From Queenstown to Fox Glacier (with added Milford Sound bonus)

March 21, 2017 • 9:30 am

My trip to Milford Sound was pretty much a washout–literally. It was pouring rain the whole time, and while the ship’s captain made a great to-do about the lovely waterfalls that spill down from the top of the fjord when it rains, he was just making a virtue of necessity. One couldn’t even go outside the boat without getting immediately drenched, and as for seeing the Sound itself, well, forget it.  I’ll try to put some photos of that “liquid sunshine” experience below.

But it was compensated for by my lovely 8-hour bus trip today from Queenstown to the next destination on my Journey to See the Big Parrots (“Kea or Bust”): Fox Glacier, a small town on the west coast. Tomorrow I take another 6-hour bus journey to Greymouth, which is the hopping off point (1.5 hours) for Arthur’s Pass, the place where I hope to see keas.

New Zealand commercial buses are great, and today’s trip was particularly lovely. The drivers give a running commentary on the landscape, geology and animals, and they know their stuff. And we went through some spectacular country, punctuated by hourly stops for food, tea, bathroom breaks, and scenic spots. Truly, a bus ride on the inter-city service here is like a tour bus!

Here are some random shots on my 8-hour journey. The country is expansive and stupefyingly gorgeous.

Beech forest with ferns. I’m told there are three species of endemic beeches, all non-deciduous (keeping their leaves in winter): red, white, and black. They grow slowly and so aren’t the basis for a big logging industry.

Red beech cut up since it was blown down. Its color and hardness were, we were told, especially prized by the furniture-making trade:

Wet forest with tree ferns (tree ferns in the wild!!):

It’s WET! Look at these lovely epiphytes decorating a tree:

I don’t know what these gelatinous plants are. Readers?

The next two photos were taken on the way to Milford Sound yesterday. No wonder Lord of the Rings was filmed in this land. . .

Apparently, before the Europeans came, the forest came smack down to the Tasman Sea, like this (west coast of South Island).

We reached the Tasman sea and, strolling along the beach during a break, I found these pebbles. I didn’t arrange them; this is natural:

Here are ducks; I have no idea whether these are garden-variety mallards or some special New Zealand duck (their heads aren’t very green). Readers?

And a few more shots from the all-day trip to Milford Sound:

A great glacial valley from 14,000 years ago. We were told the glaciers went up to tree line on the mountains at either side. The grass is New Zealand’s native grass, which is not green but golden:

A tree knot or something. . .

Rock scoured by a waterfall:


Finally, a lousy shot of Milford Sound, showing the waterfalls that appear when it’s rainy, and a few New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri)who don’t mind the rain. (The seals are also found in Australia).

It was pouring sheets of rain and the air was full of mist; I almost ruined my goddam camera getting these shots!

Such was my disappointing day at the world’s #1 rated tourist site. You can’t control the weather, of course, but if I were going to the Sound, I’d look at the five-day weather report and book a day predicted to be clear. It hadn’t rained for 16 days before I showed up—and then, boom!

Here is my backpacker-hostel digs in Queenstown. My bed is lower right, foreground, and I shared the room with 7 women who appeared to be in their early 20s. They were MESSY: it looked as if a bomb had exploded in the room, scattering clothes and toiletries everywhere. (Note how neat I am.) The picture doesn’t do justice to these women’s messiness, AND when I put a book and some toiletries on my bed to claim it when I left for the day, someone had stolen them when I got back! Beware if you stay at the Base Backpacker’s Hostel in Queenstown: it’s not safe. (I’m in a much better place here in Fox Glacier.)

To end on a high note, here’s a scenic spot between Glenorchy and Queenstown, showing Lake Wakatipu and some of the surrounding mountains:

On to see keas. This photo was provided by reader Gordon, who took a photo of a kea he encountered at Arthur’s Pass and who followed him down off the pass. What a story! His comment (note that the bird is banded):

This one joined me at the top of Arthur’s Pass and flew down with me to alight on the car each time I stopped.

83 thoughts on “From Queenstown to Fox Glacier (with added Milford Sound bonus)

    1. My nieces rooms when they were living at home always looked like bomb craters. Now that they have their own places they’re always neat and tidy, I’m told.

  1. And now on my daily visit to this site, I get to see a New Zealand travelogue. Very nice. Sorry about the rain. Have a great journey.

  2. Thanks for sharing these fun photos!

    Unfortunately, backpacker hostels are notorious for theft. We tried to avoid them at all cost. We met numerous people who had had things stolen. Some even had things stolen from locked lockers.

    We did our level best to always have a door we could lock between our stuff and other users.

    The good news, is that most places also had regular rooms one could rent (with a locked door) for only a bit more money.

    1. I’ve almost always stayed at backpacker hostels (because I’m a cheapskate) and never lost anything yet.

      Maybe ‘cos I’m just slightly paranoid about not leaving stuff sitting out in the open, and also because I’ve got nothing worth nicking…


    2. Yep, many years ago I stayed in a Queenstown hostel and we got a twin room for not much more than the dorm. There was a hostel card you could buy which then gave discounts at most other youth hostels. I wonder if they still have that.
      We left $5000 skydiving rigs in locked lockers there but luckily they weren’t stolen.
      The last time I walked the Milford Track someone stole my insect repellant from the windowsill next to my bunk. It was in a large room with around 20 beds.
      That was really crap as like many have said the sand flies are atrocious there.
      I recall stopping along the track to fill up my water bottle at a tank and within seconds being surrounded by thousands of them which caused me to run away yelling and screaming.
      The end of the walk is called Sandfly Point I think. Aptly named so its good that there are rooms there you can sit in for the boat trip to Milford Sound.
      I have been very lucky with weather in NZ with both of my Milford Track walks being sunny which is rather unusual there.

      1. Yes, liverworts. I’m guessing a bit because I know very few of them by name, but I suggest Plagiochila.

      2. I really don’t think so, Heather. They look just like our South American leafy liverworts, and mudskipper (#16) also agrees. Many people are unaware that these things are liverworts, but they are the dominant epiphytic bryophytes in many so-called “mossy” cloud forests.

        1. I bow to your expertise. My knowledge is all second-hand and I don’t know whether I’m mis-remembering. I should make my comments on such things sound less definite!

  3. Jerry, Did you comment on what camera you are using? I’ve seen several comments asking about your camera. Cheers!

    I think you have a very good chance of seeing Keas at Arthur’s Pass, even if you don’t at Fox Glacier.

        1. I have a TZ57 (successor to a TZ20). Remarkable zoom range 24 – 480mm, and Optical Image Stabilisation which really works (absolutely essential at absurdly long zooms in a pocket camera without the weight of a big lens to steady it). Though the wide-angle short end (24mm) is by far the most useful feature.


  4. Sorry to hear that it was raining at Milford Sound, but the waterfalls there are extremely transitory and only appear during rain or for a few hours after – there’s so little soil to hold up rainfall that the runoff ceases very quickly after the rain stops.
    If the bus to Milford had to wait at the Homer Tunnel for the light to change, I think you would have seen keas – it’s a popular kea hangout, free food and cars to play on.
    There are native ducks, a grey duck and the paradise shelduck, but those look like mallards – yet another of the introduced species.

    1. I think the top one is a male paradise, but I’m not sure about the others. Some look like mallards and some look like female paradise. Whatever they are, they’re not natives.

  5. Some of the photos remind me of various places in Hawaii and more remote places in Okinawa. On the windward side of Oahu, lots of water comes down the mountains like this.

      1. Speaking of Hawaii, I seem to remember genetic research has determined that the Maori are most closely related to Hawaiians. It’s curious since they are so very far apart. I’d be interested if anyone has info on the subject.

        1. Their language is similar. NZ and Hawaii are part of the Pacific Triangle.

          Maori have helped the Polynesians in Hawaii re-learn their language.

          1. Fascinating! It’s pretty amazing to me how they were able to travel so far over open ocean in rather small boats.

  6. What? You mean seeing 8 randomly arranged pebbles didn’t turn you into a believer? Surely there’s a multi-headed god somewhere whose existence has now been verified.


    1. Don’t get too carried away Prof.: the devotees of the 9 randomly arranged pebbles will be along to proselytise any moment now.

  7. On photography forums, one thing that I see a lot are recommendations to have a secured, back-up camera when taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

    1. E.G. in your phone?
      Srsly, if you’ve got decent insurance cover, then you should only need to rely on the small-lens camera for a few days until your replacement gets to you (or you get the money into the same town as a decent camera shop).
      Though when I’m travelling with the wife, we normally have the “proper” camera (Nikon DSLR, 18-55, 25-200 and 500mm lenses) and the “compact” (which I also have a waterproof housing for). So we have redundancy.
      Mini-laptop for d/l and photo-processing on (I put useful info, locations, etc into the comment fields of the camera’s JPEGs at the end of the day.) and a large memory stick for backup.

    1. Yes, and keas seem to be very good at the “ring-the-doorbell-and run off-laughing” kind of humor. Or, “rip the windshield wipers and fly off laughing”

      Play seems to be infectious in other social birds — certainly the ravens on Marys Peak spend a lot of time in inventive aerobatic games and dancing on the snow. Wouldn’t be surprised if they giggle as well!

    1. I’m no fan of busses but didn’t mind the trips I did in NZ a few years ago. The scenery is so beautiful, the busses are comfortable and usually there’s plenty of room.
      I do prefer trains, though there aren’t many in the South Island. Many years ago I took the train from Christchurch north to the ferry. They had a train company song that they played at VERY high volume just for shits and giggles. After the tune there was an announcement that the staff would be around shortly to collect tickets, as well as any wallets and handbags left lying around. Very funny staff on that train.

      1. The train from ChCh to Picton through Kaikoura is a great trip, but is down for the rest of this year at least since the Kaikoura earthquake late last year destroyed the railway line. Taking the train from Wellington to the Central Plateau would be a good trip though. I will suggest it to Jerry.

    1. I’ll second that. You should know that giant chunks of snow are pelting the upper Midwest. Great pics.

  8. Will you be commenting on how extensively the original terrain of New Zealand has been landscaped and fertilized by sheep

    1. Human-induced modification has mainly been fire (deforestation) and introduction of pests. There is still 8.6 million ha of public conservation lands of which very little has seen sheep. Some lands were cleared but were not suitable for farming. Our farming ‘terrain’ is still relatively unmodified. Sheep numbers are at a low, and it is lowland dairy that is over-fertilizing.

      1. I’ll go with that.

        Also, clearing bush on steep land is not advisable – leads to massive soil erosion and flooding downstream. The ‘high country’ in the central North Island, all the way from New Plymouth across to Gisborne, shows ample traces of that.

        But in general sheep will only go where someone clears it for them. In high country goats are I believe more of a problem.


  9. It’s a pity if you can’t get to the East coast and see the yellow-eyed penguins and albatrosses on the Dunedin peninsular, or the Hectors dolphins (rare) in Akaroa harbour near Christchurch. The east side of the country is much drier than the west, where the prevailing winds from the Tasman hit the mountains. When in the Auckland area, do see the gannet colonies on th coast to the West.

    1. Dominic, I thought the same. A rainforest takes rain. As an erstwhile native of the US Pacific Northwest I’ve always seen rain as the critical factor…

  10. Just a minor correction – NZ beeches (Nothofagus ‘false beech’) are all evergreen. NZ has very few deciduous – why the forest is a mix of lovely greens. Red beech is generally lovely hiking country – large trees with more open understorey. The other species are are silver, hard, black and mountain (these last two are both subspecies of N. solandri). Mountain beech gets all stunted at high levels and with lichens gets all ‘gobliny’.

    1. When I was a kid I was taught that all natives are evergreen, and all deciduous trees are introduced. (Some introduced trees are also evergreen of course.) I don’t know if that’s true though.

      1. It’s pretty much true – there are a few NZ native deciduous or semi-deciduous trees/shrubs, but 95% are evergreen.
        It makes walking through native “bush” interesting because you don’t get the carpet of fallen/decaying leaves that is encountered in, say, North American or European forests. More like walking through a California redwood forest in a sense.

        1. Under red beech you get a continual falling of leaves rather than a seasonal one and often get a nice leaf carpet. Partly why it is so pleasant to walk under. The most obvious deciduous example is the tree fuschsia (F. excortica), but I think there are a couple of others.

    2. And to add to that, the latest taxonomic papers judge that black beech and mountain beech should be treated as separate species and that rather than a single genus Nothofagus, the family should have four genera. The New Zealand species are classified in Fuscospora (black, mountain, red, and hard beeches) and Lophozonia (silver beech). These are questions about taxonomic rank, rather than about relationships, so they are open to opinion and not universally accepted, but I think there are advantages to the 4-genus scheme.

    1. You might see one of our few deciduous trees at Arthur’s Pass: mountain ribbonwood, Hoheria lyallii. There are quite a few beside the road just before the pass itself coming from the west coast. They’re small trees or shrubs and might have yellow leaves at the moment.

  11. Personally I found the road to Fox Glacier (from Queenstown) way more beautiful than the glacier itself which you can’t really see up close. Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea which are on the way are spectacular. New Zealand is hands down the most beautiful country I have seen.

  12. A great glacial valley from 14,000 years ago. We were told the glaciers went up to tree line on the mountains at either side.

    Down to the tree-line, surely? But 14,000 years would be about right for the end of the main glaciation.
    I read that landscape as the very flat intermediate skyline is the edge of a filled-in lake. There will probably have been a moraine or something to maintain the mouth of the lake for (several centuries?) while the lake filled in. Possibly a lake formed dammed in by the edge of a glacier?
    Darwin reference : Darwin’s first paper was on the “Parallel Roads of Glen Roy,” which are now recognised as having been carved by the shore lines of glacially-dammed lakes, though Darwin mis-interpreted them as being the results of coastal beaches.

    Rock scoured by a waterfall

    Hard to tell scale on that, but my first impression is that the rock is high in limestone content, and a lot of the erosion is by corrosion rather than mechanical abrasion.

    1. Gosh, I didn’t know that about Darwin. The parallel roads of Glen Roy are very distinctive and easily observed – worth a visit if in the Great Glen area.

      1. Yep – we could even see them through the horizontal sleet last time we were in the area. One of these days they might make a fun day out on the push bike.

  13. When I was in my 20s, I went to NZ with my mom to deal with my nana’s estate, sell her house etc after she died. After my 18 hour flight, I had opened my suitcase at my auntie’s house (my nana’s sister) and she deemed me too messy and I ended up in the basement where she couldn’t see me. The same thing happened to my aunt on another trip (my mom’s sister). I was probably messy in my 20s too.

    NZ to me is like the Jurassic or Cretaceous with all the ferns.

  14. Weather forecast looks good for Prthur’s Ass today and tomorrow. Rain seems to come everywhere on Friday, in time for the weekend. Typical.

  15. The “golden” grasses are another of New Zealand’s peculiarities — there is a remarkable diversity of native plants with brownish foliage — from somewhat-golden to ‘nursery-catalog’ bronze to a military brown-khaki. Grasses, sedges, and Phormium [‘NZ flax’], Libertia [an irid] among the monocots, but lots of shrubs and subshrubs [Corokia and Carmichaela come to mind] among the dicots. Possibly, like divaricate branching, a heritage of moas being the dominant [only] grazers and browsers.

    I imagine Lynn Margulis would have claimed that kelps were making love-children with the terrestrial flora when NZ almost went under the waves.

    1. “Possibly, like divaricate branching, a heritage of moas being the dominant [only] grazers and browsers.”

      Can you refer me to a paper/website on this? Sounds fascinating.

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