You guide to the incredible world of New Zealand fjords

May 16

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Fiord fact: True fjords are made by glaciers which once reached the sea. Sounds, on the other hand, are river valleys flooded by seawater. Fjords are more dramatic – the glacial action forms cliffs that rise like monoliths from the ocean, while sounds have curvier, softer edges. Neither a fiord nor a sound is the same as a lake.

Fiordland fact: Fiordland’s two most famous “Sounds”, Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, are in fact fiords, and they are as dramatic as it gets. So is Fiordland National Park, which is, in fact, home to 114 fiords. Hence the name.

Fiordland National Park, the largest national park in New Zealand

At 12,000 square kilometres, Fiordland National Park the largest national park in New Zealand. Established in 1952 by the New Zealand Government, the place is bigger than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Area, cited for both its “superlative natural phenomena” and “outstanding examples of the earth’s evolutionary history”.

The fjord-loving wildlife of Fiordland National Park

Set in the bottom south west corner of the South Island, and bordered by the Tasman Sea, not only is the park full of natural beauty, Fiordland National Park is bustling with incredible, and unusual fjord-loving creatures.

Look out for the Fiordland crested penguin, glow worms, crimson-bellied kaka parrots, and the rare (so rare it was once thought extinct) flightless takahē.

Rain, rain don’t go away

Even for the coastline South Island of New Zealand, Fiordland is wet. It has a seven-metre annual rainfall, but this is a good thing, as it replenishes spectacular waterfalls like Sterling Falls (if you were impressed by the Yellowstone/Yosemite stat, here’s another one – Sterling is triple the height of Niagara Falls) and fills the whole place with the kind of light-altering rainbow-producing mist that photographers dream of.

Fiordland tracks and tramps

 There are three designated ‘New Zealand Great Walks’ in Fiordland, but there are also endless walks (which are also great). Fiordland National Park has, count them, 500 kilometres of tracks and more than 60 huts.

You can walk for 10 minutes or for days, exploring mountain beech forests, mountain tops, wildlife reserves and, of course, fjords.

Fiordland’s top tramps

Top walks: The Milford Track, the Kepler Track, and the Routeburn Track, which straddles two national parks, Fiordland National Park (which has fjords) and Mount Aspiring National Park (which doesn’t, but has a steep-sided mountain called Mount Aspiring). Impressive.

Milford Sound (actually a fjord)

This is Fiordland’s most famous fjord, and the most photographed of New Zealand’s majestic fjords.

The eighth wonder of the world

A beautiful fjord carved out by ancient glaciers who did their work well, and left behind after their ice melted, Milford Sound is the place Rudyard Kipling (as in the Jungle Book) called the “eighth wonder of the world”. Fair point, Rudyard.

We’ve never heard of someone leaving Milford Sound without their mind blown. With its glacier carved cliffs, plunging waterfalls up to a kilometre (yes, that is 100 metres) high, deep dark waters, the sharp shape of Mitre Peak, which juts impossibly above them, and a thick carpeting of native New Zealand rainforest, Milford Sound, deep in Fiordland National Park, is pure magic.

Milford Sound by boat

Jump on one of the Milford Sound cruises and glide, slack-jawed, through the fiords or join a kayak trip to get up close and personal with a few bottlenose dolphins or a gaggle of fur seals, and feel the full force of Sutherland Falls.

You can also dive and snorkel in Milford Sound, which hosts more than seven million groups of coral including black and red corals, as well as giant bubble-gum coral.

The finest walk in the world

Or hit the Milford Track. The country’s oldest guided track, it’s been coined the finest walk in the world for a reason. The track climbs up to MacKinnon Pass at about 1100 metres, and from there descends into Milford Sound.

(Keen? Book early. This is the most poplar walk in New Zealand.)

The finest road in the world, too

Whatever you do, the drive in to Milford Sounds alone is worth it. It’s 120 kilometres into the middle of beautiful nowhere, past sights like the Murchison Mountains and the smooth-surfaced Mirror Lakes that reflecting the Earl Mountains.

Doubtful Sound (also a fjord)

It doesn’t take take long floating in Doubtful Sound in a boat to decide it might be best seen from the waterline. The second most famous of New Zealand’s fiords, Doubtful Sound / Pateais is made up of three distinct arms which extend south from the main fjord – the First Arm, the Crooked Arm and the Hall Arm.

One of the best ways to discover the magic of this place is to glide through its calm waters on one of the organized boat cruises on offer. The place does look gobsmacking in photos. But immersing yourself at water level in ‘The Sound of Silence’ (as Doubtful Fiord, I mean Sound, is called) drifting up against towering cliffs a kilometre high and smelling the Easter orchids in real life is not to be missed.

The sound of silence

Speaking of silence, the name Doubtful comes from Captain Cook, who, in 1870 hesitated to enter the sound, as he wasn’t convinced it was navigable by sail. He actually named it Doubtful Harbour, but whalers and sealers Doubtful Sound by whalers and sealers. (Seems no-one managed to get it right and call it Doubtful Fjord).

However, long before Cook’s days, Māori settlers called it Patea, which means ‘place of silence’. In 1998, it was officially renamed to Doubtful Sound / Patea.

A South Island cinema must watch

The town of Te Anau is the nerve centre of Fiordland, and Te Anau’s Fiordland Cinema is the home what is known as “Fiordland on film”.

Ata Whenua – Shadowland is an exceptional half-hour showcase on 35mm of Fiordland across the seasons, from snow capped peaks to a heck of a lot of very pretty rain, with helicopter-eye glimpses of areas rarely seen by humans.

It’s the perfect introduction to a place, and to a collection of fiords, like no other.

This article is even better in print.

1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

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