World heritage sites are places that UNESCO has recognised as having outstanding natural or cultural value for everyone. In New Zealand you can explore three large world heritage sites - Tongariro National Park, Te Wahipounamu and the Subantarctic Islands.
Tongariro: The ultimate gift
Mountains have great spiritual significance to Maori people. So it was a great gesture of trust when, in 1887, Maori chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV gifted three spectacular volcanic mountains to the nation.
The mountains - Ruapehu, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe - and adjoining lands formed the Tongariro National Park, which is in the centre of the North Island. Recognition as a world heritage site in the early 1990s confirmed the great natural and cultural significance of this area.
The region is still volcanically active. Mount Ruapehu erupted in 1996, coating its snow-covered slopes with a thick layer of ash. Near the barren rock-strewn summit of Tongariro, wildly-coloured crater lakes and sulphurous smells leave hikers in no doubt about the nature of the land they are standing on.
Walking trails range from short excursions through lowland forests to the popular eight-hour Tongariro Crossing. Overnight hikes include the Round the Mountain track, which takes four to six days to circumnavigate the lower slopes of Mount Ruapehu. In winter, two large ski fields operate on this mountain.
Te Wahipounamu: Mountains, forests, fiords and glaciers
Te Wahipounamu encom passes several national parks in southwest New Zealand - Aoraki/Mt.Cook, Fiordland, Mt. Aspiring, and Westland National Park. The site covers 26,000 square kilometres of remote forests, snow-topped mountains, steep glaciated valleys and coastal fiords. In 1990 it was recognised as a world heritage site because it contains some of the best representations of flora and fauna originating from the prehistoric continent of Gondwanaland.
Scenic flights offer big-picture perspectives of this magnificent part of the world. River jet boat safaris are an exciting and informative way to quickly reach some very remote areas.
An extensive network of short walks and overnight hiking trails is managed by the Department of Conservation. Famous multi-day hikes - such as the Routeburn, Hollyford and Milford tracks - will lead you deep into forested valleys and over lofty mountain passes. You can overnight in communal huts or take guided tours which include gourmet meals and relatively luxurious accommodation.
At Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak, there are several walking tracks originating near the village, including a one hour trail to view the spectacular Tasman Glacier. This ancient valley of ice is 26 kilometres long and up to three kilometres wide. In summer the beautiful Mount Cook Lily, a large buttercup, brings a touch of softness to the harsh alpine environment.
From the west coast, short walks lead to the terminal faces of the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Longer guided walks onto the glaciers are available, or you can take a scenic flight and land on the snow and ice at the top.
Milford Sound was carved from the rock by prehistoric glaciers. The immense, near-vertical sides of this fiord make large cruise boats look like tiny toys. Waterfalls tumble more than 150 metres to the crystal clear waters below. Dolphins, fur seals and penguins are regularly sighted in the 16 kilometre long sound. Options for exploring Milford Sound include sea kayaks and day cruises.
Subantarctic Islands: Arks in the Southern Ocean
Content with near anonymity, five pristine island groups lie in the Southern Ocean, southeast of New Zealand. Windswept and fragile, these beautiful islands are home to significant populations of many rare species, such as the southern royal albatross, the yellow-eyed penguin and the New Zealand (Hooker’s) sea lion.
Together, the Bounty Islands, Antipodes Islands, Snares Islands, Auckland Islands and Campbell Island support 126 bird species including five seabirds that breed nowhere else in the world. All five island groups received World Heritage status in 1998.
Visiting these islands is a rare privilege and carries considerable responsibility to ensure their unique ecosystems remain unchanged. Guided expeditions are available on purpose-built vessels, and visitor numbers are carefully controlled.