The sound of silence
An inspiring family cruise in New Zealand’s remote southwest
AS I plunged into the icy waters off the back of Fiordland Navigator, it felt as though I’d hurled myself into a giant Esky. The piercing cold was invigorating but after about half a minute in the 10C water my feet ached as though they were being squeezed in a vice. I splashed frantically back to the boat and scurried up the ladder to where a smiling deckhand was passing out warm towels.
The crew found this rite of passage for tourists amusing, especially as the waters of New Zealand’s fiords have been unseasonably warm this year.
The journey to Doubtful Sound in New Zealand’s far southwest had begun that morning as our ferry sliced across sparkling Lake Manapouri. The clouds rose in the warmth to unveil a lush canopy of alpine forest extending up to monumental snow-capped peaks. A bus met our group at West Arm for an hour-long climb over Wilmot Pass. We travelled through a tangled forest of ferns and prehistoric-looking beech trees hugging the mountains.
At the top we caught our first glimpse of the fiord glistening in the distance and quickly descended to the wharf at Deep Cove.
Within moments we were shuffled aboard the 70-berth, 38m-long Fiordland Navigator and the 20-hour voyage began. Built in the tradition of a coastal trading scow, Fiordland Navi- gator was dwarfed by a cathedral of towering cliffs and waterfalls, the thick canopy broken only by the scars of landslides where huge rains had sent slivers of the mountains crashing into the sea.
The captain dropped anchor at our first destination, Hall Arm, and those looking for some exercise climbed into kayaks from the back of the ship and paddled quietly out on to the watery expanse.
Our children had a go, and for a few minutes tapped gingerly at the water with their paddles before one of the guides tethered their kayaks to his; we spent an hour cruising under craggy branches and rocks by the shore.
Back on deck, and after the foolhardy tourists’ brisk swim, hot drinks and soup were served as the captain powered into a blustery westerly wind towards the wild Tasman Sea. We passed what looked like an abandoned hut on a lonely pontoon, once a fuel depot for fishing trawlers in the 1940s. Our guide quipped it was once the world’s most isolated drinking hole.
Near the mouth of Doubtful Sound, our vessel eased gently past the rocky Nee Islets, where seals lounged in the late-afternoon sun and penguins skipped among the rocks before plunging into the swirling currents.
Fiordland Navigator stuck its nose into the Tasman Sea and we braced ourselves against a bitter wind and rolling waves. As we gazed south and west towards the Southern Ocean, it felt like a godless place for a sailor. James Cook had similar misgivings when he explored the coast of Southland. Doubtful Sound earned its name from his fear that he might never emerge from its uncharted waters.
No such problems for Fiordland Navigator as we turned and retreated eastwards, finding the calm of First Arm where in the fading twilight we anchored for the night.
By seven bells the temperature had dropped sharply and the fresh air had sharpened our appetite.
Soon we were feasting on the evening buffet followed by an array of sumptuous ship-baked desserts that had the kids scurrying back for seconds. For those wanting to know more about the region, there was a presentation later in the evening by the ship’s wildlife guide on Doubtful Sound’s unique ecology and pioneering history. We nodded off in warm beds, dreaming of the cold, lonely existence of diehard whalers and explorers.
Breakfast was served as we weighed anchor and a pod of bottlenose dolphins pitched and rolled in the waves off the ship’s bow. Before we returned to dry land, there was time for one last treat. The ship detoured into Hall Arm and its engines and generators were cut, allowing Fiordland Navigator to drift.
There was an eerie stillness; ribbons of cloud wafted across the cliffs. The only noises were the crashing of distant waterfalls and a cacophony of birds.
It was a fitting finale. We alighted at Deep Cove and reluctantly prepared to leave this ancient, timeless wilderness, content to know it will be the same when next we visit.
Fiordland Navigator meanders through Doubtful Sound, amid scree-covered mountains, below