For the nature loving traveler, New Zealand has it all. Mammoth glaciers, imposing mountains, refreshing alpine lakes, deep fjords, vast tracts of pristine wilderness. The list is endless. The South Island’s Tasman Sea coast, specifically Fiordland National Park, offers the best bang for your tourist buck, I would argue, in all of New Zealand.
Already looking my way, he gave the shoulder shrug of a man caught in the act. He hardly seemed concerned, turned his back and went inside.
His wife noticed our interaction and walked my way.
I started up before she uttered a word.
“How about using the fucking ashtray instead of throwing it in the water?!”
It’s amazing what one well placed profanity can do.
The look on this woman’s face said it all — she was not accustomed to being spoken to this way. Ever. She stopped in her tracks, shocked, turned around and followed her man indoors.
We were on the back deck of a boat cruising Milford Sound, the quintessential New Zealand outdoor experience.
Just two minutes prior life was beautiful; towering mountains framed the Sound, inky black water offered an eerie contrast to the verdant cliffs and a bit of early evening sunshine even peeked through the clouds.
At that moment there was no place I’d rather have been. And then I watched this fool throw a cigarette butt over the rail.
My blood boiled.
It was all I had to not get up and knock him into the water after his garbage.
FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK
Fiordland is New Zealand’s largest national park and mirrors the rest of the country; beautiful, user friendly, logical. Scenic pullouts with maps, trails and interpretive placards dot the only road running through the park. It is virtually impossible to get lost. One way in, one way out. Avalanches can occur during the winter and rockfalls are not unheard of and tourists have been stuck. The most rewarding trips into Fiordland require a boat, a hike, a guide, or a combination of all three. But for my first day in the area I went solo with my rental car.
The cigarette incident notwithstanding, my initial visit unfolded in spectacular fashion. Before lunch I hiked 3.5 miles up Key Summit for sweeping views of the entire area.
Afterward I donned my waterproof gear and braved torrential downpours to see the rushing waters at the Chasm.
And then I caught a late afternoon cruise, a confrontation with a fellow passenger most certainly not on the agenda…
New Zealand’s South Island is home to fifteen million sheep and just a shade over a million people. It is twenty-five percent larger than my home state of Pennsylvania and world renowned for its pristine natural beauty. Just a few of the heavy hitters; the Southern Alps, Fiordland National Park, massive glaciers, deep blue alpine lakes. Wildlife abounds — penguins, dolphins, seals, whales, peculiar birds found nowhere else. The marketing slogan is 100% Pure New Zealand. I knew I was going to love the place before I even stepped off the plane.
Cut to night one on ‘The Mainland’, the far southwest, in a place called Te Anau. I braced against the stiff breeze on the top deck as we sped across Lake Te Anau toward the famous glow worm caves. I was solo up top, the sensible folk (I would argue otherwise!) warm down below. We passed a full rainbow off the bow and docked beside a rocky cove on the opposite side of the lake. It was 8pm, but with a 920pm sunset this far south it was still a glorious evening.
After a quick briefing we set out through the trees. Glow worms are very light sensitive, so the metal walkways into the cave were only faintly illuminated. Photos definitely weren’t allowed. A thunderous waterfall echoed through the chamber. Our guide told us to remain quiet, roaring water the only soundtrack as we made our way deeper into the complex. A series of slippery steps and pathways led our group to a tiny boat dock.
Glow worms are actually the larvae stage of the gnat fly and they attach themselves to the roof of damp caves like this. They dangle a silk thread as a hunting trap, hoping and waiting for random insects to fly by, become stuck and wind up as dinner. To attract insects the glow worms do something exceptional — their renal glands create a biochemical reaction called bioluminescence, glowing green. That bioluminescence is why we were all here.
The boat went further into the deepest recesses of the cave as the artificial light faded and the natural green lights increased. After a while it was difficult to orient myself. Forward, backward, who knows? Leaning back the only obvious direction was up and the green lights. They were everywhere. Fifty clustered here, a dozen over there, random outliers doing their own thing solo.
Like the starry night sky there was no rhyme nor reason, they were just there. And it was extraordinary. I had a huge smile on my face. We pulled up under a low hanging spot to get a close look at the lights and their respective thread baits. It was like nothing I had ever seen.
Check out this awesome video of the Waitomo Glow Worm Cave on the North Island.
Milford Sound and the most touristed parts of Fiordland are easy to visit, just get some wheels and drive up. Doubtful Sound, that’s another story. Note the red road directly to Milford Sound. There is no such red line anywhere near Doubtful. That would explain the disparity in visitor numbers; nearly 800,000 people engage in some form of tourist activity at Milford these days while Doubtful sees a small fraction of those numbers.
Unless you’re cruising around the South Island with your own yacht, Doubtful Sound can only realistically be visited by guided tour. In my case, a Real Journeys bus picked me up outside my accommodation in Te Anau and delivered me to the small settlement of Manapouri. From there 71 other guests and I piled into a boat for a fifty-minute trip across Lake Manapouri.
Once across the lake everyone boarded a pair of coaches for a trip over the Wilmot Pass. Interesting fact — we were traveling on the only road in New Zealand which is entirely cut off from the rest of the road network. It was built specifically to service the controversial Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Station. The overnight trip included a stop for a look at the inner workings of the plant, but it was closed for repairs at the time.
A couple hours later I sat on a wooden storage box on the Fiordland Navigator’s main deck, kitted out against the chilly breeze; t-shirt, long sleeve woolly, hoodie, rainproof jacket, pants, socks, boots, knit cap.
The Navigator’s naturalist stood beside me and explained the topography, geology, history and wildlife of the area. The air was refreshing, the sky blue. Considering the thirty-three feet of rain which had come down here over the past eleven months, that latter point was something. We were lucky in so many ways, weather just one. I peered over the edge to watch dolphins surfing our bow wave.
For a slightly different boating experience, head with me to Borneo for a trip into the rainforest on an authentic wooden Indonesian klotok
Captain James Cook gave the body of water its name in 1770. Suspect at his ship’s ability to exit the Sound given the prevailing westerly breeze, the explorer coined the moniker which remains today. Getting here was an adventure in itself, but that hassle, if you want to label it such, is what appealed to me. There would be fewer than a hundred people overnighting here, seventy-two on my boat plus a handful on a few independently chartered vessels.
After anchoring in a sheltered bay it was time for some on-the-water activity. Option A) ride around on a Zodiac (think bright red or orange, inflatable with an outboard motor in back); Option B) kayak. I descended the back steps and hopped into an orange kayak where twenty of us proceeded to paddle down the Sound, eventually rendezvousing with the ship an hour later. The spray from a two-thousand foot waterfall really gives you a sense of perspective! It was such a beautiful afternoon.
Back on board I hurried downstairs into the rather fancy shared quad-bunk accommodation, home to the most comfy bedding anywhere, ever. I needed my bathing suit. “But wait, you were on deck in four layers…”.
TAKING A DIP
I climbed a little ladder, stepped carefully onto the railing and stood fifteen feet up on the second deck, 52F-degree water (11C) beckoning me from below.
I was first in, pencil-style into twelve-hundred feet of chilly Fiordland water. Going quite deep the temperature shock doesn’t hit until you surface. But good lord does it hit. I felt the stabbing of a thousand tiny knives into my lesser insulated regions. That’s pretty much all of me, so trust when I say fifty-two is absolutely freezing. Still, it was invigorating. I felt alive.
I climbed out, got some sun and followed seven or eight other adventurous souls in from up high a second time. Then a third. After round four we had to wrap it up; a look at the seal and penguin colonies at the Tasman Sea confluence was on our agenda.
General consensus among the swimmers — how many times will I be in Doubtful Sound? Of course I’m going in! High fives were exchanged. We were a proud bunch. My teeth chattered as I made a beeline for the hottest shower on record. The swimmers were rewarded with first go dessert privileges, so it wasn’t all for naught!
The following morning I sped across the lake back to Te Anau, ready to soak up more of the South Island.
Read on as my New Zealand adventures continue in Wanaka with a bit of skydiving and an afternoon of canyoning!
DO IT YOURSELF
Flights to New Zealand are not cheap. Its always been high on my list, but an insane fare from The Flight Deal made a trip an immediate no-brainer. Insane, as in ‘Discover at 6am then spend 90 minutes figuring out dates and go to work late’. Roundtrip from Los Angeles to Auckland; US$354! I live near Philadelphia, so a US$350 domestic ticket completed my route. Total expenditure — US$704, PHL to AKL. Can’t beat that.
I had a fantastic rental car experience with Apex, a locally-owned and operated outfit. Their rates were significantly lower than the usual international players. I paid US$300 for a 12-day Toyota Corolla rental. Airport pickup in Queenstown and drop-off in Christchurch minimized potential backtracking.
Accommodation throughout New Zealand is of high quality and I found it to be good value also. I stayed at the YHA Hostel in Te Anau. It’s comfy, full of amenities, has clean common areas and is within walking distance of everything in town. Parking is no problem. 4-bed dorms go for US$30 (NZD $43).
The best pies I have ever had (think savory English pies, eaten by hand, not baked fruit pies) were at Miles Better Pies in Te Anau. Seriously amazing. It doesn’t get much better than blue skies, lake breezes, sunshine, outdoor seating and a tasty pie. I stopped by on three separate occasions! Even though it’s a national park area, there are plenty of quality dining options in Fiordland. Another Te Anau winner in my book, the Sandfly Cafe.
Seeing the Sights
Fiordland excursions are varied and numerous while the possibilities in the most popular region around Milford Sound are virtually endless. Wanna do your own thing, drive up like me and take a cruise? Hop a bus for a fully escorted roundtrip jaunt from Te Anau, or even Queenstown? Fancy a bit of kayaking too? Cruise Milford, Mitre Peak, Southern Discoveries, Go Orange, Jucy Cruize and Real Journeys have you covered.
I booked the Glow Worm Cave and Doubtful Sound overnight trip through Real Journeys. A multi-trip discount was on offer when I booked, so it pays to keep an eye out. Professional outfit, top notch guides, personnel and facilities. Highly recommended!