Fiordland National Park, covering 12,607 km2 (4,868 sq mi), is New Zealand's largest national park with its snow-capped mountains, fiords and contains one of New Zealand's wildest and most dramatic landscapes. The park, together with the adjoining Mount Aspiring National Park, occupies the south-west corner of the South Island and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park was one of the film sets for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Fiordland, as the name suggests, is home to several fiords — steep-sided inlets carved by glaciers during the last ice age, then later drowned by the rising sea. Its rugged landscape remains one of the least explored areas of New Zealand. Although the park has about 500 km of formed walking tracks, these are mostly confined to eastern and northern parts of the park.
Like all of New Zealand's national parks, it is managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The department aims to allow the public to enjoy the park, while also preserving the environment. There are relatively few restrictions on access by individual visitors, though commercial activity is carefully (some might say strictly) controlled.
The main visitor information centre is in the township of Te Anau. There are park ranger outposts at major visitor locations. Visitors intending to stay in the park overnight are advised to inform the park rangers of their intentions. In the event of an emergency, these intentions will be used as part of any search and rescue operation.
Flora and fauna
The area is so remote and unexplored that some speculate that species thought extinct in New Zealand may still live in the park. The takahe, a flightless bird previously thought extinct, was discovered in a remote part of the park in 1948.
The kakapo, the world's only flightless parrot, survived in Fiordland longer than any other place on New Zealand's two main islands, although even here it died out by the 1980s. A recovery project has been started on offshore islands free of the predators that threatened its survival on the mainland.
Sandflies are an obvious (and annoying) demonstration of the insect life that inhabits the area.
The weather in the park can change dramatically over the space of a few hours and over a few kilometres. Visitors should always be prepared for rain, which can be heavy and prolonged. The park has over 200 rain days per year, though different parts of the park receive widely different rainfalls. Te Anau, with 1200 mm (40 inches) annual rainfall is almost as dry as much of the eastern South Island, while Milford Sound, with 8000 mm (320 inches) annual rainfall, is truly rainforest and waterfall territory.
Aircraft are part of the Fiordland National Park scene. DOC uses them to carry out its duties in the park, including pest control. Aircraft service the walking track and remove every bit of waste, including toilet waste. As there are no roads, all lodge, track maintenance and building is enabled by aircraft and all supplies to the lodges are flown in. If you injure yourself so you can't continue or you go missing, aircraft are the only practical method to carry out search and rescue. For many people the only way they can access the park is by aircraft either because of lack of time, age or infirmity. The other important consideration is that aircraft make the least real environmental impact of any of the users of the park.
Visitor information centre
- 1 Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, Lakefront Drive, Te Anau, ☏ . 8:30AM–4:30PM.
- 2 West Arm Visitor Centre, 14 Wilmot Pass Road, Southland. This visitor centre is only accessible when you take the boat across Lake Manapouri and along the way to Doubtful Sound.
- State Highway 94. Drive or bus in to Te Anau, the park's "gateway", from Queenstown or Invercargill. You can also fly into Milford or Doubtful Sounds from Queenstown, Glenorchy or Te Anau.
- Manapouri (15 min drive from Te Anau) is another place to start exploring Fiordland. Daily departures to Doubtful Sound (also within Fiordland National Park).
Fees and permits
You have the choice to either fly, bus, walk or boat.
Before the 1950s, the only way to reach the fiords were by tramping to the fiords, but a road was constructed to Milford Sound and it remains the only road in the park which connects Te Anau to Milford Sound. While on a map it may only be 117 km (73 mi), the time can take up to two hours drive as you pass winding mountainous roads. Other fiords such as Doubtful Sound remain inaccessible via road.
- Homer Tunnel
- Hollyford Valley
- Lake Te Anau and Te Ana-au cave
- Lake Manapouri, especially the West Arm and Manapouri Power Station. Take a bus trip over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. The power station, one of New Zealand's largest, has been carved out of solid rock below the lake and two tailrace tunnels take the water that passes through the power station to Deep Cove, 10 km away. The only evidence that there is a power station nearby is the power lines that disappear into the ground!
- 1 Doubtful Sound.
- 2 Milford Sound. The most accessible fiord in New Zealand, with access from State Highway 94, this impressive fiord is now one of the iconic landscapes of NZ.
- Walk. Take a trip through the amazing wilderness on either a day trip or overnight. The Department of Conservation maintains and, part of the year, staffs the park's tracks. The tracks get busy at certain times of the year and can require bookings for the huts, so its a good option to inquire at an information center before setting off.
- Hollyford Track. Guided walks are available.
- Hump Ridge Track. Guided walks are available.
- Kepler Track. Walk the Manapouri end of the track for a nice day hike, or dive all the way into the backcountry for an overnight.
- Milford Track. One of the DOC's "Great Walks" and considered by many to be one of the best walks in the world. Guided walks are available. A four-day, three-night 53.5-km track that starts at the head of Lake Te Anau and ends at Milford Sound. Bookings essential.
- Routeburn Track. Take the Routeburn for a overnight trip and cross into the neighbouring Mount Aspiring National Park. Guided walks are available.
- The Dusky track. A harder, longer tramp joins Lake Hauroko to Lake Manapouri.
- Hunting for the introduced species of red deer, wapiti and possums is permitted and a permit can be obtained from the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre. These introduced species are considered pests and there is an ongoing eradication programme to control these animal populations and eventually eliminate them. The moose was introduced here but is thought to have died out.
- Fishing for brown and rainbow trout requires a licence and compliance with regulations.
Eat and drink
The township of Te Anau has a number of accommodation options.
- Campsites. There are a number of areas designated as campsites.
- Backcountry huts. These are provided for trampers (hikers) at a number of remote locations. Advance booking of these is essential to ensure that your stay will not conflict with others. Otherwise you will find yourself sleeping on the floor, or worse, needing to camp outside. All huts offer basic accommodation such as a fire place, a roof and a place to sleep. Visitors are expected to provide their own bedding, food and entertainment.
There are also commercial accommodation options in Manapouri and Milford Sound.
- Exploring Fiordland by boat - There are a number of different options if you wish to explore Fiordland's many fiords or rugged coastline. There are overnight cruises available at both Milford and Doubtful Sounds, plus extended Discovery Cruises (5–7 days) along the Fiordland coast (operated by Real Journeys). There are other cruise options, including a cruise along the Fiordland coast with researchers.
Fiordland is a huge national park. There is a well-trafficked path from Te Anau through to Milford Sound, but outside of that it is a gigantic expanse of unpopulated wilderness. If you intend to venture into it, it is essential you go to a visitor information centre to check the weather and conditions before you do. As with anywhere in New Zealand (but even more so with weather systems coming of the Tasman Sea) the weather can change from sunny to cold and stormy within hours. If you intend to stay anywhere away from civilisation overnight you should inform the park rangers of your intention before hand (and then report back on your return).
If you have any questions at all go to a visitor centre and chat to the staff. It's their job to provide advice and try to keep people safe.
Making up the south-west corner of the South Island, once you are here your only options are to head back to Queenstown or south to Invercargill.