Monday, April 1, 2013

2.5 - Contains scenes of mild peril

“All aboard!” yelled the Captain.

Well, he actually mumbled something about yellow tickets, which wasn’t very nautical. Nobody seemed to have shown up speculatively at the end of the 120km road, as there were indeed about 20 of us on a boat for 75. So it was easy to get a good spot on the bow with a great view. I slapped on some sun-cream to protect my bonce, then realized the wind was going to batter it, and a cap wasn’t an option. Bother! Looking out of a grubby window isn’t the same, but I don’t want a wind-blasted scalp. Ah, but I have my fabulous new jacket with a superbly adjustable hood. So as the others around me stood around in t-shirts I covered up and…
What? You’re more interested in Milford Sound than my wardrobe choices?
Oh, OK.


There you go.

There’s a few places on earth that you have to see for yourself. Photographs just don’t convey the scale of the experience. The Grand Canyon is one, this place is another.

The weather’s glorious, a bright warm sun shining from a clear blue sky. The mountains soar above us on all sides, dwarfing our boat. You can fit the QM2 in here, with ease. In fact they did just that only ten days ago. Our Captain takes us in close to the cliff, then closer, then closer, until the bow is within touching distance. We get a great view of the colours in the rocks, and the rainbows from the water cascading down them.
Further on we see seals basking on a ledge. An unusally shaped mountain dominates the first bend.
“That’s Mount Kimberly” announces the guide, “though it’s more commonly known as “The Lion Mountain””
…because it looks like a lion.
“Next to it is the Elephant mountain”
…which looks nothing like an elephant.

Onwards we sail. (“Sail?” don’t you need sails to “sail”? Hmmm.)

Onwards we cruise. Out into the open sea, pausing to check a crayfish pot. It’s empty. Out at sea you can understand how Captain Cook missed this place. The entrance disappears like a magic trick, or one of Puzzling World’s illusions. Even as we head back in, it resembles only a small bay until we’re well within the Sound.

“Milford Sound is not a sound”, explains the guide, “it’s a fjord, made by a glacier, not made by a river as a Sound would be”
“In fact all the Sounds round here are fjords. To correct the mistake they called the place “Fiordland” …but they spelt it wrong, and they haven’t corrected that”

The water’s choppy, but not bad, so I bounce around on the bow, happily ensconced in my jacket, noticing a few wind-reddened faces around me. A group of dolphins appears from nowhere, and puts on a short display for us, then we approach a waterfall and I get to test out my jacket as the Captain pokes the nose of the boat under the 15 storey drop.
All too soon we head back to the wharf. Two hours have flown by. It was a fantastic trip. I’m only sorry I don’t have the poetry to do the place justice, and pictures don’t capture it, so you’ll have to go for yourself!

Oh, and you know what? The 4.30 didn’t go out.

The drive back down the road is more restful. Almost too restful, it’s been a long day and I’m tiring as the sun sets. I’m desperate to reach the campsite before darkness, but the sunset is turning the little fluffy clouds red as they reflect in the mountain lake below. This demands a few stops for pictures. My camera’s battery is as dead as mine. The warning has been flashing since the dolphins yet it keeps on clicking. Good work Panasonic!
(..or maybe “shoddy work, sort your battery display out!”)

Finally I make it back to the campsite, thank Dannieyell and ask for the nearest pub.

I walk down the road and find a restaurant called Red Cliffs, but it’s a bit posh for me so I nip in another bar and just manage to get food before they shut at 9!

The next day was a Wednesday. And because of my successful dash I had nothing to do. By this point I needed a rest day. After RTW1 I came up with a rule of staying put at least one day a week, and I’d already blown that. So I would do nothing today. Except go for a run on the shore of Lake Te Anau (the second largest lake in NZ, lake fact fans!)
Then I got itchy feet, and not just from the sand fly bites that you get round here. I went into town and asked the man in the bike shop about mountain bike tracks round here.
…and XL helmets
I spotted a small plane floating on the lake. I’ve never been in a small plane, or landed on water, this could be a laugh. But it was too windy for the pilot. (…and I didn’t fancy going without him)
So I was forced to rest. I did find a cinema showing a movie which purports to represent Fiordland in all it’s magnificence. But even swooping helicopter shots on a big screen don’t do that. Especially when the real thing is just outside the door.
Back to the campsite to write a bit, when Rob and Kerry showed up for one last time. We had a beer and a chat about plans, ideas and experiences and confirmed we were parting ways. I’ll miss their familiar faces at the campsites.

Thursday and off to Queenstown. Retracing my drive from Tuesday, but with time for photo stops and, boy, is it worth it. The views across the lake to the cliffs are incredible. Miles and miles of astonishing scenery, until Queenstown appears on the far shore.

The Top 10 was full for Easter, so I’m at a different campsite up the road. Whereas the Top 10 was small, with compact sites tightly knitted between a few trees, the “Lakeview” is a wide expanse of barren, gently-sloping hillside. But the sites are still compact, so they can squeeze 300 campervans cheek-by-jowel.
It’s also very close to the gondola ride up the mountain, which looms over the town, and has a mountain bike track down it. Unsure if I’ll ride today or wait for tomorrow I take a ride up the gondola with my camera and fail to capture the immensity of the vista.
At the top there’s an insane bungy jump, and a more tame “luge” which is a downhill track for kids go-karts. Except big people are allowed to play too. So I painfully squeeze my melon into a piss-pot helmet and hop on. I whizz past a few people, but it’s hardly thrilling.
I’m not daft/brave enough to fling myself off a mountain at the end of a rubber rope, so it’s time to grab a 3-day pass and fling myself off a mountain on some rubber tyres.
“The bike track will be closed over Easter”
“Over Easter??”
“During Queenstown Bike Week?!?!”
I’m appalled.
I grab a half day pass and dash back for my bike figuring I’ve got 3 hours left and that will be enough for one day. I was really looking forward to spending the weekend getting better, getting off the easy green tracks, getting the hang of the blue intermediates, and maybe onto the insane black tracks.
I grab my bike and helmet, and join the bikers queueing for the Gondola – no riding up hills here!
Everybody else has a bike with more suspension than a Monster Truck, and they’re dressed like Robocop. Shin pads, knee pads, elbow pads, full face helmets, ski goggles… If you called the riot squad, nicked their shields and gave them a 3 grand bike each, you’d pretty much have this queue.
What have I heard about this place?
Well, someone said “You’ll be alright, just don’t stop!”
…and the guy at the campsite said simply, “You will fall off”
A nice man whips my bike from me and dangles it perilously from a hook atop the gondola, which holds just the front wheel. As I ascend I scour the mountainside below for the debris of fallen bikes, but my bike is still there when another nice man removes it at the top.

I give way to a couple of guys, or maybe girls, they’re wearing so much gear it’s hard to tell, and then it’s time to go.

Even though I’m on the green run, it’s incredible. It’s steep, fast, twisty and bumpy. Within moments my hands hurt from hanging onto the bars and squeezing the brakes. Damn right I’m braking, but I’m still dropping like a stone across dirt and rocks.
“HoooOOooooOOoollllLLLllllYyY CraaAAaaPP” I exclaim as I vibrate furiously. This is not like the other tracks. And because it’s all downhill there’s no let-off! My legs are bored with no work to do, but my arms are on fire. They’re steering, braking, carrying my weight, and braking.
I am so very glad I didn’t by the 3 day pass. This isn’t fun. Not because it’s scary, it’s just so damn rough, and there’s no glory from climbing any steep parts.
I reach the half-way clearing and stretch my aching hands.
“Owwwweeeowwweeeowww” (or some more profane utterance)
The only way is down so I plough on. At least this makes you focus!
Finally the track bottoms out above my campsite – “Hey there’s my van!” – and I get to pedal back to the gondola.
I head back to my van for a drink of water, hoping to regain some feeling in my hands and so very glad that the experience is over.

“Maybe just one more go…”

Helpfully, they can fit 2 bikes on each gondola carriage, so I get to have a chat on the way up. A guy from Christchurch recommends a track a few miles from town that has more variety.
The second time it’s not so bad. I know where you can go quick without disappearing off a cliff, and where to slow down. I drop my seat all the way so I can get some weight off my hands, though they’re still screaming. This is not so bad, in fact I’m quite enjoying it this time. I still wouldn’t want to do 3 days, but I might have another go.

It was on the third go that I was involved in a fatal collision.

I met another nice guy in the gondola, and he was dressed like me! No plastic accessories other than the mandatory helmet. I went back down the same green route. It would be nice to explore some other stuff, but given how crazy the green track was I didn’t fancy the blue with only a week’s experience.

“I’m getting the hang of this”, I think. Then remember that’s exactly the point where you gain confidence before skill, and have an accident. Through the halfway point with barely a pause. My hands are getting stronger, or they’ve gone numb.
Down the last section, and I’m actually catching one of the Robocops up! When…

Wham! Something small slams into my helmet.

I brake, but it’s too late. There’s a piercing pain in my head. I finally bring myself to a stop, duck to the side out of the way of the bikes behind me, and rip my helmet off. It’s no use. Death follows swiftly.

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