The hole in the ozone layer that has threatened south island for decades has started to close, but the danger isn’t over yet. While the human-produced chemicals that weakened the ozone layer have been banned or heavily restricted, it will take many years for the damage to be entirely reversed. When it came to those intensely green, mist-shrouded Middle-earth landscapes, the Lord of the Rings movies didn’t need stage sets or computer animation The South Island’s Fiordlands are perfect examples of that primeval Lord of the Rings look, with plunging waterfalls, pristine lakes, virgin forest, and steep peaks surrounding deep-gouged fiords. It’s spectacularly different from the geothermal spots like Rotorua that travelers used to associate with New Zealand.
In the 1980s, however, New Zealand faced an environmental crisis: A hole in the ozone layer, discovered in the 1980s over Antarctica, was letting in dangerous levels of UV radiation. Not only would this expose humans to higher risks of developing skin cancer, vegetation could be damaged, and ocean plankton could die off. For the South Island, which lay closest to the ozone hole, it was scary news indeed. But thanks to widespread bans on the refrigerants, solvents, and aerosol sprays that did most of the damage, the hole seems to be growing smaller with each Antarctic summer, though it may take another 50 or 60 years for the ozone layer to be completely restored.
The entrance to the Fiordlands’ most dramatic fiord, 23km-long (14-mile) Milford Sound, is so narrow, Captain Cook missed it completely when he first sailed around New Zealand some 200 years ago. Plenty of tourists have discovered it since, though—scenic planes and helicopters do regular flyovers, tour buses clog up the stunningly scenic Milford Road from Te Anau, and sightseeing cruises chug around the water. Head instead for the largest fiord in the park, Doubtful Sound, which is much more peaceful and remote. Real Journeys leads day sails on catamarans or overnight cruises on the Fiordland Navigator; out on the water you’re likely to have the bottlenose dolphins, frisky fur seals, and rare crested penguins all to yourselves.
The quintessential Fiordlands experience, though, is reserved for hikers, who can study the striations of its glacially carved rocks, discover delicate alpine wildflowers and mossy hollows, and feel the waterfalls’ spray on their skin. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation closely regulates the number of hikers on the famous Milford Track from Laek Te Anau to Milford Sound’s Sandfly Point. It’s a 4-day tramp, offered late October to mid-April only, and you must get permission from the park center’s Great Walk Booking Desk, Box 29, Te Anau. For a guided option, go with Milford Track Guided Walk or get a 1-day sample with Trips ’n’ Tramps. Hobbit sightings are few and far between, but there’re plenty of other wonders to compensate.