I’d budgeted several days to hang out in Milford, under the erroneous impression that it would be a good base for hiking around a bit. It is actually the winding, approx. 2 hour long drive on the road between Milford and Te Anau that has all sorts of various hike access points along it, so three days in Milford itself – basically just a sleepy little launch point for the cruises – was waaay too much. Additionally, extra fire to move on was lit under my butt by the constant battle to keep the sandflies away – I’d taken to hauling ass across the parking lot each time I had to travel to the shower to keep the slow flying blood-suckers behind me.
After researching what the enthusiastic, reliable travel writer Scott Cook had to say in his “New Zealand Frenzy!!” book (full of just as much punctuation, underlining, boldface, and caps as the name implies) about available local hikes, I split my exploration of the road into two parts, the nearer bit, still using Milford Lodge as a base, and then the “return to Te Anau” portion, which I planned to handle on my way back to town to work the next day.
The near side offered some cool, easily accessed sights, including The Chasm, which is about a forty to fifty foot deep, fantastically carved series of twisting tunnels shooting away from and swirling back to the main stone chasm, all eroded by aeons of pounding, whipping water, now plunging – in eye-popping shades of emerald and sapphire – through the existing pathways with glittering froth and fury. I came on this trip to LOVE the distinctive sculptural hand with which water renders stone- be it at craggy sea cliffs or in this colorful whirling vortex at The Chasm. It’s a fascination similar to what I feel when I put my foot in the hollowed stone steps of, say, Notre Dame, and my own toes touch the lingering current of humanity and history flickering in those worn down treads – but multiplied by the far greater scale of geological alteration. Again, photos can’t even give the vaguest idea of what this place actually looked like, but it was COOL. I stayed there for quite a while, hypnotized by the gracefully undulating evidence of almost unimaginable amounts of passing time.
My next stop was to pop back through the Homer Tunnel to do a little walk that threaded through excellent examples of alpine flowers. All the ‘Please Replace for the Next Guest!’ guide cards had, well, NOT been replaced, so I just cruised along checking out the numbered examples without the foggiest notion of what I was looking at.
There was snow here, temptingly close, and like a Florida moth to a flame, I veered ever closer to the accumulations on the mountainside, driven by some deep and ridiculous compulsion to touch it. (It’s cold; wet, if you hold your hand there long enough – yes, yes: I know snow! I’d frozen myself plenty as a kid mucking around in it, and therefore had NO idea why I was even considering something so dangerous as wandering close to that threatening pile of moraine [loose rocks that have slid down the mountainside] to see if I could grab a little of the New Zealand stuff.) Thankfully for my better judgement (which sometimes needs an encouraging nudge), there was suddenly a rumbling noise – hard to identify the source, echoing as it did off the encircling mountains, but poofs of flying snow quickly revealed what I was hearing and seeing was a weensy avalanche. Awesome!! (Which also helped to firmly resolve me to stay ON the path and away from the damn snow.)
Back at the car park, keas – those clever, friendly, destructive mountain parrots – were well ensconced on a number of the cars, chewing on antennae and tugging at door moldings. It is difficult to be too stern with them, as they are terribly cute and not intending to be malicious as they use their super sharp beak and claws to peel away car trimmings, but I waved them off as a public service to everyone, including myself, after observing my antenna being inquisitively nibbled.
On the other side of the road, which I’d ignored on the way in, was a much closer snow field (D’oh!!) and an ‘ice cave’ Scott Cook said you could explore if you were brave (I wasn’t that brave, seeing as it was extremely warm and I’d already seen one avalanche, plus I wanted to only voluntarily touch the snow, not have it touch ME.) I went and stood at the mouth of the cave, though, which wafted extremely cold air and fog from the belly of the snowfield out onto me – really nifty, though not very tall; even I would have had to stoop to go in, had I been so inclined.
I packed up and was out early after my final night at Milford, but the weather was not on my side. The longer hikes I’d planned for this part of the drive were all about attaining alpine views, and the cloud cover was so low enough to pass for fog. I headed instead back to Te Anau to get a jump on work and replenishing my supply of clean clothes (which has run precariously low – I was down to about a single sundress and a pair of boxers for lounging in.) On the way I stopped at some of the lovely locations I’d had to pass up photographing on my way in due to my late arrival for check in at the Milford Lodge.
At one particularly picturesque spot, where several different types of flowers stretched from the flat river in the foreground to two abutting mountain ranges in the back, I pulled off about 75 feet from a small agglomeration of trucks near a hand-painted sign that read ‘stock’. Figuring other motorists would already be moving cautiously at the threat of sheep and around the other trucks, I hopped out and began framing up my shots. A large Maori man loitering by the trucks suddenly started waving his arms and shouting, but he had an unnaturally high pitched voice that made him unintelligible, and I disregarded him as he clearly wasn’t speaking to me anyway… except that, as he began rushing towards me, squeaking ‘No no no!’ it became apparent it was, in fact, me that he was waving frantically at. This being the second time I’d been shouted at for picture taking, I racked my brain as to what I had done wrong – was I blocking sheep? taking a photo of a sacred mountain? was I far enough off the road? He drew breathlessly near me and – in a falsetto voice totally incongruous with his rotund, tan bulk, told me I couldn’t stop here and had to leave, please, NOW. I was a little irked, having not actually taken my picture yet, but cowed by the idea I may have accidentally violated some sort of Maori protocol. I apologized, got back in the van, and watched him whisper into a small microphone attached to his shirt as I slowly pulled away. Hm. Well, I’d just drive up a bit farther and take another pic from a place away from the sheep, or trucks, or at least high-pitched Maoris, I figured.
Except…. that was the ONLY place where all the elements I’d wished to photograph were visible, I quickly found as I drove up and down the road, under the hostile eyes of the loitering men when I bypassed them again. Frustrated, I grumbled to myself as I drove back towards town. I’d wanted that PICTURE, dammit, and I paid a lot of money and flew a long way to just be run off without explanation. I whipped past a sheep farm with cones outside the driveway bearing small paper signs taped to them that said ‘2U, LR.’ Hmm – I’d seen those on my way IN to Milford a few days ago, but in a different spot – and hey, they were on cones by the loitering men, today, too! Must be some sort of sheep related thing, I concluded – until I passed the far side of the farm, where at least a dozen shiny tractor trailers were parked side by side, open, and empty of cargo.
NOW it all fell together – I’d heard from more than one i-Site person that Peter Jackson was currently in-country, filming portions of The Hobbit. The reported location varied day to day, of course, but the last information I’d heard placed him in the south of the south island. I resolved to turn around, perhaps reason with the rotund Maori guy, and take a picture to put an end to this grumbling in my head. If they were worried about some sort of movie stuff in my shot, well, they could check the image, right? As I rounded the corner to where I’d been parked before, I saw a small knoll that I’d not noticed previously, underneath where I’d parked – and TONS of people, a truck with a mounted camera, lights, boom microphones were all visible directly under my parking spot- but only if you looked at that precise spot at the precise right time. Oops! So with unerring radar I’d stopped at the worst possible location to make me look like an innocent tourist and not a paparazzo. I fired a quick shot or two off my Nikon defiantly out the window (I was too much of a chicken to stop again and argue with the Maori) and went on my way.
The shots of rebellion came out blurry anyway, so I didn’t gain much for my obstinacy, but by god, there’s going to be a scene in The Hobbit that I am going to recognize as the place I tried to take a picture of, and was run off by set security. (I may even holler out something to that extent in the theater, depending on my excitement level.)