Fiordlands National Park

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.