Going at a Glacial Pace / Happy Birthday, Harper

It’s easy to lose track of time on vacation, especially when one is more than a day’s worth of time zones away from home, but all of us knew it was December 30.  Reason one: Miss Harper was turning 15!  Reason two: we were going on a cruise through Milford Sound!

To be sure, one of these reasons was more important … Milford Sound 🙂  Oh, I meant Harper’s birthday (even though it was really only 12/29 in the US, therefore not officially her birthday at all).

To begin the day, we went in search of a good GF place that was open early enough to allow us to get to the cruise coach by 8:30 am.  Our AirBnB host had recommended Vudu Cafe, which opened just in time.  Here’s our birthday girl, perhaps not at her morning best. 

Her standing breakfast order: cold brew or iced coffee and any GF entree that included avocado. 

Look at that beautiful flat white!

One food comment that surprised us–we did not find NZ sausage especially good.  Not sure why, maybe because it’s too heavily influenced by English “bangers.”  Still, what a pretty breakfast!

Our tour operator, Real Journeys, was just a short walk along the lake.  In the light of day, we noticed the lake wall is run with a ribbon of poetry.   I vowed to include “glitzblitz” in my 2017 vocabulary.

Look–it’s where we’re going!  Through Fjordland into Milford Sound.

Our plan was to coach to Milford Sound, cruise overnight, and then fly back.  As does all driving, the coach trip takes a long time, 6+ hours including breaks, so it’s a commitment.  We buckled in to our specially designed bus with roof windows for site seeing, USB ports for charging, and …

very comfy seats for the journey.

Our trip out of Queenstown let us see the lake from different angles.  It is truly huge!

This part of the journey also allowed us time to get to know our driver/guide Craig.  Craig grew up on a sheep farm near Queenstown.  As a child, he had a brush with acting, trying out to the be the Milky Bar Kid, but was not successful.  Painfully, he lost the role to another child at his school.  How he wound up driving a bus for Real Journeys was a mystery to us, but Craig clearly loves the job and loves to talk.  He is a man of many thoughts, which he expresses freely.  Some examples:

“That old man can’t pull the skin off a pudding.”

“You need to have the ability to get on with people if you want to run a vintage steam train.”

“Child stars burn brightly but not well.”

“I don’t know why rental cars have mirrors, they never get used.”

“What is life but a collection of opportunities to live through and tell wonderful stories to your grandchildren about.”

“Kiwi is a tough little bird.  He’ll put his beak right through your hand.”

“Engineers think they’re smarter than God.”

“Sometimes you gotta go backward to go forward.”

And, a constant Craig-refrain: “So many ways to die.”  Just what everyone wants to hear from the guy driving the bus.

Oh, Craig. We love you!

He also shared–nonstop–NZ history.  At a certain point, we realized that Craig could be making it all up.  We knew nothing about NZ.  In a land where cell service was spotty and Google unreachable, we were totally unprepared to challenge anything he said.

What would happen if we were given the power to drive clueless tourists throughout the US and share our history with them?  It might sound like this:

“The Washington Memorial looks like a giant letter opener because President Washington used to regularly stab cabinet members who fell asleep during meetings with the first official White House letter opener, which is now in a vault in the Smithsonian.”

“The faces on Mount Rushmore were chosen through a series of games of roulette, in a nod to the importance of the French role in the revolution.”

“While the Alamo may seem small today, it is important to remember that the tallest Texan at the time topped out at 4 feet.”

“The Mighty Mississippi has small origins, beginning when logger Paul Bunyan freed his ox Babe from a frozen Minnesota lake, setting free the lake water. This created a small stream that grew into our nation’s largest river.”

I could go on.  So, like stereotypical tourists, we just nodded along to anything Craig said; plus, he had the accent to pull it off. 

We took a brief break for coffee and snacks at a cute cafe in the middle of nowhere.

Another delicious flat white and a truly wonderful date scone.  It’s a good time to note that the NZers take coffee VERY seriously.  We had more great coffee in NZ than anyone has a right to imagine.


Birthday girl needs a cold brew.

 In the back of the cafe was an intriguing sculpture …

and a small rando petting zoo …

that includes NZ’s own Lil’ Sebastian.  BTW, I have no idea if that ribbon shape on his face is a thing or a shadow.  But, let’s imagine it as a LS tribute ribbon.  Always remember.


And, because NZ, here was Groundskeeper Willie.

Back on the bus, pop culture mavens. We got ground to cover.

We pulled off for a quick look-see at Lake Manapouri and a selfie or two.



More driving.  Then, another stop.  This time at Mirror Lakes, so named because it’s absolutely crystal clear and reflective.


Oh, NZ, you’re so picture-perfect!

Stretch it out.

I said it was clear!


And reflective!

Check out those mountains!

On the way back to the bus, we saw a trap for one of NZ’s number one invasive species: the Stoat.  Imagine an unstoppable ferret dedicated to killing every bird, and you got the Stoat.  Craig told a story of how they try to swim to NZ’s outer islands, which are sanctuaries for some of the endangered bird species like the much beloved flightless parrot, the Kakapo.  One Stoat and it’s over.  Within moments, we were all bloodthirsty Stoat hunters hoping to see one meet its end in the box.  But, then, back on the bus.

More beauty awaits …


Waterfalls suddenly appear.  Why?
Because … Much of NZ is lava rock mountain in which nothing grows.  Rather, a thin layer of topsoil consisting of leaf mulch holds tree and plant roots in place.  So, when rain falls or ice melts, there’s nothing to absorb it.  The water simply pours off, creating instant-waterfalls–big rain or melt, big waterfalls; little, little.  Because the trees are held in place so tenuously, they can also suddenly break free and create a “tree avalanche”–which can be deadly.  Then the mountainside will be bare for decades until it springs back to life.  Oh, NZ.

The plant Lupin is also an invasive species in NZ, but unlike the Stoat, it is lovely and does not try to kill every single bird in sight.  So, Craig happily pulled over the coach so that we could wander around in a field of Lupin that looked like it was straight out of a cinematographer’s dream.

As we continued on, a stream appeared alongside the road, churned white by the rough rock bed.

Craig pulled over, and we hopped out again to explore the glacial stream.  Flowing from the icy mountains in the distance, it was freezing cold, invisibly clear, and delicious.

Water, water, everywhere–just a bit out of reach. 

Finally, within our grasp …

We were encouraged  to dump our store bought water and refill out bottles from the stream.  Again, without even thinking twice, we did as told.  Sheeple–well, wonderfully hydrated sheeple.  Look, the existence of this blog proves the water didn’t kill us.  Craig knows all.



BTW, my J.J. Abrams’s style lens flares should give you an idea of how bright the sun can be in NZ.  This country is seriously close to the sun, and even on cloudy days, NZers are sunscreen devotees.  Penn got sunburned one day early in the trip, and it was enough to make us ex-Floridians believers.

At some point, we could no longer go OVER the mountains, we had to go through them.  The one lane tunnel has a green/red light system, and was red when we approached.  So, Craig pulled off to let us enjoy the scenery.  Which was–natch–again grandeur made mountain, rock, and valley:

Suddenly, a commotion.  Keas had arrived.  The Kea is … wait for it … an Alpine parrot.  That’s right, a parrot that lives in the snow.  Keas are crazy smart.  They will work in pairs, one entertaining while the other steals your food, or gets in your bus and rips it to shreds.  Seriously.  In their official NZ bio, it’s referred to as “mischievious behavior.”  Signs everywhere tell you not to feed the Kea because it will shorten their lifespan (and encourage them to hang out mischieviously with people).  As with every other bird, their enemy are those disgusting, despicable Possum and Stoat.  Ugh.

We loved that they were on this guy’s car so we could take photos, but the guy wasn’t that happy about it.  He just wanted to get through the tunnel.

We love you, Keas!  But, we need to leave you to get through the dark, dark tunnel and out the other side.  Run!

After the tunnel, we made one more stop by another rushing white and wondrous glacial stream.

This one was spanned by a small bridge.  Picture perfect.


Then, Craig sounded the alarm: we only have 4 minutes to get to Milford Sound.  Oh, no, we had dawdled too long with the lakes and rivers and streams and mountains and lupins and keas!

Surprise … we were only four minutes away!  Oh, that Craig.

A short ride away, we found our home for the night.


Months ago, we had called late one night to book the cruise and snagged the last two rooms–nice 🙂  Here’s what they looked like.  Surprisingly large for such a small ship, nicely appointed with a truly comfortable bed and decent, cute bathroom.  The kids looked just like ours but with twin beds.  We were in the “ground floor” of the boat (I know, am I a sailor or what), so our porthole had a serious cover in case we started sinking.  It weighed about 50 pounds.
We’re off …

See those white caps?  It was crazy windy on the voyage out into the Sound.

Whipped by the wind, stunned by the beauty.  Wow!

The clouds sit on top of the cliffs in the fjords, just resting there like whipped topping, set off against the bluest, blue skies.  Extraordinary.

Side note: one thing I consistently read about traveling to the South Island was advice about bringing rain jackets.  We got fairly inexpensive Columbia rain jackets that weighed almost nothing and squished down super small.  One of the best purchases we made–kept us dry throughout South Island’s sudden misty to soaking rains and kept the wind at bay.  We also bought inexpensive waterproof hiking boots.  Again, a great investment.

No rain yet, though.  Just the unspeakable, unexplainable natural beauty of the Fjordlands.  Glacial erosion … nature’s Michelangelo.

Happy, happy, happy.


Queen of the Fjord.


After we entered the Sound, the ship anchored to allow those interested in getting closer to the shore in tenders or kayaking to do so.  I opted out so that I could just sit on deck and let it all sink in; they opted in and set off to adventure.

My wandering from deck to deck gave me a vantage point on the shifting weather hitting the Sound.  As the cornflower blue skies were enveloped by a blanket of greying clouds, the beauty of the fjord shifted, became more severe.

After the excursion groups returned, we settled in for a plentiful buffet dinner with lots of GF options, including warming soups, spicy rice, and–no surprise–NZ’s own Pavlova!  With a view like this, the food could have been awful and it would have still be wonderful …
… but it was really very good. 

BTW, how is this happening.  Where is my baby boy?  Who is this handsome young man?  Where is my baby girl?  Who is this lovely young woman?

Dinner ended with our birthday girl trying to convince us all she was growing a second row of teeth because NZ.  She let the real Harper out 🙂  Armed with technology …

She gave us a perfect, joyful, Kress-Davis family memory.

While the sun doesn’t set until after 10 that far south, my night was already falling.  Ned and the kids joined some of the cruisers in a lecture about the flora and fauna of Milford Sound; I joined my pillow in a good night’s sleep.  Ned and I set our alarms to wake at 1 am to see if we could see the stars in the pitch black of the Sound.  However, by then, the clouds had covered all, presaging a rainy 31st.  So, back in the warmth of our beds, rocked by the gentle Sound, dreaming of the layer upon layer of glacial beauty we had been privileged to uncover and the priceless gift we received 15 years ago.  Happy Birthday, Not-So-Little Miss Harper!

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