Southwest New Zealand is one of the great wilderness areas of the Southern Hemisphere. The jewel in Fiordland’s crown is Milford Sound, its steep rock walls and cascading waterfalls.
Within the unfenced boundaries of Fiordland, one of the largest national parks in the world, is some of the most wild and dramatic scenery in New Zealand.
Fiordland is also one of 3 World Heritage Area’s in New Zealand. It is the work of 500 million years of constant sculpting as the land has been relentlessly ground, split, fired, and pressured by the elements.
Fiordland stretches over 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) in a remote section of the South Island and it is peppered with hundreds of lakes, craggy mountain peaks, deep fiords and rich rainforest.
The jewel in Fiordland’s crown is Milford Sound, its steep rock walls and cascading waterfalls a reminder that it was once a high mountain range that sank into the sea.
Under the water surface is one of the rarest marine underwater worlds, home to 200-year-old black corals, sponges, lobsters, octopuses, sharks, and bottlenosed dolphins. There are only three roads in the park, but it also contains three of the country’s great walks – the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler tracks.
Southwest New Zealand is one of the great wilderness areas of the Southern Hemisphere. It is an area where snow-capped mountains, rivers of ice, deep lakes, unbroken forests and tussock grasslands produce a landscape of exceptional beauty. Some of the best examples of animals and plants, which were once found on the ancient super-continent of Gondwana, still exist here.
Recognition of the outstanding natural values of the area was granted by UNESCO in December 1990, with the formation of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, also known to Ngāi Tahu as Te Wāhipounamu (the place of greenstone). This area incorporates Aoraki/ Mt Cook, Westland/ Tai Poutini, Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks, and covers 2.6 million hectares or 10% of New Zealand’s land area.
Fiordland is in the far southwestern corner of the South Island and much of the region is inaccessible by road. The township of Te Anau is considered the gateway to the park. State Highway 94 to Te Anau branches off the main Invercargill to Queenstown Road. There are regular bus services to Te Anau and Milford Sound.
Transport services are available in the summer season to the start of the Kepler, Milford and Routeburn Tracks. Arrangements can also be made, on-demand, to access other track systems.
Te Anau has a full range of accommodation options from campgrounds and backpackers through to luxury hotels. At Milford Sound there is a backpacker’s hostel and the option of accommodation (including bed and breakfast and a scenic cruise) on board one of the tourist vessels on Milford Sound.
During the summer season space is limited on the three Great Walks tracks – Milford, Kepler and Routeburn. Advance booking is essential.
In all other backcountry huts within the national park, no bookings are required to stay overnight. However, walkers must purchase backcountry hut tickets or an annual hut pass (available from the Fiordland Visitor Centre) before they depart on their walk.
According to Maori legend, Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) was formed, not by rivers of ice, but by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, an atua (godly figure), who was given the task of shaping the Fiordland coast. Singing a powerful karakia (chant), he began attacking the towering rock walls with his toki (adze) called Te Hamo.
As he moved further north, Tu-te-raki-whanoa perfected his work, creating long winding inlets to provide refuge from the restless, often stormy seas outside. Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) is said to be his finest sculpture.
Iwi Maori are thought to have discovered Piopiotahi more than 1,000 years ago and returned as seasonal visitors to the fiord, collecting the much prized pounamu (greenstone) from Anita Bay, at the mouth of Milford Sound. These treks from the east used traditional pathways across passes such as Mackinnon Pass on the Milford Track. Today, it is easier to follow in the early Maori footsteps to Piopiotahi, by taking a day or overnight cruise on the fiord.
Milford Sound Cruises: check out the reviews on TripAdvisor:
The Milford Road – an awesome experience
The Milford Road is one of the world’s finest alpine highways, winding through spectacular and varied scenery that changes from rolling farmland, to beech forest, through an alpine zone and into dense rainforest. It is well worth taking the time to explore – there are many interesting short walks and beautiful scenic lookouts along the way. Highlights of the journey include viewing mountain peaks perfectly reflected in the water of the Mirror Lakes and the Chasm, a rock maze sculpted by the rushing waters of the Cleddau River. During summer months, forest and alpine flowers, including southern rata, mountain ribbonwood, Mount Cook lilies and clematis, bloom in profusion along the roadside. Keep a look out for Keas – these cheeky alpine parrots are regularly seen along the road and are very mischievous around visitors.
Described as ‘the finest walk in the world’, the track extends for 54 kilometres (33 miles) from the northern end of Lake Te Anau, to Sandfly Point near Milford Sound. It is renowned for its glacial carved valleys, rainforest, alpine flowers and waterfalls and is open November to April. A medium-high level of fitness is required.
Tucked away in one of the most remote corners of Fiordland, Doubtful Sound offers a unique wilderness experience including the chance to see one of the rarest penguins in the world – the Fiordland Crested Penguin.
Less accessible than Milford Sound, one of the more popular ways to explore Doubtful Sound is on an overnight cruise. The journey involves a boat trip across Lake Manapouri (the name means ‘lake of the sorrowing heart) followed by a coach trip over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound. The overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound takes place onboard the ‘Fiordland Navigator’. The ship was purpose-built in Invercargill for plying the waters of Fiordland and is based on the design of a traditional coastal trading scow.
Local wildlife includes a pod of approximately 60 bottlenose dolphins that rarely venture outside the comfort of this sheltered area. New Zealand fur seals can be seen on the Nee Islets, and the sound is also home to the rare Fiordland Crested Penguins.
Those wanting a closer look can go kayaking from the boat or take a shoreline nature trip with a nature guide.
Kayaking trips on Doubtful Sound are also available with local providers.