You know you’re in one of the most beautiful and unique places in the world when there just aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. Fiordland National Park covers the south-western corner of the South Island of New Zealand and large sections of it remain unexplored by humans. This simple fact leaves me in awe. In 2014, there are still parts of New Zealand that are rarely witnessed by human beings. Hectares of thick bush, or dramatic mountains that make it hazardous to adventure in to.
It was a long and tiring 8 hr drive south from Christchurch via Queenstown, and I arrived in Te Anau in the lowering sun. I was making the most of my YHA membership by staying in the local hostel but it was the start of a week of not getting enough sleep. It had been a while since I’d shared a dorm room and I’d forgotten how much a good night’s sleep was determined by those people you shared a room with. Between the people coming in late and those leaving early, it was a very disturbed sleep that first night.
The next morning, I headed out into the early morning darkness and the rain and drove to Manapouri on the shore of the lake with the same name. In the greyness of a wet morning, I boarded one of the boats to head across the water on a 45 minute cruise to the far side. The surrounding mountains looked dramatic with the low cloud hugging and framing their silhouettes. The deeper into the lake we got, the higher the mountains seemed to climb. It was a wet start to the day but I couldn’t get enough of the cloudy view. On the western shore, the boat moored next to the Manapouri power station, a rather controversial feat of engineering that changed not just the landscape, but the local ecology too. It was completed in 1971 to produce power for a smelting plant in Southland, but in doing so, it not only changed the level of Lake Manapouri, but it altered the movement of some aquatic species, most notably the eel which has to be physically captured and relocated to the sea to allow it to carry on its life cycle.
From the shore, our group was transferred by bus across the pass towards Doubtful Sound where another boat waited for us. Thankfully, albeit unusually, the weather on the seaward side of the mountains was actually drier with occasional bursts of blue sky breaking through the higher cloud bank. There was still the occasional low cloud to add to the dramatic landscape of steep mountain sides rising steeply from the wall of the fiord. Doubtful Sound is utterly breathtaking. It’s quite broad in places, but is made up also of multiple branches that delve into valleys amongst the mountains. We headed initially to the mouth of the fiord which is protected to a degree by a few relatively large islands. On a few of the smaller ones right at the entrance, New Zealand Fur Seals haul themselves up on the rocks to dry out and digest a belly full of fish. Several more frolicked in the lapping waves, showing off to us as we hovered for a while to watch. Heading back in to the fiord, the boat took us down a couple of the branches. In the first one we were very lucky to see a pair of exceedingly rare Yellow-Crested Fiordland Penguins. They were cruising along together, floating on the surface looking nonplussed by our presence. The water was still here, and with the sun trying to break through, the mountains reflected beautifully on the calm water. The captain turned the boat’s engine off so that we could appreciate the peacefulness of the area. The only thing breaking through the silence was the occasional cry of a bird amongst the foliage on the mountain sides. The serenity was fantastic.
Heading into a second branch, we came across another pair of Fiordland penguins, followed by another pair deeper in. It seems we were exceedingly lucky to see 6 of what is a very threatened species. In this deeper branch of the fiord, the mountains were especially steep, too steep for vegetation to grow in places, and these cliffs were grey and barren. On one aspect of an especially tall mountain, a deep gouge was evident running down from the summit towards the sea. This is one of a few visible fault lines in the world, and shows the dramatic meeting of two small tectonic plates. New Zealand as a whole has multiple fault lines running in various directions, and whilst always posing a risk for an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, it is these same potentially deadly movements that provide a lot of the beauty and dramatic landscape that the country is so famous for.
Returning by boat and then bus, we headed underground at the Meridian-owned Manapouri power station to visit the turbine hall. Sitting 200 metres below the level of Lake Manapouri, the power station is the largest hydroelectric station in the country and produces 800MW of power. It is an amazing feat of engineering that took a lot of time and manpower to excavate and construct. A few people lost their lives in the process and a plaque of remembrance is attached to the wall at the depth of the road tunnel deep under the ground.
It was still dull over Lake Manapouri but at least the clouds had lifted giving a better view of the surrounding mountains. The following day I was to set off on the Kepler Track, one of the country’s Great Walks, that spans an area of land between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri. I looked to the summit, trying to fathom out where I would be heading, and couldn’t work it out. It would have to be a surprise. Back in Te Anau, I decided to go out to the glowworm caves across the far side of Lake Te Anau, but by the time the trip set off, the rain had moved in for the night, and once again, the cloud level dropped and the view disappeared. Luckily the caves were underground and away from the worst of the weather, but unfortunately I was not allowed to take photographs on the cave experience which was disappointing. There were some incredible waterfalls within the cave, carved out by thousands of years of water carving a channel through the limestone walls. At the end of it, we boarded a small boat and were guided round a cavern in the dark where the only light was from the small blue glow from a myriad of glowworms. Having visited Waitomo caves in the north island, there was a slightly disappointing amount of glowworms at the Te Anau caves, but it was still a good way to spend a few hours, and there was a couple of interesting videos at the end of it which were quite informative about glowworms and their life cycle.
A few days later after completing the Kepler Track, I returned to Te Anau in glorious sunshine. The lake glimmered under the blue sky, and after a drive round the waterfront in Te Anau itself, I followed the lake to its northern edge and continued on the Milford highway for some distance. The scenery changed dramatically, from lakeside, to pastures, to steep mountains rising up from the valley floor. Amongst these impressive vertical mountain slopes lay the Eglinton valley with the Eglinton river. The river courses a seemingly calm route through the valley floor, providing a perfect environment for the exceedingly annoying sand fly. The route is littered with picnic and camp sites, but everywhere I got out to enjoy the view and take photos, it would be a mere few minutes before the pesky creatures would have me swatting like a madman and running back for the safety of the car. Next time I will come armed with repellent, for they regularly interrupted my enjoyment of this staggeringly beautiful region. There is a collection of small lakes known as the Mirror Lakes because on a still day, they produce a perfect reflection of the mountains that tower over them. Whilst the sun shone over head, there was a breeze when I stopped there, so the reflection was distorted, but it was still a lovely place to sit and watch the local fowl swim around and daydream in between the incessant swatting of flies. Further along the road, there is a sign marking a latitude of 45 degrees south: the exact half-way point between the equator and the south pole. The river was particularly wide near here, and again I would have loved to have stayed here longer if it weren’t for the sand flies. I drove as far as Knobs Flat before heading back to Te Anau for the evening. The local cinema regularly shows a movie called Fiordland on Film which is a brief but incredible aerial display of the National Park, including many areas that haven’t really been explored on foot. Having watched it that evening, I would definitely recommend a viewing whilst in town.
I rose early the next morning, heading off in total darkness, to push on at a good pace before the tourist traffic built up for the morning. It is a long and winding drive on the Milford highway heading north-west towards Milford Sound. I passed the Mirror Lakes and Knobs Flat in the low sun and pushed on, passing Lake Gunn, and the Divide where the Routeburn Track finishes. Past here, the road turns sharply and follows the Hollyford river for a while. There are some single track sections, and the road bends and winds and dips and climbs towards the dramatic entrance of the Homer Tunnel. By this point I was struggling to stop my jaw dropping open. The scenery was phenomenal, and at the end of it all, the road comes to a massive wall of rock through which the road was blasted. The tunnel was opened in 1954, prior to which the only access to the west coast was by boat. It drops quite steeply to the western side and the walls have been left unlined, bearing the granite surface which drips water from the rock face. Coming out the other side in the Cleddau valley, the road winds downwards following the natural flow of the Cleddau river, and eventually coming out at Milford Sound and that famous view of Mitre Peak that is borne on hundreds of postcards across the country. The sun was still low, struggling to break over the Homer Saddle, so Milford Sound still lay greatly in the shadow whilst I awaited my boat trip. By the time we set off mid-morning, the sun had broken high enough to bathe the fiord in light. Being late March, the sun was already struggling to attain enough height to light up the entire fiord and the one side remained in shadow for the entire trip. Nevertheless, the side with Mitre Peak was illuminated and we followed this steep mountain side towards the sea.
I had been blown away by the rugged beauty of Doubtful Sound, but with the added benefit of the blue sky and glorious sunshine, Milford Sound was stunning. Though smaller in length, the mountains are much steeper here which lends an intensity to the landscape which begs your constant attention. There were several people kayaking as we passed by, and in a few spots where the rocks allowed, there were some New Zealand Fur Seals hauled up out of the water. The fiord is most famous for its waterfalls which increase in number quite dramatically after heavy rain. Whilst only the main ones were still flowing, it was still incredible to see such high drops of water splashing down the cliff side. At two of them, the boat moved in quite close so that the people at the front got wet, and a rainbow was visible in the spray. The changing prospect of the domineering Mitre Peak framed our passage out to sea where the altitude dropped dramatically. Near the entrance, we briefly saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins skirt the coastline before heading out of sight.
The coastline looking north was shrouded in a low mist, and we bobbed on the Tasman Sea for a short while admiring the view before heading back into the fiord. We hugged the opposite shore which still remained in the shadow, stopping briefly to watch more fur seals. We passed close to another waterfall before we pulled in at the discovery centre where I disembarked for a look under the water. Floating on a pontoon attached to the cliff wall, the underwater observatory descends 10 metres below the surface. The water in these fiords offers a unique marine environment. With the freshwater cascading from the cliffs into the sea, it picks up the tannins from the plants which taint the water a dark brown colour. As salt water is heavier than freshwater, the darker fresh water sits in a layer about 2 metres deep above the sea water. The darkness of this freshwater layer blocks the sunlight filtering through meaning that marine species which elsewhere would only be found at great depths, actually grow well remarkably close to the surface. At just 10 metres below the surface, they have beds growing rare black coral (which actually appears white in colour). From one side of the viewing chamber, the rock face had starfish and sea slugs amongst other things attached, and from the opposite side, there were shoals of fish of varying sizes flitting about past the windows. The water was murky but the fish came quite close up and it was fascinating to watch them. I overheard the staff telling someone that they occasionally see dolphins from the windows and the odd fur seal or penguin. Boats passed regularly so people could leave on any boat as they pleased, and after a while, I headed back to the main terminal, passing a beautiful waterfall on route.
It was a glorious day, and after a wander along the shoreline to get a differing view of the stunning Mitre Peak and surrounding mountains, I headed back onto the Milford highway to head back towards Te Anau. There was plenty to see on the way, which I had rushed past in the morning in an effort to beat the crowds at the ferry terminal. I stopped first not far up the road at an area called The Chasm. A short walk from the car park brings you to a rather noisy part of the wood where the Cleddau river has carved a deep chasm creating a raging waterfall below a bridge. It is quite impressive to see although the view is somewhat blocked by the positioning of the bridge that you walk across. From here I followed the winding road up to the immense granite wall where the Homer Tunnel entrance lies. It looks solid and towers above the entire valley, looking indestructible, making the fact that a hole has been blasted through it that bit more impressive. During the summer months, the flow of traffic through the tunnel is controlled with traffic lights, but in the winter months, there is no such system. Inside the tunnel, the road is uneven and poorly tarred, not to mention wet from the regular dripping of water from the roof and sides. Heading out of the Cleddau valley, it went uphill, eventually returning to the Hollyford Valley where the mountains look equally as high. Before the sharp turn at the Divide, a lookout spot gives a view up the Hollyford Valley with the Hollyford River down below.
I stopped at the Divide to hike to Key Summit before taking the long drive back to Te Anau. Arriving back at the top of the lake I got the best view of the lake yet under a near cloudless sky. It was a fitting end to my trip to Fiordland. The next morning I headed off on the long journey home to Christchurch, deciding on an impulse to go via Invercargill on the south coast, and swinging up via Dunedin. It was a long drive and a long day, but I was ever keen to drag out the holiday as long as possible. With my taste buds whetted for more hiking in the area, I will definitely aim to get back to this beautiful National Park soon.