Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area

Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area

Introduction to Awe-Inspiring Scenery
It is widely considered that New Zealand’s most dramatic scenery and most beautiful and unspoilt wilderness lie within the Te Wahipounamu Park. The Park is located in the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. It was successive glacial action that largely shaped the landscape, and its wild beauty is showcased to stunning effect with carved-out snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear lakes, towering granite cliffs, captivating fiords, and untamed waterfalls tumbling up to hundreds of meters into virgin forested valleys.

Some of the best examples of animals and plants once found on the ancient “super continent” of Gondwanaland live in the World Heritage area. Two-thirds of the park is covered with southern beech and podocarp trees, some of which are over 800 years old, making them some of the oldest trees in the world. The park is host to the kea (the world’s only alpine parrot), as well as the rare takahe, a large and flightless bird. Fiordland, as part of the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, has earned its reputation as “the walking capital of the world,” and hikers can experience the spectacular scenery and power of nature on any one of the Park’s world-famous tracks and Great Walks.

Te Wahipounamu, or the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, was included on UNESCO’s list of outstanding natural sites in 1990, when it met four of ten criteria, namely:

1) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;

2) to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;

3) to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

4) to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

The Westland and Mount Cook National Park, as well as the Fiordland National Park, which were previously inscribed on the World Heritage List, are now part of the “Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand” Heritage area.

Wild and Dramatic Nature in an Awesome Setting
So far, we have not yet ventured into the area of the Westland and Mount Cook National Park, and so I will describe only the Fiordland region of Te Wahipounamu Park as we experienced it. We cycled from Queenstown through Fiordland as far as Milford Sound, where the road dead-ends. Along the way, we stopped at Te Anau, the departure point for many of the area’s famous hikes and Great Walks. We hiked the 3-day 67-km. alpine Kepler Track before continuing on to Milford, where we cruised the breathtaking Milford Sound on the coast.

Because we have not yet visited other areas of New Zealand (Fiordland was our first stop), I have nothing to compare it to. But it is widely considered that New Zealand’s most dramatic scenery and most beautiful and unspoilt wilderness lie within the Te Wahipounamu Park. Its wild beauty is showcased to stunning effect with snow-peaked mountains, crystal-clear lakes, vivid green rainforests, towering granite peaks, captivating fiords, and untamed waterfalls tumbling up to hundreds of meters into virgin forested valleys.

The road that we biked to Milford Sound was one of the prettiest we have biked, and it is considered to be one of the world’s most scenic. The sheer magnitude of the massive landscape is awe-inspiring. Steep mountainous cliffs rise sharply from clear mountain rivers and water tumbles from the sides of cliffs in uninterrupted falls. When it rains, thousands of waterfalls appear, turning the whole area into a Land of Water. The clouds and fog only add to the intrigue and the mystique, although it is just as beautiful and impressive on clear days, when the tops of the mountain peaks can be seen.

Hiking the Kepler Track was one of the best ways to experience the unspoilt wilderness first-hand. The track led us from lakeside red beech forest to limestone bluffs and then along a ridge system that offered superb alpine vistas before descending steeply through a series of zigzags into a hanging valley and a rainforest. The track eventually led us back down through beech forest and riverside clearings to the shores of Lake Manapouri, whose otherworldly atmosphere and scenery were filmed and made famous in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Milford Sound, the best-known of the fourteen fiords, is impressive and inspiring, even during wet weather. Our two-hour cruise on a small boat took us around the fiord and out to the Tasman Sea and back, past literally thousands of tumbling waterfalls, mist-shrouded cliffs and mountains, and fur seals. The sheer granite cliffs tower into the heavens at up to an average of 1200 m. above sea level, while plunging steeply at the same time up to 290 m. into the deep clear waters below. The occasional rain didn’t drown our spirits in the least. The cruise was absolutely magnificent and was an excellent way to see an unforgettable and exciting part of Fiordland. The 1695-m. Mitre Peak, the highest of such peaks in the world to rise from the water, was hiding in the clouds, but the sheer steepness of its sides, along with the sheer cliffs around it, were impressive enough in and of itself. Milford Sound is so beautiful that it was even described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world!

Te Wahipounamu lies close to the alpine fault where two plates of the Earth’s crust meet and has been uplifted, folded, faulted, and submerged many times over millions of years. Glaciers have covered the area at times over the last two million years, creating U-shaped valleys, of which many are now fiords or lakes (A fiord is a U-shaped valley with steep cliffs that is created by glacial action and characterized by shallow entrances that slope quickly seaward to deep water.). There are hundreds of lakes in the area, as well as 14 fiords (mistakenly named “sounds” by early European explorers, which differ to fiords in that they are formed by rivers instead of glaciers). Fiordland, in the far south of the Park, contains some of the oldest rocks in New Zealand.

The area was well-known to the indigenous Maori people and many legends pertain to its formation and naming. The legend says that the demi-god Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved out the landscape and the fiords with his adze. By the time he reached Milford Sound in Fiordland, he had perfected his technique and made an impossibly beautiful place. The goddess of the underworld visited Milford Sound and was so impressed and alarmed by its beauty that she worried that people would want to stay and would no longer descend to the Underworld. And so she created the pesky sandfly to encourage people to move on from Milford.

Few Maori were permanent residents in Fiordland but engaged in seasonal food-gathering. Captain Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to explore the area, and his descriptions attracted sealers and whalers, who were the area’s first permanent European settlers. Later came timber mills and gold mines, but they didn’t last long. The famous Milford Track was first opened in 1889, and the Homer’s Tunnel connecting the outpost of Milford to the town of Te Anau wasn’t completed until 1953. Although an area of 940,000 acres was set aside for a National Park in 1904, it wasn’t until 1952 that the Fiordland National Park was officially recognized. Today, it covers 1.2 million hectares.

Today, thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit Te Wahipounamu each year, drawn by its beauty and significant range of outdoor activities. Visitors can experience the area’s natural attractions by trekking, boat cruises, kayaking, diving, rafting, cycling, fishing, jetboating, sailing, skydiving, caving, mountainbiking, horse trekking, or helicopter and airplane tours.

Flora, Fauna, and Marine Life
Much of the vegetation in Fiordland is moss, lichen and peaty humus, which clings to the steep cliff faces of hard rock that is washed by abundant rainfall and waterfalls. Beech forest is dominant and snow tussocks prevail above the 1000-meter bushline, along with mountain daisies and buttercups. Tree avalanches are common.

Fiordland is home to several species of birds, including the alpine kea, parakeets, robins, the kaka, grey warblers, brown creepers, pigeons, the brown kiwi, the threatened kakapo, and the flightless takahe, which was believed extinct earlier this century. Long-tailed and short-tailed bats – New Zealand’s only native mammal – live in the area. Some birds are carefully monitored in restricted areas and their numbers increased through artificial rearing programs. Introduced animals such as mice, rats, stoats, rabbits, deer, pigs, and possums have wreaked havoc on New Zealand’s native plants and animals, and especially ground-dwelling birds. Some control programs are now being carried out, aimed at eliminating these introduced species through traps and other means. We saw many of these traps during our trek in Fiordland.

We did see some birds in Fiordland, but very few. A lot of the birds are nocturnal and hard to spot. The alpine green and red kea parrot entertained us during our alpine treks and our mountain-pass crossings, although they did destroy Belou’s bike seat and chewed up Stephane’s bike seat cover when we camped at a mountain summit (while totally ignoring a bag of fruit carelessly left hanging on our bike overnight!). There is little else of animal life that we spotted in Fiordland – we didn’t even see any ants or spiders! Of course, the sandfly was omnipresent, especially in the rainforest or in areas with especially heavy rainfall. In some areas, clouds of them enveloped us, and we hurried on, as they tend to bite only when you stop moving or when there is no wind.

Fiordland’s marine environment is unique. Heavy rainfall (up to 8 m., or 26.5 ft., per year in some areas!) creates a permanent freshwater layer above the seawater in the fiords. Stained by tannins from the vegetation, this layer cuts down on the amount of light entering the water. This in turn restricts almost all marine life to the top 40 m., which is calm, clear, and relatively warm. Sponges, corals, and subtropical, cool water, and deep water fish all live in this band of water. In addition, the world’s largest population of black coral trees lives in the fiords, as well as brachiopods, clam-like animals that are said to have bypassed evolution and remained unchanged in over 300 million years.

Fiordland’s most-loved marine species include bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, little blue penguins, Fiordland crested penguins, whales, and Hector’s dolphin.

Although the underwater environment of the fiords is not included in the National Park, ten marine reserves have been established in Fiordland, and all life in these areas is protected.