As you know, we were stranded in Milford this week due to extremely bad weather. Heavy rains (snow at higher elevations), gale force winds, and two different areas of rockfall along the road meant they closed the road for at least two days this week, Wednesday and Thursday.
We were slated to be in Milford through today (Friday). But on Wednesday afternoon, when they announced that the road would be closed until at least Thursday morning, we made the decision that we would get out on Thursday if we could, and if not, we would hopefully leave on Friday instead.
Rain and thunderstorms continued all through Wednesday afternoon and night and we woke up to rain Thursday morning as well. Everyone gathered early in the lodge and the mood was one of resignation to the fact that we were most likely all stuck here for another night, mixed with hope that maybe we could escape today.
At 7:30, the announcement was made that the road was closed again and would not reopen at all that day. We were also told they were working on the possibility of an essential transport evacuation by convoy but that it was dependent on weather and road conditions. Fortunately, we all caught a break and at 8 am the announcement was made that we should all be ready at The Chasm at 10:30 for independent escort out of Milford and through the tunnel and avalanche/rockfall area. We were told that we should leave with the convoy as they couldn’t guarantee we would have another chance anytime soon, especially with the weather forecast for this weekend. And then the scrambling began!
People ran for their rooms and their campervans and their cars, including us. We estimated there were about 80 vehicles in Milford and nobody wanted to be last in line. Lucky for us we can break down our campervan and be road ready in about ten minutes. We got to The Chasm at 8:30 and were the 19th vehicle in line.
And then the waiting began again. People wandering up and down the road, counting cars to figure out what number they were in line, taking pictures of the amazing scenery with new snow on the peaks, and playing with the keas that were hanging out at the Chasm parking lot.
Keas are a type of alpine parrot that are endemic to New Zealand. They are an endangered and protected species. And they are very social, very vocal, and quite the tricksters. We had about 8 or so that were thrilled to have so many people around, people to entertain, people to steal from (given the opportunity), people to squawk at, and people to play with. Kyle and I had a lot of fun playing with them, especially the one who landed on our car and was playing with us through the windshield, hoping we would feed him or let him in. They made the time pass very quickly.
At 10:40, a man in a truck drove by, stopping at each vehicle to tell us to follow the vehicle in front of us and go slow. A bit more waiting for him to relay that info to everyone else in line and then, a little after 11 am, we started moving in one large convoy up to the tunnel.
At the tunnel they stopped the convoy and sent vehicles through the tunnel one at a time, about 150 yards apart. We drove thru with no idea what was on the other side. We knew there had been rockfall but we didn’t know where or how bad it was. But we got through the tunnel and continued down the road unimpeded. Our first big obstacle to getting out had been passed.
Of course the tunnel was never the problem in the first place. Blown through a mountain of solid granite, it is so strong that they have never needed to line it. Rockfall and avalanches are the big problem on the Milford road, and we still had to get through the worst area for that.
They stopped the convoy at the last viewpoint parking lot before the avalanche area and, once again, we proceeded for a bit as one large group. But they stopped us right before the worst rockfall area and sent us through that part one vehicle at a time. One man stood along the roadside watching the key area for rockfall movement and sent the okay to another man for each car to go through on its own.
As we drove past, you could see the freshly broken trees and boulders along the side of the road, along with the debris they had pushed off the road so we could pass.
At this point, we were home free and proceeded, without stopping, to the Marian gates, the other end of the closed road portion. From there, we hightailed it back to Te Anau, the closest town.
We fueled up in Te Anau and then headed south to Invercargill. But Mother Nature wasn’t finished with us yet. it poured heavy rain on us the entire rest of the day. I think it was her way of reminding us that she is in charge, even if we did manage to escape Milford.
The Milford road was closed all day yesterday. And again today for a geotechnical assessment for safety. We anticipate it will most likely be closed through the weekend and are very grateful that we got out when we did. Kudos to the folks at Milford Sound Lodge for making us feel so at home while we were there. And thanks to them, the Department of Conservation, and Downer Construction for running our convoy evacuation like a well oiled machine.
Due to our misadventures with Mother Nature and Fiordlands weather, we are behind on posts. But we will return again tomorrow with updates on everything else we did this week and get all of you caught up. In spite of the chaos we did a lot of cool stuff and can’t wait to share it with you.