Some of NZ’s wildest and most dramatic scenery can be found in Fiordland, from waterfalls that tumble through dense forests of beech into deep ice carved fiords, to shimmering lakes and small towns cradled amongst magnificent mountains. Fiordland has 14 fiords which are carved through steep mountain ranges and span some 215 kilometres of coastline, and of these Doubtful and Milford Sound are the most accessible to the visitor. Fiordland also offers many hiking tracks from the popular Milford Track to the lesser-known Kepler Track, Routeburn and Hollyford, as well as numerous short walks. We take four days to explore Fiordland’s pristine wilderness. Bob fulfills his wish to hike on the Kepler Track, we take a cruise on Milford Sound, visit the Te Anau Glow-worm Caves, discover tranquil Doubtful Sound aboard the Fiordland Navigator and Bob tries his hand at sheep shearing!
“Hi ho, hi ho, la-la la-la la,” I hear Bob yodel as we slowly hike the trail which leads from Luxmoore Hut to the summit of Mt Prospect. It’s an ascent of around 400 metres but there’s no rush as we have all day.
At 11am, after an incredibly scenic helicopter ride over Fiordland’s snow-capped peaks, lakes, rivers and fiords, we were dropped at Luxmoore Hut on the Kepler Track, well above the tree line. Bob sets our pace and he’s doing well but as we reach the ridge below the summit of Mt Luxmoore (1472 metres) he’s ready for a break.
“I’m glad we’re day hiking,” he says, nodding his head at an athletic-looking pair hiking past with bursting backpacks, full of equipment and food. We’ve also come well equipped, but on a smaller scale, with waterproof clothing, plenty of water, food and high energy snacks in our daypacks. The weather may be near perfect, but conditions can suddenly change in the mountains.
Bob bites a snack bar and within moments we have company. A cheeky kea emerges from behind a shaggy snow tussock. “Don’t feed it,” I warn, as Bob breaks off a piece.
Instead he pops it into his mouth and takes a photo, then we continue on a side-track to the summit of Mt Luxmoore, arriving breathlessly at the top 15 minutes later.
“Wow,” marvels Bob, “look at that view!”
Lake Te Anau spreads before us and we have panoramic 360-degree views of the South Arm, Te Anau Basin, Takitimu Mountains, Jackson Peaks and the Snowden and Earl Mountains.
“There’s Mt Prospect,” says Bob, pointing across the lake to a peak rising above the station where we’re staying for the duration of our Fiordland experience.
We find a sheltered nook and relax in the sun absorbing the peace and watching skylarks suspended in the air above wide open tussock slopes below. We lunch on cheese and crackers then, after taking photos of mountain daisies, begin our descent to Brod Bay.
Soon after Luxmoore Hut we hit the stunted bush line where bonsai-like silver beech trees dominate, becoming thicker and taller as we descend, then grudgingly make space for silver and red beech, kamahi, miro and rimu wearing garlands of mosses, and perching plants. We stop for a breather at the limestone bluffs, then continue on through a forest alive with the song of bellbirds. Fantails, tomtits and grey warblers flutter in the bushes nearby.
At last we emerge at Brod Bay and wait for our water taxi to Te Anau. “We could walk,” says Bob doubtfully, looking at his watch.
“No, it’s booked,” I say, “Here it comes.”
We watch as the speedboat crosses the lake and pulls alongside. “Great day for it!” says the skipper, as we climb gratefully aboard.
Back in Te Anau I glance at Bob, who looks tired but happy. “What now?” I ask.
“A hot shower, clean clothes, feet up by the fire and a glass of Pinot followed by some smoked salmon,” says Bob.
The sounds of a shearing gang setting up comes from the shed as we pass by bound for Milford Sound. We’ve a 115km journey ahead of us through some of New Zealand’s most scenic countryside yet the weather, which looked so promising yesterday, has packed in.
“What a shame,” cries Bob as we drive through the Eglinton Valley. After some 55 kilometres we stop at the Mirror Lakes, but there’s no reflections of mountains today.
Fortunately Bob picked up a copy of the “Road to Milford Sound”, a 60-minute commentary and he slips the disc into our trusty rental car’s CD player. It’s extremely informative and takes our mind off the weather.
“Stop,” yells Bob suddenly as we pass a sign: “Latitude 45 Degrees South”. He insists on having his photo taken, even though it’s pouring with rain. Soaked, and thankful for our vehicle’s heating, we continue on past Cascade Creek, Lake Gunn and Lake Fergus to the Kaka Creek Lookout overlooking the Hollyford Valley.
A kea joins us as we wait hopefully for the view, much of which is obscured by thick clouds. Occasionally we catch provocative glimpses of what lies behind, before the weather closes in again. We continue on, passing through an active avalanche area where signs warn us that snow chains are mandatory from May to September.
Suddenly, without warning, we shoot through low cloud into the Homer Tunnel and begin a sharp descent through the heart of a mountain. More low cloud follows and then we arrive at Milford Sound village. After a hot meal at the café, we don raincoats and walk to the harbour to board a boat for our cruise of Milford Sound.
“Two out of every three days it rains at Milford Sound,” says our guide, Nathan. “But the good news is that Milford Sound’s spectacular in any weather!”
The rain eases, so Bob and I climb up to the viewing platform where we gain complete panoramic views of the sound’s high dramatic headlands. Misty clouds cling to peaks and hollows adding an eerie, mystical air, and dozens of magnificent waterfalls tumble into a deep, teal-green sea.
We cruise past a cloud-swathed Mitre Peak, taking in Copper Point’s metallic deposits and Fairy Falls before we reach Dale Point at the entrance of the fiord. Here we turn around and make our way via Seal Rock, complete with a pair of seals, to the magnificent Stirling Falls, which plummet some 155 metres and are at their most spectacular after such heavy rain.
“Amazing,” says Bob shooting photo after photo, “it’s beautiful!”
We pass by the underwater observatory in Harrison Cove, which is framed by snowcapped Mt Pembroke with its 27 metre long remnant of a glacier that once carved its way through the fiord. Finally, on our return to the wharf at Freshwater Basin, we pass the gushing Lady Bowen Falls, an incredible 161-metre drop from a hanging valley.
“Well,” says Bob, as we disembark, and begin the return drive to Mt Prospect Station, “I can’t think of anywhere else in the world that looks so stunning in the rain!”
We enjoy a slow start, relaxing over a hearty farm breakfast washed down with aromatic, freshly brewed coffee. Bob reflects that after such a long time on the road it’s refreshing to stay in the same place for several days in a row.
Grant, our hosts’ son, who now runs Mt Prospect station with his wife Rachel and their daughter Ellie, joins us for his morning coffee. He says he grew up on the farm and after a career in the city for several years, was drawn back to station life. Like many growing up on isolated high country stations, he attended boarding school for much of his schooling.
Bob follows him over to the noisy, organised chaos of the shearing sheds to learn about the process, while I join Joan in the kitchen, and write down her Pavlova recipe. “The secret is fifteen minutes at 180 degrees Celsius before you roll it,” she confides.
An hour later Bob returns from the shearing shed having had an impromptu lesson. “It’s a lot harder than it looks,” he tells me.
We head into town where our first port of call is the Punanga Manu o Te Anau / Te Anau Bird Sanctuary to see its wonderful variety of native birds. After a light lunch at a local café we board a Real Journeys scenic cruise to the Te Anau Glow-worm Caves. We disembark at the wharf where beech trees grow down to the waterline and follow our guide, Heath Hollows, to Cavern House to watch an audio-visual presentation on how the caves were formed.
Heath leads us underground to explore a mysterious world of strange rock formations, fossils and gushing waterfalls, before ushering us aboard a small boat to float beneath a myriad of starry glow-worms.
After a short bush walk we return to Cavern House and look through its museum before cruising back to Te Anau, where Bob hunts for souvenirs at its small shopping centre.
Then we relax with a glass of wine at Te Anau’s modern cinema and sit back to enjoy Ata Whenua, a 32-minute scenic journey produced by local helicopter pilot, Kim Hollows. It gives a breathtaking taste of the Fiordland World Heritage Wilderness that most visitors would otherwise never see, and as we sit down for dinner at Te Anau’s acclaimed Redcliff Café, Bob’s still raving about it.
“It’s a visual feast!” he tells our waitress, and then he turns to me. “I hope the weather improves tomorrow,” he says, “I want to see as much as we can.”
Bob’s wish is granted as the day dawns bright and clear. “It will be wonderful,” Joan promises us as we leave Prospect Lodge.
We drive to Pearl Harbour at Lake Manapouri where we board a boat and travel up the scenic West Arm of the lake. Our skipper, Terry, points out mountains en route and says that like Loch Ness in Scotland, Manapouri has a monster, “except ours is bigger and much better looking!” she jokes.
We disembark at the Real Journeys Visitor Centre which provides detailed information on Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound as well as clean facilities. From the Centre, we board a bus with Alex Mackay, our guide for the day, at the wheel and follow a private road through native bush to a lookout point at the top of the Wilmot Pass.
The view of Doubtful Sound from the lookout is staggering. Alex tells us that according to Maori legend the fiords of this region were not created by glaciers, but by Tu Te Raki Whanoa, a god-like figure who cut them with a magical adze. When it came to Doubtful Sound he sought assistance from four young sea gods who carved out its sheltered arms.
Down on the dock we have another surprise in store: the catamaran is in for a service so our small group gets the chance to cruise aboard the luxurious overnight vessel, the magnificent Fiordland Navigator.
“I’m feeling pretty special,” says Bob, as we explore this huge ship and find ourselves a perfect possie on its huge upper forward deck. Here we enjoy a yummy pre-ordered lunch surrounded by ever changing 360-degree views. There are waterfalls aplenty, dropping from rocky ledges and splashing through dense native bush to where seals bask on rocks in the sun. We travel up to the entrance of Doubtful Sound – which we discover is not actually a sound at all, but a fiord with a case of mistaken identity – and peek into Crooked Arm and Hall Arm where the mountains are perfectly reflected upon the still waters.
Bob and I are transfixed for the whole three hours of the scenic tour, not wanting to move in case we should miss something. Then suddenly, in the late afternoon as our boat makes its way back to the wharf, the perfect ending to a brilliant day comes when we’re joined by a pod of bottlenose dolphins riding the bow waves. It’s a magical experience and Bob is as thrilled as I am. “I could stay here forever,” he says, breathing in deeply and throwing his hands into the air for emphasis. “Look!” he exclaims, “it’s absolutely magnificent!”