time reversal

the stories of four physicists separated by the whims of fate

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NZ Part 2: Milford Sound

February 12th, 2009 by liz

The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is 120km long and absolutely gorgeous. There are towering peaks on either side of the road with blue-ice glaciers melting into waterfalls that cascade down moss-covered rocks into temperate rainforest that clings to the rock walls. Near the end, the road enters a tunnel blasted straight through a sheer cliff before dumping you out into the fijord.

For those of you not up on fijords, they are U-shaped valleys formed by glaciers that then get flooded by the sea. The bottom section of the U gets flooded, and only the steep walls remain above the water. The result is sheer cliffs with almost no flat places to land a boat. Milford Sound is a fijord which boasts the world’s second highest peak rising straight out of the ocean (Miter Peak) at 1700m. The only thing higher is the Molokai Sea bluffs in Hawaii. Many waterfalls empty into the sound, including the 151m high Stirling falls (that’s 3 times taller than Niagra!), and another 163m high waterfall that powers the small town of Milford Sound.

Stirling falls
Some of my fellow kayakers at the base of Stirling falls

Due to my injured ankle, I decided to take a day off hiking and go on a sea-kayaking trip for the day in Milford Sound instead. After acquiring kayaking gear, everyone going on the trip got on a boat piled high with kayaks to be driven towards the end of the sound. 25 minutes of bouncing over waves later, we were all dumped overboard (into kayaks) just past Stirling falls. We were in double kayaks, and my kayak buddy wasn’t so good with the steering. We crashed into the sheer cliffs a lot, but we managed to not capsize the whole day, even when we decided to paddle straight under Stirling falls (which took a few tries due to the steering issue). Stirling Falls was enormous, but when we paddled away it was dwarfed by the size of the mountain it tumbled down from. The sheer height of the rock walls above us was almost incomprehensible.

After another hour or so of paddling, the guide turned to me: “You’re an astrophysicist–so the universe is expanding, right?” I confirmed his suspicion. “So what the hell is it expanding into then?” he asked. “Nothing,” I replied, “space itself is expanding.” He then went on some rant about how that didn’t make any sense and it was driving him crazy. He finally asked me if all physicists just end up going insane in the end. I also confirmed that suspicion.

Miter peak
Some of my fellow kayakers in front of Miter peak

After much more touring around and a stop for “hot raro” (it’s a sugary drink), we made it back to the boat dock soaking wet and cold, where our guide turned on “the world’s best heater”–basically a giant turbo-fan with propane flames inside. It really was awesome, and within 30 seconds of the heat-blaster being turned on I was roasting and I swear my pants almost caught fire.

It was a pretty sweet trip, and I highly recommend Rosco’s Milford Kayaks if you are ever visiting Milford Sound. It’s much more fun than cruising around on those silly tour boats–in the kayaks you get so close to the fijord walls that if you wanted to, you could reach out and pet the seals that hang out on the few flat rocks around the sound.

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