YA regular contributor Crystal is an American-expat based in Fiordland working in conservation. Here she spills some insider tips for some of the best nature-based experiences in Fiordland, her backyard.
Fiordland is considered New Zealand’s last great frontier. Home to some of the best nature experiences in the country, here are some of our top tips.
An enormous expanse of untracked wilderness as well as a hotspot for endemic species diversity, Fiordland is an iconic worldwide travel destination. A hub of international tourism and the background to more selfies under the hashtag #NZmustdo than any other location in Aotearoa, there’s no arguing that Fiordland is in demand. Remote and famous, both of the above statements are arguably true.
Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with a once in a 100 years flood last summer, the Fiordland region is reeling from the almost complete disappearance of its prominent claim to fame: tourism.
What does this mean for those of us fortunate enough to live in the land of the long white cloud?
Now is a GREAT time to visit Fiordland for yourself, especially if you’ve yet to do so.
With a startling reduction in international tourists visiting Fiordland, local operators are offering exceptional discounts to encourage Kiwis to take advantage of their services. Destination Fiordland is the regional promoter of Fiordland and represents most tourism-focused businesses in the area. Their website is the best place to find all local tourism deals in one place.
Even if you’d instead go it alone and explore under your own steam, the lack of international tourists will still be noticeable. This means a higher chance of solitude on well-known trails and at iconic destinations such as Piopiotahi/Milford Sound.
Kiwis, it’s time to get to know your backyard.
Note: I fully agree that it shouldn’t require a pandemic for Kiwis to get to know their own country. However, if that’s the position that many of us find ourselves in, we may as well take advantage of it. I’m a strong supporter of people getting out there and doing it whenever possible. So, if this is your moment, take it!
If you live in the sunny north and think of Fiordland as a far, far away place on the edge of Antarctica, continuously locked in ice and snow, you’re wrong! Well, mostly.
It might be hard to believe, but Fiordland is a temperate ecosystem. It’s a rain forest that is world-renown for receiving almost seven METERS of rain each year in Piopiotahi/Milford Sound.
This means that we have mist-cloaked forests of vibrant green all year round and that water dominates our world. Home to the deepest lake in New Zealand, Lake Hauroko, and the largest lake in the South Island, Lake Te Anau, Fiordland is simply inundated by lakes, waterfalls, rivers, and fiords (inlets of the sea).
Yes, we do receive snow in the mountains just about every month of the year, but at lake level, we hardly get any snow that sticks.
Our persistent companion is rain. But, the great thing about rain is that it produces jaw-dropping waterfalls in our part of the world. And, if rain isn’t your thing, visiting in winter can give you a good chance of avoiding it as we often experience bright, crisp days for at least a period over winter. These clear days often melt in and out of existence with a calm that’s hard to come by in summer.
We are subject to the same lake-hugging fog that plagues Central Otago, but as long as you remember that you can avoid it by climbing high or driving away from the lake, sunshine awaits you!
So, with some caveats, the following nature-based experiences are doable RIGHT NOW. Get after it!
1. Borland is an excellent base for loads of adventure
If there’s one underrepresented destination in Fiordland that’s still road-accessible, it’s Borland. Haven’t you heard of it? Don’t worry, it’s often overlooked as one of the top nature experiences in Fiordland.
Lake Monowai Road provides access to this gem of southeastern Fiordland, branching to take you either left to Lake Monowai itself or straight ahead to Borland Lodge and the Borland Road. Lake Monowai and the Borland Road are located about 67 km from Te Anau (1 hour), and 120 km from Invercargill (1 hour 45 min) and can be accessed via the Southern Scenic Route.
The lodge is a great place to base yourself to explore the area. It’s been around for 50 years and functions as an impressive outdoor classroom for visiting Southland schools and a beautiful wedding venue. It also serves as general accommodation for those exploring the lakes and hills. Note, the lodge has been hit hard by COVID loss of income, so if you’re feeling generous, you can donate here.
The most popular tramping trip in the area is Green Lake and is worth a visit.
The easiest way to get there is to drive up the Borland Road, over the saddle, and down to your starting point at Borland Biv. You can also walk up the steep and sometimes muddy track from Lake Monowai or, if experienced, traverse the tops (off-track) from the saddle itself. Note that the Borland Road is closed after the first snowfall of the season, so you may have to wait for this one out until summer. Call the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre on +64 3 249 7924 to check.
A night at the hut should be on your list whichever way you get there. Find out more here.
If you’re short on time, consider strolling the Borland Nature Walk opposite the lodge to discover a surprisingly gorgeous stretch of forest rife with wonders (especially suitable for families). Or, if you want a day hike challenge, travel up the road past the lodge for a few kilometers to the Eldrig Peak carpark. Dash up the 4WD road and then the track as quickly as you’d like to reach the open tussock tops or even the summit if you’re feeling fit.
The Borland area also caters to other recreational interests as far as nature experiences in Fiordland go.
If you like to bike on gravel roads, bring your MTB for a spin on the Borland Road. Get a workout pedaling up to the saddle and enjoy zooming back down again! If boating is more your thing, take your craft on the expansive Lake Monowai. Here you can discover is twists and turns and beautiful inlets. There are even a few huts on the lakeshore you can overnight in.
2. Rent a packraft or go for a guided paddle across a lake or down a river
Packrafting is just what it sounds like – a cross between rafting and backpacking. It’s one of many ways to experience nature in Fiordland.
You can carry a fully functional personal (or sometimes tandem) raft on your back and explore even further! In Te Anau and Manapouri, you can rent packrafts or go on a fully guided adventure with locally owned and operated Packrafting NZ. This is an excellent option for Fiordland because we have so much water that it only makes sense to incorporate it into your visit.
Consider packrafting down the Waiau River that links Lake Te Anau and Manapouri, taking a guided trip down the Eglinton River accessed from the famous Milford Road, or paddle along the shore of Lake Manapouri to the Monument to scramble to the top! Or plan your own adventure! Find everything you need here.
3. Walk or run up to Luxmore Hut for the day or the night
You’ve most likely heard of the Kepler Track Great Walk. The ideal thing about this track is that it is based almost directly in the town center of Te Anau. And it’s a loop!
Tramping in NZ isn’t usually this logistically easy. In winter, the alpine section of the Kepler Track can pose avalanche risk, but you can still get to the famous Luxmore Hut before this section, so it is accessible anytime. Luxmore Hut is perched beautifully overlooking Lake Te Anau and the Murchison Mountains. In winter, it is especially stunning as the peaks are dusted in snow.
Volunteer hut wardens keep things tidy and orderly during the winter. If you’re interested in getting on the roster yourself, contact the local DOC office (+64 3 249 7924). No guarantees, but there could be a spot! Or, consider walking up with friends and family for the night, either from the track start at the Control Gates or from Brod Bay. The Fiordland Outdoors Company operates a water taxi to Brod Bay to save you a bit of walking, and they’re running some fabulous deals at the moment.
Or, better yet, in my opinion, run up and down again for an endurance challenge!
4. Visit the world-famous Piopiotahi/Milford Sound in winter
Now is the best time in a very long time to head to Milford Sound on a road trip.
Known around the world as an icon of scenic splendor, Milford is understandably busy most of the time. People flock from everywhere to see Mitre Peak towering over the fiord. The number of tourists visiting Milford Sound/Piopiotahi has increased by 83% in the past five years alone, resulting in the need to introduce car parking charges in October 2019 (source: ODT article).
Now, you can visit without the crowds. It’s like a chance to travel back in time to the way things used to be! This is your opportunity.
The drive itself to Piopiotahi/Milford Sound is stunning. It’s one of the best nature experiences in Fiordland, hands down.
Allow plenty of time to enjoy it, including getting out for as many walks as possible. An excellent guide for a day trip to Milford is available from the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, and they can advise you about which tracks are closed due to flooding damage and which are ready to be experienced. Find the visitor center on Lakefront Drive, Te Anau.
Once in Milford Sound, you can go for a day cruise, a kayak trip, a walk, lunch at the lodge, and stay the night.
Stargazing is very worthwhile in this dark corner of the country. Moonlight shines over snow-capped peaks far away from any phone signal. Sometimes the Milford Road can be closed or restricted from avalanche danger. So it’s worth checking if it’s open in advance.
5. Be brave and traverse Mount Titiroa
For the intrepid and experienced tramper, there’s nothing quite like a tramping traverse of Mount Titiroa as one of the best nature experiences in Fiordland.
A sentinel over the townships of Manapouri and Te Anau, the light-colored peak is intriguing from every angle. If you’re up for the challenge, consider a traverse of the mountain. You can go either from Hope Arm of Lake Manapouri to Borland or the other way around.
Allow at least two nights, three days, and note that you must be comfortable with off-track travel.
The traverse begins and ends with a trail underfoot, but that’s it. The rest of it is solely up to your navigation. Therefore, you need to be experienced and confident with off-track travel, mountain safety, and bushcraft skills. If you have any questions about your ability to complete a tramp such as this, get in touch with the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre. The Federated Mountain Clubs produces a handy booklet titled “Safety in the Mountains” that provides excellent practical reading for improving your skills, and Adventure Smart provides an online intentions registration service. Check them out! And, if you’re brand new, consider joining a local tramping club to learn from experienced folk in the flesh before attempting to venture out on your own.
Mount Titiroa is fascinating to visit because of its unusual rock formations of granite. It’s an island to itself as it is very different in appearance to other Fiordland mountains.
The vantage point over Lake Manapouri is superb. A night spent camping on high reveals incredible vistas and magic light. Remember that snow will fall early on this mountain, so factor that into any planning. A blog entry by yours truly is available here.
Note that crossing the Waiau River in Manapouri must be done by boat as there is no bridge. There is a service you can hire or bring your own vessel. Info and contacts can be found here. It’ definitely one of the best nature experiences in Fiordland.
6. Ride or run the Lake 2 Lake cycle trail
Stay for the weekend in Te Anau or Manapouri, and enjoy the area’s great trails! Of course, there’s the famous Kepler Track. But, did you know that there is also a multi-use path on the other side of the Waiau River?
The Lake 2 Lake cycle trail was built by the Fiordland Trails Trust and provided great recreation opportunities for all.
The path is a bit wider than the Kepler, is solid gravel, and accommodates both movers on foot and by bike tire. Bring your own set of wheels that can handle gravel and go for a spin from the Control Gates through to Balloon Loop or head along the lakefront in Manapouri to Supply Bay and return.
If you don’t have your bike or don’t want to bring it, simply rent one from local outfitter Wild Rides. They can kit you out with everything you need and more. Or, remember, you can always use your own two feet!
The cycle track makes a great extension to the Kepler, and a great running loop goes from the Control Gates to Rainbow Reach – use one track on the way down and one on the way back up!
7. Experience another aspect of the Iconic Hump Ridge
If you’re an experienced tramper, you can visit the Hump Ridge near Tuatapere without actually walking the traditional Hump Ridge Track. Unfortunately, the Hump Ridge loop track operated by the Tuatapere community is closed for the winter of 2020. This will allow for the Great Walk upgrades to take place.
So, if you want to check the area out now, you’ll need to have a bit more experience.
Starting from the Rarakau car park, take the South Coast Track along the beach. Follow it until you reach a track junction in the forest. From here, follow the route to Teal Bay on Lake Hauroko. A 4WD road at first, the path then digresses to a sparsely marked overgrown forest track that climbs steeply to the tops. Once there, enjoy the sweeping views on all sides. You can either return the way you came or make a more extended trip out of it by descending to Teal Bay.
8. Follow the South Coast track for a rugged adventure
Starting from the same point mentioned above, follow the South Coast track as far as your time and experience allow! A treasure-trove of history and under-celebrated yet uniquely Fiordland beauty, the South Coast Track winds its way through the deep, dark forest and particularly beautiful stretches of coastline.
A real tramping adventure, this one is only suitable for the hardy – especially the further you go. Great information for this part of Fiordland is available from Fiordland Unexplored – check them out for guided services or purchase your own guidebook to take along.
It’ definitely one of the best nature experiences in Fiordland.
With the Hump Ridge Track closed for winter, the Port Craig Lodge isn’t an option for accommodation, but the quaint historic schoolhouse is. It was built in the 1920s as a schoolhouse, and it now serves as a 20-bunk hut.
Wairaurahiri Hut, Waitutu Hut, and finally, Westies Hut beckon in succession along the track as you continue west to the end of the line. The largely unmodified lowland forest is rich in biodiversity and a real gem to behold. You’ll likely encounter kākā in the tree fern dotted forests. However, the sandflies are notably prevalent, and even in winter can send the unwary human into distress. Be prepared!
What adventures are you most looking forward to in a post-COVID New Zealand? Do you think you’ll give any of these nature experiences in Fiordland a try? What favorites did we miss in Fiordland? Let us know by commenting!