Visited: April 17 – 24, 2015
Site Type: Natural
Background and Opinion:
Te Wahipounamu includes the four national parks of Fiordland (home of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound), Mt. Cook, Mt. Aspiring, and Westland. Spanning 26,000 square kilometers, it is 1/10th the size of New Zealand, or roughly the size of Vermont. Calling it ‘massive’ is a bit of an understatement, and declaring it to be ‘impressive’ does not even begin to describe what a National Geographesque spectacle it is to your unprepared eyes. Call it the Angkor or Machu Picchu of nature. Yes, it is THAT good… and I never thought I’d say it… maybe even better.
Mount Cook was my first taste and even in the rain, the Hooker Valley Trail was probably the best hike I had ever done to that point. I totally tip my hat to the Department of Conservation for producing and maintaining just enough to make a hike comfortable, but still leaving you in awe at its natural magnificence.
The bar was already high and after seeing the yellow eyed penguins in Oamaru, I didn’t think anything would top it. Then, we took a boat and kayak trip to Milford Sound. Milford Sound, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? This is what happened…
We drove from Queenstown to Milford Sound early in the morning. Our boat was at around 2pm, so there was no real rush. Hour after hour, we passed by something incredible. Whenever I thought about pulling over to take pictures of waterfalls, it was too late as another more impressive formation lay ahead. And no matter how many times we saw it, an eagle shadowing us on an empty road never got old.
Eventually, we reached a tunnel. By now, even this sign of civilization was welcome as our brains needed time to process all the cool stuff we had seen so far. According to the map, we are just a few kilometers away and if I went the speed limit, we could be there in 20 minutes. As soon as we reached the other side of the tunnel, it was obvious that only an idiot would drive that fast and not enjoy their surroundings. Dozens of waterfalls surrounded us on the windy road into the fjord. Every turn, one had to be careful to enjoy it without being too distracted and driving off the cliff. Car after car pulled over in front and behind us to take it in.
We finally made it to the parking lot of Milford’s small port. Two keas, the large native parrots, greeted us near the car. While I didn’t think much of them from pictures I had seen, I was surprised that they were very beautiful.
Eventually, we check in and go on the boat. The dozens of waterfalls leading to the fjord now seem but a memory as we are surrounded by hundreds of them. For the first time in my life, I put the camera down as I did not want my eyes to miss a thing. This moment was more important than the memory on a photograph. Mind-blowing scene after another, we made our way around until reaching the observatory for our kayak trip.
The rain came down a bit and as we learned, when it comes to waterfalls in Fjordland, this is actually a good thing. As we got to a river that intersected the fjord, we were told that the water is so fresh, you can actually put your hands down and just drink it. You didn’t have to tell me twice as I stuffed myself with this glacier water.
The whole drive back was just as amazing, with a stunning sunset to top it all off. The following few days I couldn’t stop talking about Milford Sound to friends and locals alike. People who have lived there for a while have seen that look on my face a thousand times. “If you thought Milford Sound was good, Doubtful Sound will blow you away,” was what they all told me. All I could think was that this was the most incredible place I had ever seen, and IT GETS BETTER? What the actual F***!
1) Completeness / Preservation (15 out of 15): Perfection.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (15 out of 15): Being 1/10 the size of New Zealand, it is bigger than some entire countries.
3) Natural Significance (25 out of 25): The geology alone is incredible enough to earn it a perfect score. However, the species in the area are completely unique and one of the best examples of evolution in an isolated environment. The endangered takahe is one of many flightless birds in New Zealand who lost the ability to fly with the absence of any land predators.
4) Personal Impact (15 out of 15): My jaw and the ground shared a very intimate moment.
5) Logistics (6 out of 10): The only blemish would be on the general time and money it takes to enjoy this area. First off, New Zealand in general is pretty isolated from the rest of the world. In addition, getting to the Te Wahipounamu area takes some work but more importantly, it is not cheap. I would have loved to have climbed on fox glacier, but that’s $500 NZD, Doubtful Sound, another $420 NZD. Milford Sound was relatively affordable and worth it, but we still shelled out $150 for the boat and kayaking trip. While you definitely get what you pay for, not everyone can afford to pay some of the obscene prices.
6) Uniqueness (20 out of 20): Nothing even comes close. Well, maybe Komodo. One of the main reasons for its inclusion is its unique wildlife as well as rapid geological change. No where else on earth have I personally seen such pristine nature which is also readily available to the public.
Combined Score: 96/100
Is this a good score? Find out how this UNESCO World Heritage Site compares in our rankings.
Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.
I should note this is the last UNESCO review for a while. I’ve only been to 18 more I haven’t reviewed but more importantly, I am revamping the scoring criteria. This is a very long and tedious process, but I hope it is for the best of the site (and hopefully the last update).