So Beautiful It Hurt

April 4, 2011 Comments Off on So Beautiful It Hurt

234 km (round-trip)

We were up early to drive to Milford Sound, which is the ultimate must-do of the South Island (or maybe all NZ). The drive out was pretty long, but for me it was the best part of the day. I’d been kind of half-hoping something would jump out at me as we were driving and I’d shout, “Pull over, Simon! It’s Helm’s Deep!” and we’d get out and take pictures and coo over the movie set that was actually just part of the country we were driving through. But as it turns out, there’s a lot of sheep pastures and a lot of pretty normal scenery in NZ, and I didn’t feel particularly LOTR-y at any time. But this drive…well, let’s just say you can’t get to Milford Sound without driving through Middle Earth first. Everything was misty, and partway there we entered a flat river valley with waist-high waving yellow grass extending all the way to the bare mountains, covered with mist and spouting hundreds of waterfalls from the wet night that was just ending. Then, once the road wound up into the mountains, all you saw was water. It had snowed up here during the night, and the peaks looked dusted with powdered sugar, and all down their dark sheer sides were running thousands of tiny waterfalls. It was almost unbearably gorgeous.

Eventually we got to Milford Sound, where we took a lame tourist cruise that was reasonably cool and not too long. It was a gorgeous sunny day, if quite cold, and the scenery was great. Milford Sound is actually a fjord, which means before it was flooded it was a U-shaped valley formed by glaciers. So these huge mountains plummet straight into the ocean at a very high angle, and apparently continue down quite far. In fact, Mitre Peak is supposedly the highest mountain in the world that rises directly out of the sea. So over beautiful blue water rise these steep green cliffs with pretty little waterfalls spurting down their sides. It’s not even fun to describe because it’s almost too perfect. Occasionally there are brown bare swatches that look like scuff marks, running straight up and down; these are scars from tree avalanches. The slope is so steep that the trees just grow in a mat of moss, and when one falls over or loses its grip, it tears the whole strip off with it. A guide on the boat said he saw one, and the trees free-fell 30m into the water: the ones that hit horizontally burst when the hit the water, and the ones that fell vertically were stripped of their bark and branches as they fell. Incredible to think about.

This was also where we saw our first New Zealand fur seals. They were basking in the sun, yawning and being adorable, and I noticed that they had ears. So I asked the guide, doesn’t that mean that they’re actually sea lions? And he said, “Well, it depends on who you ask, but most biologists agree that New Zealand fur seals are actually sea lions. And the New Zealand sea lion is actually a Hooker’s seal, so there you go.” Although Wikipedia informs me that the New Zealand sea lion actually is a sea lion. The point is, I’m very confused about the terminology, so I’ll be talking about sea mammals under the stipulation that I have no idea what’s going on. In general, I call the big ones sea lions and the little soft-looking guys seals.

We had rushed to get to the Sound to try to beat the big rush, in which we were mostly successful, so on the way out, we stopped to do some walks the guidebook recommended. We stopped at one called The Chasm, which begins in pretty rainforest. Soon you start to hear a dull rumble, and it gets very damp, and suddenly you’re on a bridge standing over a roaring waterfall that looks too big to be contained between the glossy black walls of the chasm. The rock has been polished so that it looks like blown glass, with strange holes and hollows here and there, damp with spray. It is amazing. I wanted to sit there by myself for hours, just watching. Also I wanted to climb down into it, but I’m sure the powers that be frown on that.

Morepork!

Next we did the Key Summit walk, which took us to the summit of a mountain, 919m high. It was a great trail, well kept-up and pleasant, with water absolutely everywhere: running alongside the path, dripping from trees, misting from waterfalls. I started out totally insecure about my ability to climb a mountain, but after a while there was a neat little waterfall, very cold, and when I stuck my hands into it, it felt like a blessing and an encouragement, and then I was gung-ho. Halfway up, we stopped because three other people were looking intently into the trees. There, on a branch right by the path, in broad daylight in front of god and everybody, was a little owl, very cute, obviously irritated by all the attention. We asked what it was, and someone said it was a morepork, which is almost impossible to decipher in NZ dialect, but fortunately I’d seen a sign for one in the zoo. Two of the people were very keen photographers, and they kept trying to get him to look at them, but he was obstinate. While we were standing there gawping, there was more movement high in a tree a little ways away, which turned out to be a kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, much larger than I’d expected (macaw-sized). We’d seen signs implying that kea love to mess with human stuff. The woman next to me told me they particularly love windshield wipers, plus had once stolen a camera bag of hers (empty). It was all very exciting.

Doesn't he look like a punk?

Suddenly the trees were gone. The path was performing mad switchbacks through dry-looking scrub near the top. When we reached the top (this part was quite strenuous), we were rewarded by panoramic views of snow-capped mountain peaks on all sides of us. It was like a scene in a movie: our hero montages with great effort up the mountain, finally reaching the summit, and gazes open-mouthed at his surroundings as the camera rotates around him, showing us 360° of awesome scenery. Quite like something out of LOTR, as a matter of fact. The top of the mountain was covered with an alpine wetland, which I’ve never even heard of. It was just a bog, but, between the altitude and the biome, it had doubly stunted plants, or so it seemed to me. There were ponds and moss and twisted little trees, and it was very interesting. We couldn’t spend much time, though, because we were concerned about having enough light on the way back. Besides, it was crowded up there. Lots of couples were floating around—apparently it’s a romantic spot? Notable characters include Asian Photographer Girl and her sidekick—they hiked faster than we did but she kept stopping to take careful pictures so we kept leap-frogging, which was annoying—and German Music Boy and his sidekick—who kept his iPod on, loudly, so he was constantly surrounded by tinny pop music.

Asian Photographer Girl found this shot first, but that doesn't mean it's not amazing.

There was plenty of light in the sky but under the trees it was beginning to get dark by the time we got back down to the parking lot. The hike had taken us almost three hours, and we were very tired and wet, but it was completely worth it. Driving after a long hike always makes me pensive; it’s amazing that you just spent so much effort on going a mile or five or twenty or whatever it was, and suddenly not only are you sitting, but with an almost imperceptible movement of your foot you can go sixty, seventy miles in an hour. It makes it particularly surreal. How spoiled we are.

After that hike we returned to town for a brute force infusion of calories and beer, hardly caring where we ate or what, and returned to the hotel to watch the ANZ Women’s Netball Championship for the rest of the night. Netball looks like fun! It’s like basketball with no backboard and no dribbling, and it looks like it would be easy to be pretty good at it; in fact, I want to play sometime. But not the evening after a difficult hike.

[back-posted]

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