Friday, February 08, 2019

Exploring Milford Sound (Fiordland)

[Kyle]We didn’t manage to see the sunrise our first morning in Deepwater Basin, but having a charter boat moored next to us made sure we didn’t sleep away the whole morning. Our main goal for the day was to get the dinghy out of lifeboat mode and get a few jobs done, like buying some diesel to replace what we had burned getting down here. In between, we snuck in a walk to the “town”, where there were a couple of short trails to viewpoints.

Morning in Deepwater Basin

Milford Foreshore Trail

There is no town, per se in Milford, just a café/gift shop, a lot of bus stops and an enormous tour boat terminal that was overwhelmingly busy. The views were lovely and left us wanting more. Most of the others seemed to be killing time until their boat left. We went to the boat terminal, where a dozen boats were constantly arriving and departing with groups of 100-200 guests each. The inside of the building was like Grand Central Station at rush hour. All available sitting space was occupied, including the floors. Milford Sound is one of the must see things for visitors to New Zealand and they get A LOT of visitors.

{Maryanne: There are two trails in the "town" proper - one a 30 minute boardwark trail (The Foreshore Walk) from the overflow carpark to the tour boat harbour - it takes you away from the road and to some stunning shore views - so you should take it even if you are not parked in the overflow parking lot! The other was a short 10 minutes uphill (stair) trail (the Lookout Track) to a viewing platform - but when we went the view was partially blocked by a lot of trees. A third trail takes you out of town to the Milford Sound Lodge, along the Cleddau River. A fourth trail is the fully fledged Milford Track - a four day hike through the wilderness that starts across the sound (i.e. you need a boat to get there!). Any others are further out of town and you'll need a car to get to.}

The road in only comes to the head of the fiord, so the only way to see Milford properly is by boat. Tours start at 9:00am and finish at 6:00pm. Between those hours, there is a constant parade of boats (as well as airplanes and helicopters) following each other in their circuit of the sound. At night, it was just us, about fifty employees and a few guests who had paid for the fancy overnight tours that included a night on a mooring. The whole time we were there, we were the only visiting boat.

A stroll along the Cleddau River

Since we had seen the fiord by boat, and would again, we decided to spend our next day hiking a bit of the Milford Track. Then Maryanne spotted a brochure for the Discovery Center, an underwater observatory, and that got added in as well.

We started with the Discovery Center. The idea was that we would get up early and dinghy over there after they opened, but before the first of the cruise boats arrived.

We didn’t make it as early as we had hoped. En route, our Torqeedo failed on us. The charge state went from 80% to 0% all at once and the thing shut down. We got it restarted and it ran on zero for half a mile or so before it finally quit for good at the real zero. At the first instance, the prudent thing to have done would have been to turn tail and head home, but Maryanne had already been hinting that she would really need a wee soon. The Discovery center was a mile and a half ahead of us, home was three miles back, so we pressed on.

When the engine quit for good, we took it off of the transom, stowed it under the seat and then rearranged ourselves so I could start rowing. We were a long way from home and I didn’t want to be rowing the wrong way, but Maryanne’s eyes were pleading silently with me, so we pressed on in our original direction.

When we got to the Discovery Center, they seemed surprised to see us. Well, not really. We had taken a couple of hours to expand from a yellow dot into a rowboat with the two of us in it, but they seemed surprised we had come all of that way to see them. The guy on the dock, which was clearly intended for boats way bigger than ours, told us from his high perch that visits to the center were only done as part of a package tour. They weren’t really open to the public. Without saying anything, we gave a look at the Pudgy and then towards the town, taking in all of the nowhere we could have come from in between and he quickly offered to make an exception, considering we had come so far and all. He even gave us a discount for providing our own transportation. We tied the Pudgy to a cleat on a side dock that was covered in cobwebs and climbed up the ladder to the entrance.

We took the Dinghy to the Discovery Center/Underwater Observatory in Harrison Cove

The first big boat wasn’t expected for another forty minutes, so we were given a tour by a nice Danish guide who wasn’t actually a Marine Biologist, but seemed like he would have no trouble with the exams. We saw a few cool things down there, most notably a nudibranch and some Black coral, which is actually white (It loses its white polyps when it dies, leaving only the black stalks to wash ashore and be discovered).

Once we were back in the dinghy, we had a LONG row back. We had the oars as a backup, but I had really been counting on the Torqeedo to do the work. Now it was up to me and I was already a little worn out from all of the wrong way rowing earlier.

It took three hours, but we finally made it to the channel entrance for Deepwater Basin. By then, I had been rowing so long that I decided a little detour wasn’t really going to add too much to the total. Our original main goal for the day had been to walk a section of the Milford Track, which we both agreed we still had time to do.

The 54km Milford Track is another one of those famous tracks every visiting hiker to New Zealand feels compelled to walk. It is a bit strange, as it appears to start and end at random locations. The trailhead starts at some convenient turnoff on the highway. The end is not at the Milford tourist complex, but is instead at a place called Sandfly Point. From there, it is necessary for walkers to get on a ferry to civilization. The track seems to be done almost exclusively in the direction of Milford Sound. We never found out for sure if it was some sort of official rule or just long-standing custom. It is the mostly downhill direction. Almost everyone we encountered were part of a paid tour group, many of which had indoor lodgings each night, so it wasn’t too arduous for them.

After some hard rowing upstream to the boat landing at Sandfly Point, we were confronted with several conspicuously placed signs prohibiting leaving boats unattended there. (To be fair, there was only room for the ferry). We weren’t about to turn back after all of my effort to get there, so we found a spot further along the shore where we could tie to a tree and scramble up the loose bank to the trail.

A little bit of the Milford Track (and Arthur River) - and the water taxi that arrived for Anders

Before coming to Fiordland, we had been warned about the ravenous Sandflies. By the time we had picked up our mooring in Deepwater Basin, we had seen maybe five, only two of which seemed interested in actually biting us. Keeping them at bay was easily managed by lightly spraying exposed areas with insect repellent. Sandfly Point was the first time we encountered clouds of them. The thought I kept having was, “Why would anyone build anything at a place called Sandfly Point?”

{Maryanne: In Milford sound the ONLY place we were pestered by annoying sandflies was at Sandfly Point – and we could rapidly move away from them. We had no idea how lucky we were – the rest of the fiords would soon educate us!}

They all but disappeared on the trail as we made our way past all of the people going the other way. We walked three miles or so to Lake Ada. We were hoping for a sweeping view from the shore of the valleys beyond, but all we found were tantalizing peeks of the lake’s surface through heavy undergrowth. Even the “viewpoint” only had a view of one little inlet.

I was pretty worn out by then, so when Maryanne suggested turning around, I jumped at the chance and we started walking back to the dinghy.

We had ducked into the hiker’s hut at Sandfly Point to bathe ourselves in repellent when we heard the ferry departing with haste. Soon after, the last guy we had passed came in looking a little concerned. It was 3:58pm. We had heard the last ferry ran at 6:00, so we weren’t too worried for him. He had a piece of paper saying it left at 4:00, which was confirmed by a schedule stapled to the wall. Uh, oh.

The walker’s name was Anders. He is a Prosecutor in Copenhagen. He was on an organized walk with 39 other people. He had a big pack, but no tent, because they had all slept indoors each night. His new wife had flown in from Denmark to meet him in Milford and they were supposed to be starting their honeymoon as soon as he arrived. He was looking increasingly anxious about the prospect of spending another night on the trail – this time alone.

Maryanne accompanied him to the landing while I untangled the dinghy from the bushes upstream. When I arrived, he could see that we weren’t likely to be his salvation. The Pudgy is small to begin with, but since we were out for a whole day’s excursion, our pack, our life jackets and our dead Torqeedo were taking up all of the floor space I wasn’t actually using for my legs. Plus, I was rowing and there was now a pretty strong headwind. That can’t be good.

We did have a handheld marine radio, though, so we started trying every channel we could to get hold of somebody. We had no luck at all, probably because we were out of line-of-sight range.

As he handed us our painter for the row back to Begonia, we promised him we would keep trying with the handheld and then with Begonia’s radio if we made it that far. While I struggled to make headway into the wind, Maryanne did finally get through to someone who directed her to the ferry operator’s working channel. She tried calling them several times, but got no answer. It seemed increasingly likely they had gone home for the day.

We had only made it a couple hundred meters by then. Anders was still pacing the dock. We had a feeling we were his only chance for getting out that night. We couldn’t just leave him there, so we returned to pick him up. We put his pack on our stuff. He and Maryanne each took a gunwale for a seat and we all intertwined legs in the remaining space. The Pudgy was left with about six inches of freeboard (the distance between the water and the rail).

I tried to put all of the day’s previous efforts out of my mind and started rowing as hard and fast as I could sustain for any length of time. It was grueling work. The wind practically stopped us between strokes, but we still had the river’s current helping us, so we were able to keep moving. We weren’t fast enough to outrun the sandflies, so we swatted at them while getting to know each other. They seemed to like me best. They seem to know when a victim has his hands full.

As we got closer to Deepwater Basin, the current slowed and we virtually stopped. Anders offered to row for a while. I refused the first couple of times, but I needed a break and he was pleading with us to be of more use to us than ballast. Plus, he was an athletic young guy.

He didn’t seem to do perceptibly better than I had been doing. That made me feel somewhat less old and out of shape. He had more vim, but I had more experience rowing the pudgy in an efficient straight line. He was really working hard. The wind had picked up to the point where we could only make progress in the lulls. Maybe every third stroke, we would move another meter. The fuel dock, where we were going to drop him off was still almost a mile away (1 nautical mile ~1,800 meters). We were actually starting to look forward to dusk (when the wind dies off for the night) as our only way of getting him there.

Then I spotted the ferry at Sandfly Point. They had apparently done a belated head count and noticed they were one short. Maryanne tuned into their channel and heard a lot of back and forth between base and a concerned ferry skipper who sounded like he was about to resort to setting off on foot to find their missing guest. Maryanne then broke in and explained that we had him and that we were in the process of rowing him to the fuel dock.

”Is he a tall Dutch guy?”

”Danish, actually. He seems tall to us, but he’s probably average height for a Dane.”

They seemed very relieved to hear this, and soon the guy was released to return to town. He started to speed off and then I think he caught sight of us making our pathetic progress and turned hard in our direction. He made a few derisive comments about the seaworthiness of our little craft on the radio, presumably unaware that we were monitoring the frequency. Hey, at least we know where our passenger is!

We were in a spot too shallow for him to approach, so poor Anders had to row his heart out for fifteen minutes to close the gap. As the guy collected Anders and his bag, I couldn’t help but point out that our double-hulled boat was unsinkable and that we did have three life jackets aboard, although I conceded that we weren’t wearing them because the water was mostly waist deep to us shorties.

Now that we had three more inches of freeboard, things were really looking up for us. I had secretly been hoping for a tow, even partway, but the ferry captain seemed a little embarrassed and a lot eager to get Anders where he should have already been, so he disappeared in a froth of prop wash. We didn’t even have time to say a proper goodbye.

Our headwind had strengthened and even without Anders and his pack, we were still only making a dinghy length every ten strokes or so. Maryanne scanned the water behind me (ahead of us), looked at the boats swinging on their moorings and directed me to take a long detour. Of course! She took me to the cliff face on the eastern side of the basin. The wall of rock stopped the wind. Half took a right and came toward us to slow us down, the other half turned left and blew toward Begonia, which was facing us. It took almost half an hour of struggle to get to the cliff, but when we did, I was rewarded with a patch of calm water where I could row at a refreshingly normal intensity like a normal person, making normal progress. Ahhh… Five minutes later, the wind returned, only it was helping us this time. All I had to do was keep us on a direct line and let the wind do the rest. Our main focus was now grabbing onto Begonia as we zinged by because I was not up for trying to get back to her if we missed. Maryanne made some rodeo move I didn’t know she knew and we were thus saved that effort.

That concluded our day of doing everything in Milford all at once. All we needed was a full five hours’ rest and we’ll be good to go further south.

Fellow cruisers? If you are thinking of a trip to Fiordland - see our Fiordland Tips

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