Distance Traveled: 241km (Trip Total: 1077 km)
“What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.” ~ Albert Camus
Today has been the best day of my trip so far.
It starts at 8:30 in the morning, when I wake on my own without the benefit of any alarm. The clock next to my bed is not even plugged in. Outside, I’m greeted with a damp and mildly foggy morning. The ground is slick with a film of water, an omen of things to come.
I leave the hotel in search of breakfast; the center of town is only a 5 minute walk away. I spot my first sailboat of the trip, the Thoura, sitting quietly at it’s mooring in lake Te Anau.
I get a bacon and egg breakfast at a local cafe. It’s on special at $10.00, at least $5 cheaper than any other option. On a low-volume television, “MTV Classic” plays the top 15 music videos to make you smile. I’m treated to an eclectic playlist, including the likes of Salt ‘n Peppa and Tenacious D. The food is nourishing and the coffee is fantastic. On my way back, a gull caws loudly at me from it’s perch on the ledge above.
Since I’m coming back to the same town tonight, I leave the saddlebags off the bike and empty my backpack of almost everything except my water bottle and some papers. I check the tension on Olga’s chain, and use the handy center-stand to easily lube it up using the spray can that came included with the bike. Despite the love, Olga is temperamental today, taking several failed attempts before the engine finally starts with a reluctant growl.
I top off on fuel before leaving town, turning on the GoPro to record some more footage. At first the landscape is pleasant and pastoral. The sun shines happily down on the road, and I ride through stretches that are encompassed by a canopy of tree branches that arc almost entirely above me. Mottled sunlight dots the asphalt where it is able to penetrate the leaves overhead. It’s not long, however, before the weather begins to turn gray. The occasional transient drizzle indicates that the day hasn’t made up it’s mind whether to be rainy or not.
Roughly halfway through the short 120 km trip to the sound, the landscape opens up into the vast and beautiful Eglington Valley. Pockets of rogue clouds silently assault the stony mountainsides that make up the walls of this valley.
Further along, I stop at a sign for the “Mirror Lakes”, which really just happens to be a Mirror Pond. Nonetheless, several tour buses are stopped at this very point, so I take a walk around and snap some shots. I hear Japanese, Spanish, French, and even Russian as I weave through the clusters of fellow tourists.
Soon after I set off again, the weather makes up it’s mind. Today, it will rain.
It comes down heavier as I put away more distance. It never reaches full downpour status, but the passage of time ensures that water finds it’s way into every place it can manage. I can happily say that my riding gear is 90% waterproof! Unfortunately the 10% that is not happens to be my boots. I’m glad for the wool socks I’m wearing, but even they become waterlogged. I feel water *squelch* between my toes every time I shift.
About 15-km from the finish, traffic is stopped at a tunnel. It’s only large enough for traffic to go one way at a time, so I have some time for pictures. Unfortunately, I’m on a hill, so I need to keep my hand on the brake, but I somehow manage to use my gloved left hand to muster a few shots of the waterfalls that surround me.
The journey through the tunnel was surreal. There was almost no lighting, except for the lights of the cars passing through. Engines echo loudly in the stone chamber as we transition to the other side.
When light returns, the tunnel dumps us out into a height overlooking a winding and glorious ravine. After a few switchbacks, I stop at another turnout for more photos.
Olga gives me more attitude as I try to leave, refusing to start easily. An older kiwi man quips at me, “What do you need the engine for? It’s all downhill from here!” I laugh at the joke, and Olga appreciates the humor as well, starting up again for me so I can carry on.
The last few kilometers to the sound seem to take forever, as the road is windy and the rain is hard. My visor fogs up constantly, and when I open it for the sake of visibility, water droplets sting my face and eyes. It’s challenging, but eventually I make it to the bottom.
I park in one of the little roadside parking lots, and have to walk the remaining 400 meters or so to the terminal where a handful of boats wait to take people on tours. Apparently, I look like a madman, as more than one passerby gives me an ‘are you crazy?’ look as I soggily march myself and my helmet to the terminal.
Once I’m inside, I buy a ticket on a tour leaving at 1:30. Before we board, I take 10 minutes to squeeze a few pounds of water from my socks and the insoles of my boots. An aussie woman laughs at my display when she sees how much gets wrung out.
My ship is “The Pride of Milford” and it’s a rather large vessel with multiple decks. Maybe 100-ish people are lined up to board. Once on board, I find a place to drop my helmet and backpack at a table on the upper interior deck. A few minutes later, I’ve procured a cold beer and a hot meal to bleed away the weather. On tap is Monteith’s Original Ale, a wonderfully balanced Pale Ale that is not as hoppy as the west coast pale ales you find in America. Food is kind of a hybrid chinese buffet, and I get myself some curried beef, noodles, veggies, kimchi, and other assorted, hard-to-identify meat foods.
I eat as the boat pulls out of harbor and motors away. The food is warm, savory, spicy, and heart-warming. Combined with my ale and the gentle rocking of the boat, I feel the happiest I’ve been all day.
Most of the other tourists seem to be content, for now, to watch the views from the comfort of the interior. Instead, I venture outside to the top deck to watch the sights more directly. It’s still raining, and the boat is moving at a good clip, so the water comes at me sideways. It’s like I’m riding my motorcycle again, only now I feel even wetter.
One advantage of the rain is that the sides of the fjord are absolutely littered with waterfalls, both large and small. Every now and then, the skipper’s voice erupts from the intercom, describing in measured familiar tones the significance of the different landmarks we pass. Each time, after he’s done speaking, a clean female voice repeats the same in Japanese, no doubt for the benefit of the large tour bus full of Japanese people that booked this ship alongside me.
As I drippily enjoy the views, I notice that among the few people topside with me is an energetic Japanese woman in a pink jacket, and her somewhat older companion who is more reluctant to be as boisterious.
The pink-jacketed girl waves over to her friend, shouting “Daijobu! Daijobu!” (It’s alright! It’s alright!). With enough persuading, the white jacketed woman decides to join in the wind and the rain, and the two of them spend time studying a map of the sound that’s been printed in Japanese. The rain does a number on the map’s durability however, and soon a large chunk of it is ripped away by the wind and swept off to float into Tasman Bay. They cry out in alarm when it happens, and look around the deck, apparently embarrassed. I might have been the only person paying attention, but they catch my wry smile and laugh.
Slowly, the weather begins to dry a little, and more and more people find their way abovedecks. The captain gives us some history lessons while we admire the falls. The Maori used to come to Milford Sound to harvest green stone, which they used in jewelry and as a form of currency. The first european to discover Milford Sound was a Welshman out hunting seals in the early 1800’s. In bad weather, he sailed close to the fijords and was delighted to find this one that was not shown on any of Captain Cook’s maps. He names the area “Milford Haven” after his hometown in Wales, but a few years later, some other Welshman changes the name to the geographically incorrect “Milford Sound”, and it sticks.
A helpful fellow american couple from Iowa on honeymoon managed to take the first non-selfie Geo-pic of the vacation.
The pink jacketed japanese lady finds me and offers me her phone with the word “please”, gesturing to herself and her friend. It’s the universal sign for “take a picture of us”, and I happily oblige. Stereotypically enough, her iphone has a Hello Kitty case. Once people see that I’m taking pictures for people, I suddenly find myself the most popular amateur photographer on the upper deck. The guy with the day-glo jacket is taking pictures? I’m in! I take some shots for a few more couples before everyone goes back to watching the scenery.
It’s close to the end of the tour now. The white-jacketed japanese woman approaches me and tells me (in pretty good english) that her pick-jacketed friend wants a picture with me. We pose with the tattered map and take some shots together, laughing and having a great time. I get her to take a shot with my camera as well. With the water on the lens, it doesn’t come out as great as it could have, but it’s alright.
We talk for a minute and I explain that I know a tiny bit of japanese, but not nearly enough to actually converse in it. They both seem stunned by the news that any white guy on this boat knows japanese at all. They excitedly ask me what words I know, to which I first reply “daijobou”. They both laugh heartily at that, and pink-jacket hops up and down, bubbly with delight. I learn that the white-jacketed woman is Chikano, and the excitable one is Yukari (at least, that’s what I think I remember… I’m not 100% sure anymore).
The trip soon ends, and we say our goodbyes as they rejoin the rest of the tour bus group. They were genuinely thrilled to speak to me and take some pictures with me, and I’m glad to be a part of the happy memories from their trip. It was a true human-to-human interaction. We might not have been able to communicate super fluently with one another, but at the end of it all we were laughing and smiling and having a great moment together, and honestly that’s what sicks with me most from today. Not the scenery (which was grand), or the waterfalls (which were majestic), but rather, it’s Yukari, and her bouncing, bubbly, authentic laugh.
On the motorcycle ride back up and out of Milford, I think about them and all the other japanese words I know but didn’t say. Between anime, vocaloid songs, and half of Rosetta Stone level 1, I go through a kindergarten-level list of vocabulary: shiro (white), kuro (black), neko (cat), inu (dog), voice (koe), smile (egao), will not forget (wasurenai).
The weather steadily improves as I ride, leading me to believe that I just got unlucky with my weather timing today. As I leave the hemmed in gorges and ravines, I’m greeted again with the vast and sweeping valley that beams gloriously in the sunlight. I catch a glimpse of the water of lake Te Anau that I wasn’t able to see on the first ride out.
I get back to Te Anau around 5:30-ish, grab a quick hot shower and change into dry clothes. Writing today’s post has taken me a few hours, so don’t get spoiled thinking you get 2500-words and two dozen pictures for every day of this trip. I’m paying for internet by the megabyte, and time isn’t always as abundant.
In any case, today was a day to remember, now and for the rest of my life. Sometimes, life is just damned effing majestic.