Invercargill, at around 46 degrees south, marked the most southerly point on my trip so far – and it was pretty cold. The bus driver kept us all entertained with a constant commentary, including the naming of the Presidential Highway (between the towns of Clinton and Gore) and how most of the rabbits in New Zealand were illegally exterminated (using a virus smuggled over from Australia on dead rabbits in Thermos flasks). The highlight of the city, aside from an area of preserved ancient swampland, was the aviary, which housed numerous local birds including some wonderfully entertaining keas (Nestor notabilis). For those not in the know, keas are alpine parrots with a New Zealand-wide reputation for inquisitiveness and destructive behaviour (more about that later) – the ones in Invercargill took an immediate interest in me and clambered all over the cage and trees making a great deal of noise all the time I was there. Tuataras (Sphenodon spp.), ancient lizard-like animals who’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs and managed to survive the extinction, also hang out in the local tuatarium, but (it being winter) they were all underground and I didn’t get to see anything more than part of a tail.
Having had my fill of the frosty latitudes, I started to move in the opposite direction (though I couldn’t actually have gone much further south) and ended up rubbing shoulders with the package tourists in Te Anau, the springboard town for Milford Sound (which is actually a fiord). The road out to the national park was long and snowy, with several points of interest along the way (including the Mirror Lakes, The Chasm and the Homer Tunnel) – at one stop a typically curious kea flew down and perched on our van roof, and then proceeded to eat the weather stripping off the back door (other keas later managed to unscrew the radio aerial). The national park itself is undisturbed beech forest; sadly undisturbed only because the wood isn’t much good for building things with and it’s not too easy to farm in the area (though we did see plenty of sheep).
As we pulled into Milford Sound (constantly dodging much larger buses), a kind of collective sigh of awe went up as we realised that the photographs on the advertising leaflets were, for once, not exaggerated. Huge tree-covered and snow-capped mountains rose straight out of the sea, with the odd waterfall tumbling down onto the boat (the sides are so steep that watercraft can get right up to the walls) and New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) basking on the rocks. We cruised around for a few hours, going out as far as the Tasman Sea (where we put some sails up) and then headed back, wary of ice falling from the heights above us.
On my final morning in Te Anau, I took a walk around the lake to the start of the Kepler Track, a multi-day tramp that’s not safe to do in winter. The day was calm and frosty, with impenetrable fog covering the water and an eerie stillness broken only by the occasional bird. The same evening, I went over to Queenstown (ski capital of New Zealand and absolutely full of people) and almost immediately left to go to the Fox Glacier (not featured in Lord of the Rings – that was the Franz Josef Glacier), a small outpost servicing people coming to climb what is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world (climbers are driven to the terminal face in 1978 Bedford buses).
Everyone knows how big glaciers are – it’s one thing that’s mentioned in every geography book – but that knowledge doesn’t really prepare you for actually being on the ice. The glacier was (as mentioned) enormous, dirty in places (from captured rocks), clean in others (from frozen rain) and extremely slippery even with crampons on. We walked about for a while, our guide hacking a new trail, absorbed the colours (red streaks in the ice are from dust blown over from the Australian Outback) and stillness (broken by the odd kea) and worried occasionally about earthquakes (the area is right above a fault line), crevasses and falling rocks or ice. There were only a few slips (mine being one of them), and everyone tramped back to the warmth of the hostel fire fairly accomplished.