The southwestern corner of the South island of New Zealand is Fiordland, a wild and remote area made up of fjords (spelled fiord in New Zealand, but nowhere else, it seems). A true fjord is a glacier-cut valley in mountains or rocks with steep sides. They can look similar to riverbeds or sea inlets, but to be geologically accurate, a fjord needs to have been formed by a glacier.
And New Zealand's certainly were. Jutting into the Tasman Sea, the coastline was so foreboding that Europeans sailed past inlets several times, simply not seeing them. Once they were discovered, they became a hot spot for sealers hunting for fur seals for the European market. Today the whole area is a protected National Park and World Heritage Area, lush and green, thanks to the 19.5 FEET of annual rainfall. (Warm air from Australia/Tasman Sea hits the cold air from the Southern Alps and you get lots and lots of rain.)
We drove in to Fiordland on a beautiful Wednesday, the warmest day we'd had in New Zealand, surprisingly.
We stopped in Te Anau, the little town that serves as the tourism hub for gas and a quick stop at the i-Site to get weather details before we ventured into the fiords. On our way out of town, we picked up meat pies, a New Zealand specialty: venison, and steak and mushroom. They were yum, but so rich. We should have gotten venison and apple for dessert.
We stopped for a few short walks and views on the road between Te Anau and Milford.
Milford Sound is the most accessible fjord today thanks to the Te Anau-Milford road, but it's been a tourist attraction for years. Donald Sutherland was the first European to settle in Milford in 1878, and he immediately started guiding European tour groups through the fjord in row boats. In 1888, the Milford Track (one of New Zealand's "Great Walks") opened and Sutherland and his wife set up a 12 room hotel for trampers that wanted to also see the fjord. Rudyard Kipling reportedly called Milford Sound the 8th Wonder of the World.
Today there's no hotel at the mouth of the Sound, but there is a boat terminal and a parking lot. Day cruises leave from Milford all day long, but we wanted to soak in a bit more of the experience, so we splurged for an overnight cruise, spending one late afternoon night and morning on the Sound in the Milford Mariner.
It was a great way to see the Sound. We soaked up the amazing scenery on our first pass through the Sound toward the Tasman Sea.
The U-shaped valleys mean this was glacier-cut. A river--or water in general--would cut a V-shape in the rock.
After making it all the way to the Sea, we turned back into a protected bay to go kayaking. We launched our kayaks off the back of the boat and spent an hour or so paddling around the coves and nooks and crannies in the rock. The only downside... sandflies. Apparently the sandflies have plagued Milford tourists since the first days. Thankfully they only bothered us on the kayaking trip.
After our workout (the water in the Sound is not super calm!) we had dinner on the boat and watched the sun setting on the glaciers in the mountains.
Before we went to bed, we watched the fur seals play on the back deck of the boat. The crew said they always attract one or two seals on a trip. The lights of the boat attract fish, and the seals are smart enough to know to rest and watch from the deck before grabbing their dinner (and post for photographs, of course!).
Many of the crew commented on our gorgeous weather on Wednesday night. It was perfect, but it wasn't very representative of Fiordland. Thankfully, we got to see both options because on Thursday morning we woke to mist and rain.
Although not as picture perfect, I loved the fjord in the rain. Water cascaded off the cliffs in waterfall after waterfall and the mountains looked mysterious and romantic.
Stirling Falls, at more than 508 feet, is the largest of Milford's falls and is permanent. Our captain drove the boat nearly into the falls so we could get a feel for its height and the sheer force of the water over the rocks.
Other falls just appear after the heaviest rains and the wind whipping between the clips nearly blows some of the away. Disappearing Falls tends to get blown right off the side of the cliff in strong wind.
On Thursday morning after a lovely breakfast, we pulled back into Milford and headed out of Fiordland. Again, the drive was nice in a different way, as the mountains were covered in waterfalls, but even with the less than perfect weather, we couldn't miss one of the Great Walks.
The Routeburn Track is a 3- to 4-day walk through the subalpine rainforest with stunning views. Hamish wasn't up for a 3- to 4-day walk carrying all of our gear and food, but one end of the Routeburn Track is on the road between Te Anau and Milford at the Divide. So on our way out of Milford, we stopped and hiked just an hour and a half or so on the trail. It was cool and misty, but not actually raining, so it was a pretty easy walk in the clothes we had on.
And it was lovely. We certainly can see why a fern is the symbol of New Zealand. Moss and ferns of all sizes covered the landscape. We hiked until we caught a glimpse of Key Summit in the clouds, then returned.
Once we got back to Te Anau, we turned out of Fiordland, and headed for the West Coast.