Fiordland is one of the most dramatic and beautiful geographic regions of New Zealand, situated on the remote wilderness southwestern corner of the South Island. It is a sightseeing and walking destination where towering snow-capped mountains, steep-sided fiords, thundering waterfalls, deep crystal clear lakes and unbroken lush rain forests produce a landscape of extraordinary scenic beauty.
Fiordland features 14 fiords, including the world-famous Milford Sound, as well as Doubtful Sound, which is the largest one. These u-shaped deep fiords were carved by glaciers over 100,000 years and then been flooded by the sea. The landscape is one where spectacular waterfalls on all sides of the sheer cliffs cascade hundreds of meters incessantly directly into deep black fiords.
This part of New Zealand has a very wet climate, receiving 6,300mm of rainfall per year, so visitors should always be prepared to enjoy some rainfall during their stay. But water is what makes Fiordland a verdant land with lakes, rivers, waterfalls and fiords, and come sunshine or rain, the views are incredible. After heavy rain, the waterfalls flow full and hundreds of other falls create a nature’s spectacle cascading down into the fiords.
Fiordland is almost an untouchable place; the scenery has remained unchanged throughout the ages. Human activity within Fiordland has been limited, due to the remoteness, the wet climate and the sheer steepness of the terrain, which made it difficult for settlement in the region. Much of the region is inaccessible by road. The township of Te Anau is considered the gateway to the fiords. It is the closest town to Milford Sound, with a scenic 2½-hour drive and 20 minutes by coach to Lake Manapouri and the start of a Doubtful Sound excursion.
Fiordland Attractions and Things to do
1 – Milford Sound
Milford Sound is probably the most famous of all of the fiords and the only one that can be accessed by road. It is approximately 16km from the head of the fiord to the open sea, where steep rock walls rise vertically upward from the ocean for hundreds of metres and waterfalls tumble hundreds of meters into the sea below, allowing cruise boats to maneuver beneath the falls.
Cruising Milford Sound is good opportunity to get close up views of this spectacular landscape. The boats travel 1½ to 2 hours, looking extremely insignificant against the grandeur of the iconic Mitre Peak and the walls of the fiord. Often, dolphins accompany your cruise up the sound and seals are a common sight as they bask on rocks.
Its beauty continues below the sea. Beneath the water, the mountains continue to plunge down as steep rock walls reaching a depth of up to 450 metres and producing a fascinating underwater world. A visit to the Milford Discovery Centre & Milford Deep Underwater Observatory or a guided dive tour allows access to sites rarely revealed to human visitors.
2 – Doubtful Sound
Less accessible than Milford Sound and practically untouched by man, Doubtful Sound, sometimes called ‘the Sound of Silence’, contrasts with Milford Sound because of its deep stillness, a sense of solitude and serenity.
Doubtful Sound is the deepest of the fiords, with 421 meters in-depth, and has 3 distinct arms. It is 3 times longer than Milford Sound, with a surface area 10 times longer. It also features some outstanding waterfalls in the area from Deep Cove to the open ocean, a distance of around 40 kilometers.
The fiord is rich in flora and fauna. Wildlife often sighted may include bottle-nose dolphins that appear and ride along with kayaks and boats at times, New Zealand Fur Seals found lazy on the rocks, Fiordland Crested Penguins that can be seen on many of the small islets at the entrance of the fiord, and sea birds such as the Albatross and Molly Mawk.
3 – Scenic Flight
Try a scenic flight and experience the wonder of Fiordland from a different perspective, which may include landing atop some of the glaciers. From the air you have access to remote areas of Fiordland and breathtaking views overlooking cascading waterfalls, such as Sutherland Falls, which most beautiful angle is taken from above, when you can see the lake behind the waterfall framed with snow-capped mountains in cold seasons.
A range of commercial operators offer helicopter, fixed wing and float plane flights out of Te Anau and Milford Sound to transport and photography charters as well as heli-hike options.
4 – Kayaking
Some of the fiords can be explored by kayak, like Milford and Doubtful Sound. Enjoy Fiordland’s dramatic scenery at water level from a kayak. It is a great way to be among its many fiords, explore many waterways and lakes in the region, get up close to the waterfalls and the wildlife that may include seals, penguins and dolphins.