We hit the road early Thursday with three goals in mind:

  1. Get to Queenstown for lunch
  2. Arrive in Te Anau, the launching point for trips to Milford Sound, by early afternoon
  3. Take as many pictures of sheep and lupins as a 16GB memory card can hold.  Possibly fill an 8GB memory card as well.

Our first two goals were almost immediately waylaid when I spotted a brown sign stating “The Clay Cliffs” were located just 3oo meters off the main highway to our right.  Never one to shun a good clay cliff, I slammed on the brakes to avoid missing the turn, startling Her from her drool-laden slumber, and turned onto the road (Her likes to sleep in the car. Usually, she waits until I’m driving. She slips on her sunglasses and sits as upright as possible with the map on her lap as if she is reading it so that I don’t know she’s sleeping.  I can tell almost immediately when she’s out — usually when the map falls out of her hand — but I like to let her think it works).

“Where are we?”

“The Clay Cliffs”

“What are ‘The Clay Cliffs?'”

“I don’t know”

“Where are ‘The Clay Cliffs’?”

“This way.” I gestured toward the direction we were driving.

I really didn’t know what else to tell her other than I turned down a very poorly maintained road (that quickly turned to a very poorly maintained gravel road) in the hopes of seeing something that was marked as important by a large brown sign.

It was on the Clay Cliff detour that we learned something interesting about sheep: SHEEP HATE AMERICAN TOURISTS.  As we were driving along the dirt road, cursing the sign that beckoned us down a 10km drive from hell, we came across literally hundreds of sheep grazing peacefully in a pasture beside a lovely stream and numerous shady trees.  This was photographic heaven for Her, and she implored me to stop the car so she could snap some pictures — maybe even a few with a lupin or two in the background so as not to waste any precious memory card space.  As soon as she opened the car door and began walking toward the fence, however, the first sheep (the lookout) began sounding the alarm, a distressed sheep yell, and retreated into the shelter of the trees. A nearby sheep began to mimic the first, and within a matter of seconds, all 300 or so sheep were bleeting in terror and galloping away. The scenario Her had imagined in which she coaxed a young lamb over to eat out of her hand, didn’t pan out then, though she fulfilled the dream a few hours later at The Wrinkly Ram, an Omarama sheep-shearing attraction. In any event, Her hastily snapped a shot of a lupin to prevent the stop from being a complete waste.

Handfeeding lambs

Handfeeding lambs at the Wrinkly Ram

We did finally locate the Clay Cliffs, and they were quite impressive and worth the $5 requested entry fee we didn’t pay (due to lack of small bills).  The cliffs are basically a rain-carved canyon formed in the side of a large, clay hillside.  There is a nice hiking trail (lined with lupins of course), and it takes you to the canyon where you can scale large clay rocks and capture some impressive photos.  There is nobody supervising the area as it is private property, so be careful climbing.  If you create and perhaps bury yourself in a rock avalanche, you’re a long way from the nearest pay phone, let alone hospital.

We arrived in Queenstown in time for a late lunch. We didn’t spend much time there, but it struck us as likely the most touristy spot in all of New Zealand (an assessment we later confirmed after seeing Rotorua, a close second).  Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world.  It is where bungee jumping was invented, and you can still take the plunge at the original site.  Other options include skydiving or bouncing down a hill in a human-sized hamster ball (this curious pastime is known as Zorbing).  Being the adventurous folks we are, we settled on Extreme Picnicking at the waterfront, slurping cold spaghetti leftover from the night before.

The road to Te Anau from Queenstown was winding and slow, but the sweeping vistas made for ample opportunities to continue humming the LOTR theme.  We arrived about 7pm and arranged for a room at the holiday park on the outskirts of Te Anau.

Sitting 120km from Milford, Te Anau is the last “major” town before the national park starts, and it’s the last place to find a budget-priced hotel without staying inside the park at the Milford Lodge.  The town consists of one main street running perpendicular to the lake and intersecting the main highway toward Milford Sound to the north and the road to Queenstown to the south.  There are many tourist-oriented stores and restaurants on the main road, and prices reflect the fact there aren’t many other options.  One highlight is the Miles Better Pies on the main road beside the gas station next to the lake.  They claim to have the best pies in New Zealand, and they may very well be right.

Continued in Part 3: Milford Sound