The million dollar questions

“Do you think we will be able to skydive tomorrow?”
“Do you think it will stop raining in Franz Josef?”

Yesterdays question was unanimous, “Do you think the road to Milford will reopen in time for us to go there?” After it had been closed for a week, due to the big snow storm, it was the question on everyones lips.

A few days ago I looked on the Automobile Association’s website regarding road closures and they were estimating 12.00pm Sunday. Yay, we were due to leave Queenstown on Sunday! But after talking to locals, I was told not to hold my breath.

We decided to ignore the pessimists and carry on as per schedule. With pickups starting soon after 6am, you hope the early departure is going to be worthwhile.

At 8am we turn off at Five Rivers and I pull over to phone Real Journeys, who operate the Milford Sound cruise we go on, and get an update. It is still scheduled to open at midday!

At 9am we roll into a foggy Te Anau. I look around and can’t see another bus anywhere, in a town that is normally packed with them. I joke that we are in Pole Position, but worry that everyone else knows something I don’t! By the time I fuel up, do the grocery shop for the Bangers & Mash, the buses start rolling in. Phew, good sign.

In the designated ‘Bus Drivers Area’ in the Pop Inn Cafe, the drivers start sharing stories about cars that rolled after hitting black ice, whether or not we will need chains, latest rumours about conditions etc. But one thing is for certain, if we can make it down, it is going to be the best day of winter 2011!

At 10.15am we get back on our Stray bus, that has it’s snow camouflage paint job, and join the convoy down to Milford Sound. The first warning sign says ‘Road closed from Hollyford Valley, due to open 12pm, no towing, warning black ice, chains must be carried’. Click goes the seatbelts.

We leave the fog behind us and start heading out on SH94. Our first photo stop is Eglington Valley, looking like I have never seen it before, completely blanketed in snow. Then around the corner to Mirror Lakes, another breathtaking scene on this still clear morning. Every corner we turn is another wow moment. Click go the cameras.

We slowly make our way up and over The Divide and down the other side. We round the last corner before the Hollyford Valley turnoff and the convoy grinds to a halt. They have not re-opened the road yet. It is time for an impromptu photo op. Everyone piles out of the bus to take a photo of the Hollyford Valley. By about 12.20pm we are rolling again. We make a quick detour into the Hollyford Valley Road to drop the trailer and rejoin the convoy. I am a little worried about the trailer, that has attracted the attention of a Kea. I am likely to come back to a trailer that has no tyres or rubbers seals around the trailer door!

The anticipation starts to climb as I start talking about the Homer Tunnel, which was started in 1935 by 5 guys with pick axe and wheelbarrows, and also the Avalanche danger. The guys who have the task of clearing the road, get to fly around in helicopters, throwing out homemade bombs, to set off controlled avalanches. What a cool job! But I started speaking too soon, as we round the corner by Monkey Creek, I spot the convoy is pulling up to a stop. Time for another photo opportunity. You know it is a different day to normal when the bus drivers all climb out with their cameras too. Unfortunately, the snow on the side of the road has been compacted by the heavy machinery so no good for snow fighting. I get a few anxious questions “Our cruise is meant to be at 1pm, do you think they will wait?”. “Today I don’t think it will be a problem, as I can guarantee they won’t bother going empty! All their passengers are stuck here, so we will be sweet.”
One of the other drivers has a radio scanner that picks up the road clearing crews chit chat. “kkkrrrr Chasm… how’s the traffic?…building…stop for lunch…let them through…roger”.

Time to relocate all your AWOL crew. Think about tooting, but then think about avalanches, maybe not a good idea. Finally everyone is back on the bus and we climb up the hill to the Homer Tunnel. Down, down, down 1270m with a gradient of 1 to 10. We emerge back out to daylight and start winding our way down the cutbacks. The full extent of the convoy is visible.

At 1.40pm Mitre Peak comes into view. At 1692m it is the highest sea cliff in the world and looks spectacular covered in snow.

It’s all action stations as the convoy rolls into the Milford Cruise Terminal, an hour later than normal. Ironically it is in the carpark that people slip on ice. So we walk like penguins, collect tickets and board the boat.

Now it’s time for Million Dollar Views!

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