THE FIORDLAND REGION
The largest National Park in New Zealand, Fiordland is a World Heritage site covering 1.2 million ha along the remote south western coastline of the South Island. The park contains 14 fiords, from Milford Sound in the north to Preservation Inlet in the south, some stretching as far as 40 km inland as they trace the paths of the ancient glaciers that created them. These glaciers carved out New Zealand’s deepest lakes and created the rock faces over which some of the highest waterfalls in the country plunge. Today the park is one of the main tourist attractions in the South Island featuring the magnificent road to Milford Sound and a variety of cruises out onto this beautiful fiord.
When Captain James Cook sailed the Endeavour into Dusky Sound in 1773, he recorded large numbers of seals. By the early 1800s a major sealing enterprise was flourishing in the region followed by a gold rush in the 1890s which brought miners to Preservation Inlet. Two townships flourished and then died in this remote wilderness area, the sites being reclaimed by the rainforest. A number of surveyors, prospectors and explorers made their way inland during the early 1900s, among them Sir Thomas McKenzie who was later to become Premier of New Zealand. As early as 1894 McKenzie advocated that Fiordland should become a public park, and within the next decade most of the land had been reserved, though the park was not created until 1952.
It is the sheer scale of the place that captures the imagination of most visitors. The enormous near vertical cliff faces of the glacial valley walls along the road to Milford Sound often disappear into the clouds and in rain numerous waterfalls spring to life, feeding water into the turbulent rivers flowing along the valleys below. The glacial valleys are even more dramatic out near the coast where they have been invaded by the sea. Submerged beneath the waters of Milford Sound lies an incredibly deep valley. It was carved out from the rock by ancient glaciers over two million years ago. During successive periods of advance and retreat, the glaciers pushed their way down from huge ice caps that once covered Fiordland’s mountains. At times the glaciers, which were thousands of metres thick, extended out into the ocean. Their enormous weight created enough force to grind away huge amounts of rock as they moved across the landscape, carving out the steep-sided valleys that can be seen today. When the glaciers began to melt at the end of the last ice age, 15,000 years ago, the sea level rose and the glacial valleys along the coastline were reclaimed by the sea, creating the fiords that can be seen today. Along the coast near the entrance to the fiords, these silent waterways are sheltered by huge underwater moraines. These large piles of rock were carried down from the mountains and deposited by the glaciers before they began to retreat. Sheltered from waves and strong currents by these underwater rock walls, the fiords are host to a unique community of marine plants and animals. Today you can take a cruise out onto the waters of Milford Sound and can visit the underwater observatory at Harrison Cove. For an even more hands on experience, and a close up look at the huge waterfalls as well as the dolphins and seals, visitors can try kayaking out on the fiord.