“No country upon earth can appear with a more rugged and barren aspect than this does from the sea, for as far as the eye can reach nothing is to be seen but the summits of these rocky mountains, which seem to lay so near one another as not to admit any vallies between them” Fiordland as described by Captain James Cook on his first circumnavigation in 1770.

Entrance to Milford sound

Good thing we had charts then! It certainly did appear on first glance that getting into the fjords would be difficult if not impossible. But as we approached the entrances, the rough sea would ease and openings would appear between the bluffs as if by magic. Once inside the sea became flat and the steep sided mountains rose directly out of sea but with the wind funnelling down between the bluffs it was very often not possible to sail without doing some sort of damage to the rig! Further into the fjord there were deep forested, sometimes snow-capped, mountains towering above us.

Mountains and glaciers and fantastic reflections

The beauty is only enhanced by the rapid changes in weather – giving totally different appearances to the same view. Of the 15 fjords which make up Fiordland National Park in the south-west corner of the south island of New Zealand, we visited 9 over a period of around 5 weeks. The northern ones tend to be narrow and steep sided whilst those further south are more open with lower ranges. The weather we had was a real mixed bag with beautiful sunny days but much rainfall and even (in February – summertime) hail at sea level and snow on the hills!

Open southern fjords, sunset in northern fjord and rainbow in mist


Marjorie falls also known as 'Merlin's Magic' reveal themselves along the Irene river in Charles Sound

With 7 meters of rainfall a year, water cascades everywhere and we were pleased to see that all this fresh water cleaned off any critters growing on the hull! The fresh water forms a layer on top of the salty seawater where, deeper into the fjords, huge amounts of tannin from the forest stains it a reddish brown. This colouring blocks out sunlight which inhibits the growth of kelp but provides a habitat for many of creatures which would normally only be found at much deeper depths. Some of these areas contain such special organisms that they are designated ‘china shops' and are under strict control with no activity allowed in order to protect the unique marine environment.

Fiordland also has a varied history. Since Maoris first inhabited Fiordland it has been a mecca for fishermen. Following the voyages of Captain Cook and his glowing accounts of "a place teaming with fish and numerous seals", early in the 1800's European sealing gangs arrived and within 30 years they had almost exterminated the New Zealand fur seal. Also during this time whaling ships were targeting southern right whales and sperm whales – both industries went into decline by the mid 1850's. Then in the late 1890's mines were set up following a ‘gold rush' in the more southern fjords – although these didn't last more than a few years. Fiordland now is recognised by UNESCO and has been given a marine protected status – the commercial fishermen have agreed not to fish in the inner two-thirds of the fjords and have agreed quotas for all fishing in the area. The fur seal and whale numbers have now increased. A couple of the fjords have resident pods of bottlenose dolphins and whales are sometimes seen inside the fjords – we did in fact almost run one over in Thompson sound! Now a major tourist industry thrives there with cruises and charter boats visiting several of the sounds.


Back to flotsam................