Strange Geographies: The Fjords of New Zealand

Image credit: 

For most people, the word "fjord" conjures up thoughts of Scandinavia and the majestic, frozen North. But New Zealand, unbeknownst to many, can boast some of the world's best fjords -- hemmed by towering cliffs, fantastically deep and stretching like long, crooked fingers from the Tasman Sea into some of New Zealand's most lush and remote scenery. They are to be found, appropriately enough, within an enormous and mostly unpopulated wilderness known as Fjordland. The easiest of the fjords to visit is Milford Sound, and I was fortunate to be able to take a two-day boat trip down the length of it a while back. This is what I found.

Pictured above is Mitre Peak, which towers nearly a mile above the surface of the water. The water in the glacier-carved fjord itself is some 1600 feet deep. The veritcal scale of everything in Milford is mind-boggling.

Milford Sound is also the wettest place in New Zealand, making it one of the wettest places in the world -- it gets nearly 268 inches of rain every year. That doesn't stop tourists from visiting, though, because big rains put on a spectacular show, creating hundreds of waterfalls along the 15km length of the sound, which crash from the peaks a half-mile or more to the water below.

We picked an unseasonably dry couple of days to visit the fjords (wouldn't you know it) but regardless of the drought-like conditions, there were still a few amazing waterfalls to be seen. The captain maneuvered our boat nearly underneath this one, at which point everyone rushed to the bow and got completely soaked.

fiord waterfall

IMG_5864.JPG

The peaks along the length of the sound are so high that they kind of make their own weather. Three-quarters of a mile up: clouds. For scale, see if you can pick out the huge, two-story boat at the bottom-right of the cliffs. (They're that big.)

IMG_3106.JPG

When Captain Cook sailed past the entrance to the fjords back in the 18th century, he decided not to explore them because, thanks to their extremely narrow-looking entrances, he doubted they led to anything substantial or remarkable. (That's how another of New Zealand's fjords, Doubtful Sound, got its name.) As you can see, the cliffs overlap so completely as the sound twists its way to and from the ocean that it's difficult to see more than a kilometer or two down its length.

IMG_3125.JPG

One unforgettable treat was kayaking on the Sound at dusk, skirting along the edges of the mighty cliffs and checking out all the seals and seabirds that make their homes near the water. Fed by rainfall but also by glaciers, the water was numbingly cold; luckily, this time I didn't do what I normally do in kayaks, which is flip over.

milford kayakers

We spent the night on the boat, and woke up at the mouth of the fjord, where it joins the Tasman Sea. It was a delicate, still morning, and we were blessed with a rosy dawn, a rare thing in this land of year-round rain.

windows

IMG_5834.JPG

Looking toward Australia as we headed back:

kayaks

Mitre Peak in the morning. I tell ya, looking at this rock never got old.

milford sound

My only regret is that we weren't able to walk the nearby Milford Track -- a multi-day backpacking adventure that's one of the world's great hikes -- but if any of our readers have, I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

To order prints or get high-resolution downloads of the photos in this essay, click here.

More 'Strange Geographies'...

The Mojave Desert's Airplane Graveyard
*
Salvation Mountain
*
The Aborted Suburb of Rotonda Sands, Florida
*
Village Life in Vanuatu
*
Almost the Outback

Or you can see all of them here.

twitterbanner.jpg

More from mental_floss...

March 1, 2010 - 2:32am
webby
submit to reddit