Fjordland National Park, in the south-west corner of New Zealand, is one of the wildest places in the country. In the valleys, lush native forests dwell below indomitable cliffs from which waterfalls cascade on rainy days, and at the top, snow covers alpine heaths and rocky peaks until late in the season.
Most of it is unaccessible to the average traveler. However, one road will take you from Te Anau to the sea, passing along majestic sceneries that will stay stuck in your mind for a while: the road to Milford Sound. Landscapes are stunning but wildlife is exciting as well: most of the region has escaped logging, and with great efforts made to control mammals, many birds are now thriving there.
Further reading: Sinbad Gully, valley of wonders
I spent 3 days in the region in January, 4 more days in April… and no, I didn’t do the cruise on Milford Sound! At the time, the prospect of photographing Kea, New Zealand rockwrens and other feathered cuties sounded much more appealing to me. It’s just one of those “must-do” that I skipped in my year here…
Since there’s so much to see along the road, I’ve divided my report in two. We’re starting today with the Eglinton Valley, the first stretch that goes north until the Divide. There, the road turns west along the Hollyford River, goes up to Homer Tunnel and goes down on the other side to Milford Sound.
Alright, let’s go!
When you enter the national park, you’ll be greeted by a view like that:
…or well, you probably won’t be there at sunset, but it will look somewhat similar. There might be more cars and busses parked there though, as Milford Sound is a popular touristic destination and all tours stop at the many attractions along the road. Most people are there on a day trip though, so they don’t stop very long.
You might not be impressed, but it starts to get better a few kilometers further, with the Mirror Lakes… errr, one of the many “Mirror Lakes” in New Zealand, at least. Perks of sleeping in the valley, you can get there at sunrise and get the reflection of the mountains in the lake before any breeze comes to break the mirror. Also, there will be no tour bus. Alternatively, it may well be a cloudy day and there will be nothing to see. Fjordland, like Westland, is a humid place, and you should expect the conditions to be miserable. At least you’ll be pleasantly surprised if the sun shines. I was quite surprised.
Next on the road is Knobs Flat. It’s a flat area with some funny knobs in the middle. There’s a holiday park there, with a camp kitchen and warm showers. In the forest, one can see Yellowheads (Mohoua ochrocephala)… if one is lucky. I searched, but I was never lucky. Bummer. At least some friendly South Island robins (Petroica australis) and Tomtits (Petroica macrocephala) came to keep me company and cheer me up.
The area is known for its New Zealand falcons (Falco novaeseelandiae), and I saw a few there. There’s also a hidden waterfall behind the camp.
The last remarkable stop before the Divide is the false beech (Nothofagus) forest at Lake Gunn. There’s a nature walk with signs that’s given for 45 minutes…. every time, it took me 2 hours to complete it 😀
The area teems with birds: Robins and Tomtits of course, but I’ve also seen a falcon there, and my only Pacific long-tailed cuckoo (Urodynamis taitensis). My main subject, though, turned out to be the smallest bird in New Zealand: the Rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris). It’s basically a small fluffy ball, without a neck, without a tail, which buzzes through the forest in pairs or small groups, always staying in contact with high-pitched but faint calls as they jump from branch to branch, high in the canopy or low to the ground.
The key, to photograph them, is to be patient but ready. I’ve noticed that, from time to time, an individual comes close to me and looks me up for a few seconds, before continuing on. That’s your moment! Shoot away, there might be no other opportunity!
Further reading: my tips for forest bird photography.
To be fair, the Eglinton Valley is but an appetizer for what comes next. Alpine parrots, torrent ducks, chasms, towering cliffs and powerful waterfalls, there will be all this in the next article. Stay tuned 😉
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