In the Waterfall Kingdom

Day 13 – The alarm sounded painfully early this morning. Comfortable though my room is, you can’t control what the other guests in the B&B are doing. In this case, that is snoring so loudly that I can hear them through the walls. I think I managed to get something like 5 hours of shut eye, so the 6am alarm was worse than it should have been. The promise of Milford Sound is a good incentive to get you out of bed, tired though one may be, so I shuffled through the morning routine in a zombie-like trance, excited for the feast for eyes that would be my handsome reward for the effort.

It was a rainy one. You could even say it was a bit miserable: pretty cold, gale force winds, and plenty of rain. I was well-prepped for this probability. First of all, I’ve learned my lesson – spring in NZ is unpredictable. Aside from that, I also made a conscious decision to plan the Milford trip today, fully understanding that there was a high likelihood of bad weather. If forecasts prove true, between Saturday and Sunday there will only be one nice day, and I need good weather for the finale. So to Milford I would go in the pouring rain. Certainly not the end of the world, and in fact many people argue that Milford’s full splendor is only appreciated in the middle of a downpour, because that’s when the thousands of waterfalls are on full display.

The bus left at 7am and was scheduled to return to Queenstown around 7:30pm. A long day on the bus meant plenty of time for catching some extra zzzs, last-minute reading, and soaking in the magic of Milford. I did sleep for the first couple hours, but when we stopped in the town of Te Anau I loaded up on caffeine and was all eyes and eagerness as we continued towards the Sound. Sam, Bilbo, and Pippin were good company as the bus picked its way upwards (I did not forget Merry, he was waiting in Buckland at this point). Our conductor was a knowledgeable host, nothing at all like Greenie, and gave us interesting tidbits about the scenery as we made our way into the mountains. For example – though the area is called Milford Sound, it’s technically a fjord. Fjords are glaciated valleys and sounds are river valleys flooded by the sea. Fjords tend to be much more deep. Totes emo. That’s why they’re the best. Must be close cousins of Wharariki beach.

Other than the solid knowledge drop from our conductor, ranking close to the top in my book today is the encounter with a few keas. These are huge parrot-like birds native to harsh alpine environments. They’ve got smarts to spare, and mischief could be their middle name. Far from shy, they like to come and investigate tourist spots and see if they can get some free junk food handouts. One of their favorite activities is trying to pry all the rubber off cars, and I was lucky enough to see one kea devotedly engaged in that very activity. They make loud funny noises – KKEEEAAAAAA – and man they’re just a charming, funny, and too-smart-for-their-own-good species. The troublemakers are super endangered, with the latest (pretty broad spectrum) count at 1,000 – 5,000. You might say I was lucky to encounter one, but nope. They love people and investigating and making trouble. They’re just a part of the scenery.

The Homer tunnel was a neat point too. It’s a 1.3 km tunnel bored in through the mountain that kind of feels like the gateway to fjordland.

When we got to Milford, I was ready for a change of pace. Being packed into a car with tons of people can get wearisome. I didn’t realize how much better the bus was than being packed into a boat with those same folks. The weather had only worsened on our way, and to get a good glimpse of the fjords you had to battle a fierce wind, the persistent rain and then also the spray off the many waterfalls. Every time the guide on the loudspeaker suggested we were close to a particularly awe-inspiring waterfall or fodder for a good picture, the masses would run out to the best vantage point for a picture. Lemmings in action, I tell you. In this way, today was both a nightmare and a dream. I found myself in an elven land of mist and mystery, but surrounded by humans with all their basic needs and mob mentality. Sigh. To be an elf.

I’m not blind to the irony of complaining about tourists when I’m obviously one myself. And I’ve done the selfie thing (ick), and taken my fair share of pictures over the two weeks I’ve been here. It’s a desperate attempt to capture a sliver of the wonder that I’ve experienced since I arrived. It doesn’t work though. I look at my pictures, no matter how artfully staged, and think – wow. Not even close. Not even close to what I’m seeing here and now with my own eyes. That’s not enough to dissuade me from trying, but at least I’m aware of the error of my ways and I do try to pause, be here, be present in the moment and soak it all in. The, lets say, “classical tourists,” barely take the time to look without that phone or that GoPro or that selfie stick as a barrier between themselves and the jaw-dropping ridiculosity (in a good way) that surrounds us. It hurts to see this. I’ve so enjoyed sharing my journey, and I wouldn’t change a thing. But I’m sad that our reality is what exists online and not what’s right before our eyes. Instead it’s just picture after picture after picture after picture, pose after pose after pose after pose. It’s exhausting. There’s so much to take in here and now. Creating visual memories is important, yes, but why are you living only through that 3×5? In this way, I’m happy that NZ’s WiFi situation is a giant piece of poo. There’s no instant Instagram or immediate uploading to Facebook. It certainly changed my ways since I’ve been here. I only wish it affected others in a similar fashion.

I can’t help but thinking… imagine how much more fun being a traveler/explorer must have been in the olden days, when if you wanted to see what Milford Sound looked like, you couldn’t just type it into Google and pull up a bunch of images. Instead, you made the trek yourself or relied on the traveller who came back with stories so fanciful and extraordinary that you had to wonder if they were made up. Made up or not, your imagination would kick into high gear dreaming up the pictures that went with the stories. How different would this blog have been if Hobbiton was still the Hobbiton of your invention (not mine or Peter Jackson’s), if the placid waters of Abel Tasman were all in your head, and the misty, tempestuous, eleven-like magic of Milford sound was your own and no one elses? The blog probably would have sucked, to be honest, but I bet the pictures in your mind would be a million times better than what I’ve caught on my phone. It makes me nostalgic for a time that I’ve never even known. Just thinking about the thrill of travel when you have no conception of where you’re going, other than what your imagination has dreamt up… well shucks. That is adventure. That is true bravery. Instead, here is my photo gallery for the day:

During the drive back, the sun came out in its full glory almost as if to spite us. In The Fellowship I ran into Tom Bombadil. Such perfect timing to meet one of the most enchanting characters in the series. Back in Queenstown around that 7:30pm point, I walked the downtown area and had dinner at a tiny little restaurant that looked like a pub straight out of Lord of the Rings. It was teeny, so small that any and all tables were shared if necessary, including booths. This meant I was forced to sit next to a couple from Canada while they ate their meal, and we were basically compelled to have a conversation. Which was actually wonderful once both of us got over our awkward unwillingness. They told me they’re here for 6 weeks. What I wouldn’t give for even just one more.

Second to last night here. I hope for some sound (get it?) snore-free sleep tonight, and New Zealand’s best weather tomorrow. Fingers crossed, because I’m not quite done yet.


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