It is said weather dictates Fiordland's unique character. Interesting really, given its scant rating on television's evening weather.
Perhaps it's this remoteness that inspires Fiordland's mystery; its craggy coastline and cavernous necks of water etched by glaciers thousands of years ago. Little has changed — apart from the rampant invasion of pests, plus some scars and relics left by explorers and pioneers.
Moody and mysterious, this is New Zealand untouched — its raw beauty defined by towering mountains, waterfalls, forests and pure water. It's heaven for hunters, an escape for environmentalists and rich pickings for crayfishers. Otherwise Fiordland — in the deep south at least — is empty.
In this southern tip, the only way to explore the fiords properly is on a suitable vessel. Without tour companies like Real Journeys, it would be nigh on impossible to navigate Fiordland's intricate complexities. Founded in 1954 by tourism pioneers the late Sir Les Hutchins and his wife Olive, the company is still family owned.
Now with a bank of tours, it's an extraordinary operation employing people passionate about what they do.
Doubtful Sound was the birth of Real Journeys, so it felt appropriate starting my adventure there on the purpose-built Milford Wanderer. If the name seems an anomaly, it's because the vessel spends most of its time plying the more lucrative Milford Sound.
This particular expedition has a limited season each year, cruising five seldom-visited fiords: Doubtful, Breaksea and Dusky Sounds, plus Chalky and Preservation Inlets. Cabins book quickly — either singularly or in groups. It makes for intimate company, as the Wanderer only sleeps 32 plus six crew.
Given their infectious enthusiasm, this is much more than a voyage into isolation. From the pick-up at Queenstown Airport, a coach ride to Te Anau was the teaser. The real journey began with a cruise across Lake Manapouri and bus ride to Doubtful Sound via Wilmot Pass — the only road into this cove — an aspect which highlights the remoteness.
Fiordland is awe-inspiring — a rugged, empty coastline charted first by Captain Cook and explored by pioneers.
From Cook to seafarers, gold miners to whalers and light keepers who survived on the wind-swept Puysegur Point; to the conservationists who toiled to rescue wildlife from introduced predators; every story is extraordinary — the feats hard to fathom. It's a true journey of discovery — made more special by the guides who relive the history and magic of the place.
Hunger for nothing. Just pray for perfect weather and long tramps; because daily menus defy logic.
Eating heartily is optional; as with everything on tour. Admire the mountainous fiords within the ship's saloon; get closer on rides in the tender craft; or tackle everything and trek the forests to all the historic sights: Cook's landing in Pickersgill Harbour and the look-out at Astronomer's Point, NZ's first whaling station, sealers' settlement, mining relics, an old town site and the Puysegar Point lighthouse.
Be armed for the sandfly onslaught, join the skipper in the wheelhouse often, take bucketloads of photos, kayak if you can and whet the appetite for the ultimate thrill — a half-hour chopper flight.
Seagulls will soar around you, dolphins will surf beside you, penguins could bob from below and seal pups might bask on sunny inlets. Just be prepared for the lack of birdsong in forests — the deafness was sobering.
As a result, a stoat trap now bears my name on an island in Dusky Sound. It's the least I could do — especially after learning that Real Journeys is a major conservation sponsor. I find myself watching the weather map more intently as well — Fiordland forever in mind now.
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