A Dusky Sound adventure, surrounded by the abundance of nature, provides a unique holiday, writes Jane Jeffries.
We had sailed across pristine waters in inflatable tenders to arrive at Indian Island. Landing was difficult but we managed to scramble up the bank. Feeling insignificant in this remote, hostile environment, I wondered what Captain Cook thought when he first sighted this landscape almost 250 years ago.
We hiked through dense bush listening for the birdsong, the light flickering through the canopy. Courtney, a sous chef from our adventure charter boat, MV Flightless, looked discerningly around her. She was deciding where to attach her 'Good nature A 24' rodent trap. She had saved tips from her work on the boat to buy a trap to help eradicate the rats, stoats and mice that have invaded the island. She nailed the device half a metre up the chosen tree trunk and we applauded her contribution to the bush restoration project.
Dusky Sound is not somewhere you drop in on by chance. It's so remote that access requires planning but don't let that be a deterrent to seeing this very special part of New Zealand.
This adventure charter holiday with 12 friends began with a flight to Queenstown, a bus to Te Anau and a helicopter from nearby Manapouri into Dusky Sound. Flying over the capped mountains and dropping into valleys, we arrived in the wilderness. The connection to world news and events was gone, as was cellphone coverage.
Landing in Supper Cove, white stones highlighted an "H" on the gravel. It was all our pilot needed to place the chopper gently on this little oasis in the shallow water. Rolling up our trousers, we unloaded luggage and supplies for the week. Our food was to be taken care of, so all we needed to bring was our personal affects and the wine we wanted to drink at the end of each day.
Flightless is an ex-RNZ Navy vessel, now owned and operated by Sean Ellis and Maria Kuster and their company, Pure Salt. Their patch is Dusky Sound, where they provide outstanding experiences including hunting and gathering, diving and snorkelling, kayaking and paddle boarding, or whatever takes your fancy.
However, while they arrange extraordinary fun for their clients, their true love is restorative work in the bush within the Sound. They are passionate about conservation and bringin back native bird life, and are part of the Department of Conservation's Tamatea/Dusky Sound Restoration Project.
This cutting-edge project aims to restore the islands of Dusky Sound to one of the most intact ecosystems on Earth, and create New Zealand's largest "bio-bank" — a source of endangered native species that can be sent to pest-free locations throughout the country.
To do this they must reduce the rat population to undetectable levels. They also need to reduce the risk of rats swimming to nearby pest-free islands.
Indian Island is particularly dear to Pure Salt's heart, not only because it is part of the Tamatea Project, but because DoC has granted them the rights to manage it.
The rats here are tenacious — Indian Island was declared pest-free in 2012, but they made an unwelcome return in 2015. Now, Pure Salt has almost completed a grid of 200 self-setting traps providing excellent coverage of the island. To service the traps, more than 17km of tracks have been cut in the bush.
To gauge the success of the eradication project, several cameras have been installed to monitor the rodent and bird activity. Once the camera has detected movement, it takes several photos, then a short video. When we visited the island, we took the memory card from one of the cameras and, back on the boat, we watched the footage. To everyone's amazement, two flirting kiwi were clearly visible, as well as a kererū . . . and several rats.
This data proved kiwi are on the island. It will also continue to provide invaluable information regarding the declining pest numbers and increasing birdlife.
As well as the privilege of being involved in this all-important conservation work, our time was also packed with energetic activities like hiking, snorkelling, fishing, kayaking, hunting and diving. So it was that after a delicious lunch of seafood chowder and freshly baked bread, we soaped up our wetsuits and squeezed into the thick neoprene, before setting off on a snorkelling expedition to gather our dinner.
The fiords are renowned for plentiful, oversized crayfish. The thought of eating the rich, white flesh was fast becoming a reality as we spotted one after another. Soon we had a dozen crays in the catch-bag, all retrieved by snorkelling and a little free diving.
Our Flightless chefs then set to work. Soon we were indulging in a bucket of cray legs, then the sauteed lobster tail. It was sensational.
Up early the next morning we were off again, some in the tender and others kayaking to Pigeon Island. Walking through the forest, we learnt about Richard Henry's conservation work in the late 19th century. He was an Irishman, who moved to Australia and eventually found his way to New Zealand. Living in Dusky Sound, mostly alone, he went to incredible efforts to save the kākāpō and kiwi from extinction. His invaluable contribution to wildlife conservation in New Zealand is revered by Pure Salt and other conservationists now continuing his work.
We found the remains his house. Unfortunately, little is left, bar the fireplace and the skeleton of his aviary. The moss from the forest floor has crept over the remains, but it was humbling to see where he once lived and worked.
As the day closed in it was time to forage for food again. Back on Flightless, the lines went over the bow. Wham — a strike so intense it had us all guessing. Our fisherman struggled as the rod bent in half. After a good fight, he pulled in a 14kg hāpuku. Dinner was sorted.
With a catch this size we ate hāpuku steaks for dinner, the wings were smoked for lunch the following day and our talented chef created the most delicious crayfish and hāpuku curry from leftovers. Pure Salt's philosophy is no wastage.
Despite our hunter being up at first light each day and still nowhere to be seen at dusk, the elusive deer were not to be found. We knew they were there as on our hike to Moose Lake we found fresh footprints in the bog and heard the roar of a stag. Previous guests had been luckier — they left venison for us in the ship's supplies, so we had a hearty meal of red meat.
A highlight of this adventure was the diving. With visibility exceeding 15m, the abundance of sealife was incredible. Sean cracked open a large kina, which had the blue cod swarming to feed. They were so close we nearly had one in the catch-bag.
As we ascended from the dive we stopped at about 6m to watch a gathering of crayfish. More than 10 crays sitting on a ledge, some near their holes, just hanging out. It was incredible to see so many of these beautiful creatures at home.
The hunting and gathering continued as our keen fishermen caught a shark. Dinner sorted again with battered fish and chips. But not before an entree of cockles we had gathered in Cascade Cove and baked wings from the blue cod.
Oh, to continue a life like this. We ate like kings, played like children and had the most uplifting and refreshing break away from our devices and the real world. All in the knowledge we were travelling with a company doing incredible work to conserve this beautiful environment for future generations.
Pure Salt's next Fiordland Tamatea Adventures takes place from October 23-26, with prices from $3500pp for five days. Price includes food, and two helicopter flights. All profits go to the Tamatea Conservation Project.
Pure Salt has other itineraries available from October to March, including Fiordland Wilderness Adventure, Girls Only Adventure, History Adventure, and a Seafood Adventure. Or charter the MV Flightless for your own group and the crew will create a bespoke itinerary for you. puresalt.co.nz