The engines cut out, the generator is turned off, and suddenly stillness surrounds us. "Stand and look in silence," we're told.
In the quiet, noises become noticeable as gradually my ears adjust. It's not so silent anymore. Slowly the sound of waterfalls and birdsong fills the air.
I try to identify bird calls, listen for each waterfall before identifying it by eye, and take in the sound of the gentle rippling water lapping around the boat.
I don't want to move, hesitant to disturb the stillness.
We're on an overnight cruise in Patea/Doubtful Sound aboard the Fiordland Navigator, part of a five-day trip travelling around Fiordland with Active Adventures. This is a real bucket-list itinerary — over the course of the five days, we will experience a taste of three New Zealand Great Walks, the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler Tracks, taking us deep into the heart of this stunning Unesco World Heritage area.
Built like a traditional trading scow, the Navigator has taken us from Deep Cove, through the fiord and all the way out to a seal colony at the edge of the Tasman Sea.
Deep into Hall Arm — one of three arms in the Sound — we stop to listen to the noises of nature.
"How often do we get to sit back and turn off all the noises that humans make," our guide asks, and we make the most of this moment in pure, natural peace and quiet.
With 14 fiords formed over time by melted glaciers which cut u-shaped valleys through the ranges, the topography of Fiordland is vastly different to other parts of New Zealand. The outlook is spectacular, with mountains surrounding us on all sides. Steep and rugged, they rise above us giving a view many New Zealanders never get to see: most of the mountains are not accessible by road and many not accessible by foot.
At 40km long, exploring Doubtful Sound from the Navigator is a beautiful way to go, all at a gentle pace, allowing for plenty of sightseeing, relaxing and photo opportunities. It's a luxurious way of exploring, giving us time to rest and take in the scenery before the more active few days ahead. The ship blends quaint, traditional interiors with modern comforts. There are private ensuite cabins and quad-share bunk rooms, a dining saloon with a fully stocked bar and a warm observation lounge.
The boat moves in an unhurried fashion — there's time to read your book, play some cards with other guests, or even play the honky-tonk piano for your fellow travellers in the dining saloon.
Activities such as kayaking and swimming give the opportunity to be immersed in the layered water of the Sound — freshwater runoff from the surrounding mountains on the surface level, with saltwater sitting underneath. The water is tranquil, with the only ripples being created by our ship. The layers make it difficult for light to penetrate through, which helps make the reflections of the mountains even more beautiful.
I wake to the sound of the anchor being hauled up at 6am and am greeted by the sight of the sun shining around the mountains. We sail leisurely back to where we started — Deep Cove — and we don't need to be told by our onboard nature guide that we've been blessed with an incredible day for cruising; the fact the captain is out on deck taking pictures is proof enough. He may have done the trip many times before but in nature, there is always something new to be experienced.
We switch boats to cruise across Lake Manapouri and from here we'll be taking things at a more energetic pace.
Driving to The Divide, we begin the first of our three days of hiking, the main purpose of our trip. We're starting with part of the Routeburn Track to Key Summit, a three-hour return hike with "a lot of bang for not a lot of buck," our guide tells us.
Although we will reach 919m altitude, the track climbs steadily and never feels too steep, giving a great taste of the full three-day walk without too much effort. The panoramic views at the top of Key Summit hardly feel earned as we stand at the head looking out over three valleys — the Hollyford, Eglinton and Greenstone, along with Fiordland mountains and a view over the Great Divide separating the west and east-flowing rivers.
"I've got to stop saying 'wow'," my travel companions exclaim regularly, but it's hard when the views are this good. A number of our group are not regular or confident hikers, but this trip is a great eye-opener to how accessible the Great Walks are, thanks to DoC's well-maintained tracks.
Back on the coach on our way to Milford, our guides add to the wonder with a quick stop after the Homer Tunnel where we encounter five keas, the world's only alpine parrot. Friendly and curious they pose easily for photos, giving us an up close and personal experience.
New Zealand conservationist Richard Henry wasn't exaggerating back in 1896 when he said, "This is a fine country for the waterproof explorer". In Milford Sound, it rains up to 182 days of the year, and today is no exception as we wake at Milford Sound Lodge.
Expectations for the day have been extremely high, after our glimpses of Fiordland's grandeur over the last couple of days and the raving reviews Milford Sound always gets.
The rain is lashing as we leave the lodge. We are hiking from the aptly named Sandfly Point to Giant Gates Falls, a walk that would normally make up the last day of the four day Milford Track Great Walk. It's a day of discovery as we come across the distinct flora of the area. Prince of Wales ferns (leptopteris superba) line the track, recognisable because of their large, transparent fronds, especially lush in areas of high rainfall.
Many other plants which thrive in damp areas mark out our path, such as numerous species of moss, which hold more than 10 times their dry weight in water.
Torrential rain pelts down the whole way to Giant Gates Falls, but I don't mind. There's something about walking in the rain for hours on end which allows you to plod along, thinking deeply. At points on the track, I find myself spaced a couple of hundred metres apart from the other guests. After a crazy year, it gives me the chance to reflect on what's passed and plot out what I want from 2021, a rare opportunity for mindfulness and peace.
At the end of the day's walk, we head on to the water for a cruise. There are only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound — the 162m high Lady Bowen Falls and 155m Stirling Falls — but our rainy day means thousands of temporary waterfalls have formed, scattered around the fiord. Cascading down the mountains, it's impossible to capture the grandeur on a smartphone or even a high-spec digital camera despite the boat taking us up close enough to get drenched when standing at the bow.
The third of our Great Walks starts in a sea of ferns. The gently undulating Kepler Track from Rainbow Reach to Moturau Hut is easy to walk, soft on foot and features a magical forest, reminiscent of a goblin woodland.
With most of the Great Walks evolving from Māori greenstone trails or trade routes, the Kepler is one of the only tracks built for the pleasure of hiking.
Opened in 1988, the track displays all of Fiordland's splendour in one go. We start on a swing bridge before being quickly surrounded by moss-covered beech trees and ferns. I'm normally one to enjoy hills and a little physical exertion on hikes, and the almost fluorescent greenery which keeps going and going, proves to be so stunning that the gentle three-hour return walk ticks all the boxes for me.
But the treats of the day aren't over — we end with a visit to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, home to a group of flightless South Island takahē.
Thought to be extinct for 50 years, the takahē were rediscovered in 1948 by Southland doctor Geoffrey Orbell in the Murchison Mountains, across the western shores of Lake Te Anau. The mountains, visible from the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, are now home to the last remaining wild population of takahē.
The DoC-run sanctuary provides visitors with an opportunity to see the endangered birds close to where they were rediscovered, and we're thrilled with our glimpse of an adult takahē feeding its chick. The centre also educates visitors on the Takahē Recovery Programme which involves a network of people throughout New Zealand, working together to ensure the birds continue to survive and thrive.
We arrive back in Queenstown for our last hike of the trip — Ben Lomond, the track that goes up behind the Skyline Gondola in Queenstown. It's the most accessible of all our hikes, starting with a gondola ride to the top where we step out to a stunning day with views for miles.
Some of our group decide this view is enough for them and set themselves up for a drink at Stratosfare Restaurant while the rest of us prepare for our toughest walk yet. The track from the Skyline to the saddle is constantly upwards but it is gradual. The well-manicured path stops at the saddle and from there it's up to you to do your best mountain goat imitation (there are also goats along the path) to reach the summit.
At the top, there are many rewards — 360-degree alpine views, including Cecil and Walter Peaks, the Remarkables and, on a clear day, Mt Earnslaw and Aspiring. But the real reward is the immense satisfaction of completing this five-day trip full of incredible highlights.
A spectacular overnight cruise seeing both the sunset and sunrise. A hike through lush bush so green it feels like the saturation is turned up. Walking through rainforests surrounded by tall beech trees, moss and ferns. The physical satisfaction of hiking up Ben Lomond, which feels like walking along the top of the world.
Active Adventures five-day Great Walks Discovery trip includes an overnight stay in Doubtful Sound on the Fiordland Navigator, and hikes on the Routeburn, Milford and Kepler Tracks, with departures from October to April. Priced from $4099pp, including accommodation, transport and meals. activeadventures.com