Fiordland - New Zealand's paradise.
'Land is permanent. Man disappears'.
Piopiotahi, you will often hear, means in Maori 'a single thrush'. In fact piopio, a native New Zealand bird, now sadly extinct, was not a thrush, although it bore its resemblance. Piopio accompanied Maui, the legendary hero, on his quest for immortality. Maui wanted to give human race eternal life, but failed and died in an attempt. Piopio came to this place, which has since been called 'Piopiotahi' , to mourn Maui's death.
The Maoris have known about the Piopiotahi for centuries. They have been travelling along the western shores of the South Island in search of pounamu, the precious greenstone, that they used to make jewellery and weapons. (Pounamu in Maori means 'treasure'). The Europeans have not set their eyes on it, until the sailor John Grono landed here at the end of the 19th century. He called it Milford Sound, after Milford Haven in his native Wales.
Milford Sound is not a true sound, that is a river valley flooded by the sea, but a fiord, since it has been shaped by the erosive force of the glacier and, subsequently, filled with water. It is one of many fiords that cover the area of 12500 square km and form New Zealand's largest national park, part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site.
Milford Sound is also the best known and the most visited of all fiords, since it is one of the few that can be accessed by road. If you are hiking in the park along one of the popular walking tracks, you will be able to glimpse other fiords; alternatively you can jump on board of a boat or a helicopter: Fiordland has always been, and remains to this day, a remote place.
The remoteness of this part of New Zealand means it is a wildlife sanctuary. When takahe has been declared officially extinct, one stubborn ornitologist amateur, Geoffrey Orbell, came here to search for the bird... and found it!
Other birds, like fantails, tui, wood pigeons or grey warblers, abound. There are three species of kiwi. The yellow-eyed penguins and the Fiordland crested penguins build their nests here, in the forest. The mountain parrot, kea and the bush parrot, kaka, also made Fiordland their home. The keas are, as I have been told, 'as intelligent as a New Zealand's four year olds' and certainly very inquisitive and especially fond of vehicles.
If you decide to explore the fiords from the boat, you may be lucky to spot a whale, but you will certainly see the bottlenose dolphins, as curious of you, as you may be of them, or you can reflect on an easy life of the fur seals basking on the rocks.
You may want to forget about the sandflies, but they will certainly not let you. Tu te raki- whanoa, the mythical creator of the fiords, in order to prevent humans from endlessly standing and staring at the surrounding beauty, added the sandfly, to remind people they need to move on - a ruse that has never failed to work since.
Shall I also mention the possum? This Australian invader that spread across New Zealand and now chews through the local vegetation at an alarming speed, is also a common sight in the Fiordland. Unless you enjoy walking in the forest at night, your encounter with the brushtail possum is more likely, if you are a camper. You may hear a cat-like hiss and if you stick your head out of your tent, see a decent size, furry creature watching you with its glowing eyes from a nearby tree. One bus driver told me a story of his friend, who woke up one morning to find a possum in his sleeping bag!
For the visitor the rain is a blessing and a curse in the Fiordland. It rains here on average 182 days a year, so be ready to get wet, especially, if you are camping. In the forests and the valleys, the rain is likely to raise the water levels in the streams and rivers and within hours make them impassable (do not expect a bridge nearby, you may be disappointed). The trees, fallen on the track and covered in moss, are another slippery obstacle. Mind your step, if you walk on your own, there is no phone reception here.
Yet, despite of all those lurking dangers (you will laugh at them, once you are safe!), the rain makes the Fiordland even more beautiful. You will see many temporary waterfalls, an addition to the permanent ones that abound, turning the landscape into a water wonderland.
It is hard to talk about the beauty of the Fiordland: it leaves you speechless. The mountain walls raising vertically upwards from the ocean, the waterfalls cascading down the cliff faces, the lush rainforest. People come here and go, but the landscape thrives unchanged, barely touched by human presence.
This is the place where you can learn humility, rediscover your ability to wonder and to be surprised. It is a place where you can dream with your eyes wide open, it will not disappoint you!