I like the idea of electric cars. But after this trip of intense driving across remote locations, I doubt I’d ever be able to own one. I have discovered a range anxiety. Which, here, translates into gas anxiety, and on more than one occasion I question the accuracy of our vehicle’s fuel gauge as I assess the distance to our next town.
About 40 km outside of Queenstown I stop at a station when our gas light comes on. They only take credit cards – which is fine except they also require a PIN number – which almost no American credit card has.
So we drive back to Queenstown, gas light blinking, and roll into a more populated station that easily takes our money. This is not going to be the last case of range-anxiety for this trip. While the double-backing ate up some time in our day, we ended up not crossing a single gas station between our turn-around point and our final destination for the day – TeAnau. Between the two points there was a lot of nothing. The winds were heavy and hot, nearly driving us off the road.
TeAnau: Another town, another B&B. A tiny town that serves to base high-adventure tours, Te Anau is basically the only place with electricity on the shores of Lake Te Anau – a massive (2nd largest in the world) body of freshwater.
Our fellow guests, who we don’t actually see in the house until we are ready to leave, feature familiar faces -a French couple traveling ad-hoc that we shared accommodations with in Wanaka meet us here. At the breakfast table that morning we had so much to talk about but few means to say it in. The other guests were from Switzerland, knew four languages, and could carry on a conversation swimmingly. I make a promise to myself that once I land in America to work on learning to speak any other language fluently – this never happens.
The French couple, and the Swiss who travel with them, and the couple from Boston who were rooming at the Quay in Nelson – these are all people who have adopted this idea of moving around as a lifestyle. Go to a country and stay as long as you can. Stay until money or obligations force you back to whatever you’ve called home. All of the young, fresh-from-school backpackers we’ve seen live the same story. After graduation someone presented them with a good backpack, a durable pair of boots, and enough money for a one way ticket. College can wait, so can your career or your first job or whatever it is you’re calling the 401k kids house in the burbs. Sure, it isn’t for everyone. But with our world coming together in the digital landscape, it’s as important as ever to have some international boots on the ground to bridge some kind of diplomatic understanding that isn’t apparent in the news or textbooks.
The town of Te Anau is like so many others we’ve been through the past several days – the main drag for the tourist, the handful of necessary shops for the locals, a few spots for backpackers to make connections with rides or shelter. The evening we drive in we make short work at an organic pizzeria and pick through the aisles of the supermarket for the next day’s excursion. We make it an early night as we have an absurdly early morning – revelry at about 4 in the morning with little idea of what amenities are available. The grocers aren’t keen on grab-and-go foods so our lunch for the next day is a collection of egg salads, cheeses and crackers.
At the time I wouldn’t have known it, but most of the trip has been leading up to this very morning – an expedition to kayak the Milford Sound. We’re up nauseatingly early with a quick breakfast, a packed bag, and awaiting on the side of the TeAnau – Miford highway surrounded by total darkness. The morning is chilly, the sky is completely clear in the kind of way you can see a million stars.
On this roadside we await our shuttle to the Milford Sound, provided by Roscoes Milford Kayaks – a fifteen passenger van packed tight with travelers in the pre-dawn hours. We’re in this van for the next two darkened hours of winding through the intense mountains of New Zealand’s southern fjiord lands. It had rained, heavily, the night before. In some spots the cloud cover is still so low the rain doesn’t so much fall as surround us from all sides. All of this I have to witness from the middle of the van, through the headlights of the front windshield, attempting every trick in the book to prevent the nausea from taking over.
Over the van’s small PA our driver/guide is talking through a handful of points, but mostly staying quiet while most of us try to keep sleeping.
“I’m going to wake you up at this point to tell a story,” she says. We’re approaching a tunnel still well ebfore dawn- the last pass of the range. The story is how the residents of the town of Milford – mostly seasonal workers – gather at the head of this tunnel once a year, wearing nothing but headlamps and running shoes, and sprint in the nude from one end to the other.
“Some years there are people who will run from the tunnel all the way into Milford, purely for bragging rights,” she says. This gives me some hope that after this van ride we are within running distance from our destination.
At the end of the tunnel we pull off the road and get out of the van for a quick stretch. Looking over the valley, grey and green and misted over from the previous night’s rain. I think about how impossible it is to get here.
Of course, it’s possible. Just not easy. But the difficulty of the journey might just be the most endearing part. To get to the Milford Sound, you could land a plane in Queenstown and, on a map, only be about 75 km from it as the crow flies. Yet, you have to take a distance four times that to actually get there by any reasonable means – a car or a bus – around through the windswept deserts of the Otago and back north through Te-Anu.
Your other option is to leave Queenstown on a bike and take a 130km Glenorchy/Queenstown road over the pass and down into Milford – a route that takes you up and over 1,200 km elevation on questionable roads and through precarious weather conditions.
You could take a small plane into the Milford airport – a runway with a two story “control tower.” Maybe a helicopter could also take the trip. Or you could be one of the many who arrive by ship by a multi-day cruise from somewhere else.
Others will hike the Milford Track, taking them through these very mountains and over a vista of the Milford Sound – giving them the chance at once-in-a-lifetime photos from the pass which are, in all likelihood, going to be clouded over.
Some rental agreements will deter drivers from taking their cars along this highway – citing burned out clutches and brake pads. If you do take your own car, you’re likely jockeying for position with enormous tour buses on the narrow roads.
It’s difficult, but well worth it. The tiny town of Milford is far from appealing in the grey, cloud-choked dawning hours. A handful of storage buildings and dirt lots soaked through with the previous night’s rain. Here we change into the issued Miford kayaking attire- a thermal layer, a waterproof layer, a life vest and a kayak skirt. All covered over with a healthy layer of bug spray to deter from sand flies – the tiny, almost non-existent bugs that will, even with all the deterrents, leave gnarly bites on our necks and ankles for weeks to come.
By 8 we’re on the water, getting used to the kayak and the waters, and the weather changes. As the sunlight crawls up the valley the moisture starts burning off the valley floor into a mist that rises up all around us. Overhead, the thick cloud deck starts breaking up and letting blue skies through. By the time we’re deep in the water the Milford Sound is at the best of it’s sexy little reveal. Half the mountains are still covered in fog, the steep walls of the valley are misting out, waterfalls appear from the rock faces all around us. We could not have paid for a better view if we had tried.
From where we sit, the water flows out to the Tasman Ocean off the west coast of the island. It’s about 20km of hard paddling from where we sit to that point, but our day doesn’t promise to be that long. We find a rocky beach and sit in the views for a while. Planes, dwarfed by the mountains around them, come up the Sound to land at the single strip of airfield in town. Tour boats drift in the waters, full of passengers who have stayed the night just to wake up to the same views we’re looking at. Seals are out in force, a usually uncommon sight, to play on the rocks and in the sun.
Maybe it is the exhaustion of the early morning journey, or the kilometers that have been driven to get us here, or the nights we’ve spent in entirely different worlds over the past week and a half, but I’m deeply, deeply struck by what lays out ahead of us. It’s a wonder of the world, but I wish there was better ways to describe it.
I guess you’ll just have to be out here yourself.