Thursday, 15 December 2016

Milford Sound

Kepler Track done and dusted in two days, I now had to face one of the most difficult ascents of the trip to get to Milford Sound.

In total, it was about 120Km from Te Anau to Milford Sound.  The road there was fairly flat up until the divide and the start of the other end of the Routeburn Track, and then that's where the real climb began.

Actually, I knew that the real test would come coming out of Milford Sound the next day, as the climb was less steady.  The profile for the road reveals what I am talking about, but it was still a harsh climb on the way in also, especially with 75Km hiking in my legs over the last two days.

Cycling profile from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

In preparation for the tough couple of days of cycling, I left some of my camping equipment in the hostel in Te Anau, knowing that I'd have to go back there anyway.  I think this made a massive difference.  I probably shed only about 5-7kg, but it was amazing how much it helped.  I felt much fresher than expected.

As the climb started in earnest, any tiredness I was experiencing started to get pushed to the back of my mind as the exhilaration of the road began to take over.  The road into Milford Sound is supposed to be one of the best drives in the world by car, so you can imagine how majestic it seems on a bike, and how small you feel amidst the towering mountains all around you.

I passed several tour buses that were stopping in specific places for photo opportunities, receiving stares of disbelief aplenty.  I stopped a few times myself to take in the surroundings and take some photos.  It seemed as if every time I stopped, I was joined by this American couple from California.  The better-half of the couple was obviously quite keen on taking lots of photos, so I usually left before she finished.  With the head start, by the time the next point of interest came around, they had caught up, and the process repeated itself a couple of times after that.  They were both very nice, the man fascinated with my journey, as most men I met usually were.  His wife was typically concerned with my safety.

The other side of the tunnel and my jaw was on the floor.

Right at the top of the climb in and out of Milford Sound, there is a tunnel, about 1.2Km long, through the mountain.  As I waited for a green light to go through, I was joined by some friendly Kea again, looking very curious about my bike.  I expected the tunnel to be lit, and although it was a bit, it really hardly helped at all.  The tunnel was also much more narrow than I had envisioned, and even with my lights on it made it feel claustrophobic and dangerous with cars passing close to me and a bumpy surface beneath.  Fortunately, the Milford Road service people saw me enter the tunnel, stopped the traffic briefly and then offered to drive behind me with their lights on and chaperone me through.  Their intervention was most welcome.  They also said to wait for them on the way back up the following day and they could drive me and my bike through, as it would take much longer to pass through the tunnel going up hill.

Lots of Kea, and they were really intrigued by my bike.

As I exited the tunnel, the real splendor of the Milford Road showed itself.  The place was an absolute wonderland.  As it had rained recently, there were still temporary waterfalls cascading down sheer mountain cliffs, and the mountain peaks capped in snow rose so steeply from the ground, it almost hurt my neck to look up to them.  

The Kea joined me again, this time in a gang of about seven birds.  To make the experience even more memorable, the Kea - obviously intrigued by my bike - flew with me as I rode down the mountain, squawking excitedly as they soared alongside me.

I still had about 15Km to go to get to the Sound, but now it was all downhill in truly the most amazing scenery it is possible to imagine.  I sped down with a big smile on my face, checked into the Milford Lodge (the only accommodation in Milford Sound), and decided to sit at the mouth of the Sound, taking it all in.  All the cruises for the day had disembarked, so I had to wait for the morning anyway.

The tide was out, so I sat on a washed-up log for about an hour or so as the sun went down.  As I sat there on my own, I was delighted to see a dolphin porpoising out of the water really close to shore.  With perfect weather and the perfect backdrop as well, it really was quite a special moment.

The next day, I went on a cruise around the Sound.  Again, perhaps because it still wasn't peak season, even this managed not to feel very touristy.  I like what New Zealand has done with Milford Sound; despite the temptation to have lots of hotels and shops, they seem to have resisted it and the place feels more tranquil because of it, even if there are a lot of boats and light aircraft around.  In fact, the boats and planes give an impressive sense of scale to the place when you look out across the water.

Once I finished the cruise, I had some work to do.  It was unlikely I would make it all the way back to Te Anau, as I left the harbour at midday and I also wanted to hike up to lake Marian.  This trail began 1Km off the Milford road, about 30Km from Milford Sound, and was not a small hike.  I planned to stop and camp at one of the many DOC campsites further down the Milford road.

People kayaking near Lady Bowen Falls

The climb out of Milford Sound was something I was both relishing and dreading at the same time.  About 900 metres over 15Km is quite a stiff ask.  I found myself in good rhythm, though, and despite it being tough, I was confident that the climb wasn't going to defeat me.

I stopped about a kilometre short of the tunnel to take in the view.  The combination of exhaustion and a stiff cleat stuck in the pedal meant that, as I stopped, I toppled over to one side and fell off.  I was barely moving at the time, but my right hip took a painful blow on the tarmac.  It was the only time I fell off the bike on my whole trip.  As I picked myself up, who was there to help me?  Yep, it was that couple from California again.  I was to bump into them again at various times on the way down until I got to the Lake Marian hike, following the same pattern as when we kept meeting each other on the way into Milford Sound.

After taking some pictures, I jumped back on the bike and was offered a lift by a bit of a surfer-looking dude and his girlfriend in a bit of an old-looking car.  They said I could hold onto the window while they drag me along.  That seemed a smidge dangerous, and besides, my pride was forcing me to get to the top under my own volition, so I declined.

After about 10 minutes or so, I approached the entrance to the tunnel.  I was hoping the Milford road workers would be there to give me a lift through the tunnel, as they said they would.  I could see one of their trucks, which was a big relief.  They were there already seeing to a motorist whose car was overheating due to the climb.  It was the surfer dude.  As it turned out, my engine coped with the ascent a little better than the car's engine.  After they were helped, I threw my bike onto the truck and they gave me a lift through the tunnel.  Much appreciated, as it wasn't especially safe going through uphill on my bike, and I would have significantly held-up traffic.

About 10Km or so after the tunnel, I reached the start of the Lake Marian track.  The hike was quite steep and about 4 hours return for me.  Lake Marian was splendid reward for the effort, a high altitude lake with surrounding mountains.  I lingered there for a while before returning back to my bike.  I was a little anxious that the Kea hadn't messed-around with it.  There were plenty around in the car park as I left pulling at the rubber seals on the windscreens of cars with their sharp beaks.

Lake Marian

Bike in tact, I had about 4 hours until sunset.  As always, I pushed a little further than I intended until my choice of places to pitch a tent were rather few and far between.  I only had 25Km to go to get to Te Anau and a nice relaxing hostel, but it was well and truly dark, and I was well and truly tired.

I stopped in a camping area with very little grass, lots of rocks and stones, and no shelter in high winds.  I somehow pitched the tent, but didn't bother changing.  I just accepted it would be one of those miserable camping nights, and it was.  Very uncomfortable, hardly any sleep and a big mistake not to change, as the saddle sores that were developing were made much worse by sleeping in dirty clothes (do not make this mistake, always change clothes at the end of the day).  A very sore backside was the result and a painful 25Km back into Te Anau.

It was a relief to get back to Te Anau, and again, I had a couple of days of bad weather to wait out there before I could go to Doubtful sound.  This was just as well, because my bottom was so sore, I don't think I could've have ridden the bike for a couple of days anyway.  I recuperated, ate lots of food and was ready for a new experience and a new method of travel, kayaking in the wilderness of Doubtful Sound.

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