Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island (Part 1) – All aboard …

November 2020

The level of excitement for this trip was akin to that of an overseas trip, and technical I would be crossing the seas 😂.  Packing even involved the ‘big boy’ bag coming out, probably unnecessarily but why not – why I need to take as much for a week as I did for 4 months a couple of years ago don’t I 🥴.

Bear with me as this 7 day trip will be a number of blogs – not sure how many yet, we will just have to see how much I write lol.

I had been following the Christchurch based Heritage Expedition trips for some time – particularly with an eye on trips in the South Pacific and north east Russia – and of course their Antarctica trips, and as with all tour operators worldwide, Covid had decimated the majority of their clients (overseas guests).  Fortunately for me, that meant it freed up time and trips for the humble kiwi in our big backyard – I jumped at the opportunity to explore remote parts of country you can only see by sea.

The arrival of my ship even made the news as the first passenger ship (and it predominately Russian crew) granted permission to enter the country through the Covid border restrictions – it arrived just 8 days before my departure which added to the excitement.

And so, I was back on a plane to Invercargill (for the second time in 2 months) and this time it was a fully masked flight.  I had been wearing one on my last couple of flights, but it was now mandatory on all flights – better safe than sorry 👍🏻.

The New Zealand small town syndrome set in before I even left the airport, as I bumped into a girl I had followed and chatted with on social media when I was in the UK and she was in Spain.  She had finally got back to New Zealand a few months earlier with her German boyfriend – it’s always nice to meet someone in person.

In Invercargill, I got a shuttle to the ‘joining’ hotel, unfortunately it was a long way from the main part of the town, so I had to kill some time in the bar 😂 till the meeting time.  At least I could sit down, have something to eat and drink.

Now we knew the crew was covid free as they had spent over 40 days at sea getting here and had had 3 covid tests, but what about the passengers? I had nightmares about it becoming the ‘covid ship’ and being trapped for weeks!  To ensure this did not happen we had had to complete a health declaration 10 days and 2 days before departure, just noting if we had any symptoms …. and before boarding the bus (to get to the boat) they had medical staff checking our temperature, throat and lungs (breathing) to deem us ‘fit for travel’ – thankfully I passed 🥳😂 (New Zealand did not have any reported cases of Covid in the community at this time so the medical check was just an extra precaution.)

To be honest, it was all a bit disorganised, with no real clear instruction as to what we were supposed to do – I stumbled across the medical ‘line’ as I wandered around the reception area of the hotel, and once cleared medically there was no further instruction, so I just found a comfortable seat and read by book … I could have mingled but decided that there was plenty of time for that when we were on our way.

My tactic of sitting alone ended up getting me targeted for an interview … there were a fair amount of press around as it was the first passenger ‘cruise’ to go head in a covid world … I was not sure it would ever see the print or tv, but I hope the photos/ videos were not close ups – I hadn’t even brushed my hair 😂😂!  (FYI – there was an article with a photo, as well as a TV segment!)

Just prior to departure we had a so called ‘bag security check’, although there was no real check, we just had to identify our bags and were assigned our cabin number which we had to remember 😂 – then there was a little more standing around before we boarded the bus and headed to Bluff – the southern most point of the South Island and the departure point for our boat.

Finally, onboard and I found my cabin which was small but with plenty of storage (which is necessary as you need to be able to put everything secure in rougher seas).  I was in a triple berth (the cheapest option) but was lucky enough to get the single bed (as opposed to the bunk) and soon met my room mates Helen (who I had chatted with briefly at the hotel) and Anne.

After a quick introduction to the staff (all who said how grateful they were to be back at work) we were finally on our way and heading out of the harbour and into Foveaux Strait just after 5pm.  Apparently, the Strait (which I flew over just a few weeks earlier) can be rough, and the boat certainly had some movement to it, but it was not too bad.  We had a little time to stand on the deck and enjoy the views before heading back down the stairs into the lecture room for the all important safety briefing.

The safety briefing was followed by an ‘abandon ship’ drill where we actually had to get in the lifeboat – now I have been on a number of boat trips in recent years and although we have had safety drills, actually getting in the lifeboat was a first for me!  It looks like it would be a cramped few hours or days …. if we ever actually had to use them!!!

Just over 2 hours sailing and we were anchored in Paterson Bay, Stewart Island.  Where we were treated to a great 3 course dinner, followed by champagne on the deck to toast the first expedition of the season.  It was a beautiful and warm evening as the sun set, and we could hear bird song from nearby Ulva Island.  The ship was also surrounded by jellyfish, so many jellyfish – no one knew why??  Unfortunately, I could not get any good photos as trying to focus through water and at almost transparent jellyfish is challenging lol.

And we finished the first day on the boat being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship in the sheltered waters. 

Just before I finish of this first blog, let me show you around the boat and show you how things work ….

The Spirit of Enderby is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel that started life as the Professor Khromov in Vladivostok, Russia in 1984.   Despite the name change, the Professor’s photo still has pride of place on the wall.  I had hoped to find out who Professor Khromov actually was, but I have had no luck with my internet searches.

The ship only takes 50 passengers in a variety of cabins (and it was full, including a two man film crew from TVNZ who would be filming a number of articles for the TV news later in the week), but I had opted for the el cheapo (who am I fooling, none of the cabins were cheap!) triple cabin with shared bathroom facilities.  With the poor ship plumbing, it was back to no toilet paper in the toilet but in a bin next to it (like in much of South America).  Annoyingly it takes me a week to get used to but I did my best lol.  Thankfully the room did have a small porthole so at least we could assess the weather in the morning before heading upstairs. 

Except for when we were going in and out of port, the bridge was open for us to visit.  Most of the crew were Russian and did not speak English so there was not much conversation to be had but there was a great view from the elevated vantage point.

There was a small bar/library area where you could get coffee/tea/biscuits all day, and more importantly a sneaky gin and tonic in the evening before dinner.  It was here we would meet to recap on the day and for the expedition staff (and the keen birders among us) to make note of the species they spotted during the day. As a side note, if you get a chance to try this Black Robin gin – do it, it was amazing!

Another important room is of course the dining room, split in to two parts, each side of the small galley.  Here we had a buffet breakfast, a two course lunch and a three course dinner – of which we could choose the main (which we did at lunchtime).  The food was great and there was always plenty of it.  Definitely nothing to complain about, although sometimes the meal times could drag on a bit, though it was a nice opportunity to socialise and chat with fellow travellers about the day.

As part of their commitment to ensuring the ship was Covid free, we had to have our temperature taken before every meal.  Basically, you just had to stand in front of a camera attached to a TV screen which would take your temperature and advise if you were in the normal range.  I must admit I am not sure how effective it was, but no one ever tested in the red zone (which meant they needed to go and see the onboard doctor – who gets to come along for free in return for performing any medical duties required).

Finally, on the lower level we had the small lecture room where, not surprisingly we had lectures, not that there was a lot of opportunity on this trip as we were normally out and about.

The procedure for excursions was similar to that of my Antarctic cruise a few years ago.  We had been lent gumboots (or muck boats as they are called on the ship) and we would get dressed in them, waterproof pants and jackets for our zodiac trips (all trips, whether than were land or zodiac, started with a ride in a zodiac as we never stopped anywhere with a wharf or jetty we could use). 

Once dressed in our Zodiac gear (and seriously over heating lol) we had to put on our life jackets and turn our personal tag on a board (everyone was allocated a number) to show that we had left the boat.  The final step was boot/shoe washing (to avoid any biodiversity hazards which was not so important on this trip but a big deal in the sub-Antarctic islands and Antarctica). 

Once all that was done, we had to wait on either port or starboard side (the corridors and areas along the side of the boat on the outside were very narrow so you needed to go out the opposite door to where we were boarding, around the stern (and the boat washing station) to get to the gang plank queue.    And of course, we had to do all of that in reverse when coming back on to the boat!

Unfortunately, with such a short trip some people are only just getting use to procedure lol.