Our last sightseeing day before two sea days crossing the Tasman Sea to Sydney was billed as ‘scenic cruising’ in Fiordland. When we rose early and looked out, the scenery consisted of leaden skies, falling rain and mist down to a few metres above the sea. If there were any majestic cliffs out there, they were well and truly incognito.
Add to that a howling wind and heavy rolling seas and it wasn’t looking particularly promising. We opted for a leisurely breakfast in the restaurant, rather than our normal self-service arrangements, and were none too surprised, if still a little disappointed, when the captain announced that the entry to the first sound had been aborted due to winds of 50 knots gusting to 60 and a sea swell of 4m. It is testament, both to the design of modern cruise ships and the mitigations that the engineers put in place to offset such conditions, that although you clearly knew you were at sea it was still possible to move relatively easily around the ship and that breakfast remained an appealing repast.
Fiordland is a huge area of south western South Island, a national park and one of the world’s foremost natural landscapes. It is composed of hard crystalline rocks carved by glacial and river erosion into a spectacular series of fiords and sounds. Fourteen fiords extend up to 40km inland and hundreds of lakes are accessible through them.
Our plan was to navigate three of these channels. Firstly, entering Dusky Sound and navigating around Resolution Island; this was the section just aborted. Next to be attempted was Doubtful Sound, where we would circle Secretary Island, and finally Milford Sound, the most well known sound, the only one served by road and possessing its own landing strip.
As lunchtime approached we received the good news from the captain that the weather had improved slightly and he and the pilot on board had agreed we would enter Doubtful Sound. Sadly, the weather remained obstinately bleak with low cloud and, as we discovered when we ventured up on deck, persistent rain. We returned to our cabin where our balcony is partly covered, and watched as the grey cliffs loomed past. One redeeming feature was the waterfalls to be seen everywhere; water cannot penetrate the crystalline rocks so immediately forms ever increasing rivulets, streams and cascades.
As we re-emerged into the coastal water, feeling somewhat underwhelmed, we decided to go to the presentation given by the naturalist from the park providing the on board commentary; at least we might see what we were missing! The talk was very informative, providing lots of information on ecology, bird and marine life, as well as conservation efforts to maintain the delicate biosystems in the park. His impressive slide show generated some wistful envy though.
We emerged from the theatre and eagerly rushed to the cabin to see what the weather was doing, with approximately an hour to go before we reached Milford Sound. Sadly, no change; the low cloud and rain seemed entrenched for the day. Deflated, I lay down to read.
As scheduled, our captain updated us that the weather was continuing to improve and we would enter Milford Sound, sail as far as the ship could safely go before turning around and re-emerging. I raised my eyes from my book and, to my surprise, could see a distant coastline. As I went out on the balcony to look ahead I could see the clouds were lifting and even some blue skies. Hope where none had seemed likely….
The entrance to the sound was actually well hidden; we were on it before we realised and the ship began to turn sharp to starboard. The first phenomenon we noted was the very clear and distinct tidal line marked by a change in colour of the water. The fresh (rain) water run-off floats on top of the sea water and creates a layered effect; all the rain today had produced a very large and pronounced demarcation.
As we cruised into the sound the cliffs rose sharply. The trees clung to the rock faces and numerous waterfalls ran down. It was a spectacular sight, especially given that most of us had dismissed any opportunity of meaningful sightseeing. We stood transfixed as the scenery glided by and, as we approached the largest and only permanent waterfall, on our port side, the ship slowed and began to turn.
As it did, the sun had broken through and the rain was gently falling again. All of a sudden a rainbow appeared ahead, just under the bridge of the ship. I turned to see if Moira had seen it and was amazed to see an even larger and brighter one aft of our cabin, in almost a complete circle. It was astonishingly beautiful, bringing tears to my eyes, of which some were sheer relief for the beauty we had been privileged to witness. The memory of that moment will remain with me forever.
A day that started grey and despondent finished in glorious beauty. Sometimes you just need to hold out for the good things in life. And when it’s raining, look for waterfalls and rainbows.
It reminds me of several other memories of travels seared into my mind. But that’s for another blog another time…..