possum and kea and avalanches…oh, my!

We’ve all seen the countless cards, magnets, plaques, and who knows what other decorative knick-knacks inscribed with the quote: “The journey is more important than the destination.” It’s a common proverb I always try to live up to, especially during times like my fourth year of university when all I really wanted to do was graduate. But never before have I appreciated its meaning than on my trip to Milford Sound last week. When I booked the trip with my American flatmate Jordan, I expected the Sound itself to be the highlight of the two-day journey and for the five-hour bus ride to be spent primarily with the iPod in and seat tilted back. But I should’ve known better when I decided to go with a company named Real Journeys, mainly because they were offering a 45% locals’ discount in September and October – for a journey it was, the bus ride not just a means to Milford Sound, but a chance to see and experience a great portion of Fiordland National Park.

On a grey Monday morning Jordan and I boarded the bus, finding our seats in the back like any cool kid would do. Departing Queenstown at 9am, we set out tracing Lake Wakatipu in a southerly direction, which, with a length of 80 kilometers, can apparently boast of being New Zealand’s longest lake. Our driver/tour guide Skip shared that the Titanic’s last port-of-call was also in Queenstown, only this one in Ireland. The particular relevance of this “factoid” I never quite got, but I soon began to see that 50-something Skip was one of those guides who should never, ever be allowed within fifty feet of a microphone or any other amplification system. Given such an outlet, there’s no telling the number of random, highly pointless pieces of trivia we will be subjected to listening to…and no doubt find ourselves remembering the next day.

We disembarked about twenty minutes later, Skip wanting to give us a chance for our first of about thirty photo-ops along the way. While everyone else snapped away, I had a chance to examine the age dynamics of our group:

45% white-haired retirees

45% Asians

5% random Canadian boys with mysteriously British-sounding accents

4% aspiring American photojournalists (us, duh.)

1% Chatty-Cathy tour guide

As eclectic as the mix appeared to be, Jordan and I couldn’t have been happier. Exhausted from the hectic pace of Queenstown, over the nightlife and the constant need to go out, we’d been looking forward to getting out of town for the night ever since we booked the trip. As the quad-dorm cruise was full when we went to make our reservation, we were left with no choice but to upgrade to the double-bed boat – but as it turned out, it soon seemed that we’d managed to miss out on the usual bawdy backpacker crowd – something neither of us were complaining about. A quiet night with septuagenarians as our cruisemates? Heck yes.

We passed through a series of small towns, most notably Garston – the most inland town in all of New Zealand, situated 128 kilometers from the nearest ocean – before stopping at the Five Rivers Café for a morning tea break. Just like with the perfumeria and limestone “factory” we visited on our tour in Egypt, I got the impression that the majority (if not, all) of the café’s business was generated from the multitude of tour buses traveling through this otherwise untrafficked region.

 Before arriving in Te Anau for a lunch break, Skip pulled off by Lake Manapouri – “Lake of the Sorrowing Heart,” as this lake and its 34 islands is known. This was no ordinary lake, though, as we soon came to learn. Instead it was the center of a heated controversy, the site of New Zealand’s greatest environmental battle. In the 1950s plans were made to raise the water levels of both Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau – the second largest lake in the country – for official and political purposes of hydro-electric generation (please don’t ask what that means). This would have raised the level of Manapouri by up to thirty meters in some places, causing it to merge with Lake Te Anau. Guess that would explain the sorrowing heart, eh? But as so often happens, the people would have none of it. They protested, over 10% of the population of New Zealand signing the Save Manapouri petition in 1972. In the end, the lakes were saved, a body of guardians was created to manage the lake levels, and a boulder was set at the edge of Lake Manapouri to mark where the water would have been raised had the proposed level been approved. A bronze plaque on the rock commemorates the struggle to “save the lake,” quoting Thoreau:

In wilderness is the preservation of the world.

I can think of no better quote to describe New Zealand’s commitment to the environment and the value it places on it as a country. “Clean, green New Zealand” is more than a motto – it’s  a way of life in this reusable-bag-toting, anti-nuclear-warfare country. The fight for Manapouri thus comes as an expected response from people who already have such a concern and respect for the environment they inhabit.

Following the emotional and national significance of Manapouri, I found Te Anau and its permanent population of 2,500 to be rather blasé and a little too reminiscent of Invercargill – flat, small, and generally unremarkable. Although situated so close to Doubtful Sound, I soon thanked myself that I hadn’t made a trip from Queenstown with the sole intention of seeing Te Anau, as I had considered doing at one point. The chief purpose the town serves – it’s “redeeming quality,” you could say – is that it’s the base for many Fiordland expeditions, for the Milford Track itself – possibly the most well-known Great Walk of New Zealand – departs from Te Anau Downs.

Fiordland. The first region to catch my eye when I looked at a map of New Zealand in my London flat with the crazy intention of moving here. I knew only of Milford Sound, the reputed mecca of scenic must-sees. So to finally arrive in Fiordland National Park was quite the moment. “Go into Fiordland with a sense of humor,” Skip shares over the microphone. “Fiordland is relentless, lonely, and rough,” a place of mystery with species yet to be discovered. The Department of Conservation’s Visitors’ Center for the park is on the outskirts of Te Anau and Jordan and I pay a visit on our lunch break, scarfing down mince and steak pies as we speedwalk from town. A number of brochures I pick up in the center shed light on this mystical land of fjords and fog.

In December of 1990, the region of South-West New Zealand was designated as a World Heritage site. Fiordland, Mt. Aspiring, Westland, and Mt. Cook National Parks, areas comprising over six and a half million acres of land, were brought together under the Maori name of Te Wahipounamu, “the place of the greenstone.” The Southern Alps are just one feature of this diverse landscape, situated along the fault line of the Pacific and Indo-Australian crustal plates. As the DOC’s pamphlet describes:

South-West New Zealand is one of the great temperate wildernesses of the world. It is an area of snowcapped mountains, glaciers, forests, tussock grasslands, lakes, rivers, wetlands, and over 1000 km of wild coastline.”

This haven of natural wonders might explain the need for an entirely separate publication titled “Fiordland Tramping.” Tramping is quite the Kiwi thing to do – and I’m not talking about life as a hobo or donning scandalous attire and frequenting ill-lit back alleys at inappropriate hours. No, it’s donning quick-drying polypropylene and polar fleeces, slinging on your day pack chock full of biscuits and muesli bars, and going on a walk – perhaps one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand. From Lake Waikaremoana on the North Island to the Abel Tasman on the South, the Walks are the crème de la crème of the tramping world, offering better quality huts than those found on other routes. Three of them alone are found in Fiordland National Park, not to mention seven other tramping tracks and two marked routes. It’s quite the official business as well, with all the huts along the routes requiring reservations for overnight accommodations. Many of the Great Walks even require the tramper to book a space prior to departure in order to prevent over-crowding along the track. Although it’s not something I can really picture myself doing while here, the culture of tramping is something I can appreciate about New Zealand.

The stretch between Te Anau and Milford Sound is known as Milford Road, a two-hour route that can see up to seventy coaches pas through it in a nine-hour period. It’s also known as BMW Strait, Skip says, guiding our bus along its many tree-lined curves that are often featured in auto commercials. I think of the many shots of attractive men hyped up on testosterone, shifting gears in their foreign-made cars, and totally get what he’s saying. Clips of the area have apparently even been used by Japanese real estate companies, although I feel for the hopes of buyers that can only be dashed when they realize their new property isn’t located in the lush rainforest they thought it was. Construction on the road itself began in the 1930s, with WPA-like government-run work schemes behind it, but the Homer Tunnel wasn’t completed until 1954 due to delays from World War II.

We make a five-minute toilet break in a spot called – for whatever reason – Knobs Flat. Like any good rest area, the building is informative as well as useful. A small exhibit outside the toilet not only sheds further light on the region as a World Heritage site, but also includes a few display boards on local wildlife. I’m fine learning about birds and such until I see a life-size replica of a possum on the other side of the room. This wouldn’t have been nearly as upsetting under normal circumstances, but it just so happened I had a particularly traumatic encounter the night before with Terry the Possum, who lives – if not on our roof – then in quite serious proximity to it. Not a day passes that Terry doesn’t make himself known to us, terrorizing the baby birds on our roof, screeching, scampering about, and generally sounding like he’s about to bust through our ceiling at any moment. Needless to say, we are not a fan of Terry.

So imagine my lovely surprise to get home one normal Sunday night, open my bedroom door, and see two little eyes peering up at me from the opposite corner of my room. There’s also a cat that can often be found lurking about our flat, so my initial thought went to that. It wasn’t until I flipped the light switch that I realized Terry had somehow found his way into my room through my open windows. Terry the Terror…in my room. You can imagine my scream at this point, of that I’m sure. And in his seedy little hands (paws?) was a jar of peanut butter I’d mistakenly – gravely mistakenly – left unopened in my room. Unbelievable. “Get out!” I screamed at him, no doubt waking my flatmates. When he didn’t move or set my peanut butter down where he found it, I tried kicking him out my window, but it must’ve been knocked shut when he got in. A second kick and he was out my front door and I was left to recover, shaking only mildly.

So it was with much satisfaction that I listened to Skip as he described the Australian bushy-tailed possum as a “total nuisance.” Released in New Zealand in the 1870s to get the fur trade going, there are currently 70 million possums infesting the country (that’s 17.5 possums to one person! – an unacceptable statistic). Not only did they used to carry TB, they now eat foliage, not kosher with the Kiwis who value the native ecology above all. Their worst crime of all, though? Their Australian heritage, from which they came – something not directly their own fault, but for which they are all the more loathed. To the Kiwis, the only good possum is a dead one – a “squashum,” as Skip put it. He said New Zealanders go especially out of their way when driving at night to hit a possum. Good on ‘em!

Not long after Knobs Flat we entered the Hollyford Valley. “This can throw anything at us,” Skip says, which is of course incredibly reassuring to hear as we begin driving through a well-known avalanche zone. Floods, earthquakes, avalanches – apparently there’s no end to the spectrum of natural disasters we may or may not be run into. But the element of danger only augmented the mystery of the region, with the misty fog settled low and ethereal-like around the mountains. Through the fog you could see the scar marks on the steep hills from tree avalanches, where trees have such shallow roots that they cling together and scrape the face of the mountain in the event of an earthquake. We drove through seventeen kilometers of a “No Stopping” avalanche zone, a rule Skip disregards as he pulls off the side of the road to view a kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. Having seen several of the cheeky little birds in Christchurch, I was more interested in photographing the landscape, with massive piles of snow heaped against the sides of mountains, but the kea turned out to be quite the showstopper for the rest of the group.

The rest of the journey to Milford Sound was rather uneventful, but on the return trip, just as we came out on the other side of Homer Tunnel, I had the opportunity to see my first avalanche. As the snow accumulates all winter long on top of the mountains, it grows heavier and heavier until it starts to melt in the spring, posing quite the hazard to those wishing to pass through the road. As our bus rounded the first curve out of the tunnel, there was suddenly blizzard-like conditions, snow swirling dizzyingly all around – my first snow of the season! But before I had a chance to get excited, Skip pointed out an avalanche to our left, which resembled white porridge being poured quickly out of a bowl. “Well, folks, I’ve never seen one quite like this,” Skip says, slowing down to see if we’d be able to make it past. Man, does he have a way of making us feel safe or what?

Any fear was unfounded, though, as we soon made it through the danger zone and were well on our way back to Queenstown. As our return trip traced the same route we’d only just taken the day before, Skip graciously put away his microphone (still not sure how he managed to part with it!), the endless stream of factoids finally coming to an end, and we were able to get some sleep. Although I’d signed up only to see Milford Sound, I got much more than I expected out of the journey. Lake Marian, Mount Tutoko, the Chasm – our bus ride showed me places I didn’t expect to discover only because I didn’t know they existed…

…But I suppose that’s the proper role of a journey after all.




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