 7 and 9 metres per year, so we were expecting a fairly damp day. But our good fortune continued. It started overcast as we headed to the Humboldt Falls but by the time we got to Milford Sound it was another beautiful day. The Humboldt Falls are supposedly the tallest falls near a road, and are approximately 270 metres high. It was about a 20 minute walk up to a viewing platform.
From there we headed to Milford Sound. We had to stop at The Homer Tunnel as it is only wide enough for one lane of traffic, but there were a number of Kea there to entertain us. These are New Zealand parrots and are quite cheeky and didn’t seem scared of people. I suppose they perform for all the tour buses in the hope of picking up food. They are quite stocky compared to the more tropical parrots, which presumably helps them keep warm.
For those of us used to nice, well-lit, smooth tunnels, The Homer Tunnel is a bit of a revelation. To start with it’s over 1km long and is not lit at all. But more noticeable to me, it’s not at all smooth. What I mean by that is that it’s been hacked out of the bare rock and it’s not been lined unlike the tunnels in Hong Kong. I suppose it makes sense, it just wasn’t what I was expecting. Nor was the spectacular view as we emerged from the other side and headed down the steep road towards Milford Sound itself.
We parked and walked along the coast and out onto the mudflats. The Sounds in this region are actually misnamed, as they are Fiords. The distinction is that Sounds are V-shaped river valleys which fill up with sea water up as the sea level rises. Fiords are created by glaciers gouging their way through the countryside and leaving U-shaped valleys in their wake. These fiords have very steep walls and can also be very deep. What makes this particular area so interesting is that the heavy rainfall means there is a constant layer of fresh water on top of the salt water. When it rains the trees absorb the water, and it gradually leaches out and into the fiords. But on its way it picks up a lot of tannins, which means it has a reddy colour and this helps to block out a lot of the sunlight. Consequently the salt water below it is very dark, which means that you get a lot of deep-dwelling species of coral and fish at a much shallower depth than usual. Also the narrow, deep nature of the fiords means that there is very little sediment and the water tends not to be churned up, so it is usually very clear. We didn’t have time to dive it, but we did visit an underwater observatory, of which more later.
Lunch involved the usual New Zealand pie, to which we were starting to get addicted. Then we wandered through the town to the pier and decided to do a cruise of Milford Sound. From the water the surrounding mountains and sea cliffs looked even more impressive. We were also lucky enough to see New Zealand Fur Seals, and Fiordland Crested penguins.
We were on a relatively small boat and the skipper was also a diver. So we spent quite a bit of time chatting to him about diving in the Fiordland area. Not surprisingly, he is a big fan and thoroughly recommends the diving in this region. Maybe next time, but only if I’ve got a drysuit! Anyway he was a really interesting character and he was brave enough to let Rita drive his boat.
He dropped us off at the Underwater Observatory at Harrison Cove, where they gave us more information on the way the area formed, and repeated the information about the freshwater layer on top of the sea water, as well as the marine life that lives in the fiords. We then went downstairs to the viewing platform which is at a depth of 10 metres. In various trays you could see black and red coral, which normally lives much deeper. There are also sponges, anemones, tube worms, snake stars, plus a variety of fish. In case of storms, or if the freshwater layer gets too thick, they are able to lower the trays containing the coral. The overnight forecast was for heavy rain, so they were concerned about the freshwater layer, and also whether they would be able to get in the following day. So as a precaution they did lower the trays as we were leaving (we were the last group). Then another boat picked us up and took us back to the town.
We drove back out in the late afternoon, stopping briefly at some of the impressive sites, including Mirror Lake. Finally we ended up in Manapouri, where we stayed at a great place right next to a lively pub. Of the 8 beers on tap, I think we sampled at least 5.