SOUND OF SILENCE
Even amid a ‘crowd’, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by a South Island wilderness
Iam boarding a boat with 50 other people for an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, second-largest of the fjords on New Zealand’s South Island, and I’m a wee bit disgruntled. That’s because I was expecting to board a boat with 10 other people.
But Tutoko II is in for maintenance so I’m on the larger Fiordland Navigator, and as we pull away from the jetty, I want to not like it. To my mind, any precious hours you get to spend in a pristine wilderness, the fewer people the better.
But in the time it takes to motor 42km to the mouth of the fjord and the Tasman Sea, the stillness, the silence, the sheer vastness of Doubtful Sound, have overwhelmed me, this tiny ship, its insignificant number of passengers – even the state of my disgruntlement.
My overnight trip begins with a 50-minute ferry crossing to Lake Manapouri Power Station, then it’s 20 minutes by coach up and over Wilmott Pass, down to the jetty at Deep Cove. Right away it’s plain this convoluted travel route is a blessing: compared with the better known and more easily accessible Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is all but undisturbed by human activity.
Confusingly, the “sounds” really are fjords – the distinction being that sounds are flooded river valleys, while fjords are carved out by glaciers. James Cook named this one when he spied the snarl of rocks and islets at its mouth, and calculated that if he did manage to navigate his way in, there was not much chance of getting the Endeavour safely out again.
We idle for a bit beside one of those same rocky islets, upon which dozens of fur seals are flopped. Little blue penguins bob up here and there, paddling off in alarm when the skipper swings about, and we head down the fjord away from the wind and swell.
After dropping anchor in Bradshaw Sound (named as a separate fjord, but really an arm of Doubtful Sound), the crew breaks out 30 one-person kayaks. Our bright yellow flotilla gets too busy and I hang back to put 100m between me and the last paddler.
Out on the dark flat water, rock faces soar skyward from the 400m depths of the fjord. I paddle for a bit alongside one rock wall, beneath beech trees that drip eerily with moss. Though in effect the Pacific Ocean, the fjords and their various “arms” or offshoots create a waterway more akin to a network of lakes – an impression reinforced by the metre of freshwater that sits atop the salt.
Eight metres of rain fall here annually, some of it forming the thin white ribbons of water I can see scouring pathways down through thick moss pelts that glisten seagreen, gold and blood red.
Sunset arrives as we clamber aboard, and within minutes Doubtful Sound is as black as a moonless Transylvanian night.
The air temperature is 15C and the crew’s invitation to take a swim seems fanciful, but kayaking has brought out the sense of adventure in some of us and we take turns leaping off the back of the boat. The water is not much below air temperature, and the inky blackness a spooky backdrop to our pre-dinner dip.
Plank salmon, steamed mussels, carvery roast, steamed veg, salads and a range of decadent desserts appear. This is an agreeable feature of a larger boat – comfortable dining saloon, proper galley kitchen, plenty of elbow room at booth-style tables.
Our nature guide Carol introduces another agreeable feature: the lounge where she gives a power-point presentation on the history, geology and plant-life of Fiordland National Park. “The forest here is dominated by rimu, southern rata, beech, mosses, tree ferns. What we’re really missing though is birds. Flightless ones like the kiwi, takahe and the kakapo parrot inevitably came under threat from introduced predators such as foxes, stoats and feral cats. But there are over 40 million possums in New Zealand, all of them adept at stealing eggs – so many other birds are lost before even being born.”
Carol tells us humpback and southern right whales and bottlenose dolphins are occasionally seen here, then takes delight in showing us an image of an unprepossessing little fish, the Fiordland brotula.
“Fiordichthys slartibartfasti is its proper name. Who can remember who Slartibartfast was? Speaking up, I betray my age: “He was a character in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A planetary architect.”
“And what was his speciality?” I rack my brains, before it hits me. “Fjords!”
In the middle of sheltered Hall Arm, the skipper cuts the engines and the boat begins a slow twirl. Now there’s nothing to contemplate but the endless, fog-shrouded emerald green forest, and our own tiny-ness in this majestic, humbling, silent place.
THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF REAL JOURNEYS.