There are times when you get exceptional experiences shared with you that you truly feel lucky to be alive.
04.02.2016 - 08.02.2016 21 °C
Part of my job in Twizel includes doing emergency/first responder call. I can get called to local car accidents or to patient homes pending the medical problem and acuity. In these situations, you get to know the local ambulance staff very well. One of the local volunteer EMTs name Vanessa, “Nessie,” overheard one day that Charles and I might not make it to one of the monumental and most well known parts of New Zealand called Fiordland National Park during the optimal season and took it upon herself to get us there.
Besides being a volunteer EMT, Nessie is the office manager for the local branch of Meridian Energy. Meridian Energy is a large partially private, partially federal energy company that is a leading developer of renewable energy in New Zealand. They specialize in hydroelectric energy development. Admirably, New Zealand in general is environmentally conscious maintaining that > 90% of their energy comes from renewable resources. For example, Twizel was founded in the late 1960s for the development of a large hydroelectric dam/canal system. One of Meridian Energy’s most innovative and largest hydroelectric dams, Manipouri Power Station, is located at a very remote site in the middle of Fiordland National Park. During a random clinic afternoon, Nessie strolled into my consult room and tells me that she is taking Charles and me to Manipouri Power Station. We had not yet made plans for the following weekend and without talking to Charles or knowing anything about Manipouri, I kindly answered “sure, why not!?”
We left for Manipouri Friday morning. Nessie, vivacious rowing coach/EMT/office manage with bleach blond spikey hair, picked us up in one of the company cars. Fiordland National Park is located roughly 5 hours away. We spent the drive discussing emergency cases, odd Kiwi vs. American customs and the itinerary for the weekend. We soon learned that the power station is not open to tourists and we were company guests for the weekend.
We spent the first night of our trip in Te Anau, the entrance to Fiordland National Park. While in Te Anau, we enjoyed a traditional woodfired pizza and avoided the other tourists. The town was quite busy given it was Chinese New Year and NZ is a common Chinese vacation destination. I had complained about the price a wool on our drive down and Nessie showed me a local shop with budget wool clothing. I “accidently” bought four sweaters.
We left for Manipouri the following morning. The power station is quite remote and can only be reached by boat. All staff and supplies are shuttled in via the Meridian private ferry or by the local cruise ships that escort tourists around Fiordland National Park. Our ride in on the boat was amazing as we watched the sunrise over the boundry fjords of the park. The boat ride ended at a dock located near an unassuming cement platform on which a few transmission towers were situated. We got off the boat where we were met by the weekend operator, Paul, a large, rather direct, but passionate man. Nessie soon ran away to get some work done and left us in the enthusiastic hands of Paul. We headed up the hill to the small office building were he fitted us in fire retardant overalls and where he started explaining the power station and underlying hydroelectric dam. I soon realized what we were about to do.
Manapouri Power Station is an underground hydroelectric power station on the western arm of Lake Manapouri in Fiordland National Park, in the South Island of New Zealand. At 850 MW installed capacity, it is the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand. Completed in 1971, Manapouri was largely built to supply electricity to the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter near Bluff, some 160 km (99 mi) to the southeast, as well as into the South Island transmission network. The station utilises the 230-metre (750 ft) drop between the western arm of Lake Manapouri and the Deep Cove branch of the Doubtful Sound 10 km (6.2 mi) away to generate electricity. The construction of the station required the excavation of almost 1.4 million tonnes of hard rock to build the machine hall and a 10 km tailrace tunnel deep into the hillside of the surrounding fjords.
After donning safety attire, we hopped in Paul’s truck and entered the 2 km long tunnel into the side of the mountain heading down to the hydroelectric power station. Corsely cut rock, a potholed dirt road and traces of dripping water led our way downward. I was greatfull I am not claustrophobic. We parked and were directed though some signs noting historical events and into the machine hall. The machine hall was enormous composed of 7 large blue turbines and surrounding operational equipment that mildly resembled daleks from the British Dr. Who series. We then spent the next two hours in restricted areas climbing lower and lower observing each area from the turbine to the generator and to the transformer. Finishing our time with Paul, we were greatful for the opportunity to see the innerworkings of a unique industrial marvel. Overall, surprisingly interesting for this more art/biological sciences minded individual but I have rarely seen Charles smile more during a tour.
Following the time at the power station, we went on a short hike around Lake Manapouri up the mountain side and down to the beach. However, we were soon forced inside due to the large abundance of sand flies. We had dinner, played cards, watched Top Gun and admired the local beauty of the surrounding fjords from the bay windows of the top floor of the staff quarters.
We stayed at the staff hostel over night and then woke up early the next morning to catch our boat. Nessie, being completely amazing, had booked us a complementary boat tour of Doubtful Sound a region of Fjordland National Park prior to heading home. We jumped in one of the local Meridian trucks and Nessie drove us, mildly too fast, over Wilmot pass via a rutted dirt road usually only traveled by tour buses. The road ended at the harbor and we set off on our tour. Blue skies, calm water, dolphins, seals, and fjords; Fjordland National Park includes some of the most amazing untouched remote scenery I have ever seen. Please look at our photos.
Our return home following the tour was long but included a return drive over Wilmot pass, a boat ride across Lake Manapouri, and a roughly 5 hour drive home with a stop at a fruit stand for fresh plumbs and cherries.
Overall, a weekend to remember.