I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery — air, mountains, trees, people.
I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’ – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
According to Maori legend, demigod Tu-te-raki-Whanoa worked his way up South Island’s southwest corner carving Fiordland’s brooding landscape of towering granite cliffs and plunging valleys, culminating in the creation of Piopiotahi — or Milford Sound — once he had truly mastered his craft. Hine-nui-te-po, goddess of the underworld, was so astonished by the perfection of Mitre Peak and its surrounds that she released swarms of namu — sandflies — to keep settlers away.
When Rudyard Kipling visited New Zealand in the late 19th century, he declared the region a world wonder — an opinion backed by Unesco who bestowed it world heritage status around a century later. Such is the sheer scale of Fiordland that it could swallow all other mainland New Zealand national parks, or, alternatively, fit the legendary US parks of Yosemite and Yellowstone — the world’s oldest national park — and still have room for more.
New Zealand’s oldest national park is Tongariro. Its legend goes that after the revered navigator Ngatoroiangi arrived in the ancestral waka Arawa, he nearly perished on the alpine peaks so prayed to his family in his homeland of Hawaiki who sent fire demons to free him from the frigidness as they left a geothermal trail stretching from White Island to North Island’s volcanic heart in their wake.
The land was gifted to the Crown in 1887 by Horonuku Te Henheu Tukino IV, leader of the Ngati Tuwharetoa, to maintain its tapu and prevent the land being “passed through the court” to be “cut up and sold”. An act was passed by parliament in 1894 to officially recognise Tongariro National Park which at the time covered 2,360 hectares, but has since blossomed to cover nearly 80,000 hectares of protected land. In 1993, the mighty Tongariro became the world’s first dual Unesco World Heritage Site, recognised for both its beauty and cultural significance.
We can thank the US for the notion of a national park — even if the concept was born out of practicality rather than a romantic ideal of preservation. Yellowstone Park was originally marked to become a state park, but as it encroached upon three territories (mainly Wyoming, but Montana and Idaho, too), there was dispute over who would claim it and so, according to Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey, “congress made it a federal park” (on 1 March 1872). It would be another 44 years before the formation of the National Parks Service — the federal agency that manages the parks — which was declared by US writer and historian Wallace Stegner to be “the best idea” his country ever had: “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst”. The poignancy of this refection is further compounded given the sitting US government’s wicked assault on their wilderness. Last year Trump reversed a six-year ban on the sale of plastic water bottles across 23 national parks, and announced plans to slash the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national parks by 85% and 50% respectively, an area totalling two million acres, to allow for commercial development. Never in the United States’ history has there been such a butchering of their backcountry, and, to twist the knife of spite a little further, in March right-wing lawmakers proposed renaming Utah’s National Parks Highway after their current commander-in-chief.
But enough ugliness, here’s a rundown of some of Mother Nature’s finest natural feats…
Yellowstone Park, USA
The world’s oldest national park is probably also its most famous. Its almost million-hectare landscape, patrolled by bison, moose, elk, bears and wolves, is home to around 70 mammal species, more than 300 types of bird and more than 1,100 species of native plant. The park, sitting above one of the planet’s mightiest calderas, is famed for its abundance of volcanic features, most notably the geyser Old Faithfull that erupts, like clockwork, every hour or two.
Los Glaciares, Argentina
The staggering ice face of the Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park’s most revered feature, towers over the milky waters of the 160-km-long Lake Argentino like a cliff — and it’s not uncommon for visitors to witness rugby field-sized chunks of ice collapse into the water. One of more than 200 glaciers in the region, what makes these enormous frozen tongues so fascinating is that while most others around the world occur at altitudes of at least 2,500 meters, here, near the nation’s southwest border with Chile, they appear at just 1,500 meters and curl their way down as low as 200 meters in a similar fashion to our very own iconic glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox.
Yosemite Park, USA
Also one of the world’s earliest national parks, established in California in 1890, Yosemite remains a leading American natural attraction owing to its network of incredible hiking trails that snake past features like an 11km-wide canyon, 3,000-year-old giant sequoia trees, and North America’s largest waterfall, Yosemite Falls. Its majestic vertical granite rock formation, El Captain, is the largest of its kind on Earth, luring a regular steady stream of climbers and base jumpers from around the globe. If that’s not enough awesomeness, this Unesco World Heritage Site is surrounded by a number of wondrous vineyards.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Africa’s legendary wildlife reserve, Kruger National Park, stretches for more than 18,000-square-kilometers, and boasts more species of big beasts than any other on the continent. The world’s premier safari destination allows guest to marvel at the Big Five — lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and elephant — along with more than 100 other mammal types like the cheetah, zebra and giraffe, and more than 500 species of bird.
Jostedalsbreen National Park, Norway
The exhilarating Jostedalsbreen National Park in Norway is named after the largest glacier in mainland Europe. Covering 487 square meters, the sprawling ice mass is up to half-a-kilometre thick and stretches for 80km, containing around three billion baths of water — enough to supply the entire country for a century.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia
Those yet to witness this underwater wonderland across the Ditch had unfortunately better get there fast—a report last year concluded that climate change-induced bleaching has already affected 95% of the Great Barrier Reef, and it’s only going to get worse. That’s not to imply there still isn’t plenty to marvel at what is one of the ocean’s finest spectacles. Running for 2,000km, the reef comprises 400 types of coral that harbours 1,500 types of fish and 4,000 species of mollusc. If you don’t fancy scuba diving or snorkelling its crystal cobalt waters, there’s much to admire from aboard a glass-bottomed boat or even a scenic flight. Did you know that the Great Barrier Reef is the only living thing visible from space?
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
From the world’s largest reef to its highest mountain, Sagarmatha National Park is home to the 8,848-meter Mount Everest (Sagarmarhta is the Nepali name for Mount Everest, meaning “forehead in the sky”) as well as seven more peaks that climb over 7,000 meters. A Unesco Heritage Site since 1979, the national park shelters 6,000 Sherpa (the name for the region’s ethnic group that lives at high altitude, not just the legendary mountain guides) and a handful of exceptionally rare animal species such as the red panda and that most mystical and elusive of beasts, the snow leopard.