Pining for the Fiords Fiordland National Park
Fiordland National Park is huge. It’s the south-west corner of New Zealand, about the size of Wales and almost totally uninhabited. The geology is all glacial, so huge U-shaped valleys and steep sided mountains everywhere (Mr Tyler would be proud). From the sea you see openings to some of these valleys, the most famous of which is Milford Sound, whose floors are well submerged, so the cliff faces rise almost vertically from the water with waterfalls gushing everywhere around.
Anyway, getting ahead of ourselves. We approached from the west, suffering only the slightest hangovers courtesy of the Gore Town and Country Club. The scenery was the usual pretty sights, but was quite flat until we got much closer to Fiordland, when the mountains started to loom over everything. The entry point is a little town called Te Anau, another of those single-purpose places where you fill up with petrol for the long single road north to Milford, up into the park proper. After a brief walk into the forest near there we were off, and having totally misjudged the timing drove the majority of this beautiful road in the dark.
An early rise in the morning: this was our big walk! The Routeburn Track is one of a few official multi-day walks through the wilderness, with huts manned by rangers and equipped with gas stoves along the route for night stops. In the winter (as of only a couple of weeks before our visit) you get no such help and have to be totally self-sufficient, including taking means to boil water from streams for drinking, wet-weather and snow gear, handling avalanche risk and being able to traverse “large, swift and icy rivers”. Needless to say we’re not equipped for an overnighter or for the genuinely alpine middle section, but we were able to walk the first day of it, out and back.
On foot you get a different impression of the terrain than from the windscreen. Immediately it’s all very damp and humid; a carpet of moss over everything; the ground, the rocks, the trees. In the forest as you climb you see only glimpses of the snow-capped mountains, lakes and the valley floor beyond, but passing the bush line suddenly you see for miles. In the car you can usually see what’s coming for a while before you pull over at the prime viewpoint; in the bush it happens much more quickly. So many times we’d come round a bend in the path to find an enormous waterfall that we hadn’t even heard, or find a sudden change in the vegetation that crowds out all the light.
Often the best views up the mountain from the path, of a waterfall or of the snowy summit above, were in areas marked by signs as being avalanche or rock fall zones. “No stopping next 400 metres” it would say, seconds before the view opened to the river falling from the sky. I can only imagine what this is like deeper into winter.
The weather was certainly kind to us on the walk. Many who walk up to the first summit of the track see nothing but a wall of white annotated by signs describing the view “on a clear day”. Wow. At the larger scale the floor is carpeted with trees that still look like moss, so thorough is the cover they provide to the valley floor. The road looks pathetic next to the meandering and torrential rivers of glacial meltwater. Over a lake in the distance the terrain is full-on pastel in colour.
After a night in a basic campsite near the end of the Routeburn, the following morning we headed on to Milford to take a cruise out along Milford Sound. Fog rolled in and rain poured so we didn’t get the blue-green-blue views we might have hoped for, but we could still see the vertical rises and the waterfalls were at their dramatic heaviest. We spent most of the cruise outside for the better views, and got to see one waterfall “properly” when the captain of the boat brought us in extra close. We weren’t actually under it but the wind was such that the waterfall didn’t really land in the sea anyway; more like it expanded over a huge area and filled the air with water! The wind from the thing itself was incredible, enormous gusts as we got close to it.
On our return out of Fiordland we finally saw the views that the guide book had promised would be evident in daylight. We were treated to seeing some kea birds attacking some guy’s car, pulling at the rubber bits around the doors. We drank some stream water (tasted like mineral water), saw the Mirror Pools that reflect the next range of mountains, and generally marvelled at the continuous unfolding of…
I honestly run out of ways to describe this; there are only so many adjectives. New Zealand really is this pretty, just everywhere. It’s silly.