Cruise to the an­i­mals

In New Zealand’s pris­tine Fiord­land, play­ful dol­phins en­ter­tain in­trepid voy­agers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

DOL­PHINS are bound­ing to­wards us, their sleek grey bod­ies leap­ing in uni­son. It’s a wel­com­ing com­mit­tee of a score or more, a caval­cade of joy that elic­its laugh­ter from those of us lucky enough to re­ceive this un­ex­pected es­cort into Bligh Sound in New Zealand’s Fiord­land.

Min­utes ear­lier, on the bridge of the lux­ury three-deck cata­ma­ran Is­land Pas­sage, I’d just jok­ingly ticked off four of the ‘‘big five’’ wildlife we’re likely to see in New Zealand’s south­ern fiords — pen­guins, al­ba­trosses, fur seals and deer.

Then first of­fi­cer Ge­orgina Micet points ahead to the sud­den flurry of white wa­ter on the star­board side: ‘‘Here they come.’’ Pas­sen­gers scram­ble down to the lower deck for a close look.

It’s our third day in the fiords. Not all have dawned so bright and clear, but I learn that the weather is the big­gest con­sid­er­a­tion as our jour­ney takes shape at the hands of cap­tain Vince Mau­rice. Where each day will take us de­pends, to a great ex­tent, on the weather.

‘‘Be­low 40 de­grees there is no weather, be­low 50 de­grees there is no law, be­low 60 de­grees there is no God,’’ jokes Cap­tain Vince in a para­phrase of an old mariner’s adage. ‘‘But se­ri­ously, ev­ery­thing de­pends on the weather.’’ Ge­orge Sound, where we join the sleek Is­land Pas­sage, is at about 44 de­grees. And it’s the chang­ing weather, the moods, the mists and the rain, in­ter­spersed with bright blue-sky days that make this an un­for­get­table place. And the isolation — this is a place vis­ited only by a few fisher- men and the hardi­est of hik­ers. Is­land Es­cape Cruises’ owner Peter Bis­sett has spent years ne­go­ti­at­ing per­mis­sion to bring his ship into these wa­ters.

Fiord­land Na­tional Park, on the south­west coast of the South Is­land, is New Zealand’s largest na­tional park, ex­tend­ing more than 200km from Mil­ford Sound in the north to Preser­va­tion Inlet in the south and cov­er­ing 1.25 mil­lion hectares. It has been a World Her­itage Area since 1986, home to 700 plants found nowhere else and wildlife in­clud­ing the en­dan­gered takahe bird and rare Fiord­land crested pen­guin.

PIC­TURES: LEE MYLNE

Our jour­ney has started in Queen­stown, with a light plane flight to Te Anau and a he­li­copter trans­fer to the ship. It’s a dra­matic, James Bond kind of way to ar­rive, drop­ping over the moun­tains, through mist and rain, to land on the ship’s he­li­pad.

Fiord­land is one of the wettest places in the world but we are blessed with two fine sunny days on our five-day cruise.

When it’s wet, the land­scape is trans­formed. Rain washes the beech for­est and wa­ter­falls tum­ble down the steep moun­tain faces to the fiords; on sunny days, it is as if they had never ex­isted.

Ge­orge Sound is our shel­ter for two nights. The first morn­ing dawns grey and driz­zly, but we are keen to board the land­ing craft to ex­plore the head of the sound, which sits 21km from the coast, where a Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion hik­ers’ hut peeks from the thick for­est.

The track is muddy and slip­pery but we spend a pleas­ant half-hour or so pot­ter­ing around, shel­tered by tow­er­ing sil­ver beeches and drip­ping ferns.

The next day, our ex­cur­sion is to a cres­cent of beach adorned with flow­er­ing flax bushes, daisies, blos­som­ing rata trees — set to pro­vide a blaz­ing red sum­mer show­ing for the next cruise — and wan­der­ing oys­ter-catch­ers, gulls and cor­morants. There’s not a sin­gle piece of flot­sam to be seen.

Later, we’re cap­ti­vated by the lazy an­tics of a colony of New Zealand fur seals, idling on the rocks.

From Ge­orge Sound, we ven­ture into the Tas­man Sea. I head to the stern and try to keep my mind off the pitch­ing deck by watch­ing the al­ba­trosses and gulls ride the ther­mals and waves.

The ocean pas­sages are mer­ci­fully short and mal de mer is avoided by most. With a max­i­mum of 24 pas­sen­gers and a crew of eight, ser­vice lev­els are high and it’s easy to find a quiet spot. Meal times, at two large din­ing ta­bles, are in­tro­duced by head chef Yano Gideon and an al­most too-steady sup­ply of cakes and slices are pro­vided by sous chef Don­ald Seil. Both chefs are from Van­u­atu (where Is­land Pas­sage cruises for part of the year).

In Bligh Sound, kayaks are launched and some guests pad­dle the shore­line, dwarfed by the steep sides of the fiord. The less in­trepid take the land­ing craft to dis­cover more wa­ter­falls, mosses and lichens, and look in vain for signs of a re­puted hot spring.

Head­ing north, we by­pass the en­trances to Suther­land Sound and Poi­son Bay. We en­ter Mil­ford Sound, a tiny out­post of civil­i­sa­tion with day-trip­ping cruise boats and fish­er­men com­ing close to take a look at the ship.

As we fly out, I look down on a land­scape un­changed for 350 mil­lion years. Is­land Pas­sage sits re­flected in the clear wa­ter, wait­ing to re­veal more se­crets of Fiord­land to the new day’s ar­riv­ing guests. Lee Mylne was a guest of Is­land Es­cape Cruises.

is­landescapecruises.com

The three-deck cata­ma­ran Is­land Pas­sage nav­i­gates through New Zealand’s Fiord­land; fur seals, be­low, bask­ing in the sun

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