The sound of si­lence

An in­spir­ing fam­ily cruise in New Zealand’s re­mote south­west

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DAMIAN HAARSMA

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.

re­aljour­neys.co.nz

Fiord­land Nav­i­ga­tor me­an­ders through Doubt­ful Sound, amid scree-cov­ered moun­tains, be­low

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