Milford Sound is one of New Zealand's most beautiful areas. Sheer mountain cliffs drop into the calm waters. Frequent rainfall creates dozen of temporary waterfalls and feeds several permanent waterfalls. The cliffs can be over a mile high, the highest oceanside cliffs in the world. Despite being a 4 hour drive from the two closest large cities (we stayed in a smaller town 2 hours away), it is the country's largest tourist attraction. Arriving in the area, you wouldn't figure that it is a big tourist spot. There are only two places to stay, a small hotel and a fancy hostel. There are no grocery stores, no restaurants, no gas stations, and not even a McDonald's. Most people come on day tours from Queenstown and Invercargill, leaving early in the morning on large buses and returning later in the day. There are only a number of things to do in Milford Sound. You can hike the Milford Track (a several day hike from Te Anau), you can kayak through the sound, take a helicopter ride up the coast, or take a tour on a boat. The most common are the boat tours, and since it came highly recommended, Dawn and I set out in the morning to get on the first tour of the day.
We booked our tour at the hostel and drove down to the dock. I hoped our boat size wouldn't be directly proportional to the quality of our tour.
We climbed aboard the smallest boat in the harbor with about 15 other people and set off. The views were absolutely amazing. The boat slowly chugged out into the sound, the captain only briefly pointing something out every 5 minutes and allowing us to absorb the beauty around us.
As I mentioned before, many of the waterfalls were created by the recent rainfall, others strengthened. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world, but the rain actually creates more scenic views. It wasn't a hard rain, just enough for me to want to keep my hat on (and glad that I had a waterproof jacket). I don't think even rain could dampen the stunning views available in every direction.
Eventually the boat went out into the Tasman Sea (body of water between Australia and New Zealand). The wind was very strong and very chilly (the roaring 40s coming up from Antartica). The captain indicated that the waters could get very choppy. We turned around for the return trip through the sound. We passed by some seals napping on the rocks and continued chugging slowly along. Eventually we arrived back at the dock and departed the boat. I have uploaded tons of pictures from the tour, make sure you check out the photo gallery.
The rain also created waterfalls along the cliff walls as we left Milford Sound. It was hard to keep driving, you just wanted to stop and take in the views forever. We had planned on making it to Wanaka that night, so we had to keep moving.
Our next stop was Queenstown, 290 km (180 miles) away.
As we traveled to Queenstown, we passed more and more set locations for Lord of the Rings. One place in particular was supposed to have several sets on site, and also offered the opportunity to feed llamas, goats, deer, buffalo, horses, buffalo, and cows that look like yaks. Sounded like a great place to stop to me. Right before we reached Queenstown, we turned off to visit Deer Park.
After paying the $20 to enter, I drove up the path to the first animal paddock. I was surprised there were no rangers, no one monitoring where we traveled, just an automated system that sucked in $20 bills. I was eager to get to the buffalo, but first we had to pass through the llamas. I rolled down my window, stuck the tin of food out of the car, and rattled to get each llama's attention. As they flocked to the car, I rolled up my window, rolled down Dawn's window, and locked the windows. Every llama was forced to go to Dawn's side of the car. It was funny for a minute, but then the llamas started reaching inside the car to get the food. Before Dawn killed me, I pulled the car forward.
We continued up the hill and through the deer paddock. The bucks wanted nothing to do with us and just moved further away as we tried to walk up to them. Since these deer weren't hunted (rather allowed to get nice and fat before being sent to the butcher), the antlers on these suckers were huge. Dawn managed to get a doe to come up to be fed. We got back in the car and kept our eyes peeled for the first buffalo.
We passed a sign indicating that the buffalo paddock was on the way out of the park, so we decided to go up for the scenic views and find the areas where Lord of the Rings were filmed. Reaching the top of the mountain I felt like I had been transported to Middle Earth. I immediately began scanning the map for set locations, but Dawn was less than enthusiastic about reenacting movie scenes with me. See wanted to take more pictures of the mountains and valleys. I begrudgingly abided and got back in the car to drive to the summits. The views were absolutely outstanding.
If you want to see more incredible pictures, make sure to check out the photo gallery. I uploaded tons of pictures, those included in the blog are only a small subset.
After spending a significant time driving around the top of the mountain, Dawn finally agreed to join me on my quest to find the filming locations for Lord of the Rings. Dawn snapped a couple pictures of me reenacting parts of the film, check out the gallery to see all the shots and descriptions of the scene from the movie. Here is one of me acting as Legolas spotting orcs running through the valley.
It was finally time to see the buffalo. I had bought three more buckets of food to make sure we didn't run out. I drove back down the mountain to the buffalo paddock. We spotted the buffalo in the back of the field, but conveniently along a dirt path up the hill. Fully understanding that a Toyota Corolla is not intended for off road use, my desire to get close to a buffalo overwhelmed my fear of getting stuck or rolling down the mountain. We slowly pulled up next to the buffalo. I shook the food tin again, and one of the buffalo slowly made their way over to the car.
The buffalo came right up to my window and I slowly offered some food in my hand. As he sniffed the food, a ball of snot dripped onto my hand. The buffalo opened his mouth and showed his huge teeth. I panicked, squeeled like a little girl, and dropped the food onto the ground. The buffalo bent over and began eating the food I dropped, not caring that he was scraping his horns along the side of the car. Fearing scratches and dents, I quickly offered more food in my hand to distract him from the food under the car. I slowly got used to (but not exactly comfortable) feeding this huge animal from my hand. A second buffalo made his way over to my window. I could not handle two buffalo both trying to eat from my hand at the same time, so I threw some more food on the ground. To my horror, the two buffalo began butting heads 3 feet away from my window! I imagined one falling into the car and pushing us down the hill (the buffalo were probably bigger than the Corolla). I frantically yelled at Dawn to wiggle her can outside her window to get one of the buffalo to go to her side. Thankfully the two buffalo separated. I paused feeding my buffalo to take some pictures of Dawn. Just like before, the buffalo began scraping his horns on the car to get to the food I had dropped. I realized that it would probably be prudent to continue on our way. I started the engine as quietly as I could (to make sure the big buffalo wouldn't confuse me as competition for its food and start butting the car) and began backing down to the main path.
I breathed a sigh of relief as we got back on the path and continued down the mountain. We turned the corner and immediately ran into a yak Scottish cow (until I went to Scotland, I thought this was a yak). Scottish cows are big, really big (and this is coming from someone who had just been right next to a buffalo). I got my confidence back up and offered a handful of food. The yak-looking cow smelled my hand, but wouldn't eat from it. I'm almost grateful it didn't want to eat from my hand. I made the mistake of throwing the food on the ground, and the yak-cow began eating at the foot of the car. The cow's horns are about 100 times longer than a buffalo's, so I was in an even worse situation than I was in before. Meanwhile, a herd of ponies had surrounded Dawn's side of the car and were obnoxiously eating anything they could get in their mouths.
We distracted all the animals by throwing the rest of food as far away from the car as possible. I quickly moved away from the danger zone and worked my way back out of the park. Dawn and I continued into Queenstwon for some dinner. We began to realize that we weren't going to make it to Wanaka at a reasonable hour, so we checked into a hotel on the lake on the edge of Queenstown. Tomorrow we'd be making our to the Franz Josef glacier, but it was going to be a pretty long drive.