Our base for the excursion to Milford Sound was Te Anau, a small town on the southern end of Lake Te Anau. Te Anau exists almost exclusively to support Milford Sound tourism, and was hit hard in February when the road to Milford Sound was closed by a series of massive landslides. The pandemic hit only a couple weeks after the road reopened, and things have been tough for local businesses. With a very limited kitchenette in our motel room, we wandered the streets at 6pm each night in search of dinner. The wide, pedestrian-friendly streets were eerily quiet. They were dark, too: at this time of year the sun sets just after 5. Most shops and restaurants were still closed, and there were no cars on the road. The experience rekindled fading memories of wandering around our college’s small town in the wee hours after a party. Happily we did manage to find dinner each night, and can report that our boys remain well-fed.
Te Anau sports a helipad perched on a dock over the water, just across the street from downtown. It didn’t take much convincing to get the boys to join me on a scenic flight (Lauren stayed back with a migraine ☹️). Just minutes after lifting off from our lakeside perch, we were swooping around clouds and cresting ridges as we flew up into the mountains that ring Lake Te Anau. It’s an incredible rush to race toward a solid mass of trees filling the entire windscreen, then pull up to glide over the top of a ridge as the trees fall away below. The experience was probably as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like a bird.
Halfway through the flight we landed on a windswept rock outcropping next to a small alpine lake. The lake is fed by snowmelt and looked quite cold! From our perch we could see rugged gray peaks stretching toward horizon. Below us, clouds poured over ridges and wove their way through valleys like rivers of cotton. Apart from lucky helicopter passengers, I suspect few humans have ever been up here.
It was at this point that I discovered that our camera’s memory card, which is advertised to hold approximately 12 billion photos, was full. And all the spares were back at the motel. Luckily I had my phone on hand to take pictures, and wound up with nearly 100 photos and videos. It’s hard to believe that only 20 years ago, taking 100 photos would require (at minimum) 4 rolls of film plus lots of time and money to get them developed. Recording video required a whole other level of preparedness. My kids will never understand.
Our flight back out of the mountains was equally wonderful, and finished with a panoramic view of Lake Te Anau as we descended to land on the lakeside helipad (helidock?).
We learned from our pilot that in addition to scenic flights, the helicopter company hauls freight, performs search-and-rescue missions, and even hauls cargo and people around Antarctica during the summer! Christchurch is one of the main staging locations for the US and NZ Antarctic bases, and they’ll load the helicopter into a giant cargo plane to get it down there.
Slightly less exciting but far cheaper than a helicopter ride is the walking trail along the Lake Te Anau waterfront. One afternoon I went for a solo walk and found myself in front the Yacht Club, which looks far less pretentious than it sounds. The slightly run-down club has a dock that I later discovered was the dock featured in some of the TV ads we’ve been seeing. It is quite photogenic.
On my return from the dock I passed through a lakeside park in which a man was grazing his pig. Did you know pigs liked to eat grass? I did not. The pig was massive and quite indifferent to my presence. Curious, I struck up a conversation with the owner. He turned out to be exactly the sort of person you’d imagine takes his his gigantic pet pig out to graze in a public park. He extolled the many virtues of pigs as pets. Among them, “they’re incredibly smart” and “they’re so clean, you can sleep in their pen” (If you want to. But he choses not to). He also offered up his views on tourism, New Zealand politics, US politics, and more. I later learned that the owner (Ray) and pig (Penelope) are somewhat famous.
One of Ray’s many observations stuck with me: Te Anau was unusually quiet. During the lockdown there were no airplanes, helicopters, jetboats, traffic, or other anthropogenic noise. Even now, these noises were only occasional – a far cry from what the town must be like during a normal, busy summer season. We feel quite lucky to experience New Zealand like this.
As we checked out of our room, we chatted with the innkeeper about the somewhat-grim prospects for tourism. Major tour operators in the area are still closed, as are the borders. There is a national campaign for domestic tourism, but even so the coming months will be rough. All of that invasive anthropogenic noise represents commerce, which in turn supports people’s livelihoods. The relative quiet, while peaceful and lovely, means people are hurting economically and have uncertain futures. It got me wondering: can humans be prosperous without being loud?