Michael Gebicki sets sail on a next-to-nature cruise in New Zealand’s scenic Fiordland
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: www.realjourneys.co.nz.
Wonder world: Tourists soak in the scenery from the Fiordland Navigator and go snap-happy over crested penguins, top right, and waterfalls, above right