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Map of New Zealand’s Largest National Park

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Special Places: Fiordland, New Zealand's Southern Sanctuary

By Kennedy Warne Photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt

Craggy arms of rock reach toward the Tasman Sea in New Zealand’s largest national park.

Storm clouds have clamped down hard on the Darran Mountains, and in the Hollyford Valley the forest is misty and dark. A confetti of beech leaves drifts from the canopy, splashing the path with red and gold. Tresses of moss, beaded with raindrops, trail from every branch. I am on the track to Lake Marian, one of hundreds of lakes that dot the map of Fiordland National Park like blue tears. Beyond the mountains, which rise in Himalayan profusion in this northern part of the park, lie the Tasman Sea and the fiords—14 jagged knife cuts in the coastline that give the region its name.

With the cowl of my rain jacket pulled over my head, I feel like a monk on his way to vespers in a living cathedral. A tree fuchsia beside the path gently sheds its magenta blossoms. At its foot, where the ground is dry, I pick up paper-thin peelings of orange bark. A South Island robin, elegant in smoky gray, hops onto the path on matchstick legs and cocks her head in my direction. Fern fronds lift their clenched tips like little fists. Maori steam and eat these young koru. I pop one into my mouth. It has a peppery tang, not unpleasant.

The track snakes around trees, dips beneath toppled trunks, crosses streams. Sometimes the trail is the streambed itself, or a set of steps chainsawed into a log, or a couple of stout tree ferns tossed across a mire. Most of Fiordland’s 300 miles (480 kilometers) of walking paths are like this one: soft on the sole and close to nature. Often they are just a more trodden version of the forest floor, twisting threads in a rich carpet of yellows, browns, and greens. Especially greens. From mosses that form verdant cushions on rock and tree root to streams that glow liquid emerald in the sun, this place is an extravagance of greenness. In 1990, when Fiordland and several nearby reserves were listed as a United Nations World Heritage site, the area’s most treasured mineral resource was chosen for its name: Te Wahipounamu, “the place of greenstone.”

In Maori mythology the South Island is the canoe from which a mighty ancestor, Maui, hauled the fish-shaped North Island out of the sea. Scientists, too, use a nautical image to describe the history of these islands: an 80-million-year geologic voyage through the Pacific Ocean.

Fiordland’s landforms tell the story of that journey, and because this region abuts one of Earth’s most active tectonic boundaries, where two crustal plates scrummage against each other, the outcome is dramatic. Fiordland has been twisted, buckled, and tilted. It has been buried beneath ocean sediments for millions of years, then thrust above the waves for wind, sun, and ice to carve and erode. It has been fragmented by faults, rocked by earthquakes, and frozen by ice caps up to a mile thick.

The earthworks continue. Today the mile-high (1.6 kilometer-high) razorbacks of Fiordland and, to the north, the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps are being pushed upward as much as half an inch (1.3 centimeters) a year. Were it not for erosion, some of these peaks would be 15 miles (24 kilometers) high. And although most of the glaciers in Fiordland melted at the end of the last ice age, scattered ice flows continue to scour the high places.

Lake Marian herself is an ice child. I pick my way along a shore of boulders plucked from the mountains and tumbled by the glacier that hollowed out the lake bed. Across the water, clouds swirl about like gauzy curtains, hiding, then revealing, the wooded slopes. Fiordland seems in every sense a work in progress, Earth’s unfinished symphony.

Out of a geologic maelstrom strange and wonderful plants and animals have emerged, including several hundred species found only within the park boundaries. Other species, which once enjoyed wide distribution across New Zealand, now cling to survival only in Fiordland. The most celebrated example is the takahe, the world’s largest rail, a goose-size bird that was considered extinct for 50 years until deer hunters found a pair in the Murchison Mountains in 1948. It turned out that several hundred takahe were holed up virtually within sight of the town of Te Anau, Fiordland’s gateway.

From the air it is not hard to see how a species could be overlooked in such a hinterland. The helicopter taking Rod Morris, a documentary filmmaker, and me up the Snag Burn Valley into takahe country feels no bigger than a gnat, which a sudden gust could swat against the granite walls that surround us. The ramparts disappear into cloud, and freshly charged waterfalls tumble down their faces.

Morris points to the head of the valley. “Takahe go up and over those bluffs,” he shouts above the engine. “Not bad for a flightless bird, eh?” Morris first came here in 1973, one of a dozen wildlife-service recruits who searched the 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) of the Murchisons for takahe. “We lived off venison and rolled oats, and we got so fit we could scramble up the cliffs like chamois,” says Morris as we boil the billy in the Snag Burn hut. “Our job was to find the birds, map their territories, figure out how many eggs they were laying and what the survival rates were. It was a three-year project, and out of it came a recovery plan for the species.”
We find the Snag’s resident pair of takahe feeding by a stream. They are beautiful birds—an oil painter’s dream—with plumage ranging from olive through iridescent blue to licks of chocolate brown, cherry pink legs, and a snowy white undertail. We watch as they yank clumps of tussock grass out of the ground with their great red bolt cutters of beaks, then clip off the juicy stalks to extract some meager goodness.

It’s a hard life for a grazing bird here, where snow blankets the flats in winter. Despite a captive breeding program, the Murchison population is barely holding its own at 130 birds. The problem for takahe—and for countless other native species—is predatory mammals, all introduced by accident or through misguided intention by settlers. Before people arrived, reptiles and birds were New Zealand’s dominant vertebrates. Mammals overturned that old order. Against sharp-toothed rodents, stoats, weasels, and feral cats, New Zealand’s flightless birds—along with giant insects and snails, frogs, lizards, and tuatara—are helpless.

As we watch the takahe, the male starts chasing the female round and round a sapling, stumpy wings lifted and white undertail fluffed. The courtship display is short-lived. He gives a soft harrumph, then gets back to feeding. Both birds occasionally stop to scratch sand flies out of their eyes with their toes, their metal identification anklets jangling.

Every paradise has its price, and in Fiordland it takes the form of a blood tribute extracted by hordes of these biting insects. Maori legend says that Hinenui-te-po, goddess of the underworld, created the sand fly to keep humans from becoming idle in the face of Fiordland’s stunning beauty. She succeeded. When visiting Fiordland, the rule is: Keep moving, and carry a big can of bug repellent.

After dark, when, mercifully, the sand flies go off duty, Morris and I head into the forest to conduct an impromptu survey of Fiordland’s nightlife. By lantern and flashlight we scan the moss-covered trunks of the trees. A native cockroach, gleaming like varnished mahogany, pauses, antennae twitching. Shiny black pill bugs roll into balls but do not fall from their mossy perches.

We run the lantern along fallen logs, admiring the forest in miniature: coconut-palm mosses towering above crumpled crusts of salmon and lime lichen; beech seedlings sprouting among filmy ferns; spores held aloft on spires and nestled in bright orange cups—the moist, luscious abundance of the forest carpet.

We are especially looking for green invertebrates. In a place as prodigiously green as Fiordland, we expect many of the residents to have sought safety in camouflage. A crane fly—a gangly-legged insect that looks like an overgrown mosquito—careers into the lantern, then flits away. I make a wild swing and catch it. Aha! Its body is a ghostly green. Minutes later we find a green crab spider and a green daddy longlegs. We ruffle the dry moss beards that hang from beech branches, hoping to flush a green weta, a kind of nocturnal grasshopper, but have no luck.

Just after midnight we hear a kiwi—a shrill, rising cry with a guttural squawk at the end, repeated a dozen or more times. Silence. Then a second call, strong and challenging, from across the valley. “Males staking out their territories,” whispers Morris above the hiss of the lantern.

Maori call this species of kiwi tokoeka, “bird with a walking stick”—an apt description of New Zealand’s long-beaked national symbol. Both the large brown tokoeka and a smaller spotted kiwi were once common here. Now the little spotted kiwi has disappeared from Fiordland, and tokoeka numbers are declining.

No species’ decline in Fiordland is felt more keenly by wildlife people than that of the kakapo, the world’s heaviest parrot, which, like the takahe and the kiwi, is flightless. With its plumage of moss green, yellow, and brown, the kakapo is so well camouflaged that you can be standing a few feet from one and not see it. But such cryptic mastery is no refuge from a mammal hunting by smell. “They smell like freesias,” says Morris. “It’s as if they’ve been sprayed with air freshener. You might as well put a sign around their necks saying ‘Dinner is served.’ Any stoat in the neighborhood is just going to roll around laughing before ripping its throat out.” These forests were once the kakapo’s strong-hold, but now the bird Morris regards as the quintessence of Fiordland is confined to island sanctuaries far from here—reservations for the ecologically dispossessed. We don’t hear the kiwi again, only an owl’s doleful call: morepork, morepork. Otherwise, the forest is silent—the heavy silence of loss.

Fiordland’s curving coastline and narrow fiords, with their multiple arms and countless islands and coves, beckon the explorer to leave the forests and put to sea. At Milford Sound, the northernmost fiord, I hitch a ride on the Department of Conservation’s boat, Renown. It is going south to Chalky Island, where conservation staff are eradicating stoats to create a new wildlife reserve.

At Milford’s commercial wharf—well hidden from the tourist jetties—fishing-boat crews are sorting gear and complaining about the lobster price. A forklift scoots about, delivering boxes of bait. Beyond stands Mitre Peak, Milford’s 5,551-foot (1,692-meter) craggy eminence. Sea kayakers slice the sea’s mirror blackness with their shiny craft.

When he saw Milford Sound for the first time, Donald Sutherland—sealer, soldier, gold prospector—declared, “If ever I come to anchor it will be here.” He kept his word and in 1878 built three thatched huts, which he called the City of Milford. A dozen years later, when a walking track was put through between Te Anau and Milford, Sutherland’s wife, Elizabeth, opened a boarding house for “asphalters”—cityfolk who came to partake of Fiordland’s grandeur. Still they come—350,000 a year—some crossing the mountains on the famous Milford Track, most in buses on Fiordland’s only paved road. The day-trippers take a cruise and maybe a scenic flight, then rejoin the cavalcade back to Te Anau.

There is a stiff breeze today in the outer fiord, flaying the waterfalls that plunge down the sea cliffs, but once we clear the entrance it dies away to barely a puff, and we steam south on an oily swell. Albatrosses soar in endless lazy arcs. Headlands slide past, each with the same rumpled forest cover, as if an old green blanket had been thrown across them. The fiords, like crooked fingers pointing inland, hide their entrances in sea haze. I tick them off as we pass: Sutherland Sound, Bligh Sound, George, Caswell, Charles, Nancy, Thompson, Doubtful.

In Maori mythology the fiords are the workmanship not of brawny rivers of ice but of an adze-wielding superman, Tu-te-raki-whanoa, who sliced indentations into the wave-battered coastline to make it habitable. But habitation has always been thin. Maori made seasonal visits to hunt and fish and to collect tangiwai, a type of greenstone, from Milford Sound, and from time to time vanquished tribal groups found sanctuary here, living the lonely life of refugees amid the seals and penguins.

James Cook was the first European to explore Fiordland. After his epic crossing of the Southern Ocean in 1773 in search of a great southern continent, Cook spent five weeks in Dusky Sound, mooring his ship, Resolution, in Pickersgill Harbour near the southern entrance of the fiord. Outwardly little has changed since Cook’s day. Here is the “murmuring rivulet” that supplied his fresh water; there the stands of rimu (Cook likened them to spruce) from which he brewed beer to stave off scurvy among his crew. A tree limb leans out over the water in almost the exact position as the one he used for a gangplank. On Astronomers Point the stumps of trees felled so that an observatory could be set up are still visible, crumbling under a cloak of kidney fern.
In sheltered coves around the seaward islands fur seal pups drowse on little grass-topped islets. Slaughtered for their pelts in the years following Cook’s voyage, Fiordland’s fur seals dwindled nearly to the point of extinction but are now on the increase—one of the few native species to post a positive result on Fiordland’s balance sheet. The pups raise their heads and fix their lachrymose eyes on us as Renown passes.

Compared with the steep-walled northern fiords, Dusky Sound has a gentler, more curvaceous aspect. The mountains are lower, and the glacial ice flowed over their tops, leaving blunt-ridged peninsulas and muffin-shaped islands—one for every day of the year, some say. Each is thickly forested almost to the waterline. Such luxuriant growth, often on a scant six to eight inches (15 to 20 centimeters) of soil, is possible only because of Fiordland’s exceptional rainfall. In Milford Sound it averages 254 inches (645 centimeters) a year, and in wet years that can rise to 360 (914 centimeters). “Fiordland is hydroponic gardening on a grand scale,” one park ranger told me.

Sometimes the “garden” witnesses spectacular casualties. After an extended dousing, whole hillsides of forest are swept into a valley or fiord, leaving bone white rock scars that take decades to heal.

Fiordland’s water balance is a delicate one. In La Niña years, when the atmospheric tap is turned off for relatively long periods (a week without rain can be a drought here), trees with insufficient root depth dry out beyond recovery. On some of the islets brown tree skeletons mar the forest. But dehydration is not the image most visitors remember. Rather it is water, in every form and at every scale, that saturates the mind: the dusting of frost that velvets a frozen pond; blue-black tarns, undisturbed by any ripple, set like mirrors in tawny tussock fields; rivers in spate, coffee brown, roiling beneath a hiker swaying on a three-wire bridge.

All that water falling on the land has an impact out in the fiords. Were I to lean over the side of Renown and draw up a bucketful of water, it would be quite drinkable because a layer of fresh water floats on the salt. This runoff, stained brown with tannins from the forest, can reach a depth of 30 feet (9 meters) after heavy rains and acts as a sunblock, cutting down light penetration and allowing deepwater creatures to live in shallow conditions. Gorgonian fans, sea pens—strange, quill-shaped corals—and black coral trees (some 200 years old) are among the exotic groups found here at depths scuba divers can reach.

At dusk I go ashore on a nameless island and follow a path that penguin feet have pattered smooth over generations of journeys to and from the sea. The peaty walkway leads up to a network of roots and waterlogged tunnels beneath a broadleaf tree. A mud-spattered Fiordland crested penguin chick comes to investigate, then retreats, splashing away into the dank interior. An adult calls raucously, and a few minutes later appears at the entrance of the labyrinth. The Fiordland crested penguin is another of the park’s rare birds. I am lucky to have seen this pair: the chick brown and downy, the adult in smart black-and-white livery and sporting a bleached-blond streak of feathers above each eye, giving it a jaunty look, like a surfer in a suit.

We steam southward again, to Preservation Inlet, the last fiord. On Chalky Island, near the entrance of the inlet, the stoat busters go ashore. I join them as they check one of the traplines. They are relieved to find no new captures; the hens’ eggs with which each trap is baited have not been touched. The team will stay here for a month, using dogs to sniff out fugitives. Not a single stoat must remain alive on this island destined to serve as a haven for endangered creatures—a sanctuary within a sanctuary.

A few miles (a few kilometers) farther on, at Fiordland’s southwestern tip, stands Puysegur Point lighthouse. For a century—apart from a blackout during World War II—its beam protected ships navigating this stormy coast. Puysegur is a wild place. Southerly winds, sweeping up from the Antarctic, smack into this knuckle of land first, before dumping their moisture on the high peaks farther north. Sometimes, during a fierce gale, young relieving keepers would stagger to the edge of the cliff, hold their oilskin coats out wide and lean forward until they lost their balance, trusting the wind to catch them and fling them back. They reckoned that if a man had the nerve for this sport, he would never lack for courage for the rest of his life.

Nobody lives here now. The lighthouse was automated in 1989 and runs on solar power. The day I climb the mile-long (1.6-kilometer-long) track from the beach to the abandoned station is uncannily calm. For once the roaring forties have held their breath. I stand at the edge of the cliff in a cloud of sand flies and try to imagine those daredevil birdmen leaning into the void.

Below me, a hundred feet (30 meters) straight down, bull kelp writhes in the surf. Lobster boats work the offshore reefs. To the north, land and sea meet in a confusion of islands and waterways. Inland, I see the same tumult of mountains that James Cook described as “so crowded together as to leave room for no vallies of extent.” The landscapes of Fiordland do not soothe. Their chiseled features preserve the memory of violent upheaval—tattoos on the hull of Maui’s great canoe.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Before Polynesians arrived in New Zealand some 1,000 years ago, only three species of mammals inhabited the islands: two species of bats and the fur seal. Rats were introduced inadvertently by the Polynesians but did little harm. Small mammals that came with European settlers, however, have exacted a terrible toll on the native flightless birds and other ground dwellers. Large mammals like deer and chamois proliferated after their introduction at the turn of the 20th century and still compete with local fauna for food and habitat.

There was one very curious introduction in 1909. Ten moose imported from Saskatchewan, Canada, were brought to the South Island and released near Dusky Cove. It was thought that New Zealand would be a wonderful game reserve for recreational hunters. According to local legend, two of the moose took one look at the land and retreated back into their traveling crates. The others? Their offspring are rumored to still exist in Fiordland, although no one has sighted any of them for many years. The moose, it seems, is New Zealand’s Big Foot or Loch Ness monster.

New Zealand Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai
The website of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, which monitors environmental and national park issues, includes recreation and local information.

GORP—New Zealand Outdoors
Read about 13 national parks on the North and South Islands of New Zealand. This site includes travel information, pictures, and a map.

Natural World Heritage Property
The World Conservation Monitoring Center describes in detail the World Heritage site that includes Fiordland National Park. It also includes a discussion of geography, geology, the parks and reserves included in the site, flora, fauna, and conservation issues.

New Zealand Hike
To experience one of Fiordland’s great walks, visit this site and gear up for an exciting exploration.

University of Canterbury Maori Department
For information about the Maori culture begin with the University of Canterbury’s site where you can link to many additional sources of information.


Begg, Charles and Neil Begg. Dusky Bay. Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1966.

Cook, Capt. James. Captain Cook in New Zealand: The Journals of James Cook. A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1969, 2nd edition.

Hall-Jones, John. Fiordland Explored: An Illustrated History. A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1976.

Heather, Barrie and Hugh Robertson. Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Reed, A. W. Myths and Legends of Maoriland. A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1967, 3rd edition.

Warne, Kennedy, ed., New Zealand Geographic, bimonthly issues published since 1989.


“Country Unbound: North Island, New Zealand,” National Geographic Traveler, Oct. 1999, 168-170.

“Into the Wilds: National Parks of New Zealand,” National Geographic Traveler, Jan./Feb. 1997, 48-65.

“New Zealand—Born of Fire and Ice,” National Geographic Traveler, Spring 1988, 85-99.

Jordan, Robert Paul. “New Zealand: the Last Utopia?” National Geographic, May 1987, 654-681.

Newton, Douglas. “Maoris: Treasures of the Tradition.” National Geographic, Oct. 1984, 542-553.

Patterson, Carolyn Bennett. “ New Zealand’s Milford Track: ‘Walk of a Lifetime.’” National Geographic, Jan. 1978, 117-129.

Benchley, Peter. “New Zealand’s Bountiful South Island.” National Geographic, Jan. 1972, 93-123.

Smith, R.V. Francis. “Finding an ‘Extinct’ New Zealand Bird.” National Geographic, Mar. 1952, 393-401.


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