Let us buck the trend a little here. I’m going to continue on from the night before as there is still a little more to share. Something that I’ve developed a taste for since I’ve been away from home is craft beer. My views and behaviours towards drinking have undergone a rather dramatic transformation in the past year or so. I’m no longer interested in drinking to get drunk, or in even being drunk at all! I drink because I like the taste. I am a fan of flavour. I wanted to try and get my family on board with why I appreciate craft beer so much. Being together was a good start, New Zealand did the rest by delivering a six pack of different style beers from one brewery.
I had picked up a selection from Tuatara. The necks of their bottles are scaled and the caps resemble a lizard’s eye. We had a lager, a pilsner, two pale ales, a hefeweizen and a porter. We should begin by being honest. Everyone, at some stage in their life, has mocked people who taste wine. I mean really tastes it, you know someone who pushes their nose deep into a glass and takes a deep breath. Wafts of blackberry, roses, rocket ships flying past jupiter. You want to call them out on their bullshit. I know I have. So there I was, sitting my family down to do just that with beer. Beer is less pretentious than wine. Blokes drink beer when they watch the football, or talk about women. I wanted to show them how different it could be.
I explained what we were going to do. We would start light and get darker. I wanted each of them to do something as they sampled. I wanted them to write down three things about the beer. It’s harder than you might think. You have to stop, take a moment to think about what you are doing? Dad called it quits after the lager. He is most definitely not a beer drinker. He’s a man with a sweet tooth and resolved to stick with cider. What are those flavours similar to? Lisa enjoyed the exercise. She discovered the citrus quality in a pale ale. What are you thinking about? Mum released her secret inner beer drinker. Drinking becomes a practise in being present. It was widely agreed that not one of us pays enough attention to what we are doing, in almost every thing that we do. You see, with the right amount of know how beer can easily become at least as pretentious as wine.
First thing in the morning I found myself down on the foreshore. The tide was high. The iconic shape of Mitre Peak rose up out of the water. It falls and flattens into a jagged ridge line that curves away to the left. A glacial trough opens up. Looking to the right, another range spreads from behind Mitre Peak to form the Elephant and the Lion. Sheer rock walls rising over a kilometre from the surface of the fjord. From here it appears no different to a lake, the mountains look like they could easily close off the open ocean beyond the bay.
Our luck with the weather had held. It was another perfect day. There were just a few clouds beginning to hang around some of the tallest mountains. We loitered around at the ferry terminal for a while, waiting for our boat to be ready. We were booked in with Real Journeys for a scenic cruise which would head right out into the Tasman Sea and back again.
The height of the mountains seems unbelievable. That seems like a ridiculous thing to say out loud. Had we not been in the foothills of the Southern Alps? Are we not already familiar with how big mountains are? There are facts available to emphasise quite how off our sense of scale is. The peaks are more than twice as high as the Eiffel Tower. Stirling Falls which sits at the base of one of the glacial valleys is a staggering 155 metes tall. Three times the height of Niagara Falls. My brain is struggling to consider the millions of years that have been required to carve out such a unique, dramatic, photogenic landscape.
From the boat a shout goes up. Dolphins ahead! The guide tells us to keep an eye out for the young ones, the size of a rugby ball. They’re quite happy to play around the bow for a while. The adults in the pod casually breach the surface. I’ve seen bottle nose dolphins hundreds of times before but these are big animals. It is due to the colder conditions this far south, their fins are smaller and they carry more weight. There’s not much food in the depths of the sound so they don’t stick around for long. The dolphins swim further in, we continue to sail out.
We’ve hardly moved before we encounter juvenile New Zealand fur seals. They’re sunbathing on rocks that look impossible to walk on with feet. The seal is somehow perfectly adapted for gracefully moving around on hazardous surfaces.
The peaks continue. I’m straining my neck. The surrounding walls are still going straight up. There’s a huge crack down one. The Alpine fault line separating Australia from the Pacific. It’s a live fault. The already unfathomably tall mountains are rising almost 4cm a year! That’s apparently as fast as my finger nails grow in year. We close in on the open ocean. The heights above plunge into the Tasman Sea.
The boat turned back inland. It’s just as difficult to see an entrance from this side. The mountains reach up again. We’re surrounded. The cliffs are strewn with green. An alpine rainforest has somehow managed to establish itself on the barren granite rock face. The extreme conditions in this spectacular corner of the world New Zealand is making less and less sense to me. Dad’s brain is already on the edge of a total collapse. He’s had to take in so much naturally conflicting information and is trying desperately hard to make sense of it all. I’m looking forward to attempting to teach him some geography when he’s ready to ask.
We approach Sterling Falls. I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that the water is falling from higher than it does at Niagara. The problem arises because it simply does not appear that big. Niagara is colossal. Riding the Maiden of the Mist into the thunder of the horseshoe falls made me feel miniscule. This doesn’t. It isn’t until we pull away from the spray and another boat moves in that I finally get a more accurate sense of scale.
Our boat enters a small bay within the fjord. This is a wilderness area. No settlement. No roads. No tracks through the rainforest that hugs the shore. It’s enclosed by a fortress of granite. Way up behind the trees the remains of a glacier gradually melts into the river that returns to the sea. It is apparently one of the only places in the world where you can see a rainforest, a glacier and fjord in the same place. As if that wasn’t enough, Milford Sound had one more treat to share with us. Two, maybe even three, fiordland crested penguins swam across the shore. They hopped out, along the rocky beach and disappeared into the tree line. Penguins vanishing in a rainforest. That’s a neat trick that I’ve not seen before. This grand finale marks the end of our show.
The day is far from over. We’ve a long drive to get back on track. To continue our journey north, we’ve got to go all the way back to Queenstown. We hit the Milford Highway with the intention of stopping only a handful of times. Emerging from Homer Tunnel we found the weather was clear. Blue skies again! Despite being the same road, everything looked much different to the way we’d come in. It could have been all too easy to stop at every lookout and see the changes.
I insisted that we stop at Walker Creek on the return trip. I had already spent too long there not to know how it looked without the false ceiling of cloud. Several hundred meters of mountain appeared where before there was nothing. The colours were enhanced. The scene felt more cheerful. It was a welcoming rather than foreboding place to stop. I had got my wish and was happy until we stopped for the night in the township of Athol.