Frankly, the weather had on this tour had been less than our expedition leader Heather was hoping for. We'd endured gale force winds, rain and cold from a couple of autumn storm fronts passing over the South Island. The sudden drop in temperature had even brought the year's first snow to the peaks. But you don't need great weather to make great pictures of a place. What you do need is a road to take you there.
Our plan for our last day had been to drive to Milford Sound with Ron of Trips and Tramps. For me, the ride to Milford is just as good as the sound itself, taking in beautiful lakes, mountain passes, valleys and the spectacular entrance to the Homer Tunnel. First Ron delivered the bad news: The Milford road was blocked by trees and slips and would not be cleared in time for us to drive there. The good news was that we were going by helicopter. The team reacted with predictable pause and sobriety.
That's Heather looking like a nervous possum, but she's actually thinking about how much Pinot Noir the budget can stand that night. Jules is an old hand at helo flying, and being a great photographer, wasted no time with his camera. Flying through steep, snow-sugared peaks in cloud and rain might look like a scary proposition, but not here. I don't lie when I say Fiordland chopper pilots are the best.
These characters epitomise cool and calm. The older ones pioneered deer recovery operations in this steep mountain terrain back in the 60's and 70's. The younger ones provide rock steady shooting platforms for films like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, or lift cargo on and off fishing boats in heaving seas. I feel safer in their hands than when I drive into town.
I've been to Milford on a number of occasions. I spent my early years in these parts, but have always meant to take a flight though the place. After having done so, I highly recommend it.
Once we touched down, the mission was to take a cruise out into the sound on board the Milford Mariner, one of several tourist boats that ply these deep, dark waters. If you plan to do so, think seriously about the overnight trip that takes you to the open sea. You'll see Fiordland crested penguins out there as well as fur seals and there's usually time for some kayaking too.
Jules and the crew wasted no time shooting sequences and pieces to camera for the web broadcast episodes of our pho-tour while the rest of us started snapping away at the scenery and wildlife.
The light kept coming and going but the 'many moods of...' thing is so true here. When the sky is dark you have drama, when the sky is blue you have paradise.
One good dividend of the wet weather is that it really pumps the sound's waterfalls, and when that's happening, the boat skippers nudge the bow up underneath to let you get a taste of the elements. Jules just couldn't resist and I don't blame him. The scenery is great to look at, but even better to be a part of. That's why I remind pho-tourists to put the camera down from time to time and have some fun in the moment.
The cruise over, it was soon time to climb into the choppers again and head back to Te Anau. By now the blue skies were breaking through and making for breathtaking flying.
On the road back, the mirror lakes were doing their thing, and we found a spot for Jules to do his final piece to camera for the trip. But it wasn't quite the end.
One of the local pilots has seen so much of this beautiful landscape over the years, that he hired some of New Zealand's best film cameramen and flew them around this scenic wonderland. Then he put up a custom-built theatre to show the film in. The result is the 32 minute film Ata Whenua. If you do go to Te Anau, I suggest you take the trip to Milford, cruise lake Te Anau and tour the glow worm caves, and definitely buy a wine and settle in to watch Ata Whenua - Shadowland. It's the next best thing to taking a chopper flight over the area and will simply blow your mind.
And that's it folks. The great Southern Pho-tour all wrapped up. It was a privilege to be a part of, and to meet so many local tour operators as passionate as I am about our special part of the planet. We truly are blessed and like the others, I would be more than pleased to show you through it and stop to help you get the pictures of a lifetime.
My huge thanks to the team for being such great company: Anna, Grant, Michael, Craig, Heather, Neerav, Camilla and Jules and to Tourism Dunedin, Tourism New Zealand, Venture Southland and all the local operators that made such an amazing trip a reality.
Check in again soon.