Jim Eagles explores Fiordland, home to the first European pioneers yet now the emptiest - and most beautiful - corner of New Zealand.

When we landed on Astronomer's Point in Dusky Sound I cracked a can of Speight's Old Dark, brushed away the enthusiastic sandflies and sipped a little ale, slightly diluted by the drizzling rain.

It seemed an appropriate way to acknowledge that on this remote spot, in 1773, the first beer was brewed in New Zealand.

You would think such a significant milestone in our history would be marked by a large, bottle-shaped memorial.

But Astronomer's Point, like the rest of southern Fiordland, looks today much as it must have done when Captain James Cook arrived on the Resolution, seeking a refuge after 123 days battling the ferocious, icy Southern Ocean.

As our vessel, the Milford Wanderer, nosed into the tranquillity of Dusky Sound, the brooding moss-clad cliffs, plummeting silvery cascades, dark green, thickly forested valleys, wandering tendrils of mist, lowering grey clouds and majestic snow-clad peaks that greeted us would have been exactly what Cook saw.

At Anchor Point, where the Resolution initially anchored, we could still spy the seals and scurvy grass harvested as part of his fight against scurvy.

They were safe from us because food on the Wanderer is amazing - lamb shanks, pizza, roast beef, seafood chowder, sticky date pudding, fresh muffins - so obesity is a bigger problem than malnutrition.

But, like Cook, we were looking for more sheltered waters, so the Wanderer retraced the route of the Resolution, slipping through an incredibly narrow rocky entrance into the calm waters of Pickersgill Harbour.

It was found by Lieutenant Richard Pickersgill, described by Cook as "a good officer and astronomer but liking ye Grog", and is an ideal anchorage.

Fiordland has dozens of such sanctuaries, tiny, tranquil, almost land-locked harbours, surrounded by high stone walls and seemingly impenetrable forests, where korimako and riroriro call, inquisitive ngirungiru and piwakawaka come to inspect visitors, and sandflies search constantly for new blood.

As our runabout approached the spot where the Resolution tied up for five weeks, a small plaque fastened to the rocks was the only indication that humans had ever been here, let alone that it was once a hive of activity.

But up on the point, our guide, Fiordland historian John Hall-Jones, was able to point to the mossy stumps of trees, felled to provide a firm base for astronomer William Wales' observations, as tangible signs of Cook's presence.

Hall-Jones has used drawings of the camp to identify a rocky ledge on the shore as the precise spot where the first beer was brewed by boiling rimu and manuka for three to four hours, adding molasses and waiting a few days for the mixture to ferment.

Cook considered the resultant "spruce beer" rather good, but his men thought it was awful, and only by adding more molasses and a generous dollop of rum could he persuade them to drink up.

I think I prefer my drop of Old Dark, which seems to taste even better than usual in these extraordinarily historic surroundings, made all the more special by their remoteness and inaccessibility.

Although Dusky Sound was for some time the focal point of European activity in New Zealand, today it has not a single permanent resident and is rarely visited.

That isolation has been beneficial because its brooding beauty remains unspoiled and its historic sites undisturbed.

But each winter when the seas are relatively settled, Queenstown-based Real Journeys takes the Milford Wanderer off the Milford Sound run and makes a few trips, with a maximum of 38 passengers, to Dusky and two equally untouched southern fiords, Preservation and Chalky Inlets.

Just to reach the Wanderer for one of these voyages involved a memorable expedition via Queenstown Airport with its spectacular mountain flightpath, a picturesque bus journey through Central Otago to Manapouri, a launch trip across the beautiful lake, and then an even more picturesque bus ride across Wilmot Pass to the wharf at Deep Cove.

As soon as our luggage was stowed - in a 2m square cubicle with a double bunk and two empty singles above - the Wanderer set off through majestic Doubtful Sound, out into the open sea and headed south.

It is a forbidding coast, with inhospitable, sheer cliffs flanked by even more unwelcoming sets of rocks, whose menace Cook belied with friendly names such as Five Fingers and Hares Ears, but against which the ocean beats with ceaseless ferocity.

We had a smooth voyage, thanks to a friendly following wind, so most passengers sat on deck watching the amazing aeronautical performances of ocean wanderers such as albatross and petrels, a large fin which may have belonged to an orca, a couple of penguins and some iron-gutted fishermen checking their lines.

On Cook's first visit in 1770 he thought the coast so dangerous he did not try to land, though as dusk approached he did note the presence of a promising harbour, giving it the name Dusky Bay.

In his second voyage, however, he did enter the fiord, producing his usual meticulous charts and descriptions, which opened the way for a burst of European activity.

Cook's reports of seals set the sealing industry salivating, and in 1793 the Britannia under Captain William Raven dropped off a party of 12, leaving them enough gear to build their own boat in case he was unable to pick them up again.

Visiting the site of this first European settlement in New Zealand, at Luncheon Cove, in Dusky Sound, you can still see the pile of rocks on which the sealers sat the hull of their vessel - the first ship to be built in this far-off country - a couple of pits they dug to hold the fires for their forge and the steambox used to bend the planks.

But nothing remains of the house they erected, another first.

The 12m vessel was uncompleted when the sealers and their cargo of 4500 skins were collected, but its story did not end there.

Two years later the Sydney-based ship Endeavour came to Dusky Sound with plans to finish the shipbuilding job, only to come to grief in somewhat mysterious circumstances.

A pile of ballast stones from the Endeavour, and what look like a few spars, still lie in Facile Harbour, just around the corner from Luncheon Cove, easily identifiable thanks to the presence of Sydney sandstone, which is quite unlike the local rocks.

On the foreshore behind are the remains of the house the shipwrecked crew built - the oldest trace of European building - a pile of stones used for a fireplace and chimney and, not far away, where they erected a workshed, we discovered a huge slab of the Australian hardwood jarra.

The crew did manage to finish the partly built vessel, named it the Providence, and eventually sailed to Norfolk Island.

Dusky Sound was also the base for New Zealand's first wildlife ranger, Richard Henry, who in 1894 established a base on Pigeon Island and set about transferring endangered birds such as the kakapo and kiwi to nearby Resolution Island.

Sadly, Henry's work came to nought when stoats swam to Resolution Island, but his techniques have since been successful in taking kakapo to more inaccessible islands.

Visiting Pigeon Island, we were easily able to identify the site of his house and the remains of the pen built of ponga logs used to confine kiwi, which, according to Hall-Jones, "were driven mad by the sandflies and often got their beaks tangled up if he used wire netting".

Nearby Preservation Inlet is equally beautiful, equally deserted and has an equally fascinating history. The country's first full whaling station was set up in Cuttle Cove in 1829 - it is commemorated with a small plaque - and there were also numerous early mining and milling operations.

Our voyage took us to one of the more successful mines, Morning Star Mine, above Te Oneroa beach, where you can see the remains of the steam-powered crushing battery, which at its peak in 1898 produced 5384 ounces of gold in a year.

In windswept South Port, where the sideways lean to the foliage clearly illustrates the direction of the prevailing wind, we found the remains of a tramline leading to a huge old boiler once used to power McCallum's sawmill.

And at Tarawera we explored the well-preserved remains of a sophisticated mine which used a smelter and an extraordinary reclining chimney to extract copper, lead, silver and gold.

Poking through the remains, one of our party was very excited to discover a sparkly hunk of mineral and whooped, "I think I've found some gold".

"Actually," said one of our guides, "that's fool's gold."

"How do you know?"

"Because we aren't fools."

To service these and the many other mining and milling operations a town sprang up at Cromarty which by 1896 had four pubs, four stores, a school, doctor's surgery and post office.

Little is left today beyond a giant rhododendron growing incongruously in the bush, a block of concrete which was once the front doorstep of Sherlock's hotel and a lot of broken bottles.

But there is a legacy in the form of a few surviving freehold sections in the middle of the million or so hectares of land set aside in 1904 - though not formally designated until 1952 - as Fiordland National Park.

On one of the sections, after a ferocious battle with the Department of Conservation, its owners have built a lodge, the only building in what was once a thriving settlement.

A further legacy of the boom years is the lighthouse on Puysegur Point at the entrance to the inlet.

Originally a lofty wooden structure, first lit in 1879, it was burned down in 1942 by a deranged prospector who objected to the light shining on his home on adjacent Coal Island.

It is a delightful walk up to where a fire-proof, cast-iron lighthouse, now solar powered, still beams a warning to unwary vessels.

Standing beside the light, with gloriously desolate seascapes to the north and south, rolling seas to the west and misty forests to the east, it is hard to imagine there was once a steady flow of ships between this lonely point and the bustling ports of Australia.

It seems remarkable that so much of New Zealand's early European history took place in what is now the wildest, emptiest and most beautiful corner of the land.

It is a special place which only a very few fishers, hunters and trampers, and the lucky passengers on cruises like ours, ever get to see.

Getting there: Discovery cruises to the southern fiords take 36 passengers. This year's Discovery cruise schedule begins on August 7 and the last cruise starts on September 11.

Further information: See realjourneys.co.nz or call 0800 656 502.

Jim Eagles travelled to Fiordland as the guest of Real Journeys.