New Zealand Days 8-9: Te Anau and Fiordland National Park

Following our two days at Wanaka, we drove to the small town Te Anau, known as the “Gateway to Fiordland.”  We took a glowworm caves tour in Te Anau the first day and spent the second day exploring Fiordland National Park.

Lake Te Anau & Glowworm Caves

For our glowworm caves tour, we started with a 30 minute cruise across Lake Te Anau.  This is the largest lake in the South Island, and the second-largest lake in New Zealand.  It was pretty!

The boat took us to a forested area, and we were part of the first small group on our tour to go in the cave.  Unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the cave, but thankfully the tour company RealNZ has many great photos on their website! On this post, the photos inside the cave and of glowworms are all from RealNZ’s image gallery and are labelled as such.

The section we visited is only a small portion of the full cave system, which consists of 4 levels spanning 6.7 kilometers (4.16 miles).  We first walked through a fairly well-lit section of the cave, admiring the clear water, sometimes rushing down in waterfalls and sometimes moving slowly in little rivers. We were lucky enough to see an eel swimming around! This section was Tommy’s favorite part of the tour.

Next, we got onto a little boat and our guide took us to a completely dark section. As our eyes adjusted, we slowly started to see groupings of glowing pinpricks not too far above us. The guide slowly moved the boat around so that everyone could see different sections at various angles. Sometimes the glowing lights appeared to dim and brighten, and sometimes you could see a little swaying movement. This was my favorite part of the tour! My sense of direction and time were pretty thrown off by the darkness, the movement of the boat, and constantly looking up, so I’m not sure how far we went or how long we were on the boat.

We then walked back out of the cave and had some free time to walk in the forest, along the beach, and in the information center while other groups did their cave tours.

Once all of the small groups were done, a staff member gave a presentation in the information center. It was super interesting! We learned:

  • Glowworms weave silk threads and vomit mucus onto them to act as sticky “fishing lines.” These filaments hang down and catch the light of the glowworm larvae. Other insects are drawn in by the light, only to be caught on the threads and eaten by the glowworms.
  • Glowworms are territorial, so if one perceives that another is spinning too close to their hunting grounds, they will attack and sometimes even eat the other glowworm.
  • The final stage of their lives is as a fly, but during this stage they have no mouth, so they don’t live very long.

All sorts of fun facts!

A pretty good 2 minute summary! Not from the tour that we took.

We then cruised back to town and took it easy the rest of the night.

Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound

The next day, we drove through Fiordland National Park to get to Milford Sound. It’s a pretty huge park – the drive from the park entrance to Milford Sound took a little under 2 hours. Lots of curves and trees and places to stop and hike, although we didn’t stop at any on the way in.

A quick clip of our drive in Fiordland National Park

At Milford Sound, we took a 1.5 hour cruise through the fjord with Cruise Milford. Fun fact, multiple fjords (fiords) in this part of New Zealand were originally incorrectly identified as sounds. Rather than changing the names of all of them, they simply renamed the area Fiordland.

My favorite parts were when the boat went right under two waterfalls. The first waterfall is called Fairy Falls because when the sunlight hits it, it looks like thousands of little fairies flying down. We were there on a sunny day, which is quite lucky as Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on Earth. Their mean annual rainfall is about 21 feet!

Tommy’s favorite part was seeing bottlenose dolphins (didn’t get a photo – too quick! but very cool) and a seal in the wild. The cruise guide said that dolphin sightings are pretty rare on the cruise, happening maybe 20% of the time. We have been so blessed on this trip!

Fiordland National Park: Lake Marian

On our drive back through Fiordland National Park, we stopped to hike Lake Marian Track. This is a 3-hour return hike on an “advanced” hiking track. We were a little worried about that label, since the New Zealand Department of Conservation defines this as suitable for “People with moderate to high level backcountry (remote areas) skills and experience, navigation and survival skills required.” We decided to give it a try and turn back if it got too sketchy. Thankfully, everything was very well marked with orange triangles, and nothing ended up being beyond our ability. The first 10 minutes or so were very easy and provided great views of some waterfalls. After that, there were lots of fun roots and rocks and moss and trees to admire (and try not to trip over), and almost all of the track was shaded. All in all, a very pleasant hike.

The best part, of course, was reaching Lake Marian! It was absolutely stunning to come out of the trees and see this vast alpine lake with towering mountains in the background. Totally gorgeous! It was really nice that it wasn’t at all crowded – just a few other couples and small groups admiring the views and taking a dip. We also enjoyed the very cold water for a bit before heading back down.

Fiordland National Park: Mirror Lakes

Our Milford Sound tour had said that Mirror Lakes was a MUST DO, and it’s only a 5 minute pathway, so we decided to make a quick stop on our drive out of the park. In our opinion, it was okay, especially if you need a short and easy break, but definitely not a must do. We were both somewhat reminded of Minnesota, so maybe living in the land of 10,000 lakes has slightly desensitized us to their beauty!

We spent the rest of the day driving to Queenstown, and were exhausted by the end of it. All of the drives have been beautiful, but they do require focus. Major props to Tommy for remaining alert while driving on the wrong side of the road up and down curvy mountain roads bordering either lakes or steep drop-offs – not many easy, straight highways to zone out on here!

Up next, Queenstown!

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