It’s all about scenery: dramatic, magnificent, mystical. We awoke on board a ship in Doubtful Sound, the largest of the area’s 14 fiords, to watch the sun creep over the towering cliffs which surrounded us, casting mirror images of the mountains on the sparkling water. The only sound was a raging waterfall plunging from high above into the deep inlet. Waterfowl flew above.
We were in awe, mesmerized by the splendor of nature, the beauty all around in this desolate paradise. Every day during our five-day visit to the region last November was filled with more overwhelming, spectacular sights.
On New Zealand’s South Island, Fiordland National Park is a World Heritage area and the country’s largest national park. The fiords, narrow inlets with steep sides carved by glacial activity, indent Fiordland’s West Coast. In addition to exploring the fiords by boat, you can hike legendary trails in the mountains, trek through primeval forests and enjoy thrilling views from a seaplane.
Husband Bob and I did a bit of all. We also enjoyed an exciting boat adventure in a Glowworm Cave through eerie darkness to a grotto where thousands of tiny glowworms glimmered on the walls. It was hard to believe this was a natural phenomenon and not an amusement park attraction.
Our Fiordland base was the town of Te Anau from where we set off for our first fiord excursion to Milford Sound. Early European settlers who were not familiar with fiords called them “sounds” which are actually river valleys flooded due to land sinking below sea level.
A bus trip on the Milford Road through the National Park leads to the Sound. There’s grandiose mountain scenery en route, with stops for photos. And, once on board the ship sailing through the fiord’s National Geographic scenery, it’s hard to put the camera down.
On the way back to Te Anau, we stopped for a hike led by a guide to a summit. We crawled under fallen logs en route, jumped over streams, through woods to open spaces above the tree line with superb views in every direction. By the time we reached the top it was raining. Our guide pulled out a thermos from his backpack and served us tea and cookies in the drizzle.
More hiking, but at a lower elevation, was on the next day’s agenda, a nature walk along Lake Te Anu through a dense beech forest. The guide provided fascinating commentary on the flora and fauna, including the illusive kiwi, the country’s flightless nocturnal bird and national symbol.
Moss thrives in this dark green paradise and can be a meter deep. Step off trail and onto the lush carpet which is like a sponge, squishy strange to sink into. Along the trail all sizes and varieties of forest ferns grow in abundance. Kiwis (the people) are passionate about the environment and especially their bird population. Our guide pointed out many species, including ducks which nest in tree tops.
Fiordland, we learned, has 200 rain days per year, dumping between six to eight meters of water each year. During our Doubtful Sound cruise, we experienced some of that rain. But it not dampen the spirits of those on board who wanted to try sea kayaking. After our miserable failure with this sport which plunged us into the icy sea (see previous post: Misadventures in New Zealand), we stayed safe and dry on board.
During our cruise through this remote and romantic fiord, we saw penguins, seals and dolphins. We marveled at haunting dark skies and fantastic cloud formations.
A different but exciting boat ride ended our Fiordland visit. We boarded a speedy jet boat on the Upper Waiau River to Lake Manapouri. From our craft we boarded a float plane – tricky to get on this plane which was bobbing in the water – for a thrilling aerial view of the stunning countryside.
Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound “the eighth wonder of the world” I think the same could be said for all of Fiordland.
For more on Fiordland, see http://www.fiordland.org.nz
Watch the slide show below for more outstanding scenery. For summer grilling, try my old standby: Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Mustard Cream Sauce. See the Recipe list on the right.