For all New Zealand’s grandeur, no other region matches the concentration of stupendous landscapes found in its southwestern corner, Fiordland. Almost the entire region (and most of the area covered in this chapter) falls within the 12,500-square-kilometre Fiordland National Park, which stretches from Martins Bay, once the site of New Zealand’s remotest settlement, to the southern forests of Waitutu and Preservation Inlet, where early gold prospectors set up a couple of short-lived towns. It embraces a raw, heroic landscape, with New Zealand’s two deepest lakes, its highest rainfall, fifteen hairline fiords and some of the world’s rarest birds. Such wonder is acknowledged by the United Nations, who gathered the park – along with Mount Aspiring National Park, parts of Westland and the Aoraki/Mount Cook area – into the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area.
One persistent feature of Fiordland is the rain. Milford Sound is particularly favoured, being deluged with up to 7m of rainfall a year – one of the highest in the world. Fortunately the area’s settlements are in a rain shadow and receive less than half the precipitation of the coast. Despite its frequent soakings, Milford Sound sees the greatest concentration of traveller activity – in fact, the Sound is particularly beautiful when it’s raining, with ribbons of water plunging from hanging valleys directly into the fiords where colonies of red and black coral grow and dolphins, fur seals and Fiordland crested penguins cavort. Many visitors on a flying visit from Queenstown see little else, but a greater sense of remoteness is gained by driving there along the achingly scenic Milford Road from the lakeside town of Te Anau. Better still, hike the Milford Track, widely promoted as the “finest walk in the world”, though others in the region – particularly the Hollyford Track and the Kepler Track – are equally strong contenders.
A second lakeside town, Manapouri, is the springboard for trips to the West Arm hydroelectric power station, Doubtful Sound and the isolated fiords to the south. From Manapouri, the Southern Scenic Route winds through the western quarter of Southland via minor towns along the southwestern coast. The main stops here are Tuatapere, base for the excellent Hump Ridge Track, and pretty coastal Riverton.
Fiordland’s complex geology evolved over the last 500 million years. When thick layers of sea-bed sediment were compressed and heated deep within the earth’s crust, crystalline granite, gneiss and schist were formed. As the land and sea levels rose and fell, layers of softer sandstone and limestone were overlaid; during glacial periods, great ice sheets deepened the valleys and flattened their bases to create the classic U shape which was invaded by the sea.
After experiencing the challenging ambience created by Fiordland’s copious rainfall and vicious sandflies (namu), you’ll appreciate why there is little evidence of permanent Maori settlement, though they spent summers hunting here and passed through in search of greenstone (pounamu). Cook was equally suspicious of Fiordland when, in 1770, he sailed up the coast on his first voyage to New Zealand: anchorages were hard to find; the glowering sky put him off entering Dusky Sound; slight, shifting winds discouraged entry into what he dubbed Doubtful Harbour; and he missed Milford Sound altogether.
Paradoxically for a region that’s now the preserve of hardy trampers and anglers, the southern fiords region was once the best charted in the country. Cook returned in 1773, after four months battling the southern oceans, and spent five weeks in Dusky Sound. His midshipman, George Vancouver, returned in 1791, with bloodthirsty sealers and whalers hot on his heels. Over the mountains, Europeans seized, or paid a pittance for, land on the eastern shores of Lake Te Anau and Manapouri though it offered meagre grazing, while explorers headed for the interior, conferring their names on the passes, waterfalls and valleys they came across – Donald Sutherland lent his name to New Zealand’s highest waterfall and Quintin McKinnon scaled the Mackinnon Pass (but failed to persuade cartographers to spell his name correctly).