Day 6: WET AND BUSY CHRISTMAS
We grudgingly awoke to a 6am alarm having slept late last night watching a couple of family-type comedy movies on Christmas Eve on TV. However, we knew in order to squeeze in a Milford Sound cruise with some hiking today, it was best to try to catch the first available cruise at 9am, and given that it typically takes around 2 hours to drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, we didn’t have much time to spare!
It was partly cloudy around Te Anau but the clouds were low and dark. We knew the weather here was no guarantee of what the weather would be like in Milford Sound.
Anyways, after a hasty breakfast, we left at 6:55am and immediately sped our way north along the Te Anau-Milford Highway. The town was very quiet, which didn’t surprise us considering today was Christmas.
The drive was mostly uneventful though we did have to pass a pair of slower vehicles (not easy to do on the winding road) and also noticed a couple other vehicles going the other way. So I guess we weren’t the only busy bodies this early in the morning on Christmas Day.
At a little before 8am, we managed to pass the Lower Hollyford Road and continue onwards past Christie Falls and towards the Homer Tunnel. The weather started to drizzle with sections of intermittent rain. So the clouds remained and hung quite low, but that didn’t keep us from noticing various waterfalls coming down the mountainsides around the Homer Tunnel vicinity, which we gladly photographed.
The traffic light that usually trades off from red to green every fifteen minutes wasn’t on at the tunnel. So we passed through rather quickly, then made the descent into the U-shaped valley on the other side of the tunnel. We didn’t spend much time stopping given our desire to get to the wharf in time for a 9am cruise so we didn’t stop to take photos from the backside of the tunnel where there were more waterfalls decorating the steep walls of the valley (very much reminiscent of what we had seen so often in the fjords of Norway.
By 8:30am, we finally arrived at Milford Sound, but it was raining here and the clouds were low. We were hoping somehow that the weather might be on the verge of clearing up like it did for us five years ago after a very wet three days while hiking the Milford Track, but when we were done walking to the wharf and visitor center at the end of the road, the weather remained stubbornly threatening with rain.
We managed to book a 9am cruise just five minutes before boarding the boat. Somehow the visitor centre seemed a little different than I remembered it, but then again, memories tend to fade over time. All I thought I recalled from before was that there was a giant sandfly model on the wall facing the entrance. There are a bunch of smaller sandfly models and bat-winged flies there now.
The cruise began in earnest with a pretty delicious croissant breakfast compliments of Real Journeys. And from there, we were into the cruise on the fjord. In the back of my mind, I was curious to see whether our descriptions of this chapter in our book remained relevant and to the point five years later.
Mitre Peak remained mostly blocked by low clouds obscuring its peak. Meanwhile, Bowen Falls still looked like it didn’t change much from before including the fact that the track to its base was still closed as evidenced by a wall preventing further progress along a cliff-hugging bridge in plain sight from the wharf (just like it was five years ago). I guess this trail was pretty much done in much the same way the trail to the base of Tower Fall in Yellowstone had been closed since around 2003 or 2004.
Further out onto the cruise, it seemed like the boat driver wanted to hug the base of the cliffs below Mitre Peak. It was already a different route than I remembered it in the past where we were a little closer to the middle of the fjord, and that there were dolphins messing around before we continued.
Julie and I were debating when I should switch out the lens to the telephoto one in the hopes of seeing wildlife (one major reason why I’m not terribly happy with Canons because they refuse to make a lens that does both wide angle and telephoto in one go like the Nikons do). Anyways, we stayed with the wide angle zoom lens for a bit just to try to capture the waterfalls with this camera (where I had the 3 megapixel Sony Cybershot in the past).
There didn’t seem to be as many waterfalls coming down Mitre Peak as before, but we did get close to the Four Sisters and even went in front of Fairy Falls where the front of the boat got a drenching (though no one was down there). This didn’t happen before, but it was fun nonetheless.
Bridal Veil Falls was also still there and there was a blooming rimu tree in front of it. On the opposite side of the fjord, Palisade Falls was also still twisting its way into the fjord just as I remembered. Likewise, Stirling Falls was also gushing like we remembered it in the past except the dreary weather kind of made any photos of that attraction rather dull and grey with ghostly mountain contours trying to make themselves visible through the low clouds. Despite the weather, it was comforting to know that after five years, our book remained pretty spot on.
We passed by some fur seals before reaching Copper Point, which we didn’t stop for and I didn’t switch out my telephoto lens for yet. But I did go ahead and do it once we got past Copper Point knowing that we should be able to see some wildlife before continuing on to Stirling Falls as we head back into the fjord. I was hoping some penguins would show up as well as they did five years ago.
Julie made me switch back to the wide angle lens as we were approaching Stirling Falls. And not surprisingly, the boat stopped right beneath the falls where the captain congratulated any tourist who took the drenching (just like last time). Again, the scene wasn’t as colorful as we had remembered it, but we took what photos we could given everything were fleeting moments on this cruise.
As we were about to head into the Harrison Cove, we saw some dolphins headed opposite our direction. The boat stopped to try to let us photo them, but I was totally bumming that we lost a few precious moments trying to switch back to the telephoto lens (damn I hate Canon SLRs for this reason).
All I was able to get were a few splashing shots of dolphins in a group surfacing for air.
By 11am we were done with the cruise and walked back to our car. The weather remained rainy, and I guess we were quite lucky with our better Milford Sound experience five years ago.
Anyways as we drove off, the rain got harder. We didn’t entertain any notion of re-visiting the Chasm knowing that there wouldn’t be much of a true waterfalling experience. Besides, the hard rain discouraged us from getting out of the car anyways.
The rain persisted as we approached the Homer Tunnel. We were considering doing the Routeburn Track from The Divide to Key Summit and Earland Falls, but we also wondered about whether we should also do the Hollyford Track from Humboldt Falls to Hidden Falls and back.
Obviously this rain meant that we weren’t going to do the Routeburn Track unless obscured views and climbing mountains in wet weather were our desires. Instead, we were betting that Hidden Falls would be worth the 6-hour hike along the Hollyford Valley.
Julie and I took some time to put on waterproof pants, grab some snacks that we brought along, and don our rain ponchos as we set off. And after crossing the swing bridge at the start, we were officially on the Hollyford Track.
The hike itself was very reminiscent of the flat sections of the Milford Track after descending into the Arthur Valley en route to Sandfly Point. For this track was also passing through extensive groves of native trees and the ubiquitous ferns that are just as iconic as the flightless Kiwis are here. The track was also well developed with each major stream bridged and boardwalks built suspended above the muddiest and swampiest sections.
The sandflies didn’t seem as bad along the track as they were at the trailhead. But then again, maybe that’s because we were constantly on the move and not standing around in one spot.
The weather gradually improved to light rain and it was actually comfortable hiking weather. We saw one group of four people heading back the other way barely an hour into the hike. But beyond that, we didn’t see anyone for the next two hours or so.
At around 2:45pm, we finally arrived at Hidden Falls. There was a signed and long swing bridge crossing a very wide creek while only able to support one person, but from here I noticed immediately that the head of this creek had the waterfall as spray was visible but the falls was facing away from the line of sight at the bridge. I guess that might be why the falls got its name.
So instead of crossing the bridge, we saw there was a path that continued closer to a better viewing spot of the falls. And since the falls was spraying the area real hard, it was also quite muddy and slippery the closer we got.
Finally we got to an area almost in front of the falls. But it was real hard to take a photo here thanks to the intense mist of the falls as its waters were crashing violently into the plunge pool while much of the spray was crashing against cliffs before the self-generated winds were blowing in our direction.
As I tried to get to a spot where I was hoping it would be drier, I happened to slip on one of the rocks and took a nasty tumble eventually crashing into a larger rock where my jaw and right torso stopped my momentum as I was about to fall right into the mud.
Thankful that I was still conscious and nothing was broken, we dutifully took our photos and movies, and then beat a hasty retreat back in the direction of the car park knowing we had a lot of hiking left.
Hidden Falls looked to be between 20-25m tall, but I don’t think it was the 30m that the Hollyford Track brochure said it was (unless there were more hidden tiers not visible from our viewing spot). It was on the order of Tarawera Falls and Huka Falls but not quite as good as either of them. In fact, we kind of thought this long hike was stretching our definition of whether a hike was worth the effort or not.
We began our hike back to the car park at 3pm. Near the turnoff for the Sunshine Hut (guided trampers accommodation), I passed by another couple who seemed to have just left from there. And barely a few more minutes later, we saw another couple going the other way as well. Still, when you can count on your hand the number of people on the track on Christmas Day, that’s saying something about how quiet and peaceful this place was.
About a half-hour into our return hike, we saw the sun started to come out and the weather was clearing. That brought out the bright green colors of the dense vegetation here as well as the snowy peaks previously hidden from us by the clouds.
At 5:20pm, we thankfully returned to the car. Our legs were tired, but at least the whole hike was mostly flat with a few minor hills just to get in and out of some drainages, but overall, the elevation gain was practically insignificant considering we had just hiked for 5.5 hours.
Given the improving weather, Julie and I decided to seize the moment and quickly drive back towards the Milford Sound. And once we returned to the Milford Sound Highway, we saw that fortune smiled upon us as the clouds have finally lifted so we could finally see the scenery the way it was supposed to be seen.
For as we got closer to the Homer Tunnel, we were surrounded by waterfalls tumbling down the steep walls of Fiordland’s mountains. And we could see the grandeur of the scene that was previously hidden from us whenever we drove along this stretch.
After stopping to take photos from in front of the Homer Tunnel, we stopped some more on the other side of the tunnel as the plethora of cascades decorating the U-shaped valley below was a sight to behold.
But since we were here, I braved the sandflies and took photos. There was a picnic area down here, which I didn’t remember from before, and there were more sticks in the water sticking out above the fjord, which I also didn’t remember very much from before either. But I did manage to take a couple of snaps with ducks swimming before the fjord scene, which was kind of cool.
By 6:30pm, we hastily headed back to Te Anau. And by 7:55pm, we arrived back in town. Throughout the drive, the scene was delightfully mostly clear and sunny. It was too bad we couldn’t make more stops (Julie was already worn out today and wanted to get to dinner ASAP) because the Eglington Valley, was bright and colorful. The mountains were visible in their full glory and the sun painted the landscape both green and purple (from all those wildflowers).
We had a pretty satisfying dinner even if it was pretty basic Chinese food. We were under the impression that this was the only place open in town and gladly took the 10% holiday surcharge. However, upon strolling through the center of town, we saw there were a handful of other cafes open. One place served $57 NZD per person buffet dinner, which was rather overpriced in our book as our whole meal costed $44 NZD total! But we did have some overpriced dessert (to satisfy Julie’s craving) for $5NZD of one slice of cake plus a scoop of ice cream.
And at 8:55pm, we were back at the motel, finally!
Visitor Comments:Got something you'd like to share or say to keep the conversation going? Feel free to leave a comment below...
No users have replied to the content on this page