Day 3 – Mt Cook National Park / Purakaunui Bay
We got up, made coffee and ate breakfast. We chatted with a woman from Auckland while most of the other visitors slept. An hour so later we packed up, thanked the warden and began our great descent down the mountain.
Something else I forgot to mention: the visitor’s center states it will take 3.5-4.5 hours to make it up the mountain ridge. Josh and I made it in 2:40. Oh, so I wasn't moving as slow as I thought I was! On the way down, we met other hikers on their way up. We told them what to expect and offered our encouragement. We knew how difficult the trek was. However, we found it more difficult going down and fighting against gravity. By the time we reached the bottom, my legs were jello. I glanced at my watch; we made it down in about 2:40 again. Not bad.
We stopped at the visitors’ center to let them know we made it safely back. We soon found out that the park’s only gas station pump was out of order, excuse me, I meant to call it a petrol station pump (call it a gas station and New Zealanders will give you nothing but a blank, dumbfounded stare.) Luckily we had just enough fuel to get us to the nearest station. We picked up some petrol and groceries and headed down south.
We decided on the fly to head to Purakaunui Bay, to camp for the night. It was a long drive but a pretty one. The South Island is huge for agriculture. Besides the nonstop fields of sheep, there is an enormous abundance of fruit and veggie farms. We stopped at a fruit stand along the way and picked up a bag of cherries. Oh, what a treat.
Our GPS took us to a narrow, and seemingly deserted, gravel road. What kind of place is this Purakaunui Bay? I briefly worried we’d get stuck, but we made it. I’m glad we didn’t try to turn back because we found yet another gorgeous New Zealand sight/site. We found out we could camp there for only $10 US . There were a fair amount of campers who had already set up tents and whatnot, but we found a spot with a decent ocean view. I paid our dues while Josh went and chatted with some surfers.
It was cold, rainy and windy. We nearly lost our tent and Josh was ready to cram his skinny long legs in our tiny rental car, but we ended up in the tent, falling asleep to the sound of nearby sheep. Baaaaah. Baaaaah.
Day 4 – Curio Bay (for a Bit Anyway) and Te Anau
We left the bay behind us and headed out in search of Purakaunui Falls. The falls were a short hike from the parking lot through a rainforest of sorts. (And a short hike was a very good thing, as my legs didn’t seem to want to walk after our mountain hike.) Josh got some beautiful footage, and an older couple had me take their photo. What a couple of cuties.
We got back on the road, and wouldn’t you guess, we ran into sheep. A mob of them. In the street. What dumb animals! It took only minutes and our car was surrounded. There were three factors that contributed this: the sheep’s fear, herd mentality, and their deep seated need to eat whatever grass is in front of them. Oh, and our decision to keep driving towards them; I guess that was a factor too. The mob began to taper off and before we knew it, a herd dog and a farmer showed up and saved the day.
We drove on towards Curio Bay, fighting extremely windy conditions on the way. The rain guard on our back passenger window, which was partially detached upon pick up, hammered against the glass threatening to rip off and/or break the window. We hoped to see penguins, seals and dolphins in Curio Bay. Josh hoped to surf. However, when we arrived the surf shops were closed and the wildlife was more than likely taking shelter somewhere. It was simply too windy.
We thought about staying at a hostel on the coast, but with the lack of surf, wildlife, and as it seemed, restaurants, we didn’t know what we’d do for the rest of the day. Plus, we had to get up to Milford Sound the next day, and that was another very long drive. And so, we left. We stopped for a Valentine’s Day lunch at a brewery in Invercargill. (And wow, what cool music videos they had playing there! I got to watch Lionel Ritchie and Shania Twain sing ‘Endless Love’.) We jumped back in the car and headed north for Te Anau.
Te Anau is the hub for all tourists heading up to Milford Sound. It was busy when we arrived that evening. There wasn’t much for lodging available. We ended up at a holiday park out on Te Anau’s fringes. The holiday park didn’t have much character, but it was quiet, the showers were awesome, and the beds were cozy. $44 for two people was a deal, at least by New Zealand standards.
We grabbed dinner and drinks at a pizza place and went back to our rooms and checked in for the night. Tomorrow we were bound for the 8th Wonder of the Natural World…
Day 5 – Milford Sound
Mid morning we jumped on the Te Anau-Milford Sound Highway, the only route to Milford Sound. We stopped for a couple photo ops along the way. Unfortunately, the Chinese just kept getting away. (Yes, I know that’s an horrible way to phrase it, but it was totally true! It was Chinese New Year, so there was a huge spike in Chinese tourists, most of them on giant tour buses. I’m sorry, I’m just reporting the facts here.)
So, gorgeous scenery, yes, yes, bla- blah-blah, and then we made it to Milford Sound Lodge. We arrived a little early so we couldn’t check into our room yet, but the receptionist had good news for us: a kayak tour was leaving in about an hour for Milford Sound. They needed two more people and if we booked right away, we would save about $50. We signed up.
Our guide, Jesse, picked us up and shuttled us to the boat launch. With us was a Minnesotan, one couple from Australia and one couple from the UK. Jesse was from Iowa, so yes, half of our group was from the Midwest. After going over the basics, Rosco, the tour owner, loaded everything and everyone in the boat and we sped off down the sound to the Tasman Sea.
And what luck! Not only did we get a discount on the tour, but we also got a sunny day! Apparently sunny days at Milford Sound are few and far between. It is usually cloudy and rainy, but when we lowered ourselves into our kayaks that afternoon, the sky was clear and the sun was glistening on the Tasman Sea. I was waiting for dolphin to pop out of the water (and maybe wink at me or something), but we weren’t that lucky. Sadly, no dolphins.
We did, however, see seals. One did a barrel roll right next to our kayak. We also had pretty much the entire sound to ourselves. A few tour boats came through here and there, but it was only the eight of us in our four kayaks.
The tour was fairly easy going. The nice thing about the particular tour we took was that by starting at the Tasman Sea, we didn’t have to kayak as hard. The waves pushed us down the sound. (Ok, let’s get real here: it’s technically a fiord/fjord, but whatever.) It didn’t get too wavy, but when it did, we grabbed on to each other’s kayaks and formed a raft. We also kayaked into a waterfall. It was a refreshing and slightly exfoliating shower. Closer to the end we surfed some waves in the kayaks. It was good times. At least we got some sort of surfing in.
Back at the lodge we said our goodbyes and checked into our room. Josh and I decided that we would cancel our second night at the lodge. We had seen Milford Sound; we hadn’t expected that we’d get to kayak so soon and there was still so much more of New Zealand to see. We cancelled for a minimal fee and did some research. We decided to head to Queenstown early and go to Oamaru after that. Tired from the 4.5-hour kayak trip, we went to bed.