Sunday, 24 January 2016

It’s Not Called a Rainforest for Nothing


We are back in Te Anau again after five rain soaked days down the Milford Road. Yes, the weather forecast was for rain before we left but we figured we’d head to Cascade Creek and see how we went. It’s the middle of summer, right? The rain wouldn’t last for too long, right? Wrong. The forecast just got worse by the day, a stalled weather system above Fiordland National Park brought rain off and on for the first couple of days and then heavy rain for the next three and even now back in Te Anau the forecast is still for heavy rain for the coming four days as well. As I told a few tourists who asked if the rain would stop soon, “you can't have a rainforest if you don’t have rain”.

It’s just as well the last time we visited the Milford Road we had fabulous weather for the nearly 2 weeks we stayed at Cascade Creek exploring the National Park and Milford Sound. It was sunshine every day bar one- the one we walked a section of the famous Milford Track. That day it was torrential rain, the track was flooded, we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us and we were soaked to the skin by the time we returned to Milford and our vehicle. But the drive home was magic, the mountains came alive with hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the sheer rock wall faces as we drove through the valleys.

We’d seen the park in all weathers so we weren’t too concerned this time, we were re-visiting Milford Road to complete a couple of walks we’d missed the last time, do some bird-watching and see some of the areas in a different season.

We stopped at the DOC Camp at Cascade Creek again, the last DOC Camp on the Milford Road and still 43km from Milford Sound itself. It felt like coming home when we pulled into the camp, our same patch in the wilderness was available too! Although if we’d arrived much later in the day I’m sure the site would have been taken. It’s the height of the tourist season and by early evening there were over 120 vehicles parked around the perimeter of the camp and I’m sure more arrived later in the evening. Lucky Cascade Creek is a large area and most campers headed for the bush. This was taken from the doorway, there are nearly as many vehicles in the other direction as well.

The 45 minute loop Lake Gunn Nature Walk is right beside Cascade Creek and is, in my opinion, one of the best short walks along the Milford Road. For people on a tight time schedule or those with less mobility, this walk is a must. The understory is phenomenal, a thick carpet of emerald green mosses smother everything in sight, fallen trees which litter the forest floor are quickly reclaimed by the moss and fungi- moss and fungi that require rain to work their magic. Rotting trees fall apart at the slightest touch. It’s no wonder the Lake Gunn walk and surrounding mountains were used by Sir Peter Jackson in the Misty Mountain scenes in the Lord of the Rings- The Fellowship of the Ring.

The bird life is also amazing…if you stop to listen and observe. It never fails to amaze me how many people comment about the lack of bird life in our bush. I’m sure they must be the ones that stride along the tracks loudly proclaiming to their fellow walkers that there’s nothing to see. Hidden behind trunks, running along branches, flitting about in the undergrowth, are some of New Zealand’s tiniest birds. These little birds are a bit like Kiwis (the people,  not the bird), quiet and reserved- ok, just kidding. If you listen carefully the forest is alive with tiny pips and tweets; contact and alarm calls between birds and their families.

This is New Zealand’s smallest bird, a juvenile Rifleman/Titiponamu (female). She was part of a family of 5 hunting for insects through the lower canopy of the forest.

A male Tomtit/Miromiro is just a little large than the Rifleman but a lot easier to spot as they launch themselves off trunks to catch insects on the fly. Their call is also a little louder, their alarm call a lot louder.

The clouds hung low over Lake Gunn (Misty Mountains?) and Cascade Creek most days, rain squalls passing through on a regular basis for the first two days.

One of the walks we missed last time was the walk to Lake Marian, a small alpine lake in a hanging valley high above the Hollyford Valley. We could see the lake from across the Divide when we walked to the top of Key Summit, part of the Routeburn Track, on our last visit. That was a gut-busting walk and this one proved to be as well.

The Marian Falls, a series of cascading waterfalls are a major attraction at the bottom of the walk, a swing bridge crosses the Hollyford River and a short walk leads to a board walk and viewing platforms that hang off the side of the rock walls.

Beyond the falls the track becomes a seriously tough climb (especially if you take a wrong turn), up and onwards towards the lake that feeds the falls below, it's a 3km, 3hour return walk. We took an extra half an hour as it was very slow coming down, David twisted his knee and had to step carefully and go backwards. Luckily he did no major damage, I had visions of setting off our EPIRB at one stage! :)

It was raining and the cloud was low when we left Cascade Creek but by the time we arrived at the lake carpark (just 8kms or so down the road) the cloud had lifted, the rain stopped and blue sky appeared. It was the only blue sky we were to see on our visit to Milford.

Climbing up this rock slide was tough work, we had just emerged form our ‘wrong turn’ track to see people that had been behind us, out in front.

We have no idea where the wrong turn was but others had done the same as the track was formed although really rough and hard to negotiate. Later on we spoke to another couple who had done the same thing. David think’s it was when a side track led to a view over the river, instead of turning back we carried on along the track. We should have clicked though, as there were no orange DOC markers. I looked for the turn on our way back down but still didn’t see where we went wrong.

Finally the track levelled out and after a short distance the bush opened up to reveal a beautiful snow fed alpine lake, Lake Marian…

…and a mermaid!

Not quite what you expect to see high up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere on a relatively cold day. And not one mermaid either, but two and a few Neptunes as well! It must be a thing they have on their ‘must do’ list when visiting NZ- ‘swim in an alpine lake’, there were two other groups that arrived and had a swim too. I say swim but in fact it was more of a quick dip, a yell of surprise and a quick dash for the towel.

We had lunch on the rocks beside the lake listening to the calls of the kea soaring about above us, the squeals of the swimmers as they splashed about in the water and exclamations of joy as others arrived through the gap onto the lake shore behind us.

After lunch I walked around the lake edge to see if I could find the river outlet but it was hidden amongst the boulders in an unreachable corner where the water was this beautiful colour.

The blue sky had disappeared by the time we reached the lake with the cloud rolling back in. By the time we got back to our vehicle the rain had arrived again. We had timed the walk just right! On the way back down the track I found a tiny patch of native NZ Greenhood Orchids poking their heads out of the jumble of overgrown ferns.

It rained heavily overnight and all through the next day which suited us fine as we took the day off to rest our weary bones after the climb to Lake Marian.

It was still raining the next day but we decided to drive through to Milford Sound anyway, well in fact as the rain got heavier and heavier as we progressed through the mountains, we thought we might only go as far as the Homer Tunnel.

We stopped at Monkey Creek, a very popular lookout point down the Upper Hollyford Valley (when the weather is clear), it’s also where Kea (NZ’s alpine parrot) sometimes hang out and sure enough there were 4 or 5 bouncing around the carpark, one pulling at a guys shoelaces as he was preoccupied with his head under the bonnet of his car. A couple of tour buses pulled in behind us and as soon as the people started to appear the kea quickly came over to check them out. Well most of them did, a couple disappeared under the nearest bush.

I know the feeling mate- wet and bedraggled a kea and it’s juvenile chick take a back seat for while.

Even in the heavy rain there was plenty of traffic moving to and from Milford Sound, so many tour buses and motorhomes along with rental cars, the road was extremely busy. I’ve read figures on the DOC blogs that mention on peak days there are over 1,000 vehicles visiting Milford Sound each day.

We pulled over at the Homer Tunnel to check out the waterfalls cascading down the rock walls.

Many others did too, some venturing close to the water. Can you see the person at the bottom of the falls?

We decided as we’d come this far we might as well carry on to Milford Sound where we found the carparks overflowing and the rain gone for the moment.

We’ve already cruised Milford Sound- on a fine day. We wandered down to the wharf to check it out. Mitre Peak had its head in the clouds.

Most of the tour boats were out on the Sound…

…with a couple waiting to board passengers or just departing on their next cruise.

Looking back towards the tiny village of Milford from the wharf with Sheerdown Peak behind.

We left Milford and headed back into the mountains where is was still raining. We pulled into the Chasm carpark thinking we might have lunch in our vehicle while watching the tour buses arrive and depart but it was just too wet for me to organise a cup of tea on my seat while standing in the rain so instead…

…I joined the throng of tourists with their colourful umbrellas and wet-weather ponchos and walked the short distance to view the Chasm, a place where the Cleddau River is forced into a 22m deep and narrow ravine. I’d seen it on our last visit but thought I might as well see it again, who knows when or if we’ll be back this way in the future.

I did feel sorry for the busloads of tourists, most would have left Queenstown in the morning where it was fine and sunny. This would be their one and only chance to visit Milford and while the waterfalls are spectacular there’s nothing that can compare to the stunning views of the mountains along the Milford Road on a clear day.

The cloud lifted and the rain stopped for a brief moment as we drove up the Cleddau Valley towards the Homer Tunnel…

…but just a minute later, both were back.

We pulled into a layby just below the tunnel and decided we’d now have lunch overlooking the valley below- the rain started just as we stopped. A few tour buses on their way to Milford also stopped to let their passengers out to see the view. We were soon surrounded by trigger happy tourists but thankfully the heavy rain soon had them scurrying back to the bus. Though our view disappeared too- underneath the approaching rain cloud and behind the fogged up windows!

We waited for the lights to change before we pulled up to the head of the queue to wait for the tunnel lights to change again, it's a 6 minute wait which is great if you’re wanting to take photos. Last time we stopped here we were accosted by a lone kea begging for treats. There were none waiting today.

We made it home safe and sound and not too wet all things considered. With heavy rain forecast for the next few days (at one stage, 500mm for the weekend) we decided we’d head back to Te Anau. We’d done the one walk we’d missed last time and a couple of the others I had in mind we would have been re-doing some sections so they can wait until our next visit…if there is another visit. I was disappointed to not get some bright time in the forest with the birds but again, all things considered, I still managed a few half decent shots.

Milford is definitely a fabulous place to visit, but I think I prefer it when it’s sunny. But…as I kept telling anyone who’d listen, you can’t have a rainforest without rain.

Realtime- I thought I’d add either Realtime or Catch-up to the start of my blog posts because I know I sometimes get confused when I look back at the blog posts as to whether they are current or a catch-up post and I’m sure some of you do too, so now you’ll know.


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, it is pretty impressive isn't it. Hard to imagine places like this exist in NZ. We are very lucky.

  2. Great post showing different moods of Milford under the forces of nature. We have seen so many perfect photos of Milford Sounds in sunny days but rarely good ones in bad weathers. Even in rain, you still churn out stunning photos! For those poor tourists who think they have yet seen the most beautiful Milford, they just have to come back another time, like us :) Your photos bring back our memory of 16 years ago, when we first came to NZ, took a bus in fly out day trip from QT. It was February, we tourists were packed like sardine on the Mirror Lakes Track and tour boats. Our driver even zoomed past some points of interest when he saw there're too many people. Any how we were lucky enough to have the drizzle stopped by the time we reached the sounds and we managed to have a sunny cruise and the most unforgettable fly back journey to QT. We told ourselves we must come back one day and drive ourselves, stop whenever we want, walk wherever we fancy to really take in the beauty of this place. And we did return 13 years later late November with a motorhome for the scenic drive, serene camping and wonderful Key Summit Walk. We walked Marian Lake Track too but only until Gantry, our legs were failing us after the Key Summit Walk :) We'll leave that for another time. Oh yes next time we'll take the Lake Gunn Nature Walk too....

    1. Thanks offstone, glad I revived your memories and have given you some more ideas to do on your next trip.


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