The next morning, after a brief look around the Invercargill botanical gardens, we went to the Anderson Park Art Gallery near our campground. It is a Georgian Style mansion built by a rich business man in the 1920s and now converted into a gallery. It seemed much more livable than Larnach Castle and did not have its tragic history. Apparently what makes it Georgian is that the entrance is on the side and the main hall runs along the back of the building, so all the main rooms look to the front. It had a nice display of New Zealand art works, ceramics and sculpture. The docent was chatty and friendly. Some of the furniture was very nice too. Then we were back onto the Southern Scenic Highway, which had brought us down to Invercargill and which ends at Milford Sound. We had a very nice picnic lunch in Riverton, overlooking the Strait to Stewart Island. Our last stop before we left the coast was Colac Bay, which has a statue of a giant surfer riding a wave. We cruised past Lake Manapouri, the first (or southernmost) of the great alpine lakes. There is a huge hydropower plant there, which was the site of much political protest 25 years ago when it was first conceived. The eventual compromise was that they built the power plant in such a way that the water level of two lakes - Manapouri and Te Anau - did not have to be changed. It did steal a lot of water from the outflow river, up whose valley we had been driving, but eventually they figured out a way to restore its flow to a more sustainable level also. Let us hope that the NZ public continues to fight for their environment. The current government wants to start mining in various national parks. It is hard to tell at the moment whether the opposition will be strong enough. We reached Te Anau town, on the south end of Te Anau Lake in the late afternoon. All of these lakes are huge, nested at the eastern feet of the Southern Alps. You cannot see one end from the other because they curl around hills and have many branches. We enjoyed walking along the lakeshore and exploring the unpretentious tourist town.
We headed out early the next day to Milford Sound to avoid the tour buses, although tourism right now is certainly less than in the summer. We went about half way up Lake Te Anau and then turned to go around a hill and up a different valley. The famous Milford Track starts where we turned off. You have to take a boat across the lake and then end up going down one of the feeder rivers to the sound. This follows the old Maori track for gathering greenstone. But they decided that the road could follow a different track. It goes over the lowest pass in the Southern Alps, except for the fact that to actually make it work, they had to blast a 1.2 K tunnel (the Homer tunnel) through an inconvenient ridge. They are very good at tunnels on these mountainous islands! We made one stop on the other side of the tunnel to hike up to the Cleddau River Chasm. This is not a deep chasm, but very narrow, where the river has carved tunnels and spun rocks around until they create holes and bowls in the boulders. The path went through green, moss covered forest.
Milford Sound is as spectacular as you have always heard. The visitor end looks out at Mitre Peak and up a couple of river valleys as well as the Sound. We had decided to camp there overnight to have better luck on catching clear weather. The afternoon looked good, so we booked onto the last cruise of the day, leaving us time to do a little walking around on the shore. There were 13 other people on our cruise, which left at 3:30, and we had very good views, although the captain assured us we would have had even more spectacular waterfalls if it had been a typical rainy day. There were a couple of points where we saw baby seals napping, waiting for their mothers to return. Just as we turned back into the Sound from the ocean, a couple of the other tourists spotted some dolphins playing in our wake. We had nice sunset colors over Mitre Peak when we returned back to the Lodge.
It was amazing to wake up the next morning and get out of the van to a view of high cliffs just getting touched by pink morning sunshine, a small crescent moon in the sky, and the sound of the rushing river. The morning was even clearer than the previous day. We took another walk around the flat area and then headed on out. On the other side of the Homer tunnel we took a nature walk at Lake Gunn through a black beech forest. It was one of those places that is totally green - moss and fern on the ground and up onto the tree trunks until you get the green of the leaves. These Southern Hemisphere beeches resemble Northern Hemisphere ones, but are not related. They are related to the beeches we saw on the top of a mountain in New South Wales, and to fossil beeches from Antarctica, so the family dates back to Gondwanaland. We also walked around little Mistletoe Lake in the dry hills away from the tall mountains. Back in Te Anau for a second night we saw a very good film about Fiordland National Park. It was conceived by one of the helicopter pilots who fly tourists into the Park, so it has lots of those views where suddenly the floor of the valley drops away over a thousand foot cliff. It showed us lots of parts of the park that we will not see. One of its best effects was showing the valleys filled with fog and likening that to when they were filled with glaciers.
The drive from Te Anau to Queenstown goes through high country pasture like much of the intermountain region of the US. By the time we got to the south end of Lake Wakatipu, it was just scrub. The lake is shaped kind of like this: '-, with Queenstown in the central portion. We never got to the northern half. We ate our picnic lunch in the main park in Queenstown, but avoided the rest of it because of its excessive tourist reputation. We drove onto Arrowtown, which was just too cute as a restored mining town, so we continued on to the scenic route to Lake Wanaka. This turned out to proceed up a huge number of tight switch backs over a high dividing range with some great views and scary precipices. Lake Wanaka is another large alpine lake at the bottom of Mount Aspiring National Park, which was hidden by clouds from a storm that was hitting the West Coast. All we got were high winds and an occasional drizzle. We took a nice 2K walk along the lake into town and back. Mt Aspiring is the second highest peak in New Zealand, after Mt Cook.
The next day the mountains were still overcast, so we drove down to a trail along the Clutha River which drains Lake Wanaka. The river is wide and swift and cuts a little gorge through the dry valley. It was lined with willow trees, which looked very natural, but I think must be introduced, because I couldn't find anything like them in my NZ tree book. We turned around after 1-2 K when we came unexpectedly to a gold panning area, because basically the terrain wasn't that interesting and wasn't going to change. We then drove to the neighboring Lake Hawea. The two lakes were probably part of the same glacier, but are separated by a high enough ridge that when the glacier melted, it formed two lakes. We drove as far as that ridge and looked over at the top half of Lake Wanaka. The road continues on to the Haast Pass and the West Coast, where it still looked very dark and wet. We ate lunch at a different park at the south end of Wanaka and hiked along that shore for awhile. Finally, late in the afternoon, it looked liked the weather was clearing enough that were drove up towards Mt. Aspiring and got a couple of peeks and pics of the peak.
We drove the next day to Omarama, gateway to Mt. Cook National Park. The weather was still not favorable for the mountains, so we drove down the highway towards the coast as far as Duntroon, which turned out to be really interesting. Nearby is an area called Elephant Rocks. These are an exposed part of the underlying limestone of the area which has been eroded into large and interesting shapes. It was used as one of the sets for the first Narnia movie. Between Elephant Rocks and Duntroon, there is also a limestone cave - more like an overhang - that has Maori drawings in it that are still well preserved and legible, including a picture of a European sailing ship. The town itself has a pleasant geological museum. Geologists and paleontologists from Canterbury come up frequently because the area is rich in fossils, so the town folk started up this museum. It features dolphin and penguin fossils, boulders full of sea shells, and "rattling rocks," which are mudstone which had pebbles inside which hollowed out big enough spaces before the rock solidified that they can rattle when you shake them. So Duntroon was an unexpectedly satisfying side trip at the end of our second week on the road in the South Island.