Walking in the footsteps of Captain Cook I explore the remote magic of Fiordland
Luckily, I don’t drink beer. Had I been around Captain Cook, I would have had to quaff his ‘spruce’ draft. Brewing it from boiled rimu and manuka while anchored at Fiordland’s Pickersgill Harbour, he deemed it quite good apparently. Cook’s men didn’t agree, unfortunately. It was only after drops of molasses and dollops of rum that they took to the tipple. Probably helped saved them from scurvy to boot.
It could also explain Cook’s naming of this tranquil cove. Cook described Lieutenant Richard Pickersgill ‘as a good officer and astronomer but liking ye grog’. In reality, Pickersgill found this safe harbour in Dusky Sound after their vessel Resolution battled harrowing seas in the Southern Ocean. Cook spent five weeks there repairing the ship. All these years later, Astronomer’s Point is a surreal place to walk in his footsteps.
While Gisborne will launch New Zealand’s ‘First Encounters 250’ celebrations next October, this remote corner must wait another four years for that honour. Cook charted
Dusky Sound in 1771, but only went ashore in 1773. Our landing was among several historic sites visited in this wilderness. Without tourism companies like Real Journeys, it would be almost impossible to navigate the intricate complexities of Fiordland’s remote southern passages.
The late Sir Les Hutchins and his wife Olive founded Real Journeys in 1954. Believing conservation is the real cornerstone of tourism, they took visitors into the unexplored Doubtful Sound. It felt appropriate then, to begin my adventure in Doubtful Sound 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 tour has a limited season each year, cruising five seldom-visited fiords: Doubtful, Breaksea and Dusky sounds plus Chalky and Preservation inlets. Not surprisingly, cabins book quickly. With this ship sleeping 32, plus a crew of six, it makes for intimate company.
Given the crew’s infectious enthusiasm as well, this is much more than a voyage into isolation. From the pick-up at Queenstown Airport, a coach ride to Te Anau is the teaser. The real journey begins with a cruise across Lake Manapouri and short coach ride to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound. Wilmot Pass is the only road in. An intrepid route, it was once New Zealand’s most expensive road built and requires constant maintenance. Earlier storms had gouged out chunks, to the point a temporary walk bridge enabled access over a complete wash-out to reach another bus and the final stretch to the Doubtful Sound. Nothing stops Real Journeys apparently. Plans run the gamut of the alphabet and whims of the weather.
Whatever the weather, Fiordland is awe-inspiring – dramatic, mysterious, empty. The scenery stands unchanged mostly for thousands of years, possibly hundreds of thousands. This journey is a history lesson and scenic tour wrapped in gold dust. From explorers like Cook to gold miners, whalers to light keepers on the wind-swept Puysesgur Point and pioneering conservationists who toiled to rescue wildlife from rampant predators; every story is extraordinary. The feats are hard to fathom – and made more special thanks to the nature guide’s passion.
Hunger for nothing. Just pray for perfect weather and long tramps; because daily menus defy logic; right to freshly baked treats each morning and afternoon tea. Eating heartily is optional; as with everything on tour. Do as little as you want. Admire the drama of the mountainous fiords with their silvery water cascades from the warmth of the ship’s saloon; sneak closer with a joy ride on the tender craft; or tackle everything and trek seemingly impenetrable forests to all the historic sights: Cook’s landing, NZ’s first whaling station, sealers’ settlement, mining relics, an old town site and the Puysegar Point lighthouse. Be armed for the sand fly 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.
Throughout the journey, gulls will soar around you, dolphins will surf beside you, penguins could bob from below and seal pups might bask on inlet shores. Just be prepared for the lack of birdsong in forests – the deafness was sobering. As a result, a stoat trap now bears my name somewhere on an island in Dusky Sound. It’s the least I could do – especially after learning that Real Journeys is a major conservation sponsor.
A true wonder of the world, Fiordland is a must-see. Mountainous and mysterious, brooding with beauty; weather dictates this unique landscape’s mood on any given day. It might explain my watching the weather map more intently these days.
“Conservation is the real cornerstone of tourism” – Sir Les Hutchins
Destination Fiordland: www.fiordland.org.nz
7-day discovery tour: www.realjourneys.co.nz
Escorted tour: www.pukekohetravel.co.nz
Getting there: AirNZ to Queenstown, pick-ups arranged