The great beyond beckons

Fiordland is pitched to the unsuspecting visitor as a place "beyond belief" because, quite frankly, you have to see it to believe it. Alexia Johnston reflects on her time spent enjoying one of New Zealand’s treasures.

A Fiordland Lodge log  cabin provides the perfect end to an  adventurous day in the great...
A Fiordland Lodge log cabin provides the perfect end to an adventurous day in the great outdoors of Fiordland. PHOTO: FIORDLAND LODGE
Nestled  in the depths of south Westland lies a world of adventure.

From the inquisitive wildlife to glass-like waterways reflecting the bushland that towers above — around every corner is a new Instagram moment.

Our adventure starts on Faith, a "motor yacht", which started her life in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1935.

If only her timbers could talk.

It is claimed Winston Churchill spent time on board, no doubt smoking cigars and making the most of the adventure that lay ahead.

Faith is also understood to have served during World War 2.

Faith’s crew treat us to drinks before taking us across Lake Te Anau to our first bit of exploring: a short guided bush walk to an idyllic hidden lake.

The lake is one of a dozen in the area, perched in the middle of an island, so remote and protected from the elements that a crystal-clear mirror image greets us on arrival.

Along the way, we learn about the moss carpeting the land and the fungi forming on dead or dying trees.

We hear stories of how Maori iwi once used the fungi to start their camp fires and how the women would carry the hot coal-like bracken to the next location using woven flax baskets.

A soak in a hot tub at  Fiordland Lodge helps recharge your  batteries in time for your next day...
A soak in a hot tub at Fiordland Lodge helps recharge your batteries in time for your next day’s adventure. PHOTO: FIORDLAND LODGE
As we return to Faith, we are treated to canapes and more drinks for our journey back to Te Anau, but not before turning the motor off and raising the sails to experience sailing at its finest.

Back on dry land, our final destination for the day is Fiordland Lodge, perched in a rural-like setting where peace and quiet is interrupted only by the majestic sound of birdlife.

The lodge dominates the land below, providing elevated views, looking out to the mountains of Fiordland National Park.

Our host guides us beyond the lodge to a quaint two-storey log cabin, which offers the same type of charm, but on a much smaller scale.

It is a perfect cosy nook, nestled in nature, providing us with a view of what we will soon explore — the dense bushland of the Kepler Track.

The following day, we wake to thick fog, which means our heli-hike adventure over silver beech forests and hidden lakes to Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track is going to be more hike than heli.

Our guide leads us along about 8km of the track as it meanders around the lake, while enhancing our knowledge of the area.

The dense bush that branches out either side of the track, like a scene from Jurassic Park, takes us into a world of wonder.

We are told the Kepler Track is usually frequented by enthusiastic runners and tourists exploring one of the country’s "great walks".

Captain Adam Butcher welcomes us back on board Faith following a  walk to one of Fiordland’s many...
Captain Adam Butcher welcomes us back on board Faith following a walk to one of Fiordland’s many hidden lakes. PHOTO: ALEXIA JOHNSTON
We pass only one runner, who is putting in the hard yards training for the hotly contested Kepler Challenge.

The challenge consists of a 60km mountain "run" and a 27km mountain "grind".

As I make a mental note to brave it and give it a go one day, I’m comforted by the fact I will probably be pipped at the post when it comes to entering — entries are limited and sell out within about two and a-half minutes.

The track remains quiet throughout our walk. Only birds break the silence.

A handful of other people arrive at Brod Bay at the same time as us, but nothing like the usual stream of tourists, another sign that Covid-19 is changing the world we live in.

Our guide comes prepared with a flask of hot water and coffee, topping off what is, undoubtedly, one of the best adventures I’ve been on since lockdown. Or pre-lockdown, for that matter.

A water taxi soon arrives to take us across the lake to Te Anau.

Our next adventure is a Fiordland Jet ride, which increases the pace of our trip by a notch ... or 10.

It is a short bus ride to the Waiau River before setting off at typical jet-boat pace along the river to the deserted shores of Lake Manapouri.

A tomtit, just one of  many bird species  that have settled in the area, greets us on the Kepler...
A tomtit, just one of many bird species that have settled in the area, greets us on the Kepler Track. PHOTO: ALEXIA JOHNSTON
Not far along, we come to a brief stop to watch trout, just some of the hundreds, if not thousands, that call the river their home.

Of course, no jet-boat ride would be complete without a few 360-degree spins, warned about by our driver.

A slower approach is adopted as scenes made famous by The Lord of the Rings start to appear.

Film scene or not — these are stunning landscapes, reminiscent of an untouched world.

As we make our way to land, we are reminded of the flora and fauna that lie within Fiordland National Park.

We are guided on a short walk along another section of the Kepler before making our way back to the jet-boat.

The rest of our day is spent marvelling at the scenery captured in the short film Ata Whenua Shadowlands.

Filmed mostly from a helicopter, Ata Whenua takes us to parts of Fiordland we were not fortunate enough to see or brave enough to venture to.

It is a must-see for anyone who wants to discover the true scale of the area’s landscape, accentuated by wildlife and rushing waterfalls.

The waterfalls are powered by the estimated 7000mm of rain that falls each year in Fiordland, all over an average of 200 days.

Taking in the scenery with a jet-boat ride along the Waiau River and into Lake Manapouri is a...
Taking in the scenery with a jet-boat ride along the Waiau River and into Lake Manapouri is a thrill-seeker’s dream. PHOTO: FIORDLAND JET
Our final day approaches and brings with it clear skies, more boat trips and potentially the best photo my camera has ever captured.

As we set off across Lake Manapouri, we learn more about the wilderness in front of us, before navigating Wilmot Pass by bus, en route to Doubtful Sound.

The pass is believed to be New Zealand’s most expensive road, costing about $80/sq m.

It took a staggering two years to construct and was completed in 1965, just in time to transport machinery from Doubtful Sound to the Manapouri Power Station.

The Wilmot Pass is also the only road on the New Zealand mainland not connected to the rest of the network.

Brief windows of opportunity provide a sneak peek of what lies ahead as we wind our way along the unsealed road through dense bush.

Hopes of more fine weather on the other side of the pass are not dashed — a small miracle, considering the area has already gone five days without rain!

Our boat is waiting for what many people have described to me as a journey of a lifetime.

As we venture into the great unknown, our skipper steers us towards scenes reminiscent of postcards and then it appears — the image waiting to be plastered across Instagram.

 Low-lying fog comes into view as we journey into the depths of Doubtful Sound. PHOTO: ALEXIA...
Low-lying fog comes into view as we journey into the depths of Doubtful Sound. PHOTO: ALEXIA JOHNSTON

Mountains covered in dense bush cast a dramatic scene on the still waters below.

This is mirror imagery at its finest.

As I look to my right, a low-lying strip of fog hovers, adding just enough drama to secure a role in a Peter Jackson trilogy.

We weave our way into the nooks and crannies of one of the many arms branching out, where we learn about Captain James Cook’s endeavours, or hesitations, as was the case on this occasion.

As the story goes, Cook was reluctant to venture into the sounds because he was "doubtful" he would be able to sail Endeavour back out due to the prevailing westerly winds.

Instead, he continued on around the South Island.

Even we manage to explore only a small fragment of what Doubtful Sound has to offer.

But that’s OK, because I doubt this will be my last trip to this remote corner of the world.

  • Alexia Johnston was hosted by Destination Fiordland, Fiordland Historic Cruises, Fiordland Lodge, Trips and Tramps, Kepler Water Taxi, Fiordland Jet, Fiordland Cinema and Real Journeys.

FIORDLAND

  • Five days without rain is considered a drought.
  • It is one of the wettest places on Earth.
  • It has an average of 200 rain days a year.
  • Largest National Park in New Zealand, covering 1.2million hectares.
  • Main towns are Te Anau and Manapouri.

Where to stay 

  • There is a wide range of accommodation options, from backpackers to farm stays and holiday parks to luxury lodges.

How to get there 

  • Te Anau is accessible via State Highways 6 and 94 from Queenstown (2 hour drive), SH1 and 94 from Dunedin (4 hours), or via the Southern Scenic Route or SH1 and 94 (both between 2-3 hours) from Invercargill.

For more information, visit fiordland.org.nz.

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