Travel Story NZ's beautiful South Island from the water

Photo of Brad Thompson

Follow in the wake of Captain Cook on a journey along the breathtakingly scenic sound along the country's south-west coast.

Captain James Cook sailed into Dusky Sound after more than 120 days at sea and venturing so far south that he crossed into the Antarctic Circle three times.

It was March in 1773 and Cook was captaining the Resolution, a 33m-long North Sea collier converted for the voyage by the Royal Navy. Almost 244 years to the day later we are following Cook into Dusky Sound on a 290m-long cruise ship.

While Cook’s crew must have been rattled to the core after their voyage into the heaving heart of the Southern Ocean, a six-metre swell at night caused no more than a gentle rocking in the staterooms of the Emerald Princess.

The cruise ship has covered about 250 nautical miles (463km) in the darkness after leaving Port Chalmers near Dunedin, rounding New Zealand’s South Island and passing through Foveaux Strait.

Cook named Dusky Sound after spotting it at sunset on his first voyage around New Zealand in 1769-70, but we were seeing it at first light. It looks much the same to our eyes as it must have to his. The water so dense and deep it hesitates to move for the 113,000-tonne ship. The forest is perfectly still and steep, growing from the water’s edge into the low cloud.

There’s only the silvery flash of waterfalls and the wandering clouds to break the illusion of time standing still.

Cook is the first European known to have visited New Zealand’s Fiordland. In some ways, he was also the first travel writer to alert people to its wonders.

His log with its descriptions of seals and detailed charts led to the first European settlement in New Zealand at Luncheon Cove in Dusky Sound. A party of 12 sealers were dropped there in 1793 and built a house and started work on their own vessel before being picked up with thousands of skins.

There’s nothing left of the house for today’s tourists to visit. We can still see the seals and the sound retains a menacing magnificence free of human settlement.

What has changed in 244 years is the way visitors arrive in Fiordland. Cook’s crew would have been malnourished and happy for a bit of biscuit and slice of salted pork when they arrived. On the Emerald Princess, the deluxe breakfast is served on stateroom balconies. Smoked salmon, fresh fruit, eggs, bacon and anything else that takes your fancy. A plate of pastries, including croissants and a chocolate-coated doughnut, is standard.

This is all washed down with freshly brewed coffee and a bottle of champagne.

In contrast, Cook’s crew were so desperate for a drink and to ward off scurvy they brewed their own beer. They boiled rimu twigs and manuka leaves for hours, added molasses and waited a few days for fermentation. History records that some of the crew would only drink it if the taste was improved with a healthy splash of rum.

While Cook spent weeks anchored in Dusky Sound, Emerald Princess spends only a matter of hours threading its way past Resolution Island and the temperate rain forest clinging to the steep rock faces.

The ship is soon easing into Doubtful Sound, the entrance to another of the 14 fiords which extend from Milford South in the north to Preservation Inlet in the south.

Glaciers covered the area at times over the past two million years and shaped the lakes and fiords. Heavy rainfall creates a permanent freshwater layer above the seawater in the fiords. 

The waters are stained with tannins washed out of the indigenous forest. This filters the light so that the rich marine life drops off at a depth of 40m. The passage through Doubtful Sound to Thompson Sound takes us past Secretary Island where efforts continue to eradicate introduced pests and predators.

Threatened native birds such as the takahe and kakapo have found sanctuary in Fiordland, a World Heritage Area since 1986, where many of the islands are free of foreign plant and animal species.

Milford Sound is the best known of the fiords with thousands of people witness to its spectacular beauty and cascading waterfalls from the decks of cruise ships every year. 

It is a breathtaking sight as the clouds break up to reveal patches of blue above the green walls and the wind drops to nothing.

Our ship’s log shows the conditions as sunny with light cloud and light airs. 

Captain Martin Stenzel guides us deep into Milford Sound before turning around in the late afternoon.

It is well after 6pm when we leave the fiord in fading light. Few passengers have left the upper decks as they soak up the last of an unforgettable day in Fiordland.

Top picture: The cruise started at Dunedin, itself blessed with beautiful coastal scenery. Picture: Niall McIlroy

Fact File

For fares at itineraries, go to Princess Cruises.

Disclaimer

Brad Thompson travelled as a guest of Princess Cruises.

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