Going off the beaten path in Fiordland
This article was first published in Lonely Planet's Natural World, published October 2020.
Few places match the natural majesty of New Zealand’s South Island with, from top to bottom, beaches, whales, glaciers and waterfalls.
New Zealand’s highest mountains are here: Aoraki/Mt Cook in the middle of the island, Mt Aspiring, and Mitre Peak, the triangular talisman marking the mouth of Milford Sound. Keep going, past the adventure towns of Wānaka and Queenstown and you’ll reach Fiordland. This craggy corner of New Zealand is a vast national park and Unesco World Heritage area, covering 4633 square miles (120,000 sq km).
From the west, Antarctic weather fronts batter the park. But it was glaciers that carved the namesake fiords, bulldozers of ice grinding their way downhill. The rock detritus now largely blocks the entrances to the Fiordland’s 14 fiords, resulting in a layer of seawater beneath a layer of fresh water.
To immerse yourself in nature, away from the crowds, you may have to go a bit further. One-third of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks are in Fiordland. With numbers limited during the tramping (hiking) season, the Milford Track, the Routeburn Track, and the Kepler Track, in order of popularity, are typically fully booked months in advance. And even if you do bag a space, you’ll be sharing the track and the huts with up to 100 other hikers each day, no matter how early you set off each morning.
There are less well-known multi-day tracks to take into the wilderness but they’re often a more challenging experience than the Great Walks, with less cosseting and lot more mud, sweat and possibly tears.
The Dusky Track, for example, takes eight to 10 days to traverse three valleys and two mountain ranges between Lake Hauroko and Lake Manapōuri (in either direction). Expect fallen trees, knee-deep mud and potentially dangerous river crossings after heavy rain. The rewards are views of Dusky Sound and Gair Loch.
A little less off-the-beaten-track is the Hollyford Track, a fantastic alternative to the Routeburn. It meanders from the Darran mountains along the Hollyford River to St Martins Bay on the wild west coast, where you may spy fur seals and crested penguins. There are still unbridged river crossings but because it follows a river there are no alpine passes to cross.
One man who did get off the beaten track was Richard Henry, known as the ‘father of New Zealand conservation,’ in a country where conservation is taken extremely seriously. Henry was born in 1845 in Ireland but by the time he was six years old his family had settled in Australia.
He later moved to Lake Te Anau in Fiordland, which he described as ‘a fine place for a waterproof explorer’. Here he became enchanted by the region’s flightless birds, in particular the kākāpō, a large ground-dwelling parrot. He wasn’t the only person to be charmed by the parrot with big personalities.
A lighthouse keeper in Fiordland kept a pet kākāpō called Major, which would use his dog, Hector, as a cushion on which to sleep. ‘As soon as Major had had sufficient sleep, he began to pull the dog’s ears, nose, tail, toes, and hair… apparently to Hector’s thorough enjoyment,’ recalled the lighthouse keeper. The parrots later found wider fame in an episode of the TV series Last Chance to See, with Stephen Fry.
Henry had noticed that the parrots were being predated by such introduced mammals as weasels and stoats. The parrots were even easy for people to catch by simply shaking a bush. With the foresight to see that the kākāpōs days were numbered wherever they were exposed to predators and people, Henry set about collecting as many as possible and ferrying them to an island sanctuary. With the help of his dog, Lassie, who tracked the birds by their scent, he would gather a clutch of them and then row the kākāpō to safety across Dusky Sound, alighting on Resolution Island in the centre of the fiord. He did this over several years until 500 kākāpō resided on Resolution Island.
It wasn’t only the kākāpō’s lives he was saving as the curator of Resolution Island. He had suffered from depression all his life and made a suicide attempt shortly before take the job. It was his conservation work and being in nature that perhaps gave him reason to live.
Sadly, the kākāpō’s sanctuary in Dusky Sound didn’t remain undiscovered for long. By 1900, predators had started to swim to the island and soon there were just 50 of the parrots surviving. From the 1950s onwards, New Zealand made considerable efforts to protect its native creatures and a tiny population of kākāpō was established on Codfish Island and other offshore islands, where, at the end of 2019, they numbered more than 200.
The blue duck
True to New Zealanders’ thrill-seeking reputation, the whio, or blue duck, could also be known as the white-water duck.
Unlike most of its duck relatives, the whio lives year-round on churning, fast-flowing rivers, which is a challenging lifestyle, especially in winter. The ducks are making a return to Fiordland, with 64 breeding pairs found in the region in 2019.
Introduced mammals, such as cats and stoats, are a big reason there are fewer whio today but a pest eradication programme has clearly helped the ducks. The birds are also a sign of clean, healthy (and quiet) rivers. Female whio incubate their eggs for more than a month. From October to December keep an eye open for whio chicks riding the tumultuous white water of Fiordland’s rivers and streams.
Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet © 2020 - lonelyplanet.com