After 10 days at Manapouri it was finally time to move on. Next stop was Cascade Creek, a DOC campground located on the remote & isolated road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. I say remote & isolated in relation to any towns and cities. It’s definitely not isolated from people. The Milford Sound Highway, part of the Te Wahipounamu- South West NZ World Heritage Area & would be one of the most tourist travelled highways in New Zealand. It is a “must do” on most people’s itinerary and every day hundreds of rental cars, rental motorhomes & tourist buses make the pilgrimage along the 120kms of winding, scenic & spectacularly dramatic highway into the Milford Sound village where they then usually board a boat for a cruise on the Sound. Over 400,000 people visit Milford Sound each year and most of these are during the summer season.
Then the journey is repeated in reverse later in the day as most people push on to complete their busy schedules. The busloads of tourists that leave Queenstown early in the morning have a 12-14 hour day of travel and over 600kms ahead of them before arriving back in Queenstown later in the evening. People camping in tents, sleeper vans & motorhomes have another option. They can explore the highway over 2-3 days as they are able to stay at any one of the 10 DOC camps that are located along the road. We intended to stay at least 10 days so we had plenty of time to sight-see & explore.
Other than a DOC camp the only other option for accommodation is a lodge carpark at the Sound itself or a small “old time” campground with cabins located along the Hollyford Valley Road, the only side road on the highway. This is the wilderness though and there are no luxuries out here.The DOC campgrounds are very basic and really only offer a minimal amount of long-drop toilets & a few firepits for cooking & warmth and a safe place to camp (freedom camping is not allowed anywhere on the highway). Water is available usually from a stream or river that passes by the edge of most of the camps. Being self contained and self sufficient we had no issues with parking up well away from any “amenities”.
Cascade Creek, located at the eastern end of Lake Gunn is the second closest camp to Milford Sound and one of the more popular sites as it large & sprawling, the tiny Lake Gunn camp at the western end of the lake is the closest. These both are still 45kms from Milford.
The only minor issue we could see was that travelling back & forward to camp each day would use up our valuable diesel and with no fuel stations on the road & only a 24hr credit card pump at Milford itself we would need to make sure our tank didn’t get too low.
This was my first visit to Milford and I was eagerly looking forward to travelling the highway. And it didn’t disappoint. It was magnificent, around every corner the views were spectacular. Our first stop was at the beginning of the beautiful tussock covered Eglinton Valley formed by a glacier thousands of years ago and surrounded by the Earl & Livingston Mountains.
As we moved up the valley towards the head where Lake Gunn is situated the steep walls of the mountains closed in on us and we moved away from the tussock plain and into the beautiful beech forest with it’s lime green moss covered forest floor.
Cascade Creek camp ground is located at the junction of two rivers; Cascade Creek which flows down from the Livingstone Mountains which you can see in the photo below & the Eglinton River which leaves Lake Gunn in the bush at the end of the camp ground in the other direction.
Sadly, in the 10 years since it was first discovered, the introduced and very fast spreading didymo or “rock snot” as it’s sometimes known, has virtually taken over many of the once pristine rivers & waterways of Fiordland and elsewhere around the South Island. It is thought that the algae was unintentionally introduced via fishing gear from overseas visitors. The irony is that these visitors come to NZ to fish our world renowned trout fishing rivers. The algae kills off valuable food sources both for trout & wading birds. So far, with intensive prevention procedures in place, Didymo has not made it to the North Island.
We found a flat site in the tussock half way along the gravel road and just after it branched in two. Most of the sites were in under the bush and along it’s edge with a few small gravel patches formed here & there for vehicles to park on. We didn’t want to be near the bush because we know how vicious the sandflies are come a dull day or in the cool of the evening. It amazed us how many did camp along the bush edge though, and spent most of their time dancing about or swatting at their arms, legs & faces. Once again, thank God for our flyscreens.
David had been to Cascade Creek before. A very long time ago though. It was Christmas Eve 1968 and he had just arrived with his English wife from the UK. His sister Carole & her husband, who were already here, took them on a tour. There was a lodge at Cascade Creek then (long gone now, although we saw a few of the foundations) and David remembers beating down the flowering lupins while trying to pitch the tent. The lupins are mostly gone now too, DOC have been religiously spraying and removing them every season although I managed to find one hardy flower for him. The lodge owner invited them for Christmas dinner the next day, goose & all the beer they could drink for $3 a head. He remembers being overwhelmed by the hospitality of his newly adopted countrymen.
We had some great weather while we were at Cascade Creek, although the mornings were crisp & cold especially with a good frost on a couple of the days. Like Mavora Lakes the sun took it’s time reaching the valley floor in the morning and disappeared over the opposite ridge early in the evening. Fog & mist settled over the river most mornings & evenings.
Every evening a steady stream of vehicles would arrive to set up camp. It was fun watching as they drove around deciding where the best place was to park, some missing out on their choice as others, more savvy with the way the camp grounds work, grabbed the first available site. I have never seen so many different varieties of rental motorhomes & sleeper vans in one place before, rental businesses are obviously doing a roaring trade. Being Kiwis we felt like the odd ones out, occasionally another member of the NZMCA would drive past & waving out to each other was like greeting an old friend.
The prize for the weirdest tent goes to this couple below, it’s suspended between trees and they climb into through an opening in the side. It’s like a big sleeping hammock. I guess it keeps them off the damp ground but what about “roll together” and I wonder what happens when there are no trees. Certainly the strangest thing we’ve seen.
In the little blue sleeper tent next door were two of David’s new friends, a young Cech couple who are travelling & working in NZ for a year. He joined them for a beer around the camp fire a couple of nights and they certainly made sure he enjoyed happy hour; one night in particular!
Not only did we have all the camp traffic passing through we also had a few tour buses (& Downer road trucks accessing the shingle pile at the back of the camp). The Lake Gunn Nature Walk started near the entrance to the camp and sometimes the bus drivers would carry on in to show the people on board what a DOC camp looks like I suppose, or perhaps to use the toilets (yuck). One morning the smell of bacon, onions & sausages filled the air. Tucked into a corner of the camp beside the Creek was this BBQ tour bus with a whole load of Japanese tourists sitting round on camp chairs enjoying a cooked breakfast! Now that is initiative, a tour with a point of difference to offer the masses.
We loved our time at Cascade Creek & all the comings & goings at either end of the day and having the peaceful mid-day solitude after everyone had disappeared on some of the days was awesome. The bird life was prolific and the sandflies nasty but best of all, the beauty and tranquillity of this section of the highway surrounded by mountains, was inspiring.