Monday, March 7, 2011

Lake Manapouri and Milford Sound: A Weekend of ‘Wows'

I thought the Rockies made the Appalachians look like hills.  How unprepared I was for my first visit to some real New Zealand mountains.  The sharp, snowy peaks playing peek-a-boo through the clouds, the steep, tree-lined slopes broken here and there by gushing waterfalls, the vast meadows sporting wildflowers in full bloom... a.k.a. complete sensory overload.  It’s hard to put the sights and feelings into rational writing, so hopefully my surreal photos will be able to do the talking.

This past weekend my Kiwihost Richard nicely offered my flatmates and me a stay at his family’s lake house in Manapouri, about four hours west of Dunedin.  After a week of invitations, we were up to a total of twenty guests.  We set out Friday afternoon, squeezed into our cars and packed in by sleeping bags and groceries.

[Complements of Google Maps, a map of our weekend adventure.  Starting at Dunedin (A, on the far right), stretching over to Manapouri and then north to Milford Sound]

[Richard’s lake house in Manapouri.  It may look small but it (and a large outdoor tent) comfortably housed all 20 of us.]

Friday night was spent relaxing and playing some ice-breaker board games.  After a good night’s sleep, I woke up early with my flatmate Julia and five of her friends, and we took off in search of a good day hike.  The tourist center sent us out to Fiordland National Park.  The drive through the park is noted as one of New Zealand’s most scenic, and we soon saw why.  Within minutes the cow and sheep pastures gave way to wide meadows and sparkling lakes, both surrounded by gorgeous, tall mountains.

[Eglinton Valley, our first of many 'WOW' stops]

[Steam rising off of the road in the morning sun]

[Julia and I in front of Lake Gunn (photo complements of Julia S.)]

As for the tramp, we chose the Routeburn Track for its views and estimated return time of three hours.  The trail started off in the forest, lined by trees and carpeted by moss.  It then opened up to ferns and grasses as it wound its way up to the top of the mountain.  At the summit was when it hit me - I am in NEW ZEALAND, seeing and experiencing things that only a few people will ever get to visit and do in their lifetimes.  This realization (probably combined with the altitude) made me feel very dizzy and overwhelmed, but mostly indescribably happy.  Elated, euphoric, exultant... none of the usual ‘e’ adjectives quite cut it.  Just like describing the scenery I enjoyed on this trip - there are no words that seem to match the enormity of it all.

[Example of forested Routeburn Track.  Check out that hanging moss and the tree and fern variety.  This part of the hike was very moist, and I was constantly wiping freezing cold droplets that had fallen from the trees above.]

[One of the many little water cascades that lined the trail.  The water was so clear and such a startling blue color.]

[A much bigger waterfall that became a small stream that had to be crossed by bridge]

[After an hour of the darker, wetter forest trail, the Routeburn Track opened up into dry shrub/grass-land.  The last trickles of the tiny stream that had accompanied us up the trail are to the right of the path.]

[Boggy, mossy area near the summit of the mountain.  Note the 'fragile area' sign.]

[A small glacier pool at the summit of the mountain.  The water was freezing cold and the ground surrounding it very springy and mossy.  The pond would have been beautiful enough without the surrounding landscape.  Another big ‘WOW’ moment.]

[Marker at top of mountain engraved with names and heights of surrounding mountains]

[Lake Marian peaking through the surrounding snow-capped giants.  The pictures just don’t do it justice.]

[A breath-taking peak that came out from behind a cloud just before we descended]

[A babbling brook we passed on our way to Milford Sound]

About three and a half hours later, we stretched and packed ourselves back into the van for the 30-some km drive to Milford Sound.  The drive just kept getting better and better.  The road followed a river which was a shade of blue I don’t think I’ve ever seen out in nature before.  The drive went up and up until we reached a tunnel carved through the mountains.  As we emerged on the other side, we all gasped as the valley opened up before us.  We were looking at the same trees, rivers and mountains we had been staring at all along, but now we got an almost aerial view as we started our descent down to the Sound.

[Milford Sound, low tide.  How strange it was going from pure glacial freshwater to the salty smell of seawater.  And the large peaks circling the Sound were very intimidating.  I don’t know if I’ve ever stood so close to the base of something so tall.]

[The vegetation and barnacle-covered rocks normally underwater]

[Scattered all over were mussels and shells of other mollusks, pulled apart by the numerous keas (mountain parrots)]

[Peak straight across the sound from us on the beach.  Very big ‘wow.’]

[A shot of the rocky sand, wavy from the retreating ripples]

We spent a while sitting at Milford Sound, just taking in the immensity of the view.  By the time we decided to head back to Manapouri, we were exhausted by the exertion and sights of the long day.  Right after going back through the tunnel, the sky opened up and released our first New Zealand hailstorm - great timing.  Two hours later, we were back at the house where we met back up with the rest of our housemates, ate food other than granola bars and PBJ sandwiches (already the staples of our NZ diet) and unwound with a few more games.

We were up early again on Sunday for a quick swim in Lake Manapouri.  Luckily this morning had been a little bit warmer than most, but it couldn’t have been much above 55 degrees Fahrenheit - and the water was even colder.  After a moment to summon the courage, we rushed in and dove into the freeeeezing water only to emerge a mili-second later gasping for air with lungs that refused to work properly.  We ran back to the car and our towels a few minutes later, attempting to smile with our chattering teeth.

[Lake Manapouri - also known as Rivendell to LOTR fans :)]

[The run into the water...]

[...and the WOW moment that followed.  It goes unsaid, but a very different ‘wow’ than others experienced that weekend.]
(This photo and the one above complements of Julia S. - the only one smart enough to stay dry that morning)

After many layers of warm, dry clothes and some time spent cleaning around the house, we were all repacked and on our way back to Dunedin.  What a weekend... Definitely one I could not have planned any better.  I’m glad I have a few days of classes and homework to ground me after such an amazing experience - and then on to the next adventure!


  1. WOW! is right! Truly amazing! How could you sleep with all those great images in your head?!? So glad that your lessons are extending beyond the classroom. You are truly making memories that will last a lifetime. Thanks for sharing the pictures, too, because I do not think words could ever really describe what you have been seeing (but do love your prose as you take us along each journey). What could possibly be next? Penguins, perhaps?

  2. @Cyndy - Indeed, penguins are very much so next :) I’m signed up for an ecotour this coming Saturday, and if the weather is right I may also be able to go swimming with some dolphins...

  3. You should buy a disposable water camera. When you get the pictures developed, be sure to have a CD made, as well. Wish we had thought of that here. Don't know how well they will mail...

  4. Your words and photos brighten my day. I must also say that the green eyed monster is sneaking a peek too! Enjoy and continue to share.

  5. Beautiful pictures "Ewee"! I enjoy reading your blog immensely. Such memories you are making!