Fiordland Area Guide
Hollyford River rapids, Fiordland
National Park - © Naturespic.com
This formidable landscape was created by glaciers, which gouged out the landscape, producing u-shaped valleys, and the 14 fiords which break up the western coastline. The area is so remote that the rare flightless native bird, the takahe, was presumed extinct until it was rediscovered in 1948 in Fiordland's rainforest-cloaked mountains. This wild and inaccessible 1.2 million hectares is penetrated by only one road, highway 94 (the Milford Road), which leads to beautiful Milford Sound.
Fiordland is New Zealand's largest national park and has been designated a world heritage area by the United Nations for its outstanding natural values. The park has one of the highest levels of rainfall in the world, Milford Sound receiving up to eight metres of rainfall a year. It is also plagued with pesky, biting sandflies, the Department of Conservation advising visitors that insect repellent is essential "for visitor comfort".
The town of Te Anau, on the shores of the south island's largest lake, is the main gateway to Fiordland. From here, the 119-kilometre Milford Road winds its way north along the shores of the lake, past the Mirror Lakes and the Earl Mountains, through the Homer Tunnel, and on to Milford Sound, the only one of the fiords accessible by road. The avalanche-prone alpine road, built by unemployed workers in the 1930s depression, is a destination in its own right, with many walks and viewing points along the way. The Department of Conservation website has a good fact sheet with details of walks from the road. The three-hour return Key Summit walk, which follows part of the Routeburn Track, offers panoramic views over the mountains, and is a good introduction to the park's impressive scenery.
The grandeur of Milford Sound, where sheer mountainsides tower 1,200 metres above the sea and waterfalls plunge off hanging valleys into the fiords, attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year. The best way to appreciate the scenery is from the water, on a boat cruise or guided kayak trip. Most cruise operators traverse the entire length of the fiord, past one of New Zealand's best-known landmarks, the triangular form of the 1,692 metre Mitre Peak.
The small town of Manapouri, on the shores of one of New Zealand's most beautiful lakes, provides access to the deepest of the fiords, the serene Doubtful Sound, starting with a boat trip across Lake Manapouri, then a bus journey over the 22-kilometre Wilmot Pass, which connects the West Arm of the lake to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound.
Fiordland is a great place for hiking and tramping. Three of New Zealand's multi-day Great Walks - the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn tracks - lie within the national park, but there are also other good tracks for independent trampers, such as the Hollyford and the more challenging Dusky Track, and plenty of short walks. It's a remote area, though, and you need to plan well in advance before visiting, particularly if you want to walk the Milford Track, or go kayaking in the fiords.