Strange Geographies: The Fjords of New Zealand
For most people, the word "fjord" conjures up thoughts of Scandinavia and the majestic, frozen North. But New Zealand, unbeknownst to many, can boast some of the world's best fjords -- hemmed by towering cliffs, fantastically deep and stretching like long, crooked fingers from the Tasman Sea into some of New Zealand's most lush and remote scenery. They are to be found, appropriately enough, within an enormous and mostly unpopulated wilderness known as Fjordland. The easiest of the fjords to visit is Milford Sound, and I was fortunate to be able to take a two-day boat trip down the length of it a while back. This is what I found.
Pictured above is Mitre Peak, which towers nearly a mile above the surface of the water. The water in the glacier-carved fjord itself is some 1600 feet deep. The veritcal scale of everything in Milford is mind-boggling.
Milford Sound is also the wettest place in New Zealand, making it one of the wettest places in the world -- it gets nearly 268 inches of rain every year. That doesn't stop tourists from visiting, though, because big rains put on a spectacular show, creating hundreds of waterfalls along the 15km length of the sound, which crash from the peaks a half-mile or more to the water below.
We picked an unseasonably dry couple of days to visit the fjords (wouldn't you know it) but regardless of the drought-like conditions, there were still a few amazing waterfalls to be seen. The captain maneuvered our boat nearly underneath this one, at which point everyone rushed to the bow and got completely soaked.
The peaks along the length of the sound are so high that they kind of make their own weather. Three-quarters of a mile up: clouds. For scale, see if you can pick out the huge, two-story boat at the bottom-right of the cliffs. (They're that big.)
When Captain Cook sailed past the entrance to the fjords back in the 18th century, he decided not to explore them because, thanks to their extremely narrow-looking entrances, he doubted they led to anything substantial or remarkable. (That's how another of New Zealand's fjords, Doubtful Sound, got its name.) As you can see, the cliffs overlap so completely as the sound twists its way to and from the ocean that it's difficult to see more than a kilometer or two down its length.
One unforgettable treat was kayaking on the Sound at dusk, skirting along the edges of the mighty cliffs and checking out all the seals and seabirds that make their homes near the water. Fed by rainfall but also by glaciers, the water was numbingly cold; luckily, this time I didn't do what I normally do in kayaks, which is flip over.
We spent the night on the boat, and woke up at the mouth of the fjord, where it joins the Tasman Sea. It was a delicate, still morning, and we were blessed with a rosy dawn, a rare thing in this land of year-round rain.
Looking toward Australia as we headed back:
Mitre Peak in the morning. I tell ya, looking at this rock never got old.
My only regret is that we weren't able to walk the nearby Milford Track -- a multi-day backpacking adventure that's one of the world's great hikes -- but if any of our readers have, I'd love to hear about it in the comments!
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