Te Anau: Sounds and looks 'magnifico'

By Josie Dale

Beautiful mountains and lakes make Kiwi roadtrip a classic, writes Josie Dale.

Dawn is breathtaking at lake Te Anau. Photo / Josie Dale
Dawn is breathtaking at lake Te Anau. Photo / Josie Dale

A golden dawn stains the South Island's largest lake, Te Anau.

"Yet another Kodak moment," grumbles my long-suffering husband as I charge out the door

A pyjama-clad photographer runs to join me on the stony beach. It's a freezing "brass monkey" morning and he's shivering.

The glow gradually diffuses leaving a perfect blue autumn day.

We'd arrived in Te Anau after an absence of more than 20 years and found the village-like atmosphere as we remembered.

We set off for Milford Sound early to avoid the procession of up to 50 tourist coaches, mostly from Queenstown. Over half-a-million tourists visit the remote area annually, 90 per cent of them day-trippers.

Plans for a more direct route from Queenstown have been raised. The controversial 11km bus tunnel proposal would shave more than 300km off the Queenstown round trip, but there's significant opposition because the project would encroach on Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks.

The Te Anau community is also concerned the new route would bypass its town, while, conversely, residents of Glenorchy worry about the impact on their village.

An hour later, we're at Mirror Lakes. Access is easy via the extensive boardwalks. The Earl Mountains and wetland plants reflect perfectly in the still water.

The drive to Milford must be one of the most beautiful in the world, but extra caution is required as the winding mountain road has one of the highest crash rates in the country.

The short loop walk near Lake Gunn, surrounded by red beech forest and native bush, allows us to stretch our legs. We meet a young Italian couple in the Department of Conservation campsite. "Magnifico," he says, gesturing toward the lake. Peter Jackson thought so, too. Part of his movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, was shot in the Eglington Mountains above Lake Gunn.

I'm hoping to see Kea hanging out in the parking area outside the Homer Tunnel. We're too early. Countless motorists return to their cars here to discover windscreen wipers transformed to rubber spaghetti, courtesy of Kea curiosity.

The 1.2km Homer Tunnel, New Zealand's second longest (after Lyttleton's), marks the road's highest point. Work on the tunnel and road began during the 1930s Depression, with the initial workforce consisting of five men with picks and wheelbarrows. They lived in tents and endured harsh conditions.

The tunnel and road were completed in 1953.

Traffic lights operate in summer because the tunnel is so narrow it's difficult for two buses to pass. The lights aren't used during avalanche season because of the danger to queuing vehicles.

We emerge at the head of the Cleddau Valley and coast the last 16km down to Milford Sound, which stretches a further 16km to the open sea. The small cray-fishing fleet based at Deep Water Basin, about 1km from the village, is tied up today but kayakers are making the most of the calm conditions.

The top of Mitre Peak is obscured by cloud. I've been here before but it's splendour always takes my breath away. Today, you'd never guess this is the wettest place in New Zealand, with up to 7m of rain annually.

Black clouds of sandflies hover hungrily and we hastily apply repellent. It's useless. According to Maori legend, the Goddess of the Underworld worried humans would never leave this paradise. Namu (sandflies) were appointed guardians and they ensure visitors never linger.

The cruise boats are already circling, waiting for the first wave of tourist buses to arrive.

For us, today is more about the journey than the destination. Surrendering to the guardians, we set off for the 120km drive to Te Anau before we're eaten alive.

- NZ Herald

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