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.


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