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?