The cruises in remote Fiordland were peaceful, majestic…. even the most colorful, eager adjectives would fall short of outlining the mere contours of the place.
First came an all day cruise on Doubtful Sound, which can only be reached by traveling first by double-hulled boat across island-dotted Lake Manapouri, then by bus to the sound itself, where you board a second ship to take you slowly around its glacier-gouged, rocky crags – and I do mean rocky crags: there were scarcely five places one could sit down with even one buttcheek precariously perched to eat a sandwich; NO place, certainly, that a human could inhabit.
Even the trees — clinging tenaciously to the nearly sheer cliffsides by dint of many years of gradually larger plant life carefully threading itself into the botanic fabric that thinly blankets the mountains — occasionally slide down in an unceremonious pile in an event rather self-evidently called a tree avalanche, which can be prompted by hard rain, strong winds, earthquakes, or even just always-persistent gravity. Then the 120-some year cycle of regrowth begins all over again to cover the shiny new scar on the mountain face.
They shut down all the boat’s engines and generators at one point, instructed everyone to be utterly silent and not even move around (yet another thing they manage to pull off in this country that would never work in the United States), and just let us listen to the sounds of no human noise – just birdsong and waves lapping gently against the rock. I found it a very moving experience – the best part of the cruise, without question.
Foot again on land at about 5:30pm, I drove briskly back to Te Anau – about a half-hour away – gassed up the van (there are no gas stations after Te Anau), stocked up the groceries, and was en route to Milford by 6:30. I was obliged to continue without many stops as the lodge at which I was staying asked one to check in by 8pm or make special arrangements, so I resisted the many jaw-dropping photo ops on the way there to maintain my pace (and called ahead to forewarn of my late arrival, for good measure) and stopped at ONLY the most whiplash-inducing vistas.
Though much more touristed, Milford Sound is also quite remote. The numerous dayboat cruise ships all queue up to essentially follow one another around a well-traced circuit of the sights of the sound: each dutifully pulling close to the seal rocks to allow the tourists to take pictures in hopefully sufficient detail to distinguish the furry little lumps from the identically colored rock lumps upon which they rest and loll; each boat waiting its turn to pull in and obligingly splash the hull under one of the many waterfalls to spray the happily squealing passengers. Even so, the loveliness of the place could not be diminished. The view is dominated by iconic Mitre Peak – named after a bishop’s hat by the European settlers, but in the Maori language, named far more amusingly (and optimistically) after something to do with ‘upright-standing symbol of manhood.’
I see my pictures have turned out an even more pale imitation than usual of this place, but for both Doubtful and Milford – just imagine huge rock immensity, a hush excluding all normal human sounds of busy-ness, profusions of birds and song, getting fairly severe neckstrain while craning to see the tops of these towering cliffs and the gleaming bits of blue sky background, salty winds whipping up the fiords from the Tasman Sea and reddening your cheeks, and a feeling of total separation within an utterly untamed part of the planet. THAT’S the look and feel of the Sounds.