Te Anau & Milford Sound

Te Anau was where I'd originally intended to go simply for easy access to Milford Sound – which I'll get to later. But happily I found out it's also home to a glowworm cave. I'd spent hours trying to plan a route around the country which would take me through Waitomo – which is where another well known glowworm cave is located – only to find with the type of coach pass I had, the additional ticket there would have been extortionately expensive. I wrote it off as just one of those things I wouldn't be able to do on this particular trip.

I had no idea at the time about the one in Te Anau. Luckily I had enough time after arriving on the coach that day to go on one of their evening tours, before moving on the following morning. It all worked out very well!

To get to the cave, you have to go for a short boat ride across Lake Te Anau, which was a nice enough experience in itself, especially at the time I went which was just around sunset – very pleasant views.

Unfortunately there the photographs end – as cameras were prohibited inside the cave itself. This is because the flash can upset the glowworms, to the point where they refuse to work anymore and go on strike, extinguishing their glowing butts. You'll just have to take my word for it, when I tell you it's quite a magical experience looking up at a cave ceiling and seeing thousands of glowing "stars" instead of black nothingness.

The first bit of the cave was really showcasing the stream running through it, at quite some force – with a short waterfall dropping as it flowed out to the lake beyond. Oh – they also proudly mentioned the first stalagtite found in the cave, and aged it around 400 years old. You could barely see it! I honestly could have squished it between my fingers and that would have been that. It really should get a move on... people are paying good money! There are a few glowworms in that section but not many, and you can't really see them as this part is well lit artificially. After walking slowly through this section on a manmade walkway to accommodate the tourists, you reach a small boat just big enough for the tour group you're in. After boarding, you're steered by the guide (using a stick along the bottom – no engine) in complete darkness on a dead still lake through the "Glowworm Grotto". You're asked to remain silent to contribute to the atmosphere (we actually heard a naughty group up ahead being shushed!), and as you slowly glide across the water you can see thousands upon thousands of tiny lights glowing on the ceiling in the darkness. It really is almost like looking up and seeing stars shining brightly in the night sky. Apparently some people are moved to tears... I didn't quite get to that stage, but it was pretty cool nonetheless.

The light from the glowworms is caused as a by-product of excretion. A reaction between chemicals takes place in their ass (I imagine this to be much like the after effects of a very strong curry) which produces the glow. The glowworm will dangle a "fishing line" down, up to 150mm long, which is covered in mucus (yum), and attracts insects which become stuck and paralysed by chemicals on the lines. The glowworm then pulls this in and consumes all the juices, sucking it dry (double yum). They're also very territorial and will quite happily turn to cannibalism and eat each other if a neighbour gets too close to their bit of the rock.

After exiting the cave, we boarded the boat again and returned to the dock. It was quite late by this point and I had intended to grab some food at a restaurant opposite, but it was closed. The pub next door was still open, but that had also stopped serving food apart from toasted sandwiches and things of that nature. Ever hopeful of finding somewhere still serving a proper meal, I wandered back in the direction of my hostel expecting to see other places – but everywhere was shut for the night. I couldn't be bothered walking back to the first pub with the sandwiches, so made do with the emergency pot noodles I carried with me in my food bag. Desperate times and all that!

Rising early the following morning, I wandered sleepily into the communal bathroom to have my usual shower. When I was done I opened the door to see a girl standing by one of the sinks doing her hair. "Morning" I said, "Morning"..... she replied, giving me a quizzical look. Turns out I was in the ladies bathroom. Completely unintentional of course.

I checked out, and hopped aboard another bus leaving from Te Anau to Queenstown, via Milford Sound. The name of this is quite misleading, as it's not in fact a sound, but a fjord. The difference being, a sound is formed by water, whereas a fjord is formed by a glacier. We also stopped at the Mirror Lakes to stretch our legs on the way there, which was an impressive enough sight on its own. There were alpine parrots, native to New Zealand called kea's in the car park which had decided the bonnets and roofs of cars were the perfect place to sit and eat!

Milford Sound is two kilometres wide at its widest point, and surrounded by huge rockfaces on either side. Going out on the boat makes you feel very small indeed, as you are completely dwarfed by the sheer size of everything! Scenic tourist flights take place within the sound, and although these are obviously not very large planes in the first place – they do appear to be no more than tiny dots against the landscape as they're flying through.

The sound is home to much wildlife, commonly spotted on the tours are fur seals hanging around on the rocks which were a big draw to the crowds on the boat. One of them in particular appeared to be performing some kind of water ballet for himself, spinning round slowly in circles with his flipper in the air. I'm sure he knew he was being photographed. We were also very lucky to see fiordland crested penguins swimming in the water at one point – which is apparently not very common at all, so that was a big bonus!

On the way back to the dock, we sailed very close to one of the waterfalls, and rainjackets were handed out for the brave souls who wanted to stand out the front of the boat as we did this! I had my camera with me, and after the fiasco I had with dropping it in the water in Australia, there was no way I was going to risk it getting wet again!

The boat moored up, and we all streamed off and back onto the bus, to continue our journey through to Queenstown.