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The South West New Zealand World Heritage Site takes up a massive ten percent of New Zealand’s total land area, that is a whopping 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million Acres) and encompasses Westland, Aoraki/Mount Cook, Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks. UNESCO has classified it as a ‘World Heritage Area’ - an area of outstanding universal value.
As if predicting its World Heritage status the landscape has been shaped by successive glaciations into sheer fjords, rocky coastlines, lakes and waterfalls and towering cliffs with a good two-thirds of the site covered with podocarps and southern beech trees - some of which are over 800 years old. The kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, lives in the park, as does the very rare, endangered takahe (a large flightless bird). Luckily for all who share an appreciation of the natural environment, in early December of 1990 New Zealand signed the convention making it a World Heritage area.
Here are our favourite places in each of the four great national parks that form the backbone of this World Heritage site:
Fiordland National Park
This is the largest of the 14 national parks in New Zealand and has spectacular ice-carved fiords, lakes and valleys, rugged granite tops and pristine mountain that run to the southern ocean. We explore four unique parts of this park. The exquisite Milford Sound and Milford Track are experienced by air, land and ocean - hiking, boating and via helicopter we enhance your experience to the max. The impact of the glorious isolation of both Martins Bay and the Hollyford Valley, home to some of Fiordlands most ancient trees and rare wildlife, steeped in both Maori and colonial history, will linger with you for a lifetime.
Mount Cook National Park
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is a rugged fantasyland of ice and rock, with 19 peaks over 3000 metres (9800 feet) including New Zealand’s highest mountain. The park is known for its rugged alpine beauty and contrasting delicate alpine flower - the Mount Cook Lily. Its Maori name, ‘Aoraki’ means ‘Cloud Piercer’ and at 12,016ft (3,754m) it towers above the surrounding snow-covered peaks providing an inspiring backdrop as we hike the Hooker Valley, or for those that have a little more vim than most its up to the Sealy Tarns a more challenging option with a steep climb around 550 vertical metres (1800 feet) – the reward being a stunning panorama of New Zealand’s highest peaks.
Mount Aspiring National Park
Mount Aspiring National Park is located in the Southern Alps, a wonderful mixture of remote wilderness, high mountains and beautiful river valleys. Here we take opportunity to hike the eastern end (the Glenorchy side) of the Routeburn Track. Hiking along the river flats and up to the spectacular Routeburn Falls – this a contender for the best day walk in New Zealand.
Lying close to the centre of Lake Wanaka is Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve. A unique glacial remnant of the last ice age, the island is also the historic site of early shipbuilding. After a lake cruise we take a well-formed track through native bush to near the top of the Tyrwhitt Peak, here we see Arethusa Pool, a small lake on the island with a small island within it, and on that island is another even smaller lake - very intriguing indeed! From the top of the island we have a stunning 360-degree view of Lake Wanaka and its surrounding mountains and valleys. Try as hard as you can and despite the uninterrupted views, it is impossible to see any form of human civilization – incredible!
Westland National Park
Westland Tai Poutini National Park is located about half way down the South Island on the Wild West Coast of New Zealand. If its contrast you want then we have it in spades. Firstly we kayak Okarito Lagoon, this is the largest unmodified wetland in New Zealand, covering 3,000 hectares (7400 acres) of shallow open calm water and tidal flats and is surrounded by magnificent kahikatea and rimu forest. The area is so green and luxuriant that it has been often compared to the Amazonian rainforest with many species of ferns and mosses festooning the towering trees and wild orchids throughout its forest. But more importantly Okarito Lagoon is well known for its outstanding avifauna (over 70 species of birds have been recorded here). The lagoon is a common feeding ground for kotuku (white heron) and royal spoonbill, both of which breed in the nearby Waitangiroto Nature Reserve.
Remnants of the last ice age (10,000 years ago) cascade from the Alps vast snowfields to valley floors, just 300 metres (900 feet) above sea level. Nowhere else in the world are glaciers in the temperate zone so accessible. At nearby Franz Josef glacier we can walk right up the the terminal face and at Fox Glacier we get right out on the glacier and hike a small section of the 20-kilometer (12 mile) glacier, set amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest.
Lake Matheson (the reflection of perfection) is a wonder in its own right. The dark brown waters of the lake create the ideal reflective surface and by a beautiful coincidence, the mountains to the east are perfectly positioned to reflect in the lake creating a picture perfect postcard reflection. The lake walk boasts many photo opportunities.
Who are we and what do we do?
One of the primary reasons for us at New Zealand Trails creating our small group New Zealand guided tours was the desire to share this special location, a primeval landscape with a reputation as one of the world’s great wilderness areas. New Zealand Trails through both hard work and reputation secured the highly prized concessions granted only by the Department of Conservation, allowing us to guide guests into this World Heritage site of outstanding natural value.
We are New Zealand Trails and we operate small group guided tours to the best spots in the South West New Zealand World Heritage area. Hike the Routeburn, Hollyford and Milford Tracks as well as in Mount Cook and Arthur’s Pass National Parks. You’ll also have amazing outdoor experiences on activities like sea kayaking, glacier hiking and discovering the most amazing glowworm cave on the planet. Guaranteed small groups, expert Kiwi guides and all the comforts of home all the way.
On our 13-day tour we set out to explore the symmetries of life above and below the ground, where water cascades from mountain peaks and rain-forest, from roaring untamed coastlines, into the black depths of ice-age carved valleys and deep underground glow worm habitats. Found in the wild are the native species of New Zealand including kea, mohua, kotuku , fur seals, bottlenose dolphins and if we are very lucky the very rare Fiordland Crested Penguin that nests in the remote Martins bay.
Brent Narbey - New Zealand Trails
Written: 25 articles
The World Heritage Walking Tour, perfect for your trip of a lifetime. The best walks in New Zealand, iconic outdoor activities, 4-star accommodation and delicious food and wine - in a friendly small group led by expert 'Kiwi' guides.