Fiordland National Park

We started our day in Fiordland National Park with yet another spontaneous decision to take an unplanned excursion.  My itinerary had us driving the Milford Sound Highway from Te Anau to Milford Sound, then turning back to do six hours of hiking on the return journey.  We didn’t plan to do another excursion at all, but after our wonderful experience in the glowworm caves the previous evening, we were interested in taking a Milford Sound cruise.

We started the morning early so that we would be able to catch a late morning cruise once we got to the sound.  The Milford Sound Highway is as scenic as roads get, so we found ourselves stopping often to take in the sprawling mountain vistas that surrounded us.

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At one of these stops, we came face to face with a character that I had been desperately hoping to see in Fiordland.  As we pulled into a car park to look at some distant mountains, we noticed that the lot had a few mischievous Keas hopping around, curiously investigating tourists.  The jaw-dropping view was all but forgotten as I followed these alpine parrots through the parking lot, snapping pictures of their antics.

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I took a brief break to look at the mountains, and then it was back to stalking the cheeky yet delightful birds.

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Shortly after getting back on the road, we came to Homer Tunnel, a one-lane tube that cuts through the Darran mountain range.  The entrance to the tunnel was surrounded by unimaginably tall cliffs with waterfalls trickling down their sides, and when we exited the other side, the view was spectacular.

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From here the road got curvier, making our stops less frequent.  We did get out and walk the short track to the Chasm, which is a roaring series of waterfalls inside of a deep gorge.  Along the way, we once again marveled at the forest’s fern trees, and the excellent camouflage of a little New Zealand Bellbird.

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Despite all of our stops, we reached Milford Sound well before lunch time, and promptly booked the next cruise that Jucy had available.  We went with Jucy because they offered a steep discount to passengers who were renting a car from Jucy or Lucky Rentals.   We bought our tickets, and went out to the dock to wait for our boat.

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Once on board, we went immediately to the top deck so we could have unobstructed views of the fiord as the ferry carried us all the way out to the Tasman Sea.  I had a slight fear that taking a fiord cruise would seem redundant after touring the fjords in Norway so recently.  I was quickly proven wrong.  Milford Sound felt different from Nærøyfjord; its walls were steeper and more imposing.  On top of that, our unusually good weather held out for the entire day, which was a stark contrast to the overcast weather we’d had in Norway.

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As we neared the Tasman Sea, the wind picked up drastically, until we were finally out of the fiord and on the open water.  Almost immediately, a pod of bottlenose dolphins began to follow in our wake, playfully jumping out of the water.

On the return trip, our captain pointed out seals basking on sunny rocks, and steered the boat directly underneath Stirling Falls, a single drop waterfall that is three times taller than Niagra.  Everyone on the top deck was thoroughly drenched in the cold water, but elated at the excitement.

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As we neared the end of the cruise, we got a good look at Bowen Falls while hungrily eating gyros that we had purchased onboard.

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At the end of our tour it was time to decide which hikes we wanted to do.  I had originally planned to walk to Lake Marian (a three hour round trip journey), and then take the Routeburn/Key Summit track (another three hour adventure).  At this point it was clear that we would have to choose one, and after some deliberation we decided to do Key Summit.  We had hiked to two lakes in Mount Cook, so we thought that it was about time we climbed a mountain.  First, we stopped and walked the short distance to Marian Falls, the first landmark on the track we were skipping.

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Then it was time to start our ascent to Key Summit.  The climb was steep, but manageable.  Our only worry was conserving water since it was so hot out, and we were quite thirsty.  Near the tree line, we found a spring trickling out of the mountain, where we gratefully refilled our water bottles before our final push to the summit.  When we neared the top we could see that we were surrounded by taller mountains.

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We were surprised to find that the summit was a wetland, dotted with tranquil tarns and a familiar carnivorous plant, Sundew.  We have these in bogs and wetlands at home in Michigan as well.  At the top, there was an easy nature trail that looped around, yielding stunning views.

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It was with reluctance that we returned to the main trail to descend to the carpark, but the sun was quickly sinking in the sky and we wanted to reach the car before dark.  The descent was much faster, and we were on the road by dusk, sad to leave the beauty of Fiordland National Park behind, but excited for our next adventure.

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