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February 29th 2008 by Tina
Forging the Fiords

Posted under New Zealand

Fiordland National Park is inclusive of 3 million acres in the southwest region of the South Island. This region is covered in dense, mountainous rainforest and meets the Tasman Sea on its western coast. The fiords were created during the ice ages when glaciers repeatedly advanced and regressed, cutting narrow and steep-sided valleys through the rock, which then became flooded by the sea. The national park is one of the wettest places in the world with some areas collecting almost 7 meters of rainfall per year. Not surprisingly, it was raining as we drove into the park on a day trip from Queenstown. The 4.5 hour drive was a series of picture-perfect landscapes and as we neared the fiordlands, we began to see the rainwater cascading down the sheer granite rock faces of the surrounding mountains.

The ecosystem within the fiordlands is fascinating. All of the plant species in this region require large quantities of water; without the exceptional levels of rainfall in the fiordlands, none of the plants could survive. A true rainforest, the plants and trees grow directly on the rock. Without soil, the plants must survive on water and sunlight. The process begins with mosses and ferns growing on the rock face, creating a firm base for trees to root and grow. The trees mature and intertwine, creating a canopy over the moss and ferns and shielding them from the harsh rains and most intense sunlight. This allows them to flourish into lush, thick undergrowth. This system of interdependence allows the plants and trees to grow heartily on an almost vertical rock face. With no soil on the mountains to soak up the rain, the water streams down the mountain in hundreds of white ribbons.

We arrived at Milford Sound, invigorated by the phenomenal beauty in our midst, and walked to the cruise office to try to get onto a cruise around the sound. Luckily, there was space on a boat that was leaving in ten minutes and we hurried down the dock to board. There are many more luxurious ways to see Milford Sound, involving Cessna flights, helicopters and plush overnight cruises but the price curve is painfully steep for budget travelers. Our little cruise vessel provided a basic level of comfort despite the rain, and a lovely trip around the sound.

In contrast to a fiord, a sound is “a river valley flooded by the sea following a rise in sea levels or depression of the land”. Milford Sound is protected from the waves of the Tasman Sea by tall, steep mountains so its waters are as tranquil as a lake. Our ship cruised slowly, skirting the steep slopes that plunge dramatically into the sound, granting views of stunning rock formations, lush rainforest, and streams of whitewater negotiating granite contours and a small colony of New Zealand Fur Seals. A steady drizzle and cloudy, gray skies diminished the postcard-perfection of our photographs but we both agreed that photos simply don’t capture the humbling majesty on this natural wonder. Staring in awe at the stark vertical rock faces, you can imagine a fast-forwarded version of the erosion that cut the land into a brilliant masterpiece over millions of years. You can envision the creation and progression of the rainforest, growing and fortifying itself, layer by layer, and yet marvel at its fragility – its dependence on the heavy rainfall, specific to this region, and to every other organism in the ecosystem. You can breathe in the fresh, moist air on a fiordland trail under a canopy of green.

On our way out of the national park, we stopped briefly for a nature walk on one of the shorter trails, called The Chasm. The rain and long drive ahead precluded us from endeavoring to hike further in but we wanted a glimpse of the trails. The path cut through dense green forest, curving around granite boulders and crossing over rocky, meandering streams. There were tiny, hidden waterfalls, abundant ferns and mosses in red, green and gold. Water trickled down moss-covered rocks, dripping from the glistening pointed tips of ferns. Everything looked so alive! During a twenty-minute hike, we crossed at least three bodies of water – all feats of sublime natural artistry; strewn with contoured boulders and fallen trees. The canopy of entwined trees overhead sheltered us from the rain and we could have walked longer were it not for two compelling forces: the narrow, tortuous road beckoning us to begin the long journey home and the hot meal and bottle of wine at the end of the road.

1 Comment »

One Response to “Forging the Fiords”

  1. From the Jellyfish on 29 Feb 2008 at 10:41 pm #

    Happy 6 month anniversary (well…happy 180 days you’ve been on the road, in the air, on horseback, camel, in the shark infested water!) And what a great place to celebrate. We love the shots of Queenstown and Milford Sound. We’re doing well here and missing you guys terribly; Meredith is losing her bellybutton and complaining all about it…Mark is rehearsing fatherhood with well-used phases like: “Put that down! Cut that out! Don’t strangle your sister!” He’s almost got it down.

    So now that you’re in NZ…is bungee jumping on the itinerary?