November 3-6, 2016
Following the glaciers we had a long drive through the mountains. Geographically we were cutting east through the mountains from the coast to about the center of the lower part of the South Island, making our way eventually through Haast Pass. Along the way we stopped at a lot of scenic outlooks and snagged photos. For 98% of the drive, we saw no other vehicles and no other buildings. Apart from the road itself, the landscape was entirely untouched.
As the sun started to go down, we started looking for a gas station. There weren't any. Finally, with about 5% of a tank of gas left, we found a hotel/gas station combo and pulled up to the pump. Like most places in New Zealand, though, it closed early in the evening and we were too late to get gas from it. Getting concerned, we continued towards Queenstown hoping to find another small town with a gas station. We rolled up to a service garage with 24/7 pay-at-the-pump, but couldn't get a single one of our cards to work on the machine. Giving up on this, we continued down the road (probably nearing 0% fuel) for another 15 or 20 minutes. By chance, we finally came upon a gas station (with an attendant working!) and were able to fuel up. Huuuuuuge relief.
We continued our drive to Queenstown, eventually coming to a sort of plateau (remember how my profession is in tech, not rock formations?) that sat high above Queenstown. It was dark, so the city was lit up as we snaked our way slowly down a steep incline towards the city. We rolled into town late, and our B&B host was waiting up for us. He was extremely happy to see us, showing us to our room and providing suggestions for a late night dinner in Queenstown. At his suggestion, we walked a few blocks from our B&B to a very college-bar-scene type restaurant known as "FERGBURGER." Here we ordered and enjoyed some tremendous burgers while a steady stream of drunk people did the same.
The following day we headed off to Milford Sound, one of the destinations we were most excited about. We were picked up by a shuttle at our B&B, driven to a small airport, flown in a small plane to an "airstrip" near Milford Sound, and then loaded up on a tour bus with about 10 or 12 other people. Because of some rough weather near Milford Sound, our flight could only take us part of the way there-- hence the bus. The weather on any given day is drastically different on either side of the mountains, so the poor weather on the west side had no effect on our ability to fly in nice and close from the east. The bus made up the remaining distance by driving us west through the mountains to Milford Sound. A man named Neil with an AWESOME British accent was our driver, and he kept us entertained with trivia about weather, seasons, plants and animals along the way.
We stopped a few times during the bus drive. At one stop we got up close with a few Kea (big green New Zealand bird) that flew down and landed on our bus. Our guide told us that the Kea enjoy using their beaks to dig the weather stripping out from between car doors, so they often land on parked vehicles and start ripping off chunks of rubber. As soon as he explained that to us, that's what they started doing.
Eventually the bus ride ended at a small "port" on Milford Sound. We went through a little terminal and boarded a small tour boat. The boat drove us around the Sound for a few hours, bringing us up close to a bunch of waterfalls. There was a decent amount of fog that day, which made the whole experience feel very cinematic and surreal. The cliff faces that rose out of the water extended so high up that you often couldn't even see the tops of them. We also caught a glimpse of some sea lions and a solitary penguin. When our boat tour was over we returned to Queenstown (another trip on the bus, another short flight in a small plane).
The following evening we bought tickets to ride on a legitimate and faithfully restored 100 year old steamboat, the TSS Earnslaw. The Earnslaw took us on a short cruise across Lake Wakatipu to a farm. During the day the farm offers tours, but in the evening they host a dinner buffet with a ridiculous spread. The venue was on par with a country club, or at least what we think a country club would be like.