Six nights cruising in Fiordland takes passengers to another world, writes Stephanie Holmes
Magic moments come thick and fast on the waters of Fiordland's Doubtful (Patea), Breaksea (Te Pūaitaha) and Dusky (Tamatea) Sounds. So quick in fact, that this opening sentence comes to mind only a couple of hours after setting off from Deep Cove for our six-night cruise.
Our 24m, three-deck catamaran, the Fiordland Jewel, is slicing its way through the dark waters of Doubtful Sound, rain and mist shrouding the surrounding peaks, and to port there's an unmistakable interruption to the millpond-like surface.
Bottlenose dolphins. A small pod of them, racing to our boat to ride the wake under the bow. It's the most wonderful welcome to what is one of the most magical trips you are ever likely to experience.
They cruise along under the boat for a while, rolling on their sides to eyeball us curiously. Our group of 16 passengers crowds the deck until they're gone, unsuccessfully snapping photos as they occasionally break the surface. We're so enthralled we barely even notice southern Fiordland's winter cold seeping into our bones.
Back in the cosy lounge on the Jewel's middle deck, I find a copy of photographer Andris Apse's coffee table book, Fiordland. As well showcasing some of his favourite photos, he also writes of his unwavering excitement every time he arrives in the region, a place he has been visiting regularly since the 1960s. In the early days, he would have to hike for days to reach the fiords he would later become famous for photographing. He writes of how his journeys would always begin with "great anticipation and excitement, as well as feelings of great calmness, serenity and freedom".
He says his work aims to convey the "primeval timelessness", which for him is "the soul of Fiordland". Although his photographs are spectacularly beautiful, until you see the fiords with your own eyes, you can never truly understand the serenity and beauty he writes of. For me, the majesty of the region is not even fully felt in the days while we cruise. It's not until we take off from the helipad on the top deck of the boat (another highlight) and whizz our way back to Te Anau on our final day, that Fiordland's true scale and beauty properly sinks in.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, some more magic, including those dolphins. Not only do they guide our passage into Doubtful Sound on our first day, another pod appears on day three, this time leaping out of the water, flipping and diving and arcing through the air like acrobats.
The morning of the same day, we make our way to the rocks where the Sounds meet the Tasman Sea. We drop fishing lines into the 40m-deep water (electric reels prove useful) to try our luck at catching blue cod. It's hardly strenuous – the bounty is so plentiful that each of us pulls up at least one fish with ease. The small ones are thrown back and if they're lucky they'll swim away; if they're not quick enough, the congregating albatross and mollymawks will gobble them down in one gulp. When we weigh anchor and continue sailing to our next sheltered bay, the impressive birds soar alongside the boat, as if auditioning for a scene in David Attenborough's next nature documentary.
Apart from albatross, native birds are few and far between in the forests surrounding us throughout our journey. There are huge conservation efforts in place, however, with a number of islands designated as predator-free sanctuaries, including Anchor Island (Pukenui) and Coal Island (Te Puka-Hereka). Fiordland Discovery has recently become a sponsor of Te Puka-Hereka Coal Island Trust, to support their work and help ensure Coal Island remains predator-free.
At Astronomer's Point in Dusky Sound's Pickersgill Bay, we scramble off the tinny tender for a short bush walk. It was here in March 1773 that the Resolution pulled into the bay after 122 days at sea and Captain Cook's men used a sideways-growing tree as a gangplank to set foot on land. They stayed for five weeks and, in the process, chopped down about half a hectare of forest to repair and replenish the ship. This was also the site William Wales established a temporary observatory to fix the position of New Zealand, and where Cook set up a brewery using rimu and mānuka leaves, hoping the beer would help prevent scurvy among his crew. DoC's website lists Astronomer's Point as "one of the most visited historic heritage sites in Southland". On our visit, it's just us and a pair of pīwakawaka.
We dip in and out of Cook's path of exploration throughout our journey, visiting many of the coves and bays he "discovered" all those years ago.
At Sportsmans Cove, an inlet nestled into the west of Cooper Island, where Cook's men would race longboats for fun, we clamber into colourful kayaks to paddle across the ink-black water. It's as still and glassy as a mirror and reflects the multiple greens of the rimu, rata and tōtara forest and the towering peaks high above us.
Luncheon Cove, on the south of Anchor Island, was the site of New Zealand's first European house and where the first European-designed ship – the 16m Providence – was built. It's also where the first sealing gang established their base, decimating the seal population to near extinction before moving on to whales. The cove is a more joyful place to be now, and we encounter countless seal pups as we kayak through its surrounding bays.
We try to keep a respectful distance from the gorgeous pups but the little critters are so inquisitive it's impossible. One pops up on the kickboard of our tender, eyeing us suspiciously through huge black eyes. Paddling our kayaks proves difficult when pups propel themselves from the water to land on the back to sit for a while and give us a good sniff.
We paddle on and some of the more curious pups follow us in packs, popping up now and again to watch what we're doing, or diving under and raising their tail flippers in an uncanny impersonation of synchronised swimmers doing a handstand.
Days are short here in winter – sunset is around 5pm and when we rise for breakfast at the respectable hour of 7.30am it's still pitch-black outside. And yet we manage to make the most of every moment of daylight with bush walks, quick swims in the chilly water, or simply taking the opportunity for true relaxation while we sail from one anchorage to another. We alternately read, nap, and gaze at the scenery, while drinking endless cups of coffee, tea and hot chocolate from the lounge's very popular self-serve machine.
We're well fed too, thanks to chef Matt, a moustachioed, tattooed Englishman whose words are few but culinary skills many. Variously throughout the week we enjoy meals of the blue cod we caught while fishing, huge crayfish and creamy paua that skipper Jack and deckhand Juan bring back from a dive, regular snacks of freshly baked quiche, scones and ginger slice, cheeseboards, decadent desserts, and more. The well-stocked bar serves local wines and beers; guests mix and mingle in the lounge each evening over a glass or two before dinner, reliving highlights from the day.
Dining tables are set up for groups of four, so each meal gives the opportunity to dine with different passengers, getting to know one another and finding out about favourite travels over the years.
For much of our trip, we seem to be the only ones around – we come across other boats so rarely that when we do it's a shock to the senses. Seeing other people is even stranger, but on a walk along the pristine beach around Spit Island at Preservation Inlet's Cuttle Cove, we see footprints in the sand. Someone has been here ahead of us, although there's no sign of them now.
We come face to face with this mysterious other group the following day as we walk the bush track to Puysegur Point lighthouse, on the southwestern tip of Fiordland. The walk is lovely but the lighthouse itself is a little underwhelming. The original wooden structure, built in 1879, was burnt down by what official records described as "a demented person, a hermit of the area". It was replaced in 1943 with a rather squat cast-iron structure, the last lighthouse keeper left in 1990 and the site is now visited by very few due to its incredibly isolated location.
We take group photos and look out at the expansive views of the Tasman Sea, the chill in the air lessened by a bluebird sky and bright winter sunshine. As we wander back to the beach to catch the tender to the Jewel, a group of young children run past us in the other direction, followed by some adults. We discover they are living temporarily at Preservation Lodge, a fascinating place we visit on our last full day of the cruise. The private lodge is hidden in the bush just off the beach of Kisbee Bay and surrounded by thousands of hectares of dense native bush. This was once the coal mining town of Cromarty, now it must be one of the most remote places to stay in New Zealand.
The lodge itself is like a set from a Wes Anderson movie – a psychedelic purple carpet, walls groaning with hunting trophies of antlers, furs and taxidermied brown and black bears. Old leather armchairs huddle in front of a wood burner and a counter in the corner has been designated as Docherty's Bar.
There's no Wi-Fi, no TV, no cellphone service. I wonder if anyone was living here in the first few months of last year. And if they were, how long did it take them to find out about the pandemic raging around the world? I hope they were able to live blissfully unaware of the chaos to come, even if just for a while.
The real world seems very far away as we wake on our last morning on board. A whole week without emails and phone calls and social media has been an unexpected treat, and the thought of the digital onslaught when we get back into range is vastly unappealing.
Compared to the freedom and solitude of the Sounds, Apse writes that "returning to civilisation was a totally different matter and invariably I resented having to leave".
"The longer I spent in Fiordland," he says, "the longer I wanted to stay."
After my week spent in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, I know exactly what he means.
Fiordland Discovery's catamaran Fiordland Jewel sails in Milford Sound, Fiordland, Stewart Island and is available to book for private charters. A six-night Fiordland cruise is priced from $5000pp, twin-share, including transfers (coach and helicopter), food and activities. fiordlanddiscovery.co.nz