Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island (Part 3) – Into the Sounds

November 2021

After a relatively good sleep despite the rolling (or pitching as we boat people say lol), we woke up in a perfectly calm inlet of Open Cove, at the entrance to Thompson Sound.  Of course, my phone still thinks I am in Vladivostok and after asking around, it appears this is the first time it has happened, and no one seems to know what’s up 🤔.  I continued my morning coffee with a view this morning, this time my view was of beautiful cloud topped mountains flowing down into the sea. 

We were out in the zodiacs by 9am and we zipped around the northern end of the sound and then down a beautiful Pandora River. As with yesterday, the tide was on our side, otherwise we would not have got very far down the shallow river.   It was beautiful and peaceful, and the river was lined with beautiful bush including flowering rata, kamahi and orchids.  We were welcomed to the wonderful Fiordland weather with sun, rain and hail all in about 30 minutes 🤔.  It seemed crazy as it was not that cold.  Another great Fiordland feature was also out to greet us – sandflies, so many sandflies!!  Luckily, we were pretty much covered from head to toe with our wet weather gear so there was not a lot of opportunity from them to bite.

From Pandora River, we continued on our expedition to Neck Cove where we jumped out in the shallows and went for a bit of a bush whack … a serious bush whack in some cases where there were no tracks at all. (FYI bush whacking normally refers to walking through the bush where there is actually no track – I guess it means you have to ‘whack’ away the bush lol.)  It was fun and the bush was beautiful though it took some time to find a decent route out to the beach (avoiding the swamp), but we finally made it back and on to the boat for time to dry off before lunch.  As we ate the ship headed into Blanket Bay, part of Doubtful Sound, where we dropped anchor.

After lunch we were back out in the zodiacs for a couple of hours zipping around the bays of Secretary Island with a short stop on one of the small beaches.  Secretary Island is one of New Zealand’s most important islands for conservation as it has always been free of possums and rodents.  Subsequently it has been cleared of deer and stoats (a great challenge given the very steep and densely forested slopes) making it one of the largest pest free islands and populations of endangered species have been relocated there.

It is interesting how localised weather is in this region.  We could watch the rain showers pass down the valleys and across the fiord (and across us too of course 🥴) but thankfully there was not too much rain and we did not get too wet.

We had another evening recap before dinner, and boy what a dinner it was.  We had passed a couple of small crayfishing operations during the day and the chef had taken it upon himself to negotiate a large number of crays for 2 bottles of Russian vodka (I did hear numerous versions of what it he actually swapped for the crays, but in every version, Russian vodka was gratefully received by these remote fishermen lol).  The fresh crayfish went down a treat with my fellow passengers – if only I liked crayfish lol.

Why are some areas called ‘Sounds” and others ‘Fiords” I hear you ask?  It is an interesting question, and I was keen to learn that a Sound is a drowned river valley whilst a Fiord is formed in a valley left behind by a glacier … of course in Fiordland, there was once many glaciers along the coastline.

After dinner I headed back on deck as it was a stunning evening to leave Doubtful Sound and head back out to the ocean as the sun set – but I did have to make sure I was back in my bed before we got out past the headlands and it got rough again 🥴

Day 5 and we work up in Cascade Cove in Dusky Sound, having travelled through the Acheron Passage during the night.  I had slept well again with only a few hours of rolling during the night and it was yet another beautiful morning, a perfect morning for the helicopter flight some of us had booked.

I was in the first group that set of in the zodiac to the floating helipad and into the helicopter.  We then flew up the sound and landed on the top of Mt Pender (at 1100m above sea level) where we were met by Ross, an ex-senior DOC ranger who told us all about the region.  From here there was spectacular views of Dusky Sound and some of the 360 islands it contains.

Despite being almost summer, there had been some snow on the peaks of the mountains around us and it there was definitely a brisk chill in the area.  Too soon our time on the top was over and we could also see a weather front coming in from the sea as we headed back to the barge for the next group to go up.  It was such a special experience, and I was certain that my photos would not do it justice (I was right)!

We had a quick zodiac cruise around Pickersgill Harbour and the historic Astronomers Point before heading back to ship.  Astronomers Point is the site of a temporary observatory set up during Capitan Cooks second voyage in 1773.  It is significant because they were testing new technology and it was considered the most accurately located place on the globe at the time.

Cook and his crew, having just sailed through Antarctica, cleared about an acre of forest and set up camp for provisioning and ship repairs.  They even set up a brewery, using Rimu and manuka leaves to make beer with the hope of preventing scurvy during their 5 week stay.

Having had an early start, we were all back on board before 10am and we set sail deeper into Dusky Sound It was beautiful travelling down the sound with snow-capped mountains in various shades of blue and grey.  We sailed through Cooks Passage and past Long Island, through water so clear you could see the Little Blue penguins popping up from time to time, as well as see them swimming under water!

We anchored just off Cooper Island in Sportsman Cove and had time for a pre-lunch zodiac cruise, passing the tiny but beautiful Shags Island which was covered in flowering Rata.  Have I mentioned the sand flies 🥴🤔🥴 – we were keen not to stop for very long as every time we did, the sandflies would swarm in!  Despite that, it was wonderful to be completely surrounded by native bush.  (It was frustrating that my maps were still showing that I was in a Russia as I had planned to use them to pinpoint our location in these small coves and bays 🤦🏻‍♀️.)

As we had lunch we started sailing again.  I must say, meals were always interesting as there was a great mix of people on board.  Most were very well travelled, many were very experienced trampers, other were birders and/or botanists and about half had been on Heritage Expedition trips before.

A weather front was moving in as we sailed down the Acheron Passage, the wind picked up as we watched the rain travel down the valleys.   Thankfully the sea was not as we were in still in the sheltered fiords and by late afternoon, we were anchored in the protected Duck Cove.
 
The day finished with a great lecture from one of our guides, Lindsay Wilson.  Lindsay has a long history of working with the Department of Conservation in the Fiordland area and gave us some wonderful insights into conservation in the Dusky Sound area.

Fiordland National Park is the largest national park in New Zealand, established in 1952 and it plays an incredibly important role in conservation in New Zealand.  In fact, it is considered the birthplace of conservation when in 1890, when Richard Henry set up a New Zealand’s first island sanctuary on Resolution Island and single handedly rowed more than 500 Kakapo and kiwi to this and other island sanctuaries in the area.    (FYI Resolution Island is New Zealand’s 5th largest island.)  He even used a muzzled dog to help him track down the birds on the mainland.

Unfortunately, he had underestimated the distance stoats, ferrets and weasels could swim, however his techniques of using conservation dogs and relocating endangered species to predator free islands is still key to New Zealand’s conservation efforts today.

Today a number of the islands in Fiordland have been cleared of pests and in fact Anchor Island today is home to half the world’s population of Kakapo!! (I should note that of course they are endemic to New Zealand and therefore the entire world’s population is in New Zealand lol)

I looked forward to exploring the area more in the morning.

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.