‘A cherished corner of the world where mountains and valleys compete with each other for room, where scale is almost beyond comprehension, rainfall is measured in metres and scenery encompasses the broadest width of emotions’.
This is how the author of the book “Mountains of Water – The Story of Fiordland National Park” described this stunning National Park.
Established in 1952, Fiordland National Park is now over 1.2 million hectares in size, and encompasses mountain, lake, fiord and rainforest environments. The National Park is administered by the Department of Conservation.
The variety of habitats in Fiordland support a diverse range of flora and fauna, with many developing in relative isolation leading to a high rate of endemism, or plants and animals that have evolved to be completely unique to this area. The Takahe is an example of a bird that developed to be much larger and flightless compared to its distant cousins in the rail species. The Takahe was in fact thought to be extinct for more than forty years before it was rediscovered in the mountains of Fiordland in 1948. Fiordland was also the final refuge for the world’s only flightless parrot the Kakapo. Both of these rare bird species are now part of a recovery programme managed by the Department of Conservation.
Human activity within Fiordland has been limited. Early Maori hunted here, caught fish from the sea and gathered pounamu (New Zealand jade) from the rivers.
Much later, European sealers and whalers took shelter in the fiords and built small settlements in some locations, but overall the sheer steepness of the terrain, the incredible isolation, and the wettest climate in New Zealand deterred all but the hardiest from settlement in the region.
Fiordland became the scene of one of New Zealand’s most significant conservation debates when in the 1960’s it was proposed to raise the level of Lake Manapouri to assist hydro-electricity production at West Arm. The ensuing battle resulted in government ultimately bowing to the weight of petitions and passing a bill in the 1970’s that gave the lake statutory protection.
The Department of Conservation provides more than 50 hikers’ huts in the park. ‘Great Walks’ huts are found on the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn tracks, and these provide a higher-than-usual level of comfort. More basic huts are available on the other tracks – in most you will find sleeping platforms with mattresses, toilet facilities and a water supply.
A wide range of accommodation can be found in and around the lakeside townships of Te Anau and Manapouri. At Milford Sound, the only fiord accessible by road, there is a backpackers’ lodge.
The great walks and beyond
Three of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ can be found in Fiordland National Park. The most famous (and consequently most popular) is the Milford Track, which takes five days to complete. The Kepler Trackis a circular route that can be walked in four days and the Routeburn, which crosses into Mount Aspiring National Park, generally takes three days. There are many other less famous – but just as spectacular – tracks to explore.
Sea kayaking and diving
Several of the fiords can be explored by sea kayak, as can lakes in Te Anau and Manapouri. Diving in Fiordland provides a rare chance to see deep-water sea plants growing near the surface. Local residents include dolphins, fur seals and penguins.
Every day scenic flights and coach services deliver visitors to Milford Sound for scenic cruises. Eco-cruises of the less accessible fiords can be arranged in Te Anau or Manapouri.
* From late October until the end of April, bookings are essential to guarantee hut accommodation on the Great Walks.
* Cold temperatures, snow, strong winds and heavy rain can occur at any time of the year. Be prepared.
* Insect repellent is an essential item in Fiordland National Park – the sandflies are legendary.
* If you’re not an experienced outdoors person, it is recommended you book a guided walk.
* You can hunt and fish in the park, but permits are required.
For more detailed information about the Fiordland National Park visit the Department of Conservation here