Milford Sound on a clear day is a spectacular sight. It is a narrow fiord that runs nine miles to its outlet into the Tasman Sea. The sides of the fiord are incredibly steep and they are usually covered with waterfalls after a rainfall - and it rains a lot at Milford Sound. The scale of the place is incredible. Mitre Peak, easily recognizable because of its distinctive shape, rises 5551 feet directly out of the ocean to its summit. Waterfalls that seem small in the distance turn out to five hundred or a thousand feet high. It is a beautiful and amazing place.
Our last group activity was a scenic cruise of Milford Sound. We spent an hour and a half sailing out to the ocean and back. It was a beautiful, clear, calm day. The captain of the boat remarked that he rarely had seen the Tasman Sea so smooth. It is known for some serious weather that is given great respect by sailors. The appearance of the peaks and cliffs changed as we traveled up and down the fiord. We even sailed right under Stirling Falls, which sent the people out on the deck scrambling for cover before they got drenched. Sandy spent most of the cruise in a comfortable seat below decks by a large window. I kept popping up and down onto the deck to take pictures where I didn't get a reflection from the windows.
Sandy had decided to splurge on the way back to Queenstown. After the cruise most of the group went back on the bus. It is a comfortable and scenic ride through the mountains that takes about four and a half hours. But Sandy decided on the deluxe option, a helicopter flight back. We went to the small airstrip and boarded a helicopter with two other Americans from our group, Bob and Marissa, for the 45 minute flight.
Just riding in a modern helicopter was amazing. They have so much power and fly so smoothly and are so maneuverable. We climbed out of Milford Sound and headed toward Mt. Tutoko, at 9042 feet the tallest mountain in Fiordland National Park. We flew down several valleys and climbed over ridges. Often the pilot would fly close by and parallel to a steep ridge, or climb up and just barely over a saddle or peak. It was incredible. On all the high peaks I searched the glaciers and snowfields for any sign of human presence and didn't see anything. These peaks are very remote and hard to reach and are very infrequently climbed.
We flew over the Routeburn Track and saw one of the huts. Four Americans from our group were going to start another hike on that trail the very next day. It looked spectacular as well but we were looking forward to some less strenous activities for a while. We just hoped the weather would hold for them for a few more days. Near Queenstown we flew past the summit of Ben Lomond, a peak that we had taken an entire day to hike up the previous year. Strangely on such a nice day we didn't see anyone on the trail on the upper part of the mountain.
One other family had opted for the helicopter option as well. As we neared Queenstown we joined up with it and flew in formation back to the airport and landed together. That was fun too. I have to admit that the guy who flew the helicopter was one person who I really envied for his job. It would be awesome to be flying in those mountains every day. Of course in bad weather it might turn from a dream job to a nightmare.
After checking back into our hotel and retrieving our bags from the concierge, it was time to grab a late lunch. The food in the lodges on the Milford Track had been quite good but we were back in civilization now. We asked for the best hamburger joint in Queenstown. We were directed to Fergburger, only a few blocks from our hotel. This was a tiny hole in the wall place that was very crowded. Just by luck we got one of the few seats while we were waiting for our order. The hamburgers were delicious. They were so big that we ended up skipping dinner that night.
The next morning we picked up another rental car and headed north. We drove through Cromwell again (no tornadoes) stopping at a roadside stand for fresh fruit. Then on to Wanaka, along the lake to the far end, and over Haast Pass in Mt. Aspiring National Park. A scenic drive. Of course coming down from the pass into Westland we hit cloudy skies. Westland claims beautiful ocean coastline but also has notoriously bad weather. (The astute reader has probably noticed by now a consistent theme running through discussions of the weather on the west coast of the South Island.) From Haast we drove for several hours up the coast. Maybe in nice weather the coast would be very pretty but it wasn't impressive in cloud and fog. As we neared the town of Hokitika the weather cleared. It took us a while to find our hotel, the directions on the website were incorrect, but we finally found it. We had a nice little cabin near the beach. We went into the center of town which was pretty much deserted. We found a tiny pizza place, got a pizza to go, and ate dinner on our patio watching the ocean.
In the morning we took a quick trip into downtown Hokitika. At one of the shops we visited in Dunedin Sandy had seen some blown glass crafts that were made in a studio in Hokitika. So Sandy wanted to check the place out. She hit the jackpot. The glass studio had all sorts of beautiful stuff and Sandy got a lot of things for us and for gifts as well. It also turned out that a special sort of jade was found only near Hokitika so there were at least half a dozen jade galleries in town, all with really nice jewelry. Our quick trip into town turned out to last two hours but Sandy found some fantastic items. Sometimes you just find cool places where you aren't expecting them when you are traveling and exploring. It was really strange because the town was almost deserted. Since it was only an hour and a half from Christchurch over Arthur's Pass maybe it is crowded with locals on weekends.
We loaded all our packages into the car for the drive up to Marlborough.