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Fiordland National Park

The largest of New Zealand’s fourteen national parks, Fiordland National Park makes up a significant part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site. This magnificent wilderness area stretches over 200 km (124 miles), from Milford Sound in the north to Preservation Inlet in the south, and covers 1.25 million hectares. The eastern edges of the national park are defined by large lakes that give way to the drier pastoral land of Southland. The Tasman Coast is on the western boundary and to the northeast lie the Southern Alps.

 

Fiordland's extraordinary serrated coastline and deep branching lakes were carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago, leaving behind a land internationally acclaimed for its spectacular scenery, isolation and uninhabited environment, which is now a designated World Heritage area. It’s hard to grasp just how large and remote Fiordland is without spending days exploring the countless valleys, rivers and fiords, or if you’re lucky enough to line up a short flight, a bird’s eye view really puts things into perspective. 

Fiordland National Park - on the way to Milford Sound

Moa in Fiordland

It’s no wonder that Fiordland was the last refuge for what was once New Zealand’s largest flightless bird, the moa. Weighing in at around 230kgs (over 500lbs) and reaching a towering height of 3.7 metres (12 ft), Fiordland would have been one of the only places where moa could hide from Maori hunters. It is widely believed that after Maori arrived in NZ around 1300 A.D., moa were driven to extinction in only 100 years, but records of sightings exist to show there could have still been the odd moa as late as 1878!

Then in the 1970s some local farmers used their own helicopters to land a couple of old lawn mowers on a river bank in the heart of Fiordland. They then radioed back to the Department of Conservation (DoC) that they’d spotted a couple of ‘moas’ at this location. As you could imagine, there was instant hype and a swarm of helicopters were in the air immediately... until they realized it was April Fools Day! Good ol’ kiwi humour…

Takahe in Fiordland

The takahe is another flightless, indigenous bird that owes its survival in large part to the wilderness of Fiordland. It was long thought to be extinct after the last four known specimens were taken in 1898. However, after some careful searching, 50 years later a few survivors were rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948! The Department of Conservation has for many years taken the takahe under its wing with a conservation program that is slowly showing results. The challenges are immense as takahe take several years to reach maturity and also have low levels of fertility.

Because, like the kiwi, takahe have evolved in a predator-free environment to be flightless, they’re also particularly susceptible to introduced species such as stoats and rats. For these reasons a number of small offshore islands in Fiordland and around NZ have been completely eradicated of pests and the takahe reintroduced to these fortress-like sanctuaries, now a crucial feature of the conservation program. 

Moose in Fiordland

The legend of moose in Fiordland is another great example of how impenetrable and mysterious the region really is. In the early 1900s, ten young moose from Canada were released at Supper Cove in Dusky Sound with the intention that they’d be a prime target for trophy hunters. By the 1920s, surveys suggested that the moose were flourishing so some initial permits were released to hunters but only two trophies were recorded in 1929 and 1934.

In the 1920s, red deer were also introduced to Fiordland for game hunting but their numbers increased so rapidly – much faster than they could be controlled in such challenging terrain – and soon the growing population began to strain the delicate balance of the forest and most likely contributed to the decline in the number of moose as well.

The remaining moose in the area were all but forgotten about for several decades and presumed dead. Then in 1951, two moose cows were shot and a year later a trophy bull was taken, which was the last bull to ever be officially sighted. But just the idea that there may possibly be a handful of large, majestic moose still roaming some of the most remote corners of New Zealand has fueled an obsession among a hardy few who continue to search for the elusive creature in Fiordland to this day! Technology now plays a significant role, with many sensor and time lapse cameras set up around Fiordland where there is believed to be moose sign. The ‘evidence’ from these images is questionable, but good enough to keep the mystery alive. 

fiordland

Pounamu/Greenstone

Fiorldland National Park lies within a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site called Te Wahipounamu (‘the greenstone waters’), which is effectively most of southwest New Zealand. Ngai Tahu are the local iwi (Maori tribe) from this area and they recognize the great mountains and valleys as the places of Atua (gods). Maori used to use the ancient tracks through Fiordland’s valleys to reach rich greenstone sources such as those found around Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown. Even today, much of the greenstone jewelry worn by locals and purchased by travellers comes from the Wakatipu Basin. One of the great hiking tracks of NZ, the aptly named Greenstone Track (which connects to the Routeburn Track) was once an ancient Maori greenstone trail. 

The Next Best Thing to Seeing Fiordland for Yourself

If spending years studying how the light changes in this remote wilderness sounds appealing, you’ll want to at least take the crash course. Go and find a copy of the locally made film ‘Ata Whenua – Shadowlands’, an utterly spectacular 32-minute tribute to Fiordland that was filmed across all seasons using a variety of techniques and perspectives. One memorable sequence in particular taken from a helicopter as it flies over the crest of a magnificent waterfall is breathtaking, especially if you’re particularly sensitive to vertigo! To really do it justice, view this film at the Fiordland Cinema in Te Anau.

Fiordland Tours and Fiordland Cruises

Fiordland is truly one of those rare places that just has to be experienced firsthand. Learn more about this unique wilderness area with experienced local guides on our Rimu, Manuka, Tui or Kea tours and see for yourself what the fuss is all about!







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