The Greenwood Guide to New Zealand

Southland

  • Cross over to complete wilderness in Doubtful Sound. Skim over its still waters in a kayak among bottle-nosed and dusky dolphins, Fiordland penguins and furry seals.
  • Stock up on mint cake, get yourself a compass, buckle up your tramping boots and head out on the 3 - 4-day walking extravaganza that is the world-famous Milford Track. Alternately, for another walk in the Fiordland National Park that's big on scenery yet low(er) on crowds, try the 4-day Kepler Track from Te Anau.
  • Hover in a helicopter over the dramatic (and much photographed) cliff face of Mitre Peak, watching it drop steeply down into Milford Sound. The only way to really appreciate the immensity of this raw and powerful region is from the air or in a boat or kayak on one of its sounds.
  • Visit the world's most southerly town in April and join in the oyster-slurping fun at the annual Bluff Oyster (a true New Zealand delicacy) and Seafood Festival.
  • Go midnight kiwi spotting on Stewart Island and see other rare birds on neighbouring, predator-free Ulva Island.
  • For a really remote hiking experience, walk part or all of Stewart Island's Rakiura Track. From here there's not much between you and, well... an awful lot of cold, deep sea, and eventually the Antarctic.
  • Explore the rugged and largely undisturbed coastline of the Catlins. Sea, estuary and forest birds will delight ornithologists whilst the amazing wave-like pinnacles at The Nuggets and an incredible fossilised forest at Curio Bay are a geologist's dream.

A litany of (introduced) disasters

Many of the park's threatened species owe their demise to predators such as possums, deer and stoats and, in turn, to humans who first introduced these pests to these peaceful green isles.

Possums were introduced in the 1830s to establish a fur trade and have adapted to NZ conditions so well that they are now considered a major threat not just to the forest greenery but to the bird and insect life as well. They browse heavily (an estimated 22,000 tonnes (!) of leaves being devoured every couple of nights) in the forests and grasslands and have been seen to take insects, birds' eggs and chicks. The threat they pose to eco-systems explains why these creatures have the unenviable reputation as New Zealand's public enemy number one. Several initiatives to control possum numbers exist throughout the country and there are increasing numbers of commercial ventures into possum fur and even possum meat! The hope is to provide lovely natural products and to throw the rescue of their threatened forests and birds into the bargain as well.

Also introduced to the forests back in the 1800s were deer. By the 1940s their numbers were also so out of control that the government had to employ deer cullers, paid on a bounty system, to shoot deer for a living. While they were reasonably effective in some places, it wasn't until helicopters were used as aerial gun-ships from the late 1960s to the early 1980s that the forests were freed from the threat of over-grazing by deer.

And as if that's not enough, yet another introduced species, the stoat was introduced to New Zealand in a foiled bid to control rabbits (which were also introduced!). Instead, these natural-born survivors shifted their feeding habits to the country's native birds..

Tragically, in an island environment isolated from the rest of the world for more than 80 million years, and free of mammal predators (the only mammals native to these shores are two species of bat), a number of birds developed flightlessness (simply because they didn't need to fly) and rather eccentric habits. Each of them evolved to fill different ecological functions, roles normally taken by mammals in other eco-systems. For example, takahe are grass eaters, and kiwis and wrens are ground insect-eaters. Stoats and possums simply couldn't believe their luck. Furthermore, many of the birds are unafraid of humans, a common characteristic resulting from the absence of predators, and which became a deadly one when human hunters arrived. Most famed amongst the birds that were driven to extinction by humans is the giant moa. This impressive creature was over 3m tall and weighed about 250kg - one of the biggest birds ever known to the world.

Curiosity at Curio Bay's petrified forest

Deep in the South Island, hidden under the waves at high tide, lies a clue to New Zealand's birth - a petrified sub-tropical forest of stumps and trunks dating back 160 million years (give or take 20 million). This is one of the most extensive fossil forests in the world and the cycads, tree ferns and kauri here are similar to South American species - evidence of New Zealand's place in the ancient super-continent, Gondwanaland. Try as I might, I couldn't quite fathom just how geologically ancient were the tree-like swirls in rocks before me. It is quite extraordinary and definitely worth a peek.

Fiordland National Park

Fiordland is a region dominated by forest and water. Its fourteen fiords and five major lakes are flanked by steep mountains clad with thick, temperate forest, making the interior virtually impenetrable except along its 500km of tracks. The isolation, variety of habitats and the incredible annual rainfall (ranging from a paltry 1m in the east to a massive 8m in the west) of the area allow a diverse flora and fauna to thrive and there are over 700 plants endemic to it.

Some of the best examples of plants that were once found on the ancient super-continent of Gondwana still exist here. The most prominent of these are the evergreen beech trees that make up about 80 - 90% of the forest. The two main types you'll see are the silver and the red varieties, though the mountain beech is pretty common too. The other main forest type is the mixed podocarp. This is an absolutely gorgeous mix of trees from beeches to a good collection of native pines such as rimu, kahikatea, matai, miro and other leafy trees like the kamahi and the beautiful rata, which produces lovely red flowers around Christmas.

Incredibly, much of the forest grows on virtually sheer rock cliff-faces, especially noticeable on the sides of the fiords. These trees survive with next to no soil and only moss holds the moisture and the nutrients around the shallow tree roots that cling to the rock. On some of theses cliff-faces only 5 - 10% of the trees will be anchored into a crack in the rock and all the other trees rely on those anchor trees for their very existence. Unfortunately this means that if one of the anchor trees lets go, then the rest all avalanche to the valley floor or into the waters of the fiord and leave huge, treeless scars on the mountainside that take many years to regenerate.

The National Park is also known for its wildlife and is, or was, home to some of New Zealand's strangest birds. The takahe, for example, is a large flightless rail related to the more populous pukeko, more commonly known throughout Australasia as the purple moorhen. The bird is of ancient lineage and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1948. Fiordland was also the final refuge for the world's only flightless parrot, the nocturnal kakapo. There are now a number of recovery projects for these unique birds on pest-free offshore islands.

In the absence of human activity, marine wildlife flourishes here as well. Bottlenose dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, little blue penguins and Fiordland crested penguins or tawaki are happy residents in the waters of the fiords.

The environment below the water is as fascinating and unique as its acclaimed landscape above. Run-off from heavy rainfall on the mountains creates a permanent freshwater layer on the surface of the saltwater that varies in depth from 5 cm to over 10 m. At the same time, tannins, washed out of the vegetation on land, stain the water the colour of weakly-brewed tea and create a dark layer on the surface. In turn, this cuts down the amount of light entering the seawater, restricting most of the marine life to the top 40m. This band (below the freshwater layer) is calm, clear and relatively warm and is home to sponges, corals (including one of the world's largest populations of black coral trees, some of which are up to 200 years old) and fish of sub-tropical, cool water and deep-water varieties. Amazingly the waters are also home to brachiopods, clam-like animals that have remained relatively unchanged for over 300 million years.

When sounds like a sound is a fiord.

Contrary to their names, Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound et cetera are, in fact, fiords. Sounds are flooded river valleys whereas fiords are valleys carved by tremendous power and pressure of glaciers during successive ice ages and then, later, as the ice melts and the water-levels rise, they are flooded by the sea.

Sandflies

Sandflies, for those lucky enough not to have made their acquaintance, are nasty little biting insects with the dubious distinction of being New Zealand's only pest. Smaller than mosquitoes but with a similar (though actually slightly worse) bite, they appear in clouds around Milford Sound and along the West Coast's wild beaches. In fact, they are generally plentiful in most wilderness areas below 900m. They have a particular talent for driving you mad. Besides hoping for rain, frost or their early extinction, it is best to avoid hanging around in shady forests, their preferred domain.

In the olden days drinking paraffin was the preferred tonic, but nowadays a good insecticide should suffice as well as covering up. prevention always being the best cure. (Top tip: Avon's 'So-So Soft' moisture lotion has proven its worth midge-busting in Scotland, and works a treat on keeping sandflies at bay too. Bird's Ferry Lodge swear by the stuff and even keep supplies for grateful guests.)

Luckily, even sandflies have their weaknesses: learn them.

Firstly, they are slow; even when walking at a slow pace they cannot keep up and you will not notice them. This works even better if there is a wind.

And lastly (obviously not that many weaknesses then), they go away at night. As soon as it gets dark they will disappear, only to return at first light. This can be a trial in summer when it stays light until 10pm, but cover up and there will always be relief ahead if you can wait until dark.

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