"No country upon earth can appear with a more ruged and barren aspect than this doth; from the sea for as far inland as the eye can reach nothing is to be seen but the sumits of these Rocky mountains which seem to lay so near one another as not to admit any Vallies between them." Captain James Cook
The fjords that fringe New Zealands southwest shores were carved by ice age glaciers, but these days the dominant force in Fiordland National Park is rain. It pours. Enough, each year, to fill a pool two stories deep. Enough to submerge an elephant.
The deluge creates a 10- to 15-foot freshwater layer on the surface of the fjords that, tea-colored from tannin, blocks light to the saltwater below. In this darkened world, orange-lined perch, feathery sea pens, black coral twined with snake stars, and other creatures that usually dwell more than a hundred feet deep live much closer to the surface. On shore, lush rainforests flourish; tree ferns hover above matted moss and liverworts. Dense undergrowth shields the nests of the rare Fiordland crested penguin. Waterfalls run down rock walls so steep and close they seem freshly cut, as the Maori legend goes, by a demigods ax.
Hikers find shelter from the torrent in backcountry huts along the parks trails. Inside, woodstoves offer the chance to dry socks and swap stories about the Milford Track, a 33-mile walk that has lured adventurers since the late 19th century. Even earlier, Captain James Cook paused on the island in 1773 on his second trip around the world. He rested the tired sailors of the Resolution in Dusky Sound and brewed beer from shoreside evergreens. It proved good medicine: "The whole crew soon became strong and vigorous," Cook noted in his journal. For an echo, cup a handful of fjord water, rain-fresh but tinged with sea. Drink it in. Kim Todd
Explore You may not be able to sample Captain Cooks beer, but you can tour the Marlborough wine country in New Zealand on a Sierra Club outing this December. The trip also includes kayaking in Milford Sound, climbing on a glacier, and snorkeling through a seal colony. Visit www.sierraclub.org/outings/national/brochure/03775A.asp or call (415) 977-5522.