By Crystal Brindle, Fiordland Tramping and Outdoor Recreation Club
Dashing along the wind-swept tops of the Livingstone Mountains, buffeted by the cold air whipping all around me, I think only of one thing – how free I feel to move up here as I please after days of ‘house arrest’ from sickness. I move as quick as I can, heedless of my runny nose and the strong argument that could be made for this activity being precisely what the doctor didn’t order. Sometimes you just have to do things for the soul and hope that the positive frame-of- mind outcomes that follow will propel you to greater health. That is my thinking anyway.
I love this place. Just like I love all the surrounding hills, sharp mountains, deep forest, and clear water that lie on Te Anau’s doorstep. The variety and continuity of landscapes that I can access with relative ease from my home, perched above the quaint township at the edge of the lake, sets this place apart and is why I came here in the first instance and why I stay.
In Te Anau we are fortunate to sit on the edge of the great Fiordland National Park/Te Rua o Te Moko. As the largest national park in New Zealand and easily the best known world-wide thanks to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, Fiordland is synonymous with wild and striking landscapes. Anyone who visits can see this on the surface. Those who know the park well develop a deeper appreciation for the untouched heart of the expansive 1.2 million hectares that provide the opportunity for true wilderness recreation at its finest and most demanding. Of course, beyond what is seen at a glance on a post card, Fiordland also harbours incredibly rare endemic plants and animals and is of great importance to Ngāi Tahu, the kaitiaki or guardians of this most superlative place.
These unique attributes combine to form part of what makes Fiordland important on a world scale. In 1986 Fiordland received the top honour by being inscribed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO. In 1990 it was incorporated into the gigantic Te Wāhi Pounamu World Heritage Area that sweeps from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in the north right through the Landsborough, Westland Tai Poutini, and Mount Aspiring/Tititea National Parks, to finally connect with Fiordland. Containing ten percent of New Zealand’s total land area and effectively comprising the entire southwest of the country, Te Wāhi Pounamu is New Zealand’s jewel on the world stage and is recognised accordingly.
What many fail to realise, however, is that the bounds of Te Wāhi Pounamu don’t simply adhere to those of national parks. The great swathe of the Landsborough, the Arawhata, and closer to home UNESCO also recognises the Mavora Lakes Conservation Area and Livingstone Mountains as places of outstanding world heritage, yet they fall outside this country’s highest tier of protection. Instead of being included in national parks as you might expect, these areas are stewardship land with conservation values not yet assessed into a formal classification. Assessment takes time, especially for an area as large as Te Wāhi Pounamu. The goal is to recognise these lands that have achieved the highest degree of international renown with a similarly high level of protection and management.
Between the communities of Mossburn and Te Anau, the Mavora Lakes and Snowdon Forest Conservation Areas are places where backcountry and remote recreation are treasured and values of natural landscape character are appreciated. New Zealand’s long trail, the Te Araroa, runs through the heart of Mavora Lakes and Kiwi Burn Hut provides an important family tramping destination. The northern portions of these areas (parts of the Livingstone Mountains and the Countess and Dunton Ranges) have been identified as suitable for inclusion in Fiordland National Park. They contain a diverse range of habitats for threatened plant and animal species and represent an important ecological transition from wetter Fiordland to drier Central Otago.
Ngāi Tahu have a special relationship with the North and South Mavora Lakes (Manawapōpōre and Hikuraki), the Mataura River and the Oreti River, in part because of an ara tawhito (traditional trail) that extended along the Oreti River, linking with the upper Mararoa River valley wetlands, the Greenstone River valley and westward.* The character of the landscape, while natural overall, retains the history of pre-European and later pastoralism’s modification through fire. The result is a patchwork of open country dotted with forest that meets valley sides of thick green beech.
Returning to the Livingstone Mountains, my feet bring me closer and closer to the boundary of what is officially recognised as Fiordland, that figurative line drawn in the sand between what is special and what lies beyond. However, as I look ahead, I can’t see any distinction. The tussock waves golden in the sunset just the same and shallow tarns catch the evening sky in a similar shade of indigo. The olive-hued forest clings to the slopes of the range on both sides and the valleys that unfold in all directions beckon me to continue. I value this place as a recreationist’s paradise and a treasure trove of discovery for the naturalist. To ensure that the opportunity remains for the free pursuit of both, not only for myself but for all those who come after me, it is apt that the legal description on paper did so too.
This article is excerpted from the November 2019 edition of Backcountry Magazine titled “Forgotten Lands.” For more information or to subscribe to Backcountry, please visit https://www.fmc.org.nz/aboutbackcountry/.
*Source: Southland Murihiku Conservation Management Strategy 2016