Primordial Fiordland is a place where mountains, rock, ice, lakes and forests collide with brute force and spell-blinding beauty, writes Mike Yardley.
Fiordland’s siren-like pull is the call of the wild. Untouched landscapes, mesmerising wilderness and awe-inspiring history. On my latest fling with this wild kingdom, I began my adventures on the shoreline of Te Anau, as puffy clouds scudded across the impregnable mountains backdropping New Zealand’s second largest lake.
I met up with Steve Norris, co-owner and Head Guide from Trips & Tramps for a taster of the Milford Track, ahead of the peak summer tramping season. To expedite proceedings, we boarded a floatplane in Te Anau for a charter flight up to the north arm of the storied lake, and the starting point of the great walk.
If you’ve ever fancied ogling Fiordland by seaplane, Wings & Water is the established go-to operator who offer a variety of sightseeing tours, in addition to charter flights. Upon take-off, the immensity of Lake Te Anau and the variety of fiords jutting off its western flank is vividly illustrated, with every passenger enjoying a window seat and an inflight commentary provided.
A beefy nor ’wester served up plenty of bounce, particularly as we passed over those fiords. But the ravishing scenic medley of mountains, water and lush countryside handsomely compensated us for the occasional pockets of turbulence. www.wingsandwater.co.nz
Touching down in the serene waters of North Arm, we alighted from our floatplane on the shoreline, adjacent to Glade Wharf. Lacing up the hiking shoes, we struck out on the first day’s trail of the Milford Track’s four-day circuit.
Day One is a very leisurely, flat 5km stroll through beautiful beech forest along the banks of the Clinton River to DOC’s Clinton Hut. This is where independent hikers spend their first night, while guided hikers stay at Glade House – its brooding dark green exterior looks like a purpose-built set for a horror movie.
Beneath the cooling canopy of the beech trees, thick carpets of moss and lichens clambered up their trunks and branches, positively glowing in vivid green hues, adding to the forest’s fairy-tale atmospherics. We marvelled over the Mt Cook lily at the start of its flowering season, which is actually the world’s largest buttercup.
Another frisson is to stride across Milford Track’s longest swing bridge, spanning the Clinton River. It’s a gorgeous body of crystal-clear emerald water, allowing you to see every stone on the bottom, while admiring trout and longfin eels cruising its waters. The birdlife was another highlight on our day hike, with gregarious bush robins eagerly hopping up to our feet. Steve was like the bird whisperer, quickly deciphering the cacophony of calls, from the native falcon to the long-tailed cuckoo, a recent returnee from wintering over in Papua New Guinea.
After enjoying our packed lunch at Clinton Hut, we returned to North Arm, to catch the afternoon boat back to Te Anau Downs, crossing paths with a horde of perky, bright-eyed young trampers, setting off on the four day tramp. If you fancy a sampling a flavour of Fiordland’s Great Walks without slugging it hard for days on end, or if you are time-poor, Te Anau-based Trips and Tramps offers a delightful range of taster experiences. One option is to soak up a day walk with Fiordland’s 3 Great Walks in three days. (Kepler, Milford and Routeburn.)
Most day walks on the Milford start from Milford Sound, where a water taxi takes you to Sandfly Point, to begin the 11km guided day hike along the Arthurs River through lush rainforest to Giant Gate. You can expect small group numbers, an experienced nature guide and an indelible sample of Fiordland’s wonderland. Trips and Tramps also offer a wide range of customised experiences to suit your sense of adventure. https://tripsandtramps.com/
After a restful night’s sleep, I awoke to a very wet dawn and an angry sky. It was raining buckets as long fingers of cloud garlanded the hilltops. Unperturbed, I tootled down to New Zealand’s second deepest lake, Manapouri, to join a Real New Zealand’s great day excursion to Doubtful Sound. Fiordland’s bridesmaid is far less trafficked than its show-biz brother, Milford.
But Doubtful is actually three times longer and ten times bigger, bedazzling visitors with its towering, sheer rock walls, that plunge into the deep cobalt-blue fiord. Named Patea by Maori, it aptly means “place of silence.’ On the day trip, you’ll first enjoy a lovely dash across Lake Manapouri, the cradle of New Zealand’s environmental movement, to West Arm, home to Manapouri power station. Built from the 1960s, it took ten years to complete. Most of the station is 180 metres underground, of which 85% of its generation is deployed to Tiwai.
Sadly, tours into the power station were stopped 6 years ago due to a change in health & safety regulations at Meridian Energy. From West Arm, we boarded our comfy coach for the breathtaking trip across Wilmot Pass. This twisting, turning alpine route was purpose-built to transport machinery from Doubtful Sound to the power station.
It took two years to build and is reputed to be New Zealand’s most expensive road, costing $2 a cm to build, or $80 per square metre. Billed as one of the wettest places on earth, the rain gods were out in force, with a torrent of waterfalls tumbling down its ice-polished granite slopes. Our guide pointed out her favourites on the Wilmot Pass, Stellar and Helena, which were both at full power, gushing like vertical rivers, through the dense rainforest. Further west, the forest growth is so thick, you would struggle to shimmy between the trees. Arriving at Deep Cove, we boarded our boat, Patea, for a three hour wilderness cruise on Doubtful Sound.
Patea translates as ‘place of silence.” How apt. I was reduced to a state of slack-jawed silence as I gazed in awe at those mighty rock walls rising up from the tannin-stained dark waters of the sound. With barely any soils on the mountains, trees interlock their roots together to cling to those sheer vertical slopes, depending on moss and lichens for nutrient support. Tree avalanches are common, but fresh vegetation on the slopes offered an instructive reminder at how fast nature can reclothe herself.
Mountain tops were streaked in fresh overnight snow – not unusual for November, although it was surprisingly low down. Hundreds of waterfalls garlanded the mountain sides, charging down the slopes with astounding power and majesty. It was hypnotic.The most mesmerising falls were in Crooked Arm, where some waterfalls plunged with the brute force of a fire hydrant, while others resembled vast, wide and unrelenting curtains of water tumbling down from hanging valleys.
Accentuating the theatre, Southern rata trees, who were starting to unveil their crimson coats in readiness for Christmas. And the wildlife didn’t disappoint either, from the lazing fur seals and frisky pods of bottlenose dolphins to some prized sightings of the Fiordland Crested Penguin. With a distinctive yellow stripe over each eye, they are a striking bird. Some were busy fishing in the sound, while we also spotted a loved-up couple preparing their nest on Shelter Island, at the entrance to the Tasman Sea, where the ocean tempest was stomach-churning.
But the unrivalled highlight was our close encounter with a couple of humpback whales, who turned on quite the acrobatic show, close to the coastline. Doubtful Sound is unquestionably one of our nation’s greatest day excursions. www.realnz.com
The sheer size of Fiordland National Park is gob-smacking, larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined. Another great way to get a feel for its unbridled grandeur is to head to Fiordland Cinema for a screening of the acclaimed film, Atawhenua- Shadowland. Ata Whenua, showcasing Fiordland’s World Heritage-listed wilderness. Mysterious, evocative and gob-stopping, the 32 minute film was shot mostly from a helicopter across extremes of season, climate and terrain, by the cinema owner, Kim Hollows of Fiordland Helicopters. It is cinematic majesty at its best, coupled with a soulful narration by Sir Tipene O’Regan. It screens multiple times each day, plus the adjoining Black Dog Bar is the perfect nook for a cheeky drink, in the heart of Te Anau.
Perky in spirit and compact in size, Te Anau boasts a tempting range of eateries. For lunch on the run, you can’t beat Miles Better Pies, with 16 varieties of gourmet pies including venison. The lamb and mint got my gold-star. Redcliff Café is a fabulously characterful dining destination, with indoor and outdoor seating options. Local produce looms large on the menu. Don’t skip the hare croquettes with beurre blanc!
Another essential experience is a visit to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, down on the lakefront, where entry is by donation. Two tiny takahē chicks hatched at the sanctuary in November. Their attentive parents, Tara and Mōhio, plus big sister Ora are turning on a sure-fire summer hit.
Where to stay? For a stirringly distinctive experience, look no further than Te Anau Lodge. Built in 1936, and relocated to Te Anau from nearby Nightcaps in 2002, the former Sisters of Mercy Convent is positioned on 7 acres of manicured gardens featuring a pond, a fountain and a gazebo. Rolling grasslands are backdropped by commanding views of the Luxmore and Murchison mountains.
The Lodge has been impeccably restored with the interior still including the original oak panelling, rimu battening and polished timber floors. Tinkle the ivories in the lodge’s elegant library where tea, coffee and cake is always on offer.
Like the rest of the house, it exudes a warm, time-honoured and homely ethos. My favourite room is the former Chapel, where leisurely breakfasts are served as you gaze in reverence at the stained-glass feature windows.
There are irreverent touches too. A dumb waiter, that whisks your luggage upstairs, has been ingeniously wrapped in an old wood-carved confessional box. Boasting 9 ensuite rooms, I stayed in the Cathedral Room, taking its name from the Cathedral Peaks that you can see out the sweeping windows. Times have certainly changed since the nuns walked these floors, with contemporary levels of comfort complementing the original charm.
But there’s so much more beyond the landmark lodge. Like an accommodation amusement park, there’s a variety of wondrous and whimsical accommodation options. You can bed down in the Fiordland Carriage, a whole train wagon retired from the Taieri Gorge Railway, refitted with a stylish ensuite bathroom with a clawfoot bath and velvet curtains. There’s a double decker house bus which will appeal to your inner-gypsy, while the latest tour de force is the purpose-built fairground carousel, complete with rotating bed, which will exalt your inner child.
And I fell in love with the giant buzzy-bee on the lawn. I was warmly hosted by co-owner, Mark Oremland, a wonderfully eccentric, engaging and entrepreneurial dynamo, who divides his time between his beloved Paris, where he runs a language museum and previously a travel agency, and New Zealand. Plan a stay at Te Anau Lodge. It is truly out of the box. www.teanaulodge.com
Explore incredible Fiordland this summer, proudly home to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound & three NZ Great Walks. World-beating trails, beautiful lakeside towns and incredible native species are just the beginning. Make tracks to Fiordland. For further trip inspiration, head to www.fiordland.org.nz