Fiordland National Park takes up most of the southwest corner of the South Island, and the town of Te Anau serves as a jumping-off point for activities in the park. Apart from the travel services and motels the attractions are thin, but the offers roomy accommodations and the provides us with sophisticated pizza at a wonderful New Zealand price. The Olive Tree decor features a boar’s-head sculpture over the front door, and I pause to take a photo. The cashier emerges from behind the counter.
“People like to take pictures of him. You know, sometimes I ask him advice” she confides.
I pause thoughtfully. “So what does he tell you?”
She walks away without answering.
Te Anau does offer one of the few locations in the world with easy access to glow worms, and a visit to the caves is tonight’s activity. As our boat bounces across a choppy Lake Te Anau and the sun sets behind the western mountains I think back a year, how then Te Anau was just a dot in the Moon guidebook surrounded by squiggly lines and the promise of a little freak sideshow; I get a crystallized sense of how far I’ve come and what a great thing travel is for the soul. I’m brought back to earth by a few of our fellow American travellers, some drunken college students abovedecks being noisily drenched by the surf.
Glow worms are the larvae of subterranean fungi gnats. For thousands of years underground streams have carved tunnels and caves in the limestone of the hills around Te Anau, and in the distant past water near the surface washed gnat eggs into the deep caves. The insects adapted to the darkness, utilizing a chemical reaction in their abdomens to create a soft blue glow that attracts other washed-in insects to the worms’ sticky trap threads.
There are millions of glow worms inside the hills around Te Anau.
We break into groups of about twenty and duck under the lip of the cave entrance. Clear water rushes beneath the metal catwalk and immediately we see the little blue specks in the high, dark reaches of the cave beyond the walkway floodlights. The blue glow is cool and steady, unlike the bright pulsing flash of a firefly – the dots are the size of small beads, a little larger than the head of a pin. I try hard not to think of the millions of tons of rock directly over my head, and I avoid touching the chiseled limestone walls for fear of setting off something unpleasant. The walkway winds deep into the mountain, until each group stops to board a low, flat-bottomed metal boat. Our guides grab suspended metal cables to pull the boats silently forward, and then the lights go out. We’re plunged into an inky silence, the rushing of the entrance waterfall faint in the distance, the only sound the occasional hollow thud of another boat bumping the wall. It’s like looking through a telescope into the clear night sky – galaxies of steady blue lights, little feel for distance but a sense of the texture of the black walls where the worms cling en masse to stalactites and outcroppings. We wheel beneath one circular gathering and I can see the guide cut a black silhouette against the far blue wall. The darkness and the patterns and the silence and the water combine into an almost out-of-body experience – for a moment – and then I rematerialize in the calm darkness, now aware of the glow of white shirts reflected in the rippled water.
On the way out I stoop to taste the cool clean water and crane my neck to see the last blue dot as I crouch through the entrance. I swear I’ll come back one day.
The Road to Milford
I’m getting accustomed to the New Zealand morning routine – dark clouds broken up by the rising sun, the mountains to the west painted top to bottom with sunlight. We pack most of our gear back into the wagon and cover the back deck; we can only take so much stuff with us on the boat tonight, so we cross our fingers and lock the car. I carry a backpack with a change of clothes and a little cooler stuffed with Lemon Ruskis left over from Wanaka and some of last night’s pizza. I figure the bus ride will take a few hours, and the four of us can party in the back.
Well, the bus is a lot smaller than I thought, no Greyhound. We’re asked to stow all our stuff in the trailer, but I sneak the cooler on board and stuff it below the seat in front of me. We’re off to Milford Sound, but not straightaway – the bus makes a number of stops where the passengers pile out and the driver talks about features of the terrain. Then we’re asked to switch seats, with two new people sharing the front bench with Peter, our guide. I lose track of the Ruskis almost immediately.
Peter’s an outgoing New Zealander who obviously cares a great deal about the outdoors. We spend our turn on the front bench talking about the tour guide lifestyle and the flood of emigrants from New Zealand to Australia, and the Australians’ demands for compensation. Peter also enjoys taking good-natured shots at his foreign guests, lobbing barbs at the AmerEEkans on board. He holds a special place in his heart for the Australians. “This is a circuit trail. Not even the Aussies can get lost.”
We stop to stretch out in the grass of a long, winding valley; we discuss the awesome destructive power of the stoat, a weasel that decimated many defenseless island species to extinction; we pause at a mountain pass for group pictures. I finally get back to my original seat and open the cooler, quickly downing a Ruski and a slice of pizza. Great timing – as I wipe my hands we round the last corner and pull into the dock.
The Milford Wanderer is a 99-foot motor/sailboat that sleeps about 60 and glides smoothly across the blue-green water of Milford Sound. The mess hall is already filled with a group of slightly crusty, very vocal Kiwis. They’ve just finished the four-day Milford Track hike and have been drinking all afternoon. One gentleman in particular has a bellowing machine-gun laugh – HaHaHaHa! We order a few beers to catch up.
There’s a thick gray cloud layer over the sound as we head for the sea. The air’s not really cold, but as the boat picks up speed the breeze packs a chill. There hasn’t been the usual torrent of rain lately, and as a result the waterfalls aren’t as spectacular as they can get – with little more than bare rock on the cliff face there’s nowhere for the water to collect, and it all finds a more or less direct path to sea level. Wispy ribbons change course in midair and start new falls where the wind drops them.
We reach the Tasman Sea in about a half hour, more quickly than I expected. The ship drops anchor and Eric bounds off the second-deck platform into the water. Melanie’s first in line at the back for one of the colorful plastic kayaks. I hesitate for a moment, then run belowdeck to change into shorts. I get a red kayak. There’s no apron over the seat and I’m clumsy with the paddle, so I scoop a lot of water from the sea into the kayak and onto my shorts. But it’s relaxing as I drift away from the boat, admiring its white, gold and blue lines in the fading gray light. I take in the deep green slopes and the low clouds, barely aware of the murmur of the passengers back on the ship. Then HaHaHaHa! I’m pulled back to reality and I point my kayak back toward the ship.
The crew has brought food but we have to provide the entertainment. It’s national anthem time. The trekking Kiwis start, followed by some Swedes and a group of Japanese travellers. The Japanese anthem in particular sounds neat – I don’t think any in our group has ever heard it before. Finally it’s time for the Star Spangled Banner – we’re the only AmerEEkans on board, and as we rise Cindy hisses “Start low!” Her choir recently opened a 49ers’ game back in San Fran. We start low, me anchoring and Cindy working in a little vibrato up top. We absolutely crush the tune, and hold land of the freeeeeeee as long as we can. We get a huge round of applause and some genuine compliments, and I’m really proud of us for stepping up.
Eric spends the balance of the evening attracting seals and schools of fish by pointing the ship’s searchlight into the water.
Sleeping quarters are four-to-a-pod. We sleep on thin, rubberized mattresses that make a racket with each movement; at one point during the night I have to get up to go to the bathroom and I perch like a bat for what seems like an hour, unsure how to get down from my upper bunk without waking anyone. I start to wonder if maybe I should have taken the car to Dunedin instead of joining this little expedition.
The ship motors lazily back along the fiord as the crew describe the local wildlife and the glacial processes that shaped the sheer cliffs. From 1800 feet above us the rock drops straight down another few thousand feet below: the ship can (and does) nudge right up to the edge of the water without running aground. The captain guides us expertly to the base of an active waterfall, and the force of the impacting torrent blasts wind and spray across the deck.
- Bring rain gear whether it’s raining or not.
These trips holde the promise (but no guarantee) of unusual wildlife sightings. No whales this time, but the narrator walking the deck with his headset microphone thinks he spots a Fiordland crested penguin scurrying behind a plant – I see a brief flash of movement but it could have easily been a woodchuck for all I can tell.
I doze fitfully on the bus ride back. We make a few more stops – some easy hikes in the lush areas where Lord of the Rings has just wrapped up filming. Peter confides that he can’t sleep on these overnight trips either, and that Kiwis are some of the most difficult passengers in the world once they start drinking – the captain had actually considered barring the hikers from the ship when he first saw them in the dock bar. We mention that we’re headed to Queenstown next, and Peter offers us a challenge: find the Bunka, an unmarked club downtown which presents nothing more than a blank alleyway door to the outside world.
Back in Te Anau we find our car and belongings intact, and we take the opportunity to load up on New Zealand trinkets – scarves, t-shirts, All Blacks golf ball sets – for the folks back home. Cindy drives us east and then north back toward Queenstown, and Melanie and I catch up on sleep in the back seat.