Rise and Shine
Waking up at six in the morning, there was no light coming through the white hardwood shutter of my hostel. The room felt like I was stuffed in a freezer as the windows were left open throughout the night. The creaking of the flat cold railing hurt against my feet as I came down the ladder of my bunk. I left the hostel room a little too early and didn’t quite want to step outside into the cold yet, so I sat against the full wall of glass windows in the kitchen. Across the valley, the sun started coming up and filled the valley with purplish light. The mountains blocked the sun, but the entire valley filled with the colors of an early morning and the signs of a long day ahead.
Fiordland National Park
I had on two jackets, a sweater, and a long sleeve top, and I was still shaking from the cold breeze of the wind. When I arrived at my bus stop, the bus had not arrived yet. About what felt like half an hour later, I met our bus driver named Paul. He was an energetic and passionate man about Queenstown and the Fiordland National Park. The first 30 minutes he introduced the group to Queenstown and its surroundings, pointing out that the Remarkable Mountains were a filming site for the movie “The Lord of The Rings”. Around Lake Wakatipu, the fields were full of farmlands and valleys with animals mainly sheep and cows. It took almost two hours to get to the town of Te Anau, the start of Fiordland National Park. The town was lined with a few shops, mainly tourists booking shops as well as a gas station for those who were on the road. At the end of the main road laid Lake Te Anau with the entrance to many day hikes and tramping locations. A small seaplane that could fit maybe two or three people rumbled against the water turning around and swiftly taking off towards the mountains.
After a 30 minute break, we made our way into the park. Fiordland National Park was made a part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site in 1986. It is 1.25 million acres and is the largest national park in New Zealand. Fiordland is home to the Takahē Recovery Program. The conservation project protects the Takahe bird, which was once thought to be extinct. A special area of 500km2 was set aside for the conservation. The Takahe was rediscovered in 1948 in the mountains.
Land of Beauty
Scenes from The Lord of the Rings was also filmed here in the national park. We had a chance to stop at the site where they filmed scenes at the Mountains of Mordor. Along the drive, there were small streams and creeks with valleys spread out among the park. At one point, we were also at the halfway point to the Equator and the South Pole. Waterfalls gushed and fell into a steady river around us. In order to get down to Milford Sound we have to get to sea level. To get through the only main street that went down, you had to go through the Homer Tunnel. The tunnel was opened in 1954 and is the highest level on the Milford road which we had been travelling. Driving through winding roads that crossed each other like a zig zag, we made it to the base of the fjord. When we stopped, we were directed to the boat in which we would take a two hour cruise upon the Spirit of the Milford.
Sailing through the Fjord
The day was unfolding, and the sun was bright and clear, which helped against the wind lapping across our faces. On board they offered free tea and coffee that helped to warm up my hands and body. As the horn sounded and we pulled off again, we were in the middle of the sound. The Milford Sound shouldn’t even be called a sound. A sound is a valley carved out by a river. The Milford is a fjord, which is a Norwegian word that means step. A fjord is carved out by ice which the Milford is. Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded on the top deck, and even with the roar of the boat, it was peaceful looking out to the water which was quite blue. It was a mix of fresh and salt water that made up the fjord.
We sailed all the way out to the Tasman Sea where if you look hard enough you could see Sydney. Not really, but that’s the sea you would cross to get to Australia. As we went along, we saw seals waving at us and coming out from the water as well as helicopters above. We were warned in the beginning that we’d be going under a waterfall. I was quite worried about how wet I’d get, but when I say under, we were completely under it. Next thing I know I’m at the back of the ship trying not to get too wet, but my glasses were covered with rain. The best part was when we backed away from the waterfall, and the sun was beaming on us trying to get us dry again.
Back to Reality
At that point, I put my camera away and stood with a cup of tea in hand. It was everything I had hoped. On the drive back to Queenstown, the driver put on a film called “The World’s Fastest Indian” It’s about a kiwi (nickname for New Zealanders) named Burt Munro who spent years fixing his Indian Motorcycle in 1967. He went all the way to Utah’s salt flats to attempt to set a new world record for speed week. That was when I really felt like I was a backpacker in New Zealand. I was on a bus, watching the sunset and glow of the town as it turned to dark, surrounded by travelers, and watching a movie that was a true essence of New Zealand. All I kept thinking was “This is New Zealand.”