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Milford Haven

Milford Haven
 
 

AT THE bottom of the precipitous valley was the tiny settlement of Milford Sound. For such a frequented tourist attraction the village itself was very small. There was no permanent accommodation here. People who worked and travelled here had to stay in Te Anau, some 124 kilometres back up the road. from the village the road followed the sweeping flats of the foreshore. The peaks towered vertically on the other side of the bay. At the end of the foreshore was the boat harbour where several large passenger boats were tied to the jetty.

The boat
The boat

There was a rather long queue to get onto the boat. Fortunately it moved quickly. I climbed onto the boat and made my way up to the top deck from where I would get a fantastic view. The wind was blowing cold, perhaps no more than twelve degrees with a sharp wind chill. It was hard to believe this was the middle of the day during the hottest part of summer. I couldn’t imagine how could it would be here during winter.

I was well rugged up though wearing thermals and a polar fleece top. Hopefully this will keep me warm for the cruise. After all there were quite a lot of people joining me on the deck. I knew most of them would retreat to the shelter of the lower two cabins once we get moving though. It will be very cold up here once we start moving.

Harbour and Mitre Peak
Harbour and Mitre Peak

From the top deck I had a spectacular view across the small bay encompassing the harbour. A small forested flat peninsula provided shelter directly ahead. Behind the peninsula stood the mountains so distinctive of Milford Sound.

To the left was a long valley cut very deep into the mountains. The famous Milford Track followed the valley to almost its end where it turned eastward and crossed the main dividing range at around twelve hundred metres high before descending into Lake Te Anau.

The sun was shining now and most of the sky was blue. There were just a few patches of cloud hanging over the mountains, so this was a lot more hopeful than I had earlier thought.

The boat eventually cast off and began its long cruise along the fiord. It quickly cleared the peninsula to provide a spectacular view of the mountains ahead.

Looking southwards along the Milford Track
Looking southwards along the Milford Track

To the left was the strikingly dominant Mitre Peak, towering almost vertically out of the water to its sharp peak 1692 metres above sea level. A jagged ridge rose from a forested hill on this side of the mountain to reach the summit and continue down the other side. From the ridge a near vertical cliff plunged straight into the ocean. On the other side a near vertical cliff plunged into the Sinbad Valley, perhaps only a hundred metres above sea level.

To the right of the fiord were two mountains named The Lion and The Elephant. Each standing around fourteen hundred metres high they distinctly resembled their names. The lion looked like the rear view of a lion facing directly towards the elephant with its distinctive trunk like ridge almost meeting the lion at the top of a distant waterfall and with its giant ears flayed out on either side. Behind these ood a higher mountain with glacial ice at the top.

Sinbad Valley
Sinbad Valley

As we left the harbour we rounded a point where the distinctive Lady Bowen Falls plunged out of the end of a hanging valley over the solid granite.

From here we headed towards Mitre Peak, closely passing the forested Sinbad Valley with its small stream coming out of a hanging valley down the remaining thirty metres of drop into the sea. Behind it was a massive amphitheatre of grey walls of rock.

The Lion, The Elephant and Harrison Sound
The Lion, The Elephant and Harrison Sound

To the right Harrison Sound appeared doubling back in the same manner as Sinbad Valley. The rivers of ice that had once flowed through here had taken all sorts of random paths. The waves on the deep blue surface of the sea were just beginning to break with the boat just starting to rock with the wave motion as it sped towards Mitre Peak.

The boat was now close to the forested hill in front of Mitre Peak. The forest was quite scrubby with long vertical scars indicating where large landslides had come down in recent storm events. We began following the base of Mitre Peak.

Mitre Peak
Mitre Peak

On the other side The Lion and the Elephant now appeared surprisingly close and a lot steeper than they had appeared from the port. The dark walls of rock in between the Stirling Falls made this terrain completely impenetrable.

The cliffs towered over a kilometre high, some reaching over a mile high. They had unusual scarring on them. There were horizontal lines of the glacial wear during ice ages past where the rocks they carried tore deep gashes along the sides of the mountains they were carving. There were also vertical lines of where countless landslides had come down during the severe torrential rainstorms common to this area. The horizontal lines sloped downwards showing the extent of the more recent glaciers. These seemed to be a good one kilometre thick, though in the biggest ice ages the ice could have been up to two kilometres thick silently carving away at the mountains of granite beneath them.

Scarred kilometre high cliffs in Harrison Sound
Scarred kilometre high cliffs in Harrison Sound

By now we were passing under Mitre Peak. There were a few seals basking on small rock ledges at the waterline, below which the rock turned black from mussels growing on them. Seeing the seals made me appreciate the enormous scale of these cliffs. Mitre Peak was towering directly overhead 1692 metres above the water. A large landslide now covered in forest stood between the water and the naked grey rock above.

Across the other side of the fjord the dark waterfall of Stirling Falls plunged a hundred and thirty metres vertically out of the hanging valley it had flowed through. The waterfall seemed tiny from here, but it was the height of a 35 storey building. Scale simply didn’t mean anything here with cliffs towering over a kilometre high on either side of it.

Mile high cliffs
Mile high cliffs

There was a point that jutted out of Mitre Peak into the water. The captain explained this was a very exposed point. The curvature of the vertical cliffs behind it sometimes accelerated the north westerly winds to over two hundred kilometres per hour.

Fortunately today there wasn’t much wind at all, as the boat was moving along with the southerly wind at its tail. The rocky edge of the point plummeted straight into the very deep water. There had been the story of a boat that had attempted to anchor here, and dropped an anchor attached to a four hundred metre long rope. The anchor dropped and the water was so deep here that the rope ran out and the anchor was lost to sink down to the sea bed over four hundred metres deep.

Point under Mitre Peak
Point under Mitre Peak

Once around the point there was a sweeping wide bay to the next point near the mouth of the sound. The point would have been about two kilometres away, and in between were vertical cliffs towering seventeen hundred metres high to a series of jagged overhangs. The spectacle was mind-blowing. How can a mountain rise straight out of the sea vertically to such altitudes, then drop almost back to sea level just as steeply on the other side? I wondered how much longer the mountain will be standing. Thankfully it was made of solid granite, so it wasn’t going to fall down anytime soon.

Mitre Peak - mile high cliff
Mitre Peak - mile high cliff
Around the point
Around the point

The vertical lines along the rock were a lot more pronounced here than on any of the other cliff faces I had seen. These were the scars of many thousands of years of landslides from weaknesses in the rock that had collapsed during the glacial ice ages. In part I also think they were part of the natural stratification of the rock which had been intruded deep below the Earth’s crust many millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed the dry land high overhead.

Cliffs vertically plunging into 400m deep water
Cliffs vertically plunging into 400m deep water

There was one break to the cliff. About three hundred metres above the water the cliff was overhanging indicating where one of the more recent glaciers had reached. Above the overhang the mountain eased to about a fifty degree slope for maybe two hundred metres before towering vertically for the remaining kilometre.

On the other side of the fiord a large boat stopped almost under Stirling Falls. It was large, but appeared very tiny under the 130 metre high waterfall. This gave me some appreciation of just how massive this place was.

Mile high cliff
Mile high cliff
Mile high cliff
Mile high cliff

We continued motoring towards the far point, a vertical tower of rock. Upon rounding it there was another bay to go before the end of the sound. Once more we were encountered with the mile high cliffs, although the terrain was a lot more contorted here. Pockets of forest were dotted over the lower half of the mountain almost touching the water in places.

From this angle the peaks along the top of Mitre Peak were very jagged. There was now a small area of cloud above the peaks. Trees grew perched precariously at the top of massive overhangs. Small waterfalls tumbled down the side of the rocks. I imagined after heavy rain this would be incredibly spectacular. There was one small patch of flat land right on the water, It seemed so out of place in front of the mile high cliffs.

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15 February 2008

 

Milford Sound

New Zealand

 

44°38'S
167°52'E
Sea Level

 

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