I like woodland. Call it woods, forest or bush, I love places with complex, chaotic ecosystems including lots of trees. Perhaps the most complex (and exotic) woods are rainforests. But the problem with your classic rainforest is that it tends to be hot, humid and full of bugs. However, New Zealand’s rainforest, largely confined to the cooler South Island, is of the temperate variety, making it not at all hot and largely bug free.
My first encounter with NZ rainforest was at Punakaiki on the west coast of South Island, where people eke out an existence on a thin strip of land between the Tasmin Ocean and the mountains of the Southern Alps. Weather being what it is, said ocean and mountains interact to give lots of rain. The hostel where we stayed had rainforest an armslength away on three sides and dorms in huts down jungle paths (one German girl, arriving late and drunk, was completely unable to find her dorm in the dark). After getting drenched unloading the car I asked a member of staff if it was always this wet. ‘Yep’, she said cheerfully, ‘That’s why we call it a rainforest.’ Good point.
Further south we stayed at Franz Josef, where the juxtaposition of really high mountains and warm damp coast results in the unique spectacle of a glacier descending through a rainforest. But if you want total, full-on, unspoilt rainforest wilderness, you need to get into Fiordland. In keeping with a name that conjures up images of cold places, Fiordland forest is less of your palm-and-fern-tree jungle, and more a tangle of southern beech. Beech might sound less exotic, but the semi-flat surfaces you get in a tree with branches (rather than fronds) means that from trunk to twig every bit of tree without leaves of its own is covered in moss, fern, liverwort, lichen and various types of greenery I simply have no name for.
The whole bottom south-west of New Zealand is the Fiordland National Park, and the only bits of the Park that aren’t forest are either mountain, lake or sea. My guidebook says it’s an area of 12,500 square km, which I can’t picture at all, but I’d say we’re looking at about twice the size of Yorkshire. No-one is allowed to live in the National Park, and there’s only one sealed road, the achingly scenic Milford Road, built to ferry tourists to the most famous fiord of all, Milford Sound. Despite the commercialisation of this part of the Park, both the Sound and the Road are worth a visit. The road passes silent lakes then goes along a remote valley bottom before climbing up into high rainforst and finally going through a tunnel where you can stop and have your lunch stolen by, and, if you wait long enough, your car vandalised by, the Keas (South Island Evil Parrot). Milford Sound has near vertical walls with a thin veneer of vegetation and gets at least 7 metres of rain a year. It may well be the waterfall capital of the world.
As I’d seen Milford Sound in 1999, this time I wanted to get right away from it all. The only way to do this on land without walking for several days was to stay on the Borland Road, an excitingly unmaintained track built to service a mid-twentieth century hydro-electric power scheme set up on one of the remotest lakes. We stayed at the hostel just outside the park, itself stuck in a 1950s time-warp, then Beloved drove our (fortunately 4-wheel-drive) hire car as far as we could go before the road became impassable. This was less than half way along (and since then more of the road has been washed away in a flood), but we still got far enough to stare out from a view point and be reasonably certain that there was no-one out there as far as we could see in any direction, to visit what may be the highest loo in NZ and end the day with a midsummer snowball fight. Despite being in one of the most remote places I’ve ever experienced, the journey had a certain surreal quality, as the hydro scheme is still going (if now maintained by helicopter), and a twin line of huge electric pylons overshadow the road.
The best way to see Fiordland is, of course, by water. We cruised across the largest lake, Manapouri, and then, after a short drive on the far end of the Borland road (the bit beyond the largest rockslide), boarded the MV Waverley at a small wharf at the inland end of Doubtfull sound (not one of Captain Cook’s finest naming moments, Doubtfull Sound). The Waverley is one of only two commercial boats that cruise Doubtfull Sound, and though Doubtfull is perhaps marginally less spectacular that Milford waterfall wise, it’s a lot longer and a lot less crowded. The larger boat is a big tour boat but the Waverley has only ten berths and is run by a man and wife team, though as the wife was away the skipper’s ten year old nephew did much of the driving. Because the boat is small, it goes where the passengers want – including driving right under a waterfall, as if we weren’t wet enough in the rain. It would have been nice to see a little more wildlife, as aside from a couple of seals basking on a rock at the mouth of the Sound, the only animals we encountered were on a strictly food-chain basis: we ate the fish we pulled out of the sound, and the sandflies ate us. But that’s a minor quibble; to be out in such an unspoilt and beautiful place was a privilege. After cruising up and down the Sound, stopping to fish or kayak, we spent the night up a side-arm, where I fell asleep to the gentle hiss of rain on water, sleeping through the loud crash about midnight which was probably a tree avalanche – a quite frequent occurence when forests grow on 70 to 80 degree slopes. After a night tucked up snug in my bunk (just next door to the coal-stove), Beloved awoke me soon after dawn with the news that the rain had stopped. I came out on deck to find the water as smooth as smoked glass, the waterfalls full and throaty in the dawn silence, and the peaks around us festooned with streamers of mist. Above the mist I could make out the mountain tops, now dusted with a fresh fall of snow. Snow in a rainforest – only in New Zealand.