No, I wasn’t there or have photos of last night’s Tongariro eruption, the first in over 100 years. This photo is the next best thing and was taken a few years ago showing the Tongariro volcanic system. The beautiful cone to the right is Mount Ngauruhoe (pronouced Nara-ho-ee) and it’s actually a relatively new vent of the main Tongariro volcano, which is the entire area on the left. Tongariro was once bigger than Mt Ruapehu (out of shot), which itself is bigger than Mt Ngauruhoe, but Tongariro blew up yonks ago leaving what we see today. Last night’s eruption at 11.50pm hurled rocks 1 km away and sent up an ash cloud that has disrupted local air traffic. Experts say they don’t know how long the volcanic activity will last; could be months, days, decades! A more violent eruption in the coming days or a drop off in all volcanic activity was also possible, it’s reported. White Island to the east in the Bay of Plenty, on the same volcanic fault line which runs west to Taupo, Tongariro and Mt Taranaki in New Plymouth, also blew the other day. Given the massive volcanic cauldron on which the central North Island sits, any activity is potentially disturbing. Taupo, a few miles east of here, was the largest eruption in the history of the earth, that we know of; something that made the Mount St Helens eruption look like a minor fart. Food for thought. The volcanic alert level for Mt Tongariro has risen from 1 to 2, while the aviation colour code has been raised to red.
If it ain’t broke, should we fix it? Milford Sound/Fiordland is my favourite place in New Zealand, so I conclude these posts on the South Island’s no1 attraction with a few more photos that highlight its incredible beauty, not only of its actual location, but of the existing Milford Sound Road and the only way in, presently — and ask: do we really need to build a monorail and a tunnel to ferry even more tourists into this remote, unique place? Because that’s the proposal from two different proponents currently under consideration from the authorities.
Today, tourists arrive in Milford Sound by speeding coaches on day trips from Queenstown, a round trip of nearly 600 kilometres, or about 11-hours without stopping. The alternative is to base oneself in the lakeside town of Te Anau, itself a 120km drive to the sound; 2-2.5 hours without stops. Te Anau is filled with motels, hotels and B&Bs and basically services the entire Fiordland region. The only other way to get there is by light plane — an annoying feature of any visit to the sound is the whining drone of small planes landing or taking off at Milford Sound’s airstrip, disturbing the stillness which hasn’t already been shattered by arriving and departing coaches and cars.
It’s visitor numbers, either not enough or too many, that drives the debate on whether new access to the sound is really needed and whether it is worth the ecological cost. Because it should not be forgotten, and it certainly isn’t by opponents of the monorail and tunnel, that the area which will be affected is part of a World Heritage Area comprising two National Parks. Critics say the tunnel and the monorail would damage the region’s reputation as World Heritage area and affect Te Anau’s economy with tourists bypassing the community. Both proponents claim that their proposals will boast tourist revenue for the region by cutting travelling times in half, offering visitors a unique Fiordland experience. Opponents say, and here I have to agree, is that these proposals miss the point entirely: that Milford Sound’s very remoteness is its appeal, and getting there by car, one of the world’s great road journeys, is a highlight and adventure in itself.
So let’s get the Dart-Milford tunnel out of the way first. My own view is that this is a barmy idea, completely unnecessary and, in a known earthquake-prone area, not terribly smart! Having said that, there is already one tunnel on the existing route, the Homer Tunnel, and so far no one has been crushed inside in an earthquake. But it is only 1270 metres long. The proposed Dart-Milford Tunnel will be 11.3km long, New Zealand’s longest.
The proponents, Milford Dart Ltd, would cut a tunnel underneath the Southern Alps from Routeburn Rd in Mt Aspiring National Park near Glenorchy to the Hollyford Rd in Fiordland National Park, linking up the existing roads with short extensions. They say it would turn a 304 km one-way journey to only 125 km, with travel time reduced from 5.5 hours to 2 hours. Within the tunnel, buses would travel at speeds up to 80 km/h. The tunnel is expected to have to attract at least 200,000 passengers per year to be commercially viable, and would cost around NZ$170 million.
Critics, and there are plenty, especially in the community of Glenorchy, say government policy forbids the construction of new roads in National Parks. They also point to the disposal of up to 250,000 m³ of spoil from the tunnel excavation and worries about unsupportable traffic demands on the aging Homer Tunnel.
According to the New Zealand Listener magazine, the construction base for the tunnel will be situated in the idyllic and pristine Hollyford Valley, near the existing Milford Road and Homer Tunnel. Into this area of untouched rainforest with its plunging waterfalls, cascades and birdsong, will be dumped a “concrete-batching plant; an aggregate-screening and crushing plant (working 24/7 over the forecast construction period of two years, but with a concession period of up to 15 years); water treatment facilities, including settling ponds and a treatment plant; accommodation; offices; workshops; and fuel storage.” While the ”expected 268,000 sq m of tunnel spoil would be disposed of onto the Hollyford airstrip, raising it seven to eight metres”. One local resident, Ron Peacock, the Te Anau-based chairman of the Hollyford Valley Gunns Camp Board of Trustees, told the NZ Listener: “First decent flood and half that tunnel spoil will be washed down the Hollyford.”
So, in essence, the tunnel cuts out most of the remarkable journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound, compromises the environment of the unspoilt Hollyford Valley, adds to pressures on the existing road and tunnel, and affects the ecological values of a World Heritage Area and two national parks, all in order for tourists to rush to Milford Sound and back as fast as possible.
Moving on, quickly . . . The “Fiordland Link Experience” monorail, or “Mad monorail proposal in Southland tussock grasslands and beech forests” as the Green Party’s “Frogblog” describes it, is a different creature and one which when I first looked at it was not overly opposed to. The idea is to cut out the not very interesting and quite tedious journey from Queenstown to Te Anau using a combination of a catamaran ferry, overland coach and a monorail thus saving an hours travelling time to Milford Sound each way.
The proposal, by Wanaka-based Riverstone Holdings, would involve a “27-minute” catamaran trip from Queenstown across Lake Wakatipu to Mt Nicholas. Then you would hop on an all-terrain vehicle on existing backcountry roads for “43-minutes” to Kiwi Burn, and take the “33-minute” monorail trip to Te Anau Downs, which is “91km from Milford Sound”. All very precise.
Riverstone Holdings chairman Bob Robertson says it would be the longest monorail trip in the world. Speaking to Mountain Scene newspaper, he added: “It is low impact and quiet, using electrically-operated vehicles drawing power from totally renewable sources, such as the wind farm at Mossburn.” He says “halving the time from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs, although helpful, is not the objective, but creating a world-class experience is.
“The Fiordland Link Experience is a journey that enables tourists to intimately appreciate our lakes, rivers, mountains and native bush. It is not just another mode of travel to get from A to B in the quickest time possible.”
The Greens, however, have a different view. They say: “The company’s promotional video features a snazzy monorail speeding through the forest. It doesn’t show the tens of thousands of beech trees that would be felled and the major earthworks on some steep slopes needed to construct the 43 km monorail track, maintenance track, bridging and power lines. We can grow our tourism industry by encouraging visitors to stay longer (breaking the journey from Queenstown by staying overnight at Te Anau for example). Then they can walk, smell and enjoy the forests of the Kiwiburn and Upukerora Valleys rather than seeing them flash past a sealed and sound proofed monorail compartment.” Their views on threats to the area’s ecological values can be seen in this short Forest and Bird video.
Well, if the monorail can be undertaken without losing “tens of thousands of trees”, and can be accomplished with low environmental impact, then I don’t think I have a problem getting to Te Anau from Queenstown in comfort while looking at great scenery. But if it can’t be done without mashing up the countryside then I’d rather leave it all untouched. The proposal does at least have the benefit of dumping more visitors in Te Anau who may stay for an extended periods, visiting Manapouri and Doubtful Sound perhaps, which can’t be a bad thing. For foreign tourists I would imagine the experience would be a pretty exciting introduction to Fiordland, and they would not miss out one the greatest attractions of Milford Sound —getting there by the amazing, existing road.
What do you think?
Many people say that visiting Milford Sound during wet and stormy weather shows off this extraordinary place in a way a sunny day cannot. When the peaks are hidden beneath lowering clouds filled with rain the sheer rock faces weep — uncontrollably. Hundreds of waterfalls appear alongside the two permanent ones, Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling falls, sending torrents of water cascading in spectacular fashion down the cliffs. Certainly, some of the photography I’ve seen in conditions like that are awesome in their atmospheric mood, but I would feel a bit miffed if I journeyed all the way to this wonderful place and wasn’t able to see it properly because of the weather. And this can be a real danger as the West Coast of New Zealand, and Fiordland in particular, are the wettest parts of the country. Indeed, areas of Fiordland and Westland were the only places Maori were unable to settle, such can be the inhospitable nature of these beautiful but uncomfortable wildernesses. Even when the rain has stopped, the waterfalls carry on for a few days fed by water drenched moss. These photographs were taken on my first visit to Milford Sound when the sun shone all day. Thank heavens!
Now I’ve started the Milford Sound photos I may as well carry on. It’s a hard choice picking them, though, as the two occasions I’ve visited the sound have resulted in more photos being taken than any other time in my life. The other day I posted a photo that encompassed the beauty of the sound, which is not hard to do. What is more challenging is presenting a picture that attempts to convey the massive scale of Milford Sound. By that I mean the sheer insignificance of humans in the context of their surroundings. This photo, I think, comes as close as it’s possible to get. It is only when you are on the water that the scale of the cliffs — which rise vertically from the depths — becomes apparent. Put what is, in fact, a large tour boat next the towering walls of granite, and you have some idea of how small and puny we people really are. The photo below also gives a pretty good idea of the absolute magnificence of this area. No wonder they had to build a road to reach it, an incredible story all in itself. Captain Cook, on his circumnavigation of New Zealand, completely missed the ocean entrance to Milford Sound. I wonder what he would have written had he been fortunate enough to find it.
When I wrote the Milford Sound road was a wonder, I was not exaggerating. Among the most wondrous of the wonders to be seen along this route are The Mirror Lakes, named because . . . This scene, which I’ve enjoyed a few times, never fails to amaze; as though it had been lifted straight from the pages of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The forested, snow-capped peaks are called the Earl Mountains whose reflections are perfectly mirrored in a series of small lakes which are accessed by a wheelchair-friendly boardwalk. If you are fortunate enough to take the Milford Road some day, I’d advise starting out from Te Anau before first light as the lakes are best seen in the silent stillness of early morning. As the day progresses the wind can pick up and the magical reflections be lost. The light is better in the morning, too, and mysterious strands of drifting mist snaking through the valleys add drama to any photo.
On May 17th, when I decided to post a photo a day (fallen off a bit), I wrote about the road to Milford Sound in the post “Dawn Road”. It is one of the world’s great road trips, and takes about two hours from the town of Te Anau, if you don’t stop too often for photographs. Difficult. At the end of this unspoilt and magnificent drive you descend to Milford Sound through mountains which rise impossibly steeply on either side to a sight which, well, takes the breath away. Early morning is best, like the photo above, when the water is still and glasslike. But the solitude amidst the natural splendour you’ve enjoyed thus far is rudely shattered by the sudden proximity of tour buses and hundreds of tourists preparing for their cruise of the sound in one of the many boats on offer — it is New Zealand’s most famous attraction, after all. However, this doesn’t really detract as the experience of just being in such an incredible place more than makes up for the sudden inconvenience of early morning queuing with many humans for one’s berth on a boat. The mountain in the centre is called Mitre Peak. I’ll post more photos from this trip in due course, but have started with this one as it is one of my most popular on other forums, like Flickr and 500px.
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say”
—J.R.R. Tolkien from The Fellowship Of The Ring
This is the road out of Paradise, suitably sunlit beneath a gathering storm. Where will this road take you? Into the mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park via Paradise, a tiny hamlet, the last vestige of civilisation before the traveller is swallowed up in the very same wilderness that Peter Jackson used to recreate Saruman’s breeding ground of evil orcs at his fortress of Isengard in The Lord Of The Rings. Travelling this road I found it easy to immerse myself in the world of Middle Earth, the jagged peak of Mt Aspiring disappearing into the clouds above a forest of gnarled and ancient trees. Was there ever so apt a setting for a Tolkiensque world of elves and ents, dwarfs and dragons? Needless to say, this road does not go ever on and on. Follow its winding path through a dark and mysterious forest, ford a bubbling stream and you will reach the Dart River where this road ends. But the adventure does not. If you don’t want it to. This area and that of the nearest town of Glenorchy, a 50-minute drive from Queenstown along the banks of Lake Wakitipu, acts as a staging post for jet-boating and some of the finest tramping (hiking) routes New Zealand offers: the Routeburn Track, Greenstone and Caples tracks and the Rees-Dart Track. The justly famous Routeburn is a 3-day, 32-kilometre adventure that takes the hiker through some of the finest scenery in the country to Milford Sound, across mountain ranges, and forested valleys adorned with plunging waterfalls. This walk has the lot, so I’m told. Maybe one day I’ll do it, with eyes alert for secretive elves and wandering orcs. As for the photograph, we had just passed though Paradise in weather that appeared unrelentingly threatening, when suddenly the sun burst through briefly illuminating the road ahead; a road whose destination was wrapped in the dark foreboding of a storm about to be unleashed. When it comes to moody or dramatic landscapes, I’m a complete sucker, and this was Paradise for me!
It certainly didn’t look as inviting when Frodo and Sam arrived in Mordor to cast The One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. But then, Peter Jackson had filmed that sequence of Return of the King in summer. Mt Ngauruhoe (pronouced Nara-ho-ee) in summer looks the part, a desolate volcanic wilderness that makes the perfect match for Mordor, and some CGI thrown in. But it’s in winter when Mt Ngauruhoe really sparkles, like a giant sugar cone. This classic volcano is, I reckon, New Zealand’s 2nd most beautiful volcano after Mt Taranaki. Situated in the World Heritage Area of Tongariro National Park between the volcanoes of Mt Tongariro and Mt Ruapehu on the Central Plateau, it erupted 45 times during the 20th century, most recently in 1977. I took the photo from the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, climbing an icy path above the nursery ski slopes to find a fantastic outlook over a valley and this mesmerising mountain. I slithered and slipped most of the way down, but it was worth it. Being such a photogenic volcano, I took many pictures, and here are a few more.
I’ve decided to post a “photo of the day” each day, in edition to any other posts I feel inclined to generate. They will come from my library of New Zealand images taken since we arrived in Aotearoa in January 2006. In that time our family has travelled all over New Zealand, from the top of the North Island to the south of the South. In fact, I reckon we have seen more of the country than many Kiwis. Photographically there can be few places on the planet that can match the variety and splendour New Zealand has to offer the happy snapper. I can’t wait for my next trip, wherever it may turn out to be.
© 2012 Mark Meredith
The Milford Road takes visitors to New Zealand’s most popular tourist destination, Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park in the south west corner of the South Island. This single road, opened in 1954, is the only way in, apart from landing by boat or small plane or walking the Milford Track. It’s certainly the most memorable road trip I’ve ever undertaken and must surely rank as one of the world’s greatest road journeys. Although some tourists arrive in Milford Sound by speeding coaches on day trips from Queenstown, many visitors base themselves in the town of Te Anau, itself set on a beautiful lake surrounded by forested peaks. From there the 120km drive to Milford Sound can be done quite speedily, if you really want to. But that would be a mistake. In order to catch one of the 9am Milford Sound cruises, you need to leave Te Anau before first light. It’s a blessing in disguise because by the time you enter Fiordland National Park and the Eglinton Valley, the dawn is breaking, illuminating the drifting mist clinging to the base of bush-clad mountains, revealing the snow-capped peaks of a breathtaking other world; one so lovely and stupendous you could weep. Yes, you could say it makes an impression. There’s much more I could say about the road, not least the endurance of the men that built it through impossibly mountainous terrain with picks and shovels in an environment so harsh the feat defies belief. More details on another post. This photo marks just the start of the day, our journey to Milford Sound and back. The best ever day in New Zealand.