On my first days off I had one goal, to strap on some skis and head for the mountains. With good friends in Wanaka, I headed back to the beautiful little town. With the last few weeks of ski fields I organised a day up treble cone and caught the bus up the winding switchbacks to hit the last of the dwindling white stuff. The slopes were quiet, the snow crisp and the runs wide for my legs to remember the slick movements of the blades. As in New Zealand, each lift started a conversation with an interesting and friendly local, those who had been loyal to these runs throughout the season.
By the afternoon, eating only on the lifts, I was tired and my legs were feeling it from fighting the growing softness of the snow in the afternoon sun. Still I remembered the rules of my childhood ski holidays, first lift up, last lift up and no resting in between (except to admire the view.)
A trip to Wanaka would not be complete without some live music at the local hangout, Fitzpatricks, a walk through the sticky forest and a climb up Mt Iron to admire the view. Chuck in some landmarks of civilisation, a food shop, cell phone coverage and plenty of coffee and you have yourself a pretty special four days.
Driving back into Milford made it all the more real, returning to this place was coming home.
With an afternoon before resuming work I went to the airport control tower to meet Dave, a connection through a family friend who had been working in Milford for 13 years. It was incredible that I would have a link to someone in this small community, not only that but I had randomly befriended his nephew a few days earlier. From the vantage point of the control tower I got to watch the busy little airfield fill up, then empty again taking passengers back to Queenstown. The coffee I was offered took an hour to be perfected as passenger strips printed out announcing the arrival of more and more planes, pilots radioed through and helicopters departed. This tiny airstrip becomes one of New Zealand’s busiest airport during summer.
Throughout the course of my next 10 days Milford life continued to surprise. A baby humpback swam into the fiord and announced itself right in front of our boat to which I was undoubtedly the most excited person on board. On a moody afternoon, a patch of brilliant blue sky opened up allowing a chink of light to birth a huge rainbow right across the fiord. I became no longer the new person as each company began expanding for summer, including Kaitlan who joined our happy crew.
The expanding sense of community grew as summer officially kicked of on 1st October and promised to be full on campfires, big nights and long days. I got to experience Milford in different ways, taking to a sea kayak for a tour closer to the water which was incredible for noticing more the scale and detail of the shore line. Paddling up to Bowen falls at its incredible 163metres of tumbling water was a humbling experience. With Ausrine and Lineke we also cruised with another company, taking in a whole new commentary and being told over the microphone “ladies, you know there is no such thing as a free cruise, you will be standing under the next waterfall filling glasses for everyone to quench their thirst on glacial water.” So fully clothed but without shoes and a raincoat we dutifully held a tray of glasses as fairy falls rushed over the mountain top and soaked us head to toe. Looking very glamorous we turned up to the observatory a while later to explore the fiord from another angle, beneath. The glass tube descends ten meters below the water and from this different perspective it is possible to experience the fish species and rare black coral that call this area home.
In true spring style, the weather went unpredictable and after a dry few weeks we were treated to an exciting deluge of rain, followed by snow to 300metres. The Avalanche risk closed the road for 36 hours. At sea level we were fine but with the only access road crossing through Homer tunnel at 946metres, it is a dangerous prospect which looms with the changing weather. After the downpour the waterfalls were incredible, every surface transformed. Stirling and Bowen falls, our two permanent falls were being carried by the wind blowing spray back upwards and across the fiord. After rain the water on the fiord sits dark, a fresh water layer full of tannins having run through the vegetation sits on top until it is carried out to sea, sometimes up to 6metres. The water takes a long time to mix with the Tasman sea, protected by the remains of the glacial moraine. The fiord is on average 285metres deep but at the entrance to the fiord it is only 40metres, also preventing big swells.
The road continued to open and close, toying with the incoming traffic but allowing for excitement if caught the right side of it as campfires and open mic nights continued on.
Another break I stepped out into the wider world to meet Femke and Masa for a roadtrip. From Queenstown we crossed Central Otago to the east coast encountering small towns, kiwi hospitality and a lot of the landscapes I had cycled through earlier in the year, even returning to the camp at Omakau, a stop on the Rail Trail. Markedly colder we had many blankets to keep warm through the night. A new stop was the spot of our second night, the Moeraki Boulders. The boulders are strewn across the beach, suspected formed 40 million years ago. They are shaped and cracked like dinosaur eggs, some even burst open. This gave us great photo fun and we pretended to lay, or even emerge from the suspect rocks. The next day we headed down the coast to Dunedin, revisiting stunning Tunnel Beach before tackling the hilly, windy Otago roads through undulating country inland to Gore. The southern part of New Zealand can be a little remote, the towns slightly rough around the edges. Our camp for the third night left little to be desired and we were pleased there was three of us and a few bottles of wine to get through the overfriendly hosting style of the manager and the slightly sticky floor-esque room which we ended up in. As many buildings which would be considered new in Europe are labelled ‘historic’ we wondered why our accommodation didn’t have a historic brown tourist sign.
Milford time remains a puzzling concept. In a 10 day rotation so much happens that it stretches out behind you. 4 days off equally feels like a decent chapter and when a colleague ventures out for 4 days it can feel like a yawning gap. So that’s 6 weeks of living in New Zealand’s remotest corner, and it certainly feels as homely as it does wild.