Fiordland: An introduction

Fiordland – part of Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Site – is celebrated for its thrilling scenery, remarkable nature and wildlife, and multi-day walking trails.

Te Anau, a picturesque township on the shores of Lake Te Anau, is the gateway to the southern wilderness area of Fiordland National Park and Milford and Doubtful Sounds, as well as the departure point for many walking trails. Fiordland National Park is New Zealand largest conservation area.

The peaceful township of Manapouri lies on the shores of the lake of the same name and Waiau River. Manapouri triggered environmental consciousness in New Zealand in the 1950s when plans were made to flood the lake for power generation. Nowadays, Manapouri is the starting point for Doubtful Sound excursions and a variety of day and overnight walks.

Of the 14 fiords in the Fiordland region, only Milford Sound is accessible by road. From the head of the fiord, cruise boats take visitors past majestic Mitre Peak and 16 kilometres (10 miles) out into the open sea.

Doubtful Sound – three times longer and 10 times larger than Milford Sound – is Fiordland’s second-largest fiord. Accessed by boat and plane, this remote wilderness area is renowned for its wildlife and arresting natural beauty.


Māori were the first people to discover the beauty of Fiordland and have many stories about the formation and naming of this remote wilderness. According to one legend, demi-god Tu-te-raki-whanoa used te hamo (his adze) to carve the fiords from rock. Starting in the far south, he created a rough coastline and many islands, gradually perfecting his technique along the way. Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) was his greatest achievement. When underworld goddess Hine-nui-te-po saw the fiord's beauty, she feared that visitors would never leave, so released sandflies to chase them away.

Early Māori visited Fiordland on hunting trips, and for tangiwai – a translucent greenstone / New Zealand jade found at Anita Bay and at the mouth of Milford Sound.

Captain James Cook and his crew spent five weeks anchored in Dusky Sound in 1773, the first Europeans to visit Fiordland. Cook’s maps and descriptions of the area attracted sealers and whalers, and from the mid-19th century surveyors, explorers and prospectors began exploring Fiordland’s interior.

Nature and wildlife

Fiordland, one of the southern hemisphere’s great wilderness regions,  was awarded World Heritage status in 1986 for its stunning natural features, exceptional beauty and role in demonstrating the Earth’s evolutionary history.

The region is a haven for native New Zealand birds such as tui, kea, kaka, native pigeon, bellbird, tomtit and grey warbler, and the endangered takahe.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) operates endangered species programmes, including breeding projects for takahe, kiwi and kakapo, on pest-free offshore islands. Human impacts are minimised by restricting visitor numbers on popular walks like the Milford Track.

The flightless alpine takahe was thought to be extinct until the 1950s, when a small population was rediscovered in Fiordland's Murchison and Stuart mountains. Since then, a breeding programme has helped increase the population, while DOC continues to carefully monitor the only wild population of about 160 takahe.

Marine life thrives in the fiords, home to bottlenose dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, Fiordland crested and little blue penguins, and visiting whales. Scenic cruises and kayak tours explore the fiords and wildlife in its natural habitat.

Milford Sound’s high annual rainfall and distinctive narrow shape creates a freshwater layer on top of the seawater, allowing deep-water species to survive at a much shallower depth. Milford Sound Underwater Observatory and guided dive tours give visitors a glimpse of rare species such as the red and black corals. 

Adventure / outdoors

Three of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks are in Fiordland. The Kepler, Routeburn and Milford tracks are regarded as some of the world’s best walks.

Milford Track – a four-day, 54 kilometre (33 mile) hike between Lake Te Anau and Sandfly Point in Milford Sound – is one of New Zealand’s famous tramping routes. Walkers can choose independent or guided options, but track numbers are restricted, and accommodation and boat access must be reserved in advance. 

Routeburn Track, a 32 kilometre (20 mile) traverse of Mount Aspiring and Fiordland national parks, takes about three days to complete. Access is less restricted than for Milford Track and camping is permitted. Much of the Routeburn is accessible to day walkers.

Kepler Track, a 67 kilometre (40 mile) journey through Fiordland National Park, starts and finishes at Lake Te Anau. The Kepler is one of New Zealand's safest back-country tracks. It has no river crossings, and is well marked and amply provided with huts. The complete loop takes three to four days and is suitable for moderate outdoor and fitness ability. 

And by the way...

  • Fiordland National Park, New Zealand's biggest national park, covers 5 per cent of the country’s total land mass.
  • Fiordland has 14 fiords, of which Milford Sound is the northernmost.
  • Milford Sound, with more than eight metres (26 feet) of annual rainfall, is one of the world’s wettest places.
  • Lake Te Anau is New Zealand's second-largest lake.
  • Lakes Manapouri and Hauroko are New Zealand's deepest lakes.
  • Milford Sound has two year-round waterfalls: Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls.
  • Homer Tunnel, which connects Milford Sound with the rest of New Zealand, took nearly 20 years to complete. 
  • Milford Sound is named after Milford Haven in Wales.