New Zealand #08 – Antarctic Experience & Fiordland National Park
New Zealand #08 – Antarctica Center and Fiordland National Park
Our last stop in Christchurch was a visit to the International Antarctic Center by the Christchurch airport. From there we flew down to Invercargill (southernmost tip of South Island) where we bussed up to Lake Te Anau. The following day we made our way through Fiordland National Park for a cruise on Milford Sound after which we drove over to Queenstown.
Our route after arriving in Invercargill
International Antarctic Center
Our last attraction before saying goodbye to Christchurch was at the International Antarctic Center. As you may know, New Zealand is the closest English speaking country to Antarctica – yes, it extends further south than Tasmania and Australia. As such it has become the launch site to Antarctica using aircraft for the USA as well as several other countries including Italy and Korea. This center is located right next to the main airport of Christchurch so that it can use its runways, but it has its own hangers, warehouses for gear and training center.
New Zealand has taken part in Antarctic exploration from the mid-19th century all the way through to the present day. In the beginning they participated in the expeditions mounted by other nations but now have their own initiatives. The first New Zealander (Kiwi) who went to Antarctica was probably Tuati who sailed on a United States led voyage in 1839-40. Another was Alexander Von Tunzelmann who possibly became the first man to set foot on the Antarctic mainland with a Norwegian led expedition in 1895.
In the 20th century overseas explorers on their way to the Antarctic – including Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Richard Byrd – regularly came and went through New Zealand. They used local ports and quarantine islands, and gratefully accepted other offers of assistance. They also took on New Zealanders as expedition members.
In the mid-20th century, New Zealand became involved in Antarctica in its own right. Scott Base was established as part of the country's commitment to the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955-58) and the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). Edmund Hillary made his memorable ‘dash to the pole’, while New Zealand geologists explored 103,600 km² of uncharted territory. Later, in 1979, Antarctica was the scene of one of this country's greatest catastrophes – the Erebus air disaster, which killed 257 people.
Getting to Antarctica is no easy matter, either by ship or by air. For the air mode Christchurch has become the English speaking gateway port with over 100 direct flights each year. The Christchurch International Airport's Antarctic connection began in 1955 with the arrival of eight US Air Force aircraft for Operation Deep Freeze. The aircraft left from Harewood Airfield for the 14-hour flight to McMurdo Station. Operation Deep Freeze still remains at the airport today, and with the arrival of the International Antarctic Centre in 1992 Christchurch continued to embrace its' Antarctic connection.
Every summer military aircraft from 3 countries (New Zealand, USA, and Italy) complete some 100 flights to the continent and move over 5,500 passengers and 1,400 tons of cargo. The US's McMurdo Station and New Zealand's Scott Base are approximately 3,920km by air from Christchurch but are only about 2 miles apart from each other on the ice. The flight to the Antarctic base from Christchurch now takes about five hours in a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster or seven hours in an RNZAF C-130 Hercules.
The Antarctic Center itself is for tourists to get a taste of what it is like to be on the southernmost continent. There are several exhibits as well as a museum dedicated to the wildlife, conditions and exploration of the continent. Out front are a couple of the vehicles they use to get around down there. These are the all-terrain amphibious Antarctic vehicle called the Hagglund. There is also a small indoor/outdoor pool with Little Blue penguins, various movies, hands on museum exhibits and re-creations of the huts from some of the early explorers and a team of live huskies you can pet.
One really interesting attraction is a room that simulates the weather conditions in Antarctica. For 6 minutes (which feels more like 30 minutes) you are in a room with real snow on the ground. They give you a down jacket and when you go in it’s around freezing. Then the light turns a murky brown color, the wind comes up to around 30 mph and it starts snowing. Along with this the temperature plummets - not quite as low as it really gets there but enough to make you wish you had your woolies on. Then the “storm” breaks, the light gets brighter, the wind dies down and the snow stops. It’s really quite an experience.
One of the hangers used for the US Antarctic program
Hagglund snow cat vehicles
Experiencing an Antarctic Storm (this was before the wind and snow)
Little Blue Penguins
Little Blue Penguins
Invercargill & Te Anau
After our Antarctic Experience, we flew on down to the Invercargill which is at the southern tip of the south Island. Other than Stewart Island which is just offshore from Invercargill, there is nothing between here and Antarctica but ocean accompanied by a strong wind that circles Antarctica. We didn’t stay in Invercargill but after a lecture by our local guide we hopped on our bus for the drive on up to Lake Te Anau at the edge of the Fiordland National Park.
Invercargill itself is an unremarkable city with a population of around 51,600. it is the southernmost and westernmost city in New Zealand, and one of the southernmost cities in the world. Most of the area around Invercargill is rich farmland that is bordered by large areas of conservation land and marine reserves, including Fiordland National Park covering the south-west corner of the South Island. Many streets in the city, especially in the center and main shopping district, are named after rivers in Great Britain, mainly Scotland. These include the main streets Dee and Tay, as well as those named after the Forth, Tyne, Esk, Don, Thames, Mersey, Ness, Yarrow, Spey and Eye rivers.
On our drive from Invercargill on up to Lake Te Anau, where we’d spend the night, we passed through some of the rich farmland and along the rugged south coast of New Zealand. One of the issues facing farmers in the area was that once deer were brought to New Zealand (probably for sport hunting), with no natural predators, their population soared out of control. This did not make the farmers and ranchers happy. So, they tried mass hunting but this too didn’t work out. Not only was it difficult but the local population didn’t like the idea. Then they tried rounding them up. But once again this is not easy to do and then what the heck do you do with them.
So, they decided that creating a venison industry might do the trick. They fenced in many large pastures that had been used for sheep and cattle and turned them into deer farms. Now, if you’ve ever tried to keep deer out of your fenced garden you can imagine that it’s not all that easy to keep deer inside a fenced pasture. But, for once luck was on their side. The deer loved the rich green yummy grass that was theirs for the taking in the deer pastures. So, even though it was easy for them to hop the fence and leave they had no desire to do so. In fact there were many cases where a farmer put 50 deer in his pasture then came back a few days later and found that he had over 100. Yes, some just hop out and leave, but usually just as many or more hop in and stay.
The town of Te Anau is on the eastern shore of Lake Te Anau which is itself in the expansive Fiordland National Park. The park contains, among other wonders, the famous Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound. The National Park is a great place for wilderness backpacking (which the Kiwi call “Tramping”) and people from all over the world come here for that purpose. Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in the South Island and within New Zealand second only to Lake Taupo.
The west side of Lake Te Anau is bordered by the Kepler and Murchison mountain ranges which can be seen from the town of Te Anau.
Make no mistake about it, the town of Te Anau is a tourist town. Although as of the 2013 census the population was only 1,911 there are over 4,000 beds available in hotels and motels.
The town is used as a base for those undertaking the Milford Track and the Kepler Track, the latter being a 4-day loop from Te Anau. Visitors to the area also partake in activities such as kayaking, cycling, jet boat riding, fishing and hunting, farm tours and seaplane/helicopter sightseeing. In 2014, readers of New Zealand's Wilderness magazine voted Te Anau as the best location in New Zealand for tramping (hiking) opportunities.
Other than dinner and a stroll along the lakeshore at sunset, all we did here was to spend the night which allowed us to get an early jump on the drive up to Milford Sound.
Invercargill, an unremarkable city at the south tip of New Zealand
Bales of something in the rich farmland
Riverton Harbor along the south shore of the South Island
Lake Te Anau near Manpouri
Town of Te Anau
Lake Te Anau
Lake Te Anau
Eglinton Valley (Fiordland National Park)
Te Anau, where we spent the night, is on the eastern side of Fiordland National Park. Fiordland National Park, takes up around 8% of the South Island and occupies the southern most part of the west coast. It is the largest of the 14 national parks in New Zealand coming in at 4,826 mi2 (12,500 km2) which is roughly 40% larger than Yellowstone National Park in the USA. This park is a major component of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site.
During the cooler past, glaciers carved many deep fiords, the most famous (and most visited) of which is Milford Sound. Other notable fiords include Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound. Fiordland's coast is steep and jagged, with the fiords running from the valleys of the southern ranges of the Southern Alps, such as the Kepler and Murchison Mountains. At the northern end of the park, several peaks rise to over 6,500 feet (2,000 meters).
After leaving Te Anau we drove north along Lake Te Anau and into the national park on our way to Milford Sound. This route traverses much of the length of the picturesque Eglinton Valley before turning west into the Hollyford valley and climbing up to and through the ¾ mile long Homer tunnel at an elevation of around 4,000 ft.
The Eglinton valley was glacier formed so has steep sides and a flat bottom which makes it great for road building. It's between 0.5 and 1.2 miles wide and has a braided riverbed floor, which is constantly being changed by the Eglinton River. Since the Eglinton Valley is a long narrow valley with clear natural boundaries, a wide variety of flora and fauna, and a road running up the middle, it is an ideal location to explore and see the stunning surrounds. Especially since it is one of the only road-accessible valleys in Fiordland.
Along the valley floor are several interesting pull off’s (some even have rest rooms would you believe) where you can see tall mountains, mirror lakes, varied waterfalls and abundant wildlife. But, pretty much anyplace you decide to pull over you will be greeted with a magnificent view. You’ll see steep valley walls give way to snowcapped alpine peaks. You’ll see a chain of lakes with glass like surfaces reflecting the mountains of the Southern Alps. Waterfalls will be all around you, cascading down the near vertical valley walls. The waterfalls, too numerous to even have known names – vary from full flow torrents shooting out from higher hanging valleys all the way to sinuous silver threads that dance back and forth across steep slopes as they zig-zag their way to the valley floor.
Grass covered Eglinton Valley floor with Southern Alps in the background
Mountains rise from the valley floor and disappear into fog above snow dusted peaks
A string of mirror lakes reflect the mountains
Waterfall near Mount Christina
Hollyford river near Mt. Christina
Many thin waterfalls zig zag down steep slopes
Flat valley floor gives way to steeper slopes
Homer Tunnel (Fiordland National Park)
About three quarters of the way to Milford sound you’ll pass through the Homer Tunnel. This ¾ mile long tunnel was cut through the Darran Mountain Range under Homer Saddle in 1953 and connects the Hollyford valley on the east to the Cleddau valley on the west. When opened, it was a single lane gravel affair at which time it was the longest gravel surface tunnel in the world. Since then it has been widened and paved which is a good thing as otherwise we’d have a lot of tour buses wedged in like corks in a bottle. Now the tunnel is wide (and tall) enough to allow a full size tour bus to pass a regular sized car going the other way – but not wide enough for two buses to get past each other.
The tunnel and road were built as part of a depression era relief program, similar to our WPA or CCC. Digging for the tunnel began 1935 and completed a rough road the full way through the tunnel the same year. The digging crew initially just had five men with picks and wheelbarrows who lived in tents in the mountainous area near the tunnel site and where there might be no direct sunlight for half of the year. At least three were killed by avalanches over the coming decades.
Progress was slow, with difficult conditions including water from snow melt flowing into the tunnel. Compressors and a powerhouse at a nearby river were eventually built to pump out over 10,000 gallons of water per hour. Work was interrupted by World War II, and an avalanche in 1945 destroyed the eastern tunnel portal. These problems delayed the tunnel's completion and opening until 1953.
In 2002 a tour bus carrying tourists from Singapore caught fire inside the tunnel, halting 500 ft. from the eastern end. The passengers and driver had to stumble through a pitch-dark and smoke-filled tunnel to safety with the help of headlights from traffic stopped at the entrance. However, two passengers went the wrong way and made it to the Western end. Three people were flown to Southland Hospital and treated for smoke inhalation. Like most governments, action is only taken after a serious event, so after this accident they installed a satellite phone and fire extinguisher system in the tunnel. But problems still occurred. In 2008, two tourist buses were destroyed by fire outside the tunnel in January and March, though the fires were not related to the tunnel.
The popularity of the route increased and in 2005 they installed lighting as well as traffic lights to regulate one-way traffic flow through the tunnel as it is not wide enough for 2 tour buses to pass each other. They did use some smarts though as the signals are timed to favor west bound traffic in the mornings when all the tourists are trying to get to Milford Sound for their cruise and favor east bound traffic in the afternoon when they all return. The traffic lights operate only during the peak summer season since the avalanche risk makes it unsafe to stop and queue at the entrances in winter and spring. With increasing traffic on the road, it is expected that the risk to vehicles waiting at the portal will also increase.
A widening of the tunnel, to allow for two full lanes has been discussed. While this would make it unnecessary to force cars to wait in the avalanche areas, the high costs make this unlikely, especially for a road which (in national-level terms) carries little traffic—even if it is of very high importance for the tourism industry.
But, given all of that, we made it through without issue.
The Chasm - Cleddau Valley (Fiordland National Park)
Once you exit the Homer tunnel on the west side you will notice a dramatic difference in the weather – at least we did. Now we were on the west side of the mountain range where the prevailing winds blow moist air from the Tasman Sea onto the mountains; the cooling of this air as it rises produces a prodigious amount of rainfall. At 252 in per year Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. Rainfall can reach 10 in during a span of 24 hours. In most months they get measurable rainfall on more than half of the days.
And true to form the rain came down. Of course, this also makes for way more and bigger waterfalls. As we descended through the Cleddau valley we stopped at a little loop hike to The Chasm. This is a narrow gorge carved by the Cleddau river. The nature walk leads you from a large car park through a tree fern filled rain forest setting to the gorge itself.
Unfortunately it is really hard to get a good look at the chasm and waterfalls from the pathway. There are a few places as you walk through this lush forest where you can get a glimpse of the gorge and flowing water but not many. At one point there is a bridge that goes over the upper end of the gorge, but due to the twisting and turning of the gorge itself it is hard to get an overall impression of it. But it certainly can be heard as the water crashes through this narrow slot.
We were kind of rushed for time as we were trying to make the early departure in Milford Sound (the one before 90% of the other tourist busses show up) so I didn’t have much time to photograph. But I did get a few shots. One (that I’m not showing) was straight down from the bridge into the Chasm with the water flow at the bottom. This would have been a decent shot except that my lens cap, hanging from its string, pretty much covered the entire scene.
Cleddau river where it enters “The Chasm”
Tree Ferns in rain forest on “The Chasm” nature walk
Small side stream flowing toward “The Chasm”
Milford Sound (Fiordland National Park)
The southern end of the west coast of the South Island is riddled with sounds - one after the other. Most of them can only be accessed by sea or very strenuous, multi day backpacking trips. But, two of them have better access. Doubtful Sound is said to be the nicer of the two, but there is no road access to it. The only way to see it is to take ships from Queenstown or other ports. Some of these are full day affairs and some are overnight but all are quite expensive. Milford sound, on the other hand is much more accessible. As you’ve been reading once you get to the sound by road you’ll find a large terminal with several dozen ships of many sizes and varieties from a half dozen or more different companies all willing to take you for a cruise on the sound – either as an excursion or an overnight cruise. There are kayaks for rent and a plethora of other water based options. In the case of Milford Sound, you are already at its inland end when you board the ship so there is no wasted time getting to or from the sound -- you’re in it the entire cruise. Our cruise was on a good size power boat, much like a ferry you might see near Seattle. We went the full 10 miles to the Tasman Sea and back. As I recall it was a couple of hours.
Milford Sound has been judged the world's top travel destination in an international survey (the 2008 Travelers' Choice Destinations Awards by TripAdvisor) and is acclaimed as New Zealand's most famous tourist destination. Rudyard Kipling had previously called it the eighth Wonder of the World. The sound itself runs 10 or so miles inland from Dale Point (named after a location close to Milford Haven in Wales) at the Tasman Sea and is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 3,900 ft.(1,200 meters) or more on either side. Among the peaks are The Elephant at 4,977 feet (1,517 meters), said to resemble an elephant's head, and The Lion, 4,272 feet (1,302 meters) in the shape of a crouching lion. Although you couldn’t prove it by me, Milford Sound sports only two permanent waterfalls, Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls. It seems that all the other hundreds of waterfalls are of the temporary variety and dry up after a day or two of no rainfall. However, after talking to friends who have visited Milford and Doubtful sound, it seems rare to have even one rainless day, let alone several. But, I guess it happens – but certainly not when we were there.
As one would surmise, all the sounds along the SW side of the South Island, including Milford Sound, were formed by glaciers. These glaciers carved out round or flat bottomed valleys with sheer vertical cliff walls. When the glaciers melted, the sea took there place and filled the valley bottom.
The first people to arrive in Milford Sound were of course the Maori. This was about 1,000 years ago. And they were still around the area when Captain Cook set up camp further south at Dusky Sound in 1773. He stayed for five weeks, ate seals and birds and made friends with local Maori families, even welcoming them aboard and showing them the ship’s cat the likes of which they had never seen before.
A seal hunting colony, including the first colonial building in New Zealand, was established in 1791 and lasted 30 years till the seals were all killed. In 1829 sealers where replaced by whalers who killed off all the whales in the area. After that things were pretty quiet as the Europeans concentrated on other areas. The Maori disappeared too, due to the outbreak of war between the two main tribal groups. The scattered survivors became known as the ‘lost tribe’ and the only trace of them that anyone ever saw was the odd smoking fire or fresh footprint.
In 1877 a strange Scottish ex-soldier named Donald Sutherland moved to the area with his dog named John O’Groats. He became known as the Hermit of Milford Sound. Sutherland spent 40 years at Milford Sound exploring and becoming an expert of the area. He kept pretty much to himself and one occasion went 2 whole years without interacting with anyone but his dog. Thus he became known as the Hermit of Milford Sound. But things change and after a bit, Milford Sound became a tourist destination with steamboats bringing in loads of tourists, artists and wanderers to his little Mecca.
Well, not one to buck the tide, in 1890 he married Elizabeth Samuel. Turns out he was her fourth husband as her 3 prior husbands had died. It is unclear how they died, but die they did. As more and more tourist seemed to be flocking to Milford Sound, Donald and Elizabeth built a hotel and Elizabeth became known as the Mother of Milford. Sutherland himself entertained guests with tall tales of sea monsters and hidden valleys full of rubies and diamonds.
Stirlin Falls, Milford sound
Forked (unnamed) waterfall, Milford Sound
Waterfall (unknown name), Milford Sound
Milford Sound from the back of our boat
One of the other Milford Sound excursion boats
More Milford Sound waterfalls whose names I don’t know
Milford Sound Waterfall hitting a ledge
Stirlin Falls, Milford Sound
One of the other excursion ships by Stirlin Falls, Milford Sound
Close weather in Milford Sound
Lady Bowen Falls, Milford Sound
On to Queenstown
After leaving Milford Sound our next destination was Queenstown. Please indulge me as I get geographic. Queenstown is 47 miles southeast of Milford Sound – as the crow flies. But, not being crows we had to use roads. And as there is only one road to Milford Sound, there is only that same road from Milford Sound so we had the pleasure of seeing again what we already saw. Fortunately the scenery was just as fantastic going as it was coming – and as I was in the same seat on the bus I got to see everything on the other side. So, we followed the same road, over 85 winding miles all the way back to Te Anau where we had spent the night. But, I already included those photos above so won’t again. Once we made it back to Te anau, two hours later, we turned east for awhile and then back north finally arriving at Queenstown 178 miles (and almost 5 hours) later. All of which put us 47 miles from the Milford Sound dock.
After turning east at Lake Te Anau, the road followed several wide valleys as it meandered through lush farmland and unfarmed plains covered with native grasses. Along the way we passed several pretty little streams gurgling down from the mountains. Eventually we arrived at the south end of Lake Wakatipu whose east shore we then followed up to Queenstown.
I’ll leave the discussion of Queenstown itself for the next installment.
Native grasses in one of the broad valleys east of Te Anau
One of many pretty little streams
Pasture land with water tank
Typical countryside scene along our route
- - - - - - - - - - - -
I hope you enjoyed reading this episode of our New Zealand trip.
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Thanks for reading – Comments Appreciated – Dan
(Info from Wikipedia, Road Scholar Lectures, and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way and attraction websites)
Keywords: blog, christchurch, cleddau valley, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblognz, eglinton valley, fiordland national park, hollyford valley, homer tunnel, international antarctic center, invercargill, lady bowen falls, lake te anau, little blue penguin, milford sound, milford sound waterfalls, mirror lakes, new zealand water falls, southern alps, stirlin falls, te anau, the chasm, waterfall
Great report and photos.
Fred and Lois Duerk(non-registered)
We really enjoyed your photography and research! It brings our trip alive again!
Hi Dan -
Thanks for keeping up with this.....I love reading your blogs. You learned many more of the falls than I did, and the story about the deer etc was brand new. We have a lot of similar looking pictures of green pastures, waterfalls, and cloudy weather on the Sound. That was a great day!
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