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Disaster Strikes at Milford Sound

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The clouds of steam coming from the engine signalled that all was not well. There were road signs all round us screaming “Warning! No stopping! Avalanche zone!” but apparently our car hadn’t noticed these. Popping the hood of the car we had owned for all of 10 days, Caelen, Phil and I were met with more steam, sizzling noises and splashes of rusty liquid. “Are you ok?” asked a passing driver. Inexplicably, we told him we were fine, looking at each other in bewilderment as he drove on.

“You can’t stop here folks,” announced an official-looking chap in a yellow reflective jacket, getting out of his sturdy 4WD. “We know,” we whimpered, “But our car won’t go.” He looked under the hood, stroking his chin with considerably more authority than we had mustered. “Let it cool down a bit, and you should be ok. Cars overheat here all the time – in high season we get one or two a week. Just don’t go into the tunnel unless you’re sure you can make it to the other side.”

We could hardly have picked a worse spot. One of the steepest stretches of road in New Zealand, its hairpin bends carve their way through the spectacular but avalanche prone cliffs of the Darran Mountains to the lower mouth of the 1.2 km Homer Tunnel, hacked through the mountain in the 1930s by pick and shovel.

We waited a few minutes, then resumed our crawl up the hill. Just before the tunnel, we stopped to let the engine cool again, just in case. “You can’t stop here folks,” warned another reflective-jacket-clad gentleman. Once more we explained our predicament, and soaked up his reassurances. “Happens here all the time. Just give her five minutes and you should be fine.”

Five minutes duly elapsed, we were deemed good to go. We entered the tunnel apprehensively and made our way as gently as possible up the slope. The light of the entrance gradually dimmed behind us. Three pairs of eyes looked alternately at the temperature gauge and the previously smoking bonnet for signs of impending doom. After what seemed like an eternity, the exit ahead of us began to grow brighter. We were going to make it! Just as we allowed the thought to enter our minds, the car cut out completely. The marker on the tunnel wall read 600m; we were precisely half way through.

Repeated attempts to start the car produced nothing, not the faintest gasp of life. We were causing a major obstruction and we couldn’t think how we were going to extricate ourselves from the situation. We couldn’t push the car up, that much was obvious. We couldn’t turn around. Rolling out backwards was far too dangerous with the amount of traffic coming through, and I wouldn’t be able to see where I was going. Most of all, though, we couldn’t stay where we were.

While we debated our admittedly limited options, Craig, our knight in reflective armour, re-appeared on his trusty 4WD steed. He went off to find a towrope, taking Caelen to the emergency phone to call the AA. Phil and I settled down to an anxious and seemingly interminable wait in the tunnel.

When Craig returned, it was to tell us he couldn’t find a towrope. There was only one other choice – roll down the slope to the end of the tunnel. Since we couldn’t turn around, we’d have to roll out backwards, but at least Craig could drive ahead to illuminate my way. We set off, just hoping that there wouldn’t be too much traffic coming up behind us. The trickiest bit would be the tunnel mouth. This was the narrowest point, and the slope flattened out so I couldn’t rely on gravity’s help. I needed to build up enough momentum on the approach to shoot through the mouth, keep going on the flat and manoeuvre into the parking bay on the far side.

I waited in the darkness for Craig to go ahead and stop any traffic entering the tunnel. My foot had developed the sewing-machine tremor I remembered from the reversing manoeuvres in my driving test. Craig gave me the nod, and we were off. Down the middle of the road, through the narrow mouth and out into the still-bright early evening with just enough speed to reverse into the bay. I felt more drained than relieved getting out of the car. It would take a while for the stress to dissipate to the point where I felt relieved. But I had a while. The AA guy had to come from Te Anau, 100k away, and he would be at least an hour and a half.

Craig dropped me off to join Caelen at the emergency shelter at the top of the tunnel, taking Phil back to Te Anau. Luckily we’d had a good supply of snacks, cold weather gear, torches and reading material in the car, so we made ourselves reasonably comfortable and sat down to wait.

Few cars passed us on this isolated stretch of road. We could gauge the dropping temperature by the cracks and creaks coming from the surrounding slopes as the snow and ice froze once more. From time to time, the slamming sound of an avalanche reminded us that we could not wander far from the shelter without entering the danger zone. We even spotted a couple of avalanches on the steep slopes directly opposite our position, their tiny size suggesting a harmlessness belied by the huge boom. It was cold, and as darkness fell it would get much colder. The earliest we could expect the AA was 7pm, and even that seemed hopelessly optimistic.

At 7.02pm a tow-truck came past at high speed, screeching to a halt at the sight of us. We piled our gear and ourselves into the truck for the trip back down the tunnel. Nathan, the mechanic, jumped in to drive our car onto the tow truck’s ramp. As he turned the key in the ignition, all our poor little car could manage was a tiny splutter before fizzling out again. It would have to be winched on. “I’m afraid it’s terminal folks,” was our rescuer’s immediate verdict. I didn’t, couldn’t, believe him. Our car, our trusty, tidy, 10-day-old car, gone, dead, no more. Surely a pair of tights or suchlike was all that was required to get it back on the road. Maybe when he had a better look back in his garage he’d find the valve that had blown or the spark plug that needed replacing. In any case, it was clear we weren’t going to be driving our car back tonight.

On the journey back to Te Anau, we quizzed Nathan. Was he really sure the engine was a goner? How much would it cost to fix? Would a mechanic have uncovered the problem in a thorough check? His answers veered from comforting to heart-rending. Parts and labour to get the car back on the road would amount to about twice what we had paid in the first place. The engine had clearly overheated a number of times before and the previous owners, knowing it was about to die, had offloaded it just in time.

A pre-purchase mechanical check-up would probably not have spotted the problem, though, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about not having bothered to do one. Likewise, if it hadn’t given up the ghost today, it would have done so on some other hill. Since you can’t drive around NZ without driving up a lot of hills, there was no point bemoaning our decision to drive to Milford Sound that day.

The next day brought no comfort. Nathan had not managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat for us, the engine was still dead. While the car did have some theoretical scrap value, this was less than it would cost to get it to the nearest car wreckers in Queenstown or Invercargill. A guy in Te Anau was offering US$25 for the mags (whatever they are), and since our alternative was to pay US$35 to have it taken to the dump, this added up to better than nothing.

As I collected the cash and signed the change of ownership forms, Caelen emptied the last of our belongings from the car. I was glad to escape that last, painful task, sure that I wouldn’t have managed to hold back the tears as I said goodbye. Clutching our possessions, we trudged dejectedly back to the hostel.

Milford Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of the emergency phone that we rang the AA with  Milford sound milford sound pictures
Photograph of Barbara waiting for rescue Milford sound milford sound pictures
The phone we hoped we'd never need to use

Barbara waiting for rescue

Picture of Milford sound milford sound pictures
Photograph of the Mirror lakes near Milford sound milford sound pictures
Milford Sound

Mirror Lakes

Picture of an ice gully near Milford sound milford sound pictures
Photographs of a waterfall Milford sound milford sound pictures
The avalanche zone
Waterfall at Milford Sound