Attack of the Mountain Parrots in Fiordland National Park
Woke up before dawn to beat the crowds through Fiordland National Park to Milford Sound. Am starting to learn that no one in New Zealand wakes up until 9, even 10—nothing is open—and I’m an American anomaly… with a little bit of jet lag maybe.
The curvy roads were a little frosty, but it was a special treat to have the landscape all to ourselves as the sun rose. Incredible peaks towering over countless ice blue, crystal clear lakes. Tetons sort of peaks, with the impressive jagged finishes. Winding rivers in glacial flatbeds. Alpine valleys and… random “Don’t feed the Kea” signs. (This, my friends, is foreshadowing.)
Crawled up MacKinnon Pass to Homer Tunnel, an unsealed, blasted hole in the mountainside. Traffic takes turns going one way through this creepy, poorly lit thruway. I commented to Jeff that it reminded me of Rome’s metro, where they just randomly blast dynamite, seal it with tar, spraypaint directions on plywood, and send you on your merry way.
Needless to say, we survived and the tunnel gave way to spectacular views of the Milford Sound. Switchbacks aaallllll the way down. Saw a bunch of people pulled over looking at what appeared to be a mountain parrot, or… a Kea. (Yes, New Zealand actually has a mountain parrot.) Before I could beg to pull over, we were already entering the next switchback. An opportunity missed. (…Or was it?)
Made it to the waterfront and signed up for a two-hour nature cruise. While waiting, we told one of the guides about our Kea sighting and he admonished, “How interesting. They don’t usually come this far down from the alpine. They’re mischievous, cheeky little buggas.” I asked about Kiwis and he said he’d lived here all his life and had never seen a Kiwi in the wild, shooting my Kiwi-sighting dreams down with a single sentence.
The nature cruise was not a disappointment. Through the Sound all the way out to the Tasman Sea. Tons of waterfalls. They even backed the boat right up under a waterfall. Mitre Peak. Some teenaged fur seals. Bad, but free, instant coffee with a complimentary soup and roll to warm us up. The weather was amazing. Couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day.
Started our ascent back up the mountainside where we saw a bus pulled over with a bunch of tourists marveling at not one, not two, but five Kea birds. Three were perched on top of the bus. Started photographing one of the ground-level birds when I noticed it slowly approaching in my viewfinder. Peered over my lens to see a second one hopping towards me. Was backing away when they both suddenly aggressively started in my direction. I frantically ran across the street and jumped into the car. When I looked out the car window, both birds were waiting… only a foot or two outside my door.
Seemed to be a non-issue when we started the car and drove to the tunnel. As we waited for the light to change, we watched the birds return to swarming the bus in our rear view and laughed… until the bus drove away. They didn’t scatter as we’d expected, rather… turned their attention to our car. All five approached, like a gang of heathens. And suddenly they were on our hood and roof biting and tearing the rubber stripping off the car! Jeff honked the horn repeatedly and I closed the window as one started pecking at the window opening. We were both laughing and hysterically panicked at the same time. Finally, the light turned green and we sped into the darkness. Who ever would’ve thought we’d actually look forward to that tunnel?
“Mischievous?” More like crazed and rabid. Don’t think we need to feed them; seems like they’ll just help themselves to your car. When we pulled over for Mirror Lakes, we noticed they had successfully pulled the rubber stripping off the roof and we had to stuff it back in its grooves.
It’s true. We were attacked by New Zealand Mountain Parrots.
Made our way back to Te Anau for a late, but delicious, lunch at “The Fat Duck,” where we ordered a lamb burger and schnitzel. Waddled to the car and finished the day off with a stretch to Queenstown.
A Zillion National Parks and Some Hostel Drinking
Arose to a mountain view at the Crowne Plaza in Queenstown. Nice, comfy, warm sleep. Only obnoxious thing was the bathroom had one of those shower curtains that blows in on you the whole shower; I strongly believe the Crowne Plaza’s standards should be above this. Otherwise, breakfast was awesome and valet warmed our car up and scraped the ice off the “windscreen” for us.
Queenstown is a great little mountain village that sits right on Lake Wakatipu. Reminds me of Banff, or what Aspen would be like if I’d ever been to Aspen. If I were ever entered into witness protection, I’d come to one of these mountain villages and be a Starbucks barista. (Sidenote: Queenstown Starbucks had a chestnut-flavored syrup that was magically delicious. I’m not sure if they have chestnut stateside, but if they do, consider me a convert.)
Got to climb frosty switchbacks at dawn to see the fog lifting off Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Entered Mount Aspiring National Park, timing our entry into Haast Pass very carefully since it closes down every night and reopens each morning due to landslides and rockfall. Stopped off at Thunder Creek Falls and Gates of Haast, a huge multilevel waterfall that sits under a rickety, tressel-like bridge (that you drive over). Gates of Haast is the type of place that makes you realize how small you are; you’re at the bottom of a glacial fjord with water slamming down over these huge boulders. (It’s worth noting that you can see straight to the bottom of all these bodies of water it’s so clear.)
Drove through Westland Tai Poutini National Park and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park past Franz Josef Glacier. Stopped at Fox Glacier for lunch and passed our first female hitchhiker, which led to a greater conversation about picking up a hitchhiker for our own entertainment purposes. But what if you picked up a boring one? Or an annoying one? I don’t think Jeff or I would have it in us to pull over and be like, “Your journey with us ends here. You’re not nearly as fun as we were hoping.” Surely the female one has a weapon of some kind on her. Would they fit with us in our rental Prius? Is hitchhiking even legal in New Zealand? We’ve seen a thousand. (Answer: Yes.) We even saw one guy who looked so happy to be hitchhiking, we felt almost obligated to pick him up. But we didn’t. The conversation, and all the potential possibilities, continues.
Drove on to Greymouth, a small coastal town, where we set up camp for the night at a great little hostel. Got our own room with free wifi, spotless bathrooms, kayaks and bicycles for rent, and a fire in the common area every night. Asked the German owner if we were allowed to have alcohol in the hostel and he blinked at us like we were stupid.
Went to the town supermarket for alcohol and snacks. Jeff stopped at the international section just to see if they had American food; they had a gigantic jar of mayonnaise labeled, “American Mayonnaise.” …I guess that counts. Got excited when I noticed New Zealand files bills vertically in their cash registers. Queue teenaged check-out girl snickering. Finished off the night watching “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” on hard drive in the hostel’s TV room drinking cider. Not too shabby.
More random observations… #1. New Zealand’s “Wattie’s” ketchup has a strange, sweet spice in it; different than Fiji. Cumin? Jeff loves, I do not. #2. We keep seeing a single sheep or goat leashed up to a little hut in front of pens filled with hundreds of their brethren. Jeff thinks they’re for sale. I like being a little more creative and suggested they’re in time out.