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Tales from New Zealand's Te Anau

Te Anau is often overshadowed by two of the South Island’s biggest destinations, but this delightful NZ town is absolutely worth the detour, writes Gary Walsh
 
The town of Te Anau lies about halfway between Queenstown and Milford Sound, the two big-ticket items in New Zealand’s south, and might be politely dismissed as a staging post – a pleasant spot for a night’s sleep in between the showcase destinations. But that would be doing it a great disservice. 

Getting there is itself a delight. The single road from Queenstown initially runs alongside the southern leg of Lake Wakatipu in the lee of the snaggle-toothed peaks of The Remarkables mountain range before opening out into green rolling farmland. The fast-flowing and ultra-transparent Oreti River surges along parallel to the highway for part of the way.

the remarkable mountains queenstown lake wakatipu south island new zealand
mountains up cloase in fiordland national park south island new zealand

A few sleepy villages – Athol, Lumsden, Mossburn – pass by in this epic landscape of wide river valleys, forests and brooding mountain ranges. The Kepler and Murchison Mountains loom on the approach to Te Anau, dominating the western sky and forming part of the massive World Heritage-listed Fiordland National Park. This stretches to the south-western corner of the South Island and includes Milford, Dusky and Doubtful sounds, as well as three of New Zealand’s Great Walks – the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler tracks.

New Zealand’s restless geology is on show at Te Anau’s glowworm caves, which are being constantly reformed and reshaped by the powerful rush of water through the 12,000-year-old network of underground caverns. A short trip across the lake brings you to the cave complex, where visitors have to traverse metal walkways over surging subterranean rivers to view the limestone formations. 

Luminescent glow worms in the Waitomo cave, New Zealand
jet boating waiau river south island new zealand

The adrenaline rush is provided by a jetboat trip along the Waiau River – which did duty as Middle-earth’s River Anduin in The Lord of the Rings films – pulling heart-stopping 360-degree turns and weaving from bank to bank through dense stands of beech forest as far as Lake Manapouri. There are also sedate moments when the boat pauses to allow passengers to search for rainbow and brown trout in deep, clear and bracingly cold pools.

Lake Manapouri, less than half-an-hour from Te Anau, is the gateway to Doubtful Sound, which receives a tiny fraction of the visitors that Milford Sound does, but deserves greater recognition. Getting to Doubtful Sound means a leisurely cruise across Lake Manapouri into its West Arm – no hardship as the lake, the second deepest body of water in the country, is frequently described as New Zealand’s loveliest – before stepping aboard a coach to cross Wilmot Pass. The views of the sound from the 670-metre-high pass are sublime.

Still waters of Doubtful Sound where the green mountains meet the waters edge
generic fauna whale breaching

Captain Cook originally called the sound Doubtful Harbour when he sailed past in 1770, uncertain whether it was navigable. It was later renamed Doubtful Sound by whalers and sealers, which tells you something about what you can expect to see here – fur seals, southern right and humpback whales, Fiordland penguins and bottlenose dolphins.

As with Milford Sound, the environment is glorious, with thick rainforest touching the water’s surface, towering waterfalls, cliffs, swathes of rock on which seals bask when the sun shines, and a dozen or so islands. Unlike Milford, there are few vessels cruising the area, which leads to Doubtful Sound’s signature moment, when the captain cuts the engine and the boat is enveloped in the fathomless sound of silence.

Milford Sound at sunrise, New Zealand

Visit Te Anau and explore its stunning surrounds on our 17 Day New Zealand Wonderland tour. Cruise spectacular Milford Sound, sit down to a delicious Taste of Fiordland Dinner and spend a night in the picture-perfect lakeside town of Te Anau.