Michael Ge­bicki sets sail on a next-to-na­ture cruise in New Zealand’s scenic Fiord­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

IAM try­ing to eat my break­fast dur­ing an overnight cruise of New Zealand’s Doubt­ful Sound but Mother Na­ture keeps in­ter­rupt­ing. There are dol­phins frol­ick­ing and the place to see them is from the bow, says Ben, our cruise di­rec­tor, over the Fiord­land Nav­i­ga­tor’s pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem. So once again there’s a stam­pede out the gal­ley door and there they are, the world’s most southerly bot­tlenose dol­phins, a huge size to in­su­late them­selves in th­ese chilly wa­ters. They leap and som­er­sault as they ride the bow wave just a me­tre from the blade of the hull.

It has been like this for the past halfhour. Ev­ery time I sit down for a mouth­ful of stewed prunes or a gulp of orange juice, there’s Ben an­nounc­ing yet an­other notto-be-missed won­der off to port­side. Last time it was a half-dozen fiord­land crested pen­guins, stand­ing on rocks close enough to fill the viewfinder of my cam­era. There are prob­a­bly only about 2000 of th­ese fetch­ing lit­tle wad­dlers left on the planet. Who could pos­si­bly re­sist? OUR trip be­gins at mid­day the pre­vi­ous day with a short drive from the town of Te Anau through The Lord of the Rings coun­try to Manapouri, where we board a fast launch for the one-hour trip across Lake Manapouri.

Back in the 1960s the lake was the fo­cus of NZ’s first se­ri­ous en­vi­ron­ment de­bate, when a dam was pro­posed for a hy­dro­elec­tric project that would have raised its wa­ter level by 30m. The Save Manapouri cam­paign be­gan in 1969 and, within a year, 260,000 New Zealan­ders had signed a pe­ti­tion against the dam. The power sta­tion went ahead but on a more mod­est scale.

At the far side of the lake, the power sta­tion looms on the hill­side, and there’s a bus wait­ing to take us over Wil­mot Pass to Doubt­ful Sound. Be­hind the wheel is Rex Gil­lan, and he’s in a whim­si­cal frame of mind. ‘‘ You’ll no­tice we’ve picked up a few ex­tra pas­sen­gers,’’ he says as he closes the doors and we pre­pare to depart from the lake­side. ‘‘ But please don’t squash sand­flies against the win­dow. This is a na­tional park and all wildlife is now pro­tected.’’ Many of the pas­sen­gers are Swiss: they don’t laugh.

The Wil­mot Pass Road was the most ex­pen­sive road built in NZ, Gil­lan tells us, cre­ated to take heavy equip­ment for the Lake Manapouri power sta­tion from the wharf at the head of Doubt­ful Sound. The 22km road cost $2 a cen­time­tre to build.

Not only did the road builders have to hack a track through thick for­est and cross a 670m pass, but there was the prob­lem of rain. The south­west coast is one of the wettest land masses on the planet, with an av­er­age an­nual rain­fall of 700cm. Sev­eral times along the road we pass wa­ter­falls that ex­plode from the hill­side like bro­ken wa­ter mains.

There’s a col­lec­tive gasp from the nonSwiss con­tin­gent as we reach the sum­mit of the pass. Be­low is a scene straight from a cal­en­dar: the sky-mir­ror of the sound snaking be­tween moun­tain peaks that are hung with wispy clouds.

Doubt­ful Sound is not re­ally a sound at all but a fjord, carved over eons by glaciers slid­ing down from the moun­tain peaks. Doubt­ful lies about mid­way along the 14 fjords that give the south­west coast of the South Is­land its tat­tered edge. AT the wharf, the Fiord­land Nav­i­ga­tor awaits. Broad in the beam and top heavy, it is no swan, but the ves­sel has been ex­pertly tai­lored for cruis­ing the fjords. There’s ac­com­mo­da­tion for 70 in quad-share or private cab­ins, a big gal­ley, view­ing decks ga­lore and an en­closed ob­ser­va­tion lounge. It is mid-af­ter­noon when we file be­low for choco­late muffins and tea, cast off and mo­tor into the fjord.

It has been rain­ing the past few days but this af­ter­noon the clouds have lifted to re­veal a per­fect day in Fiord­land. The sun is shin­ing, yet the in­ter­mit­tent wa­ter­falls are in full flush. When we nose in close to the shore­line, the for­est is alive with the shriek of birds.

The peaks around us rise to 1000m. In places the hill­sides are scarred by tree avalanches, caused when a tree loses its grip and plunges into the fjord, skit­tling its neigh­bours lower down the moun­tain­side and leav­ing an in­verted V-shaped wound. The for­est is lush in parts, yet so sheer are th­ese moun­tains that there is no soil. Only moss can find a toe­hold, and the trees must an­chor them­selves to steep rock faces, nur­tured by the con­stant drip-feed from the nat­u­ral sponges of the moss.

Af­ter an hour or so of ad­mir­ing the scenery, we are of­fered a choice of kayak­ing or a sight­see­ing cruise aboard a ten­der, and about 15 of us choose the kayak op­tion. For the next hour we pad­dle along the foot of the moun­tains with spray from wa­ter­falls thump­ing on to our decks.

Back on board, an­other treat awaits: a dip in the wa­ters of the fjord. I once passed on an op­por­tu­nity to swim in Arc­tic ice and have re­gret­ted it since. ‘‘ Go ahead . . . it is at least 10C,’’ urges one of the crew as I pre­pare to dive. But there’s a real sur­prise when I hit the wa­ter. It’s fresh, not salt. Al­though this is a sea arm, so great is the vol­ume of wa­ter pour­ing off the hills that the fresh wa­ter floats on the heav­ier salt layer. Ac­cord­ing to the crew, this fresh­wa­ter layer ex­tends to a depth of a cou­ple of me­tres, but this is not a phe­nom­e­non I plan to in­ves­ti­gate.

The rest of the af­ter­noon passes in an ami­able blur of wind, crash­ing waves and the sort of scenery that gives you an aching neck. We sail out to the seaward end of the fjord, where there are seals sprawled on rocky is­lands lath­ered with sea foam. On the way back the cap­tain hoists the sails and we glide through the waves un­der snap­ping can­vas, al­though Ben con­fides that sail­ing ac­tu­ally slows us down.

Ac­cord­ing to Maori tra­di­tion, the fjords were carved by the su­per­man Tu-te-raki­whanoa, who chopped the in­den­ta­tions into the coast­line with an adze.

Maori would visit the coast of Fiord­land to hunt and col­lect green­stone, the Maori jade, but apart from a few scat­tered fam­ily groups, they have never in­hab­ited this coast­line in any num­bers. One of the rea­sons is the sand­fly, the tiny winged tor­ment of Fiord­land.

The Maori say that when Tu-te-raki­whanoa had fin­ished chop­ping, so stun­ning was the land­scape that the god­dess Hi­ne­nu­itepo cre­ated the sand­fly to pre­vent mor­tals lin­ger­ing too long. It’s the fe­male of the species that does the dam­age, us­ing her saw-like jaws to pierce the skin and cre­ate a pool of blood, leav­ing the donor with a tiny red welt and a painful itch that can last for a cou­ple of weeks.

Next morn­ing, I wake to a mono­chrome world. Cloud has blan­keted the fjord dur­ing the night but slowly and teas­ingly it lifts, lur­ing us on to the deck with bursts of bright sun­light and an­i­mal won­ders, then dous­ing us with bul­lets of rain.

As we cruise along Halls Arm in the shadow of Com­man­der Peak, a rain­bow ap­pears, dip­ping into the wa­ter at ei­ther end to frame a pri­mal scene of forests and leap­ing wa­ter­falls. As we stand coo­ing with plea­sure, two dol­phins ap­pear and swim from one end of the rain­bow to the other, sur­fac­ing ev­ery few me­tres for a gulp of air.

It is pure Hol­ly­wood and we threaten to toss Ben over­board for ar­rang­ing such an overblown scene. Of course, Doubt­ful Sound is far from the most fa­mous of NZ’s fjords. That hon­our goes to Mil­ford Sound, at the north­ern end of the fjords. Mil­ford and Doubt­ful are the only fjords on which com­mer­cial cruises op­er­ate, but for ev­ery vis­i­tor who sets sail on Doubt­ful Sound, there are prob­a­bly at least 50 who take a cruise on Mil­ford.

Hav­ing noth­ing bet­ter to do in the af­ter­noon the Doubt­ful Sound cruise fin­ishes, I de­cide to drive to Mil­ford Sound and take a cruise. And it is very ex­cit­ing. The wa­ter­falls gush from the moun­tain­sides, there are seals in abun­dance and snow as fine as ic­ing sugar dust­ing the sum­mit of Mitre Peak.

If you take a cruise on Mil­ford Sound, chances are you’ll be de­lighted. But if you cruise on Doubt­ful, you can smile qui­etly and smugly to your­self when fel­low trav­ellers de­scribe the mar­vels of Mil­ford. Michael Ge­bicki was a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Real Jour­neys.


A berth on the Real Jour­neys overnight cruise on Doubt­ful Sound starts at $NZ266 ($232) an adult, in­clud­ing all meals and trans­fers from Te Anau. More:­aljour­

Pic­tures: Michael Ge­bicki

Won­der world: Tourists soak in the scenery from the Fiord­land Nav­i­ga­tor and go snap-happy over crested pen­guins, top right, and wa­ter­falls, above right

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